Sometime in your paddling, you get the bug. The bug to paddle new rivers in new places – rivers with rapids you have never seen, with put-ins and take-outs you don’t know. The bug to paddle in countries you have only dreamed of visiting, where the people speak a language unfamiliar, who eat different food than you do, where the fruit is fresh off the tree and dinner is served at a different hour than at home. The bug to take a vacation where the centerpiece is paddling for multiple days rather than a weekend here or there. So where to go? Where to kayak? How do you maximize your coveted vacation time and do the most paddling/exploring/relaxing/fun you can?
The first thing to keep in mind is that paddling in an international setting is no different than paddling at home—there is a season. The season might be rainy versus dry season, or winter to our summer, but just like your back yard runs, you cannot change what season mother nature sets up to be optimal paddling season. If you have a specific destination you want to explore – chose your vacation time based on the best time to paddle in that country. If you have a specific time you are going to be traveling, chose the destination that has the best opportunity to paddle based on that time. Or ultimately- if you have a specific time you are going to be traveling to a specific destination for reasons not primarily paddling, accept that you might not see the best that the rivers of that country have to offer you as a kayaker.
Rainy season. Unfamiliar to North Americans. Take any country located on/near the equator. These countries do not have four distinct seasons, they do not even have a summer or winter. Lack of winter is what makes countries like Costa Rica, Panama and Ecuador so attractive. In the midst of our miserable late falls into winters, these countries boast temperate climates and lots of whitewater. When you look at photos of paddling in the rain forest, you cannot wait to visit. Lush jungle, toucans swooping across the river, sloths hanging out in trees, monkeys traipsing through the branches, delicious tropical fruits, and beautiful whitewater rivers, paddling paradise.
What challenges does a country with a rainy season hold? There is a fine line between the rainy season and the “tail end” of the rainy season. Arrive too early/stay too late and you will find the rivers can potentially be unrunnable (hard to believe for boaters in North America—but rain can be problematic) because they are flooded. At home we are perpetually doing the rain dance and celebrating when it is successful. But such is not the case in a normal rainy season environment. For every rainy season is a lot of rain. If you have never traveled in a country with a rainy season—during rainy season, the quantity of rain that can fall is hard to imagine. In the southeast, the dream “rainy season” is late spring/early summer. In rain forest environments, you pray for rain …and the rivers flood—even during a drought year (ask people who have traveled to Ecuador). A river can rise thirty-some feet in one hard rainstorm. And then there are the avalanches because the ground is so saturated that it can hold no more. And roads washed out making travel-not just access to put-ins and take-outs, but all out travel, challenging. There is no secret that in most rain forest countries there is a high season and a low season for tourism – and high season is when it is not rainy season. Of course as kayakers, we are looking for the rain, it is just a balance of not too much and not too litte. Scoot over momma and papa bear.
Or you can encounter the opposite–for every rainy season is a dry season. Dry season means no rain. There is a reason tourists flock to Costa Rica from Christmas to April. The weather is gorgeous. Blue skies, temperatures that don’t seem to budge away from wonderful, and no rain. Not good news for the rivers. Are there exceptions? Sure – there are some dam-controlled rivers and there is always the chance of unseasonal rains. But do not count on guaranteed releases on dam-controlled rivers like you have at home. There is no such thing as FERC in the international scene. So paddling in dry season is like paddling in the southeast in August – without any guaranteed dam-controlled rivers. Maybe there will be a random rain where the water levels rise to make for a good run – but no guarantee.
The balance-paddling wise, in such environments is to get in on the tail end of the rainy season—the window of opportunity to maximize the treasure trove of rivers offered. In Costa Rica and Panama, this tends to be late October to early December. In Ecuador (where there is a rainy season and then a more rainy season) it is late November to early February. It is interesting is how drastically things can change just one country away. Peru for example is right next to Ecuador, and the best season for paddling the best rivers in Peru is July.
Summer to winter
In Mexico they eat burritos and tacos, in Costa Rica beans and rice and in South America, lots of chicken from the egg stage on up. The point is that you cannot assume that what happens in one “latino” country is the same for others. In Chile you are not looking at rainy and dry season, but an inverse of our summer and winter. Have vacation time in November or December and head to Chile? Expect high water in even a normal season because of a combination of snowmelt, seasonal rains and variable weather. Land in Chile in March and expect frost warnings with snow soon to follow.
Paddling outside our backyard is a way to rekindle/ignite your passion for kayaking. It may be that you have just graduated to Class II-III and are just fired up to keep the momentum going…it may be that you have paddled the same runs during the same times over and over again and are getting antsy. Or that you just love checking out new runs. Traveling to new countries with new cultures demonstrates how cool this sport is. Using your kayak you can explore new cultures and new rivers. What a great combination!! But do your homework before you commit.
- Are there outfitters running trips in that particular country during the time you are looking to travel?
- Does that outfitter run trips in that country once a year/every couple of years/commit every year to that country – meaning do they really know when is the best time to be there?
- Do you speak the language of the country you are traveling, or have contacts that do?
- If you cannot get your kayak on the plane (which is very likely) do you have a back-up plan?
If not the above, think about going with a company well established in that country. You will save yourself considerable hassle. A few quick questions for the outfitter:
- Does the outfitter have a history in that country—and is it more than one week/year?
- Does the outfitter have a relationship with drivers/hotels//restaurants/outfitters in the country they are operating in?
- What is this outfitter’s relationship with in-country outfitters because in case of an emergency it is good to have friends.
- The guides for the outfitter you are going with—how long have they been working in that country (which is different than how long the outfitter themselves have been there). You are paddling with the guides—not the business.
- Commitment-what infrastructure has the outfitter committed to in a specific country? Are they just passing through, hoping your business gives them a vacation, or have they committed funds to a long-term commitment. Do they have their own boats in the country? Transportation – what have they set up? Community-what kind of commitment have they made to the local community?
- Many outfitters are not “nationals” meaning they are from the States, but have committed to operating in a specific country. Not a bad thing. But how well do they do their homework? Do they prep for the trips prior to you showing up? Do they spend time in the local community to build partnerships with locals since they are outsiders? Do they know what is going on politically? (quite important in most of the popular paddling destinations)
Your vacation time is valuable. And any paddling vacation should be a great vacation!! Do a little homework—ask some questions before committing to who/what/where you go.
And enjoy using your kayak as a means to explore the world!