“If you had to chose between the two, would it be Costa Rica or Ecuador?” That is a question often asked of us when someone is trying to decide where they should travel for a winter paddling trip. Our response: “Don’t choose.” One of the joys of paddling is the opportunity to explore new rivers, new countries, new cultures, making new friends on and off the river. It might not happen in consecutive years, but plan on exploring both countries in a kayak!
Rather than thinking in terms of “choosing” instead pick the trip that works better for your current skill level and your current schedule. Both Costa Rica and Ecuador offer paddling opportunities almost year-round, but there are definitely better times to choose in order to maximize your paddling time. Following are just a few tidbits to help you decide where to go….this time.
The definition of “adventure travel” is something you are doing you wish you were home talking about. If you are not a seasoned traveler, or prefer more of the comforts of home, try Costa Rica first. The infrastructure in Costa Rica is advanced (except for the roads) and Costa Rica understands tourism. There is very little suffer factor. Looking for a bit more adventure? Ecuador. Once you cross over into South America, there is the chance of a bit more “adventure travel.” The showers are not always hot, you do not always find toilet paper in the bathrooms of public restrooms, and there is less English spoken. In both countries the people are welcoming to tourists and with only a few exceptions, very hospitable.
Time of Year. Both countries have better times for maximizing paddling.
Looking for early winter paddling before ski season kicks in? Costa Rica is your better bet. October, November, early December is considered the tail end of the rainy season. Usually by early December the country is starting to make the transition between seasons. The country is also making a transition from the “low season” tourism-wise to high season. It would be similar to when would you prefer to travel to southern Florida: off season or peak tourism season. Chosing high season means you just have to factor in more tourists, higher prices, less flexibility with tagging on additional siteseeing at either end of the paddling week. Does that mean don’t go if that is the only time you can get away? Certainly not. Rivers like the Pacuare are run year-round by the rafting companies, as are some of the dam controlled rivers like the Rio Balsa. And in the dry season, there are a couple of Class IV-IV+ runs on the West coast that open up with lower water.
Looking for one of the best places to paddle during the cold winter months? The Ecuador is your choice November, December, January, through mid-February. In the Oriente of Ecuador, there is less seasonal difference between dry season and rainy season. It is more “wet and wetter.” To give an example: In the Oriente, January is considered the “driest” month of the year, and the average rainfall for January is nine inches. Those are statistics, so don’t consider it written in stone. In a “normal” year, there is a definite change in weather that kicks in by mid-February and the “wetter” tends to be more the norm.
Skill Level. International paddling immediately increases the difficulty of the rivers because of the fact that there is less access to the rivers, less roadside boating, and you must factor in a lack of familiarity with the rivers you will be paddling. An international trip is not the time to try and upgrade your paddling experience. Chose a trip that is within your current comfort zone. And bring your roll with you.
Class II-III versus Class IV?
The rivers of Costa Rica are optimal for Class II-III through Class III-IV trips. The West coast is more accessible to the main kayaking areas so it is easier to travel from the West coast to the central region, giving you more options for paddling. On the other hand, if you are a Class IV boater looking for the definitive Class IV paddling country, Ecuador is where it’s at. There are great Class III and Class III-IV options without a doubt, but quality Class IV whitewater is where Ecuador really shines. Are there Class IV options in Costa Rica. Of course! And Class III in Ecuador? Without a doubt. It is just that both countries have their favorites.
What is to be expected? Choosing either Costa Rica or Ecuador, you are guaranteed beautiful scenery, amazing people, and fantastic whitewater. What is not guaranteed is which rivers you will run during your visit as weather conditions affect water levels. Over and above the obvious (that as kayakers we are dealing with Mother Nature in all her quirkiness), there are several factors unique to Costa Rica and Ecuador:
- Rain Forest Conditions. Paddling down rivers surrounded by rain forest is a remarkable experience. The views can be most distracting at times! The whole rain forest environment also sets up conditions that paddlers are not used to at home. Because both countries deal with lots and lots of rain, the ground tends to be very saturated. A hard rain can bring rivers up between one and thirty feet (seriously). There is no place for the additional water to go but downhill into the watersheds. In both countries, you will see rivers spike, and then drop almost as quickly. Could you get rained out on a paddling vacation? Rained out in a trip’s entirety is highly unlikely, but there have been given days in both countries where there just flat-out is no where to paddle because all the rivers are too high. It pays to be paddling with folks who know how weather patterns affect particular watersheds in that country as they are better at reacting to anomlaies and getting you where you need to be to still have a great day of paddling, even if it means doing some traveling. You don’t want to base your whole trip on one specific run because you might not get on that particular river that trip; but you may end up on a river that becomes your new favorite. And if you miss out on a run you had on your wish list, this merely sets up an excuse to have to come back again!
- Northern Cold Systems. From November – February, winter weather patterns in Canada and North America can definitely affect things even as far south as Ecuador, but more typically in Costa Rica. You will not see snow flurries, but sometimes the weather can be chillier than normal.
- Staying Healthy. Tourism in both Costa Rica and Ecuador are driving economic factors. Should you assume you might get a bit of gringo-itis while visiting either country? No. But don’t be surprised if you end up with a little funkiness going on in your digestive tract. When you travel you are dealing with bacteria foreign to your system. It potentially sets up a bit of a battle in your digestive tract. Take some precautions to remain healthy throughout your visit.
- Get some sleep in preparation for your trip! Because of the work it takes to actually embark on a vacation, paddlers often work longer hours leading up to their trip, miss out on some sleep, then hop on an airplane full of germs. Particularly in November and December, there is the winter flu season at home. All you need is someone coming down with the same sniffles / stomach their kids brought back from day care and combined with travel, viruses tend to like to join the party. Arrive in country with a healthy immune system.
- Be aware of what you are eating. It is winter and you are eating fresh fruit and drinking fresh fruit juices in quantities unheard of at home.
- Wash your hands. Frequently.
- Careful with the water. In respectable hotels and restaurants, care is taken in preparing food and serving water/juices. In Costa Rica you can actually drink water right out of the tap and in both countries, bottled water is readily available. When most people get caught unaware is brushing their teeth. Use bottled water to do so.
- Female travelers, there are additional things for you to think about. Here is a bit of information to help you with your trip planning…
- Yogurt, lots of water, washing your hands frequently, getting good sleep and bringing along some Imodium are all great preventative measures.
Finally, regardless of your destination, arrive with an open mind ready to embrace the culture, the things that are “different” from home, the people, and the language. Pull out that high school Spanish and you will be surprised at how much of it comes back. Don’t be naïve about caring for your valuables. And enjoy every moment of your time …remembering that every day, someone at home is probably shoveling snow!