San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Turrialba’s Claim to Fame Shifts from Cheese to Outdoor Adventure

Frozen or dried pieces of cow stomach are the difference between plain old milk and a hunk of cheese. The stomach enzymes serve as a coagulant – they thicken the milk, actually beginning the digestion process, hardening it finally into cheddar, mozzarella or one of the cheeses that matters most in Costa Rica, fresh white Turrialba cheese from the town of the same name.

Situated in the eastern mountains before the land careens downward off into the Atlantic, Turrialba has staked its dairy reputation on four types of white cheese of varying hardness, depending on how each coagulates.

The quaintness of the cow stomach coagulant, called rennet in English, cuajo in Spanish, is one of the processes that is not immune to the inexorable infiltration in our daily lives by laboratory scientists. It is now cheaper to produce artificial rennet and leave the cow stomach to the butcher.

The same change in a more ubiquitous sense is solidifying, maybe even coagulating, the adventurous reputation of the green mountains and rocky canyons around Turrialba, a region that has been slow to awaken to the tourism industry frenzy that has gripped Costa Rica’s hot-spot destinations. Sugarcane stalks, coffee bushes and macadamia trees bristle the hills, the crops that, together with its nationally famous cheese, are the lifeblood of this quiet community.

But, on the banks of the country’s most lively rapids on the Pacuare River, strategically positioned among cloud-forested canyons and the last craggy sputters of the central range, at the foot of one of the country’s highest volcanoes that shares the town’s name, that other industry, tourism, can’t help but rear its well-tanned head. Thrill mongers, communers with nature, junkies of many kinds including adrenaline, natural beauty and even education, have noticed, and the list of tour operators vying for bodies to fill their white-water rafts and struggle into their harnesses for zipline rides is growing.

San José is only a quick scoot over the mountains, about an hour and a half, close enough for busy adventurers to schedule a day- or even morning-long romp in the woods and get back to the city by evening.

Staying the night, however, is a mini-adventure of its own.

First, the town does not smell like cheese.

Far from it. But Turrialba has aged interestingly, with moldy, dilapidated spots and fresh, even appetizing new or well-maintained patches. It stirs to its own mellow beat, evident when the eerie number of shoe and clothing boutiques lock down their steel curtains for the night and only a few bars and small discos keep their lights burning. Most are river-guy joints, frequented by the rafters and kayakers. At others, the next morning’s mountain bikers and dawn-hour volcano climbers mill around chugging Pilsens and, if they know how to dance, they might stay until the early morning.

A general survey of the town reveals a kind of gift-basket array of buildings, the haphazard collage of new meets old indicative of any town in the throes of change – the mid-scale Hotel Kardey faces a ramshackle line of buildings fit for the wrecking ball, for example. Thrill seekers can refuel in disparate joints such as what could amount to biker bakery-sodas, judging by some of the clientele, or the upper-scale Hotel Wagelia that serves gourmet dishes in its open-air, front-porch restaurant.

In the end, however, what is outside of town is the tourist magnet. The Pacuare’s rapids are legendary in Costa Rica – some river guides might say it’s not the best, but they’re either burnt out or have money at stake in another river. About a half-dozen tour operators will take you on those rapids.

Keeping it local, Loco’s, Explornatura and Rain Forest World are three Turrialba- based agencies that can arrange San José pickups.

River trips, like the odor of a cut of ripened Limburger, eclipse everything in the vicinity – in the case of the trips, this means most other outdoorsy things. Naturalists and adrenaline addicts tend to agree that river trips are the priority, but a small, dedicated group of rock climbers has opened the mossy, prehistoric, fern-choked river canyons near the town to the average couch lurker.

The canyoneers, as people are called when they enter a canyon with ropes and helmets, both novices and experts alike, fasten themselves to metal anchors in the rock above waterfalls and leap off backward, rappelling at their leisure, rocking in and out of the torrent to splash at last in lazy pools where the water shakes itself off after the excitement of its fall and regroups for another rush.

Remarkably, the water is clean, which is saying a lot, considering the garbage-disposal-and-raw-sewage state of rivers on the other side of San José. Unremarkably, the pioneer of Turrialba’s canyoning extravaganza is Anuar Hassan, a wiry Singaporean with waist-length hair and a Muslim diet of wavering strictness. He drilled the anchors, called chapas in Spanish, into the rocky beds of a Turrialba river, just as he has done on dry rock faces in climbing spots from Cachí, near Cartago, east of San José, to Costa Rica’s highest peak, the Southern Zone’s Mt. Chirripó.

Since Hassan moved on to his own San José-based climbing operation, Turrialba’s canyoning is locally managed by guides such as José Solano and Raúl Coto, who work with Explornatura. They successfully merge jungle knowledge with rope-swinging antics and a few fun surprises for a stellar rumble in the woods at 15 or so meters off the ground.

Though its adventure-sport industry is still teenaged and Turrialba cheeses are, as a rule, fresh, not aged, the area does have a venerable tradition locked in its archaeological record. Compared to its neighbors, both northern and southern, Costa Rica’s archaeology invites more yawns than postcard pictures.

Lacking the glamour of the showy Mayan temples up north or the religious zealot retreats in the crags of Peru, Costa Rica was left only a few meager piles of rocks by its prehistoric inhabitants.

However, the country’s culture is as well aged as any in the continents, with an archaeological record invigorated by its position as a bridge between the cultures of the northern and southern continents. For example, this is the only country in the region, if you ignore Panama, where both the two dominant styles of spear points of North and South America are found together.

Take that nerdy fun fact with you to the Cabécar ruins at Guayabo, a half-hour drive through wild reserve land outside of Turrialba.

Protected in a different reserve, it is the largest archaeological site in the country, with a smattering of excavated circular bases of homes, graves, a spring catch basin, a rectangular drinking pool and a broad stone road that served a community between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1400. Unlike other irreplaceable historic wonders in Latin America, you can’t stomp all over it and have your picture taken on top of everything; there’s a rail, but the site is still relatively undeveloped for tourists. No written material or explanatory signs are available, but guides at the entrance will give a tour for a tip.

If you can put a notch in your belt for having hiked Turrialba, you will not only have a funny-looking belt with odd notches, you will also be in a lonely club of a few outdoorsy types, maybe some bored travelers waylaid on a trip to the Caribbean coast, maybe some students from the nearby Tropical Agronomy Research Center (CATIE), or maybe some volcano-related belt-notching fanatics.

The volcano’s zigzagging trail might be more popular, though, if more people knew it is one of the only active volcanoes with a trail right into the crater at its peak. Its last eruption was in 1866, which doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be sautéed if you step into its crater – you’d be walking into a live volcano, for Christ’s sake – but it’s not a pathological lava dribbler like Arenal, in north-central Costa Rica. It reminds you it is active with gas vents. It has three craters, but the main one is the one you can enter, after a 50-meter descent.

At 3,329 meters, it is the second highest volcano in the country behind Irazú, and the easternmost in the range of peaks that bisects the country. The climb takes about three hours from the base and can be done as a day trip from San José.

Rounding out the to-do list, mountain bikers can talk with Ricardo Monge at Ciclo Monge for word on races and group rides most Sundays.Groups of varying sizes, sometimes several dozen, meander or scream, depending on their experience or hangovers, through the hills at the bases of Turrialba and Irazú volcanoes.

Though they might not like the comparison, the bikers, archaeologists, canyoneers, rafters, naturalists and volcano hikers have become like pieces of cow gut to Turrialba, gelling the adventures of the region into a baby industry that feeds the legion of tourists and city folk looking for a break.


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