San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

River man: the story behind one of Costa Rica's most successful rafting entrepreneurs

By Erin Van Rheenen | Special to The Tico Times

In the spring of 1978, New York-born Michael Kaye and his Salvadoran wife Yolanda were riding the rails in the wilds of Costa Rica. They’d been living in El Salvador, but that country was heading towards civil war. Both had heard good things about peaceful and democratic Costa Rica, though they had no idea how they’d make a living if they were to move themselves and their two small children here.

At that time, the train still ran from San José to the Caribbean coast. “We were the only tourists,” says Michael. Though wildly scenic, the route was also “the real deal, the local transportation, the way people got around. When the train ceased running it caused a lot of ghost towns.”

Writer Paul Theroux took that same ride the very same year, and wrote about mountains “so precipitous that the train has to descend through tunnels (screams, exalted yells in the cars, and the odor of damp walls) to a cliffside that brings us so near the river the spray hits the windows. Then up again, along a cut, to switchbacks and bridges.”

Michael and Yolanda’s train clung to a high cliff. On the left was a sheer rock wall; on the right was nothing at all.

“I went out between cars to get a better view,” says Michael. He’d been a river guide and had owned a rafting company in the U.S., so he knew that “when it just drops off, it usually means there’s a river down there.”

Indeed there was a river down there. Through a deep gorge flowed the mighty Río Reventazón (“Exploding River” in Spanish), a riot of Class V rapids that leapt over boulders and sent up plumes of mist. Emerald-green rain forest crowded the riverbanks where the rocks allowed.

Above the water’s distant roar and the metallic clack of the train, Michael heard the voice of his wife. “She was yelling at me, telling me I was crazy to be out between cars just to see a river. I yelled back, ‘No me jodas. Este río nos va a dar comer.’ (Don’t bug me. This river’s going to put food in our mouths.)

So Michael had an idea of what he might do if they moved to Costa Rica – lead river rafting trips down what looked like a thrilling run of jungle-fringed whitewater. But the couple wasn’t yet convinced that Costa Rica was the place for them.

Not your usual Latin American country

After their trip to the Caribbean coast, and a glimpse of another gorgeous and raftable river, the Pacuare, the couple returned to San José and Michael went looking for topographical maps.

“My experience of river exploration in Latin America was that the only topo maps available were for military use; they were considered state secrets. I once paid a bribe to spend almost two weeks in a dark, airless room in the Military Geographic Institute in Guatemala, tracing maps, each of which was numbered and controlled. We were going to do these very steep, remote rivers, and you need to be able to get in to start the run. And if anything happens, you have to know how to walk out.”

Michael headed for Costa Rica’s National Geographic Institute, fully expecting to either be turned away or solicited for a bribe. But a democratic country without a military has a different way of doing things.

“I walk into the institute,” Michael recalls, “and they’re selling the topo maps I need for $2 apiece. That impressed me. Then I thought, so I can get the maps, but I’ll probably have to bribe them to get aerial photos. In Guatemala they wouldn’t even let me look at aerial photos. In San José, I asked, ‘How much are the aerial photos?’ This was before satellite photos, and it turned out the photos were from the USGS [United States Geographical Service]. They told me, the aerial photos are also $2 apiece. That impressed the hell out of me. I thought, ‘This place is really different.’”

Yolanda still wasn’t convinced. It would take a parade to change her mind. Luckily, their visit coincided with May Day. Michael wanted to go to this celebration of workers; Yolanda not only didn’t want to go but was convinced that if Michael went he’d be hurt or worse. “In El Salvador,” says Michael,  “workers would go and march and then a lot of people would get shot. I’d heard that that didn’t happen in Costa Rica, but I wanted to see it with my own eyes. “

Michael went to the parade, and saw that “the workers were joking with the cops, and the cops were unarmed. I went back to Yolanda and said, ‘Well, since I didn’t get killed, we’re going to move here.’” 

Costa Rica Expeditions is born

The couple returned to El Salvador and began preparations for the move. Michael arranged for rafts to be shipped to Costa Rica, and began running rivers almost as soon as they arrived. He named his enterprise Costa Rica Expeditions, and more than three decades later, the company is still going strong. It’s known not only as one of the first tour companies in Costa Rica, but also as one of the most prestigious and successful outfits in the country’s ever-expanding eco-tourism business.

Back in late 1970s, however, the company still had some growing to do. “My idea was,” says Michael, “I could make some money here if I had a commercial rafting outfit. But it soon became obvious that no matter how good the rivers were, people wanted to do other stuff. To get them to come here I needed a wider group of attractions. There was all this great wildlife protected in national parks. I’d done stuff in Guatemala, and it wasn’t the unrest that got me; I was taking people to primary forest that kept disappearing. I was losing the product. I kept telling people on one trip about this place, the highlight of the trip. When I got there, it had been clear-cut.”

Forward-thinking Costa Rica had already committed to protecting its jungles and rivers and oceans, and the resulting wilderness and wildlife was – and still is – a powerful draw for tourists. And so Costa Rica Expeditions expanded its offerings ten-fold, taking travelers all over the country to experience its multifaceted flora and fauna.

The company still runs rivers these days, but they focus mostly on small private trips – there are plenty of outfits these days offering the largescale, summer-camp sort of river experience. Michael says the company offers a variety of multi-stop trips, from pampered luxury to high adventure. And he’s always coming up with new ideas, like the “Side by Side but Worlds Apart” trip that debuts in 2013. Meant to compare Costa Rica and neighboring Nicaragua, the trip starts in San José, which according to Michael, is “a city that has adopted many characteritics of North American cities and then made them worse.”

Travelers soon leave that city behind, heading for the car-less hamlets of Tortuguero and even more remote San Francisco on Costa Rica’s north Caribbean coast. Then it’s a boat up the fabled San Juan River, the fluid border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, a waterway that back in the 1850s acted as a trans-oceanic canal, transporting East Coasters to the gold fields of California on the steamships of U.S. industrialist Cornelias Vanderbilt. Michael says the trip may only appeal to diehard adventurers, but he’s not worried – after decades of running a highly successful tour company, he can afford to indulge his personal passions. 

About the Author: Erin Van Rheenen is author of “Living Abroad in Costa Rica”; the fourth edition is due out in Fall 2013.

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