Written by Neon
After crossing the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border near the eastern end of Rio San Juan, Richard, Fidgit, and I made our way Down Rio Colorado to a canal. Not yet sure about going out to the open ocean, we paddled down the canal to the small town of Tortuguero. Tortuguero, though in the far reaches of Costa Rica, has become a tourist town. Crossing into Nicaragua had been the last time we were around tourists. Uncertainty overwhelmed me. I was also beat from our long paddle into the town, so I, after very unsuccessfully trying to find lodging, asked Fidgit to do so. She obliged without hesitation and was able to find us lodging on the north end of the tiny town. After docking our boats and a shower, I ate dinner and passed out shortly after. The next day was a rest and catch up on work day, in which we all made good use of the hammocks hanging all over the hotel’s property. We also were able to walk across the property and check out the ocean side of the thin strip of land known as Tortuguero. Looking out across the Caribbean, it looked feasible to paddle out through the waves and along the coast. We discussed it and watched the waters throughout the day, then decided to go for it.
The next morning Richard, Fidgit, and I carried our kayaks the hundred meters from canal-side to sea-side. I was feeling nervous, though also exponentially more confident in my kayaking skills than the last time we were oceanside. As I watched Fidgit paddle into the waves, my confidence grew, and I soon powered out to join her beyond the break. We then paddled along, keeping the shore to our right. That evening, I was tired. Surfing my kayak into shore gave me one last burst of energy, just enough to set up my sleeping area(barely) before passing out underneath my bug net as the swarms of gnats swarmed around after sunset.
The days progressed quickly as we got into the routine of setting off an hour after sunrise and paddling until my arms felt like they were going to fall off before paddling a little more to get where Fidgit and Richard felt tired. I generally lagged behind and that gave me the opportunity to find my own pace- sometimes paddling faster, sometimes slower. Each afternoon I was so angry and uncomfortable to still be in a kayak for the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh hour. Then, each morning I felt ready to get out there again, and would do my best to take care of myself as needed.
A few days into our Caribbean paddle, we made it to Limon. I was definitely ready for a break- after multiple long days, my shoulders hurt constantly and my hands weren’t faring much better. On our rest day, Fidgit, Rocahrd, and I went into the town center to look into getting our passports stamped. According to the helpful woman at the boat dock and then the helpful man at the passport office, it was possible to continue south then take a bus back up to Limon the day we leave the country and get stamped out. We left Limon thinking the government worker interactions were the best we’d had in a long time, and hoping that trend would continue.
Limon is on a piece of land that is mostly volcanic rock and also juts out into the sea. Leaving the city, we paddled out around the landmass and I watched in awe as the waves crashed into the jagged shoreline, spraying water into the air quite a distance. We avoided the rocks out at sea, though we were paddling over some coral. As we paddled south, we passed a huge cruise ship in dock that I was grateful wasn’t moving. We made it down to around Cahuita that night before deciding to pull up on the calm shores of the National Park.
After a restful night, we were packing up the next morning when a park guard came into our camp, yelling at us for camping there. We were taken aback, as most Costa Ricans we’d met thus far were respectful. After he turned his phone camera off, he calmed down a bit and explained that there have been times in the past where people have been robbed or killed in the night camping along the beaches. He then went on to explain it happened once, in Tortuguero. We let him know we weren’t planning on robbing or killing anyone, and then asked about the surf. “It should be fine to stay in the shallows around this landmass”, he told us, before wandering back toward town. We paddled around and he was right, no problems. The swells did get bigger toward the end of the day, though nothing unmanageable. We also stayed further away from the shore that day, because out further we could shoot straight toward our destination- the end of the road in Costa Rica- the small hamlet of Manzanillo.
We pulled onto the shore of Manzanillo in the late afternoon and (thankfully) were able to find a place to stay for the couple days we would need to rest and go back up to Limon to get our passports stamped before heading into Panama. The rest of that day, we did some drying out and sink laundry before I fell into bed exhausted. I had no idea when we started this paddling section just how much energy I’d expend throughout the day. The next morning, we caught a bus back into Limon. Just in time too, because there was a sign on the passport office’s door that they’d only be open for half that day before closing through the weekend. Unfortunately, the same guy who told us it wouldn’t be a problem to get our passports stamped wasn’t working. So we were told we couldn’t get our passports stamped to get out of Costa Rica unless we went to the land crossing. The guy working even called his boss, who called his boss in San Jose, who said no, leaving us royally screwed and mad. So mad. Dejected, we caught the bus back to Manzanillo to figure out what to do.
After another night’s sleep and much discussion between the three of us, we decided to paddle to the border river, Rio Sixaola, then paddle up it to the land crossing. We left Manzanillo refreshed and determined. Rounding Punta Uva, we joined a pod of dolphins for a few kilometers as they ate and played around in the water, leaping their entire bodies out at times before disappearing into the water. It didn’t take long for us to make it to the mouth of Rio Sixaola, maybe a few hours. Surfing the waves into the river mouth was a different story. It was later in the day so the waves were larger and though I’d ridden waves to shore before, I had never done it at a river mouth, where currents are meeting and going all kinds of directions. I made it in alright, though There were many times I was sure I was going to roll and somehow stayed upright. Fidgit and Richard came in soon after.
At the opening of the river mouth, there were a few fishermen. After asking around, we found a father/son team with a boat, and Fidgit negotiated a price for them to take us upriver so we didn’t have to paddle our kayaks. After a price was agreed upon by all parties, the men offered their front yard for us to leave our kayaks while we motored up river. Richard, Fidgit, and I stowed most of our things, then hopped into the motorboat for the journey. It was a different experience being a passenger in a boat. I was able to look around and enjoy the journey without focusing on balance and/or which part of my body didn’t hurt. After we made our way up river, got our passports stamped out of Costa Rica and into Panama, and came back down the river, I was tired. Thankfully, the kind family also offered their yard to us for the night. As Richard began setting his bug net up near the water, one of the guys warned us that a large crocodile likes to frequent the shoreline near their house. Nervously giggling, we all retreated away from the water’s edge to set up camp for the night.
Officially paddling into Panamanian waters the next morning, we were going along for a while before Fidgit yelled “shark!” from behind Richard and I. I looked back to her and sure enough, there was a fin sticking out of the water behind Richard’s kayak, about ten feet/three meters to my right. The fin stayed with us for a minute or so, then sank silently back into the water. It was both amazing and terrifying to not know what was under us most of the time. I felt so honored every time an animal presented itself to us, and the shark fin was no exception.
Soon after seeing that amazing sea creature, we made it back to the mouth of Rio Changuinola, where it all began. At this river mouth two months ago, we had gotten shut down so hard we turned around and limped back to Bocas del Toro to re-assess. Coming upon the river mouth this time, from out at sea, was an empowering moment for me. I felt accomplished while at the same time reverent of the expanse of water I was floating atop.
Fidgit and I paddled back through the canal to get some shade while Richard decided to go around and meet us in Bocas. It was…I don’t know. To be finished with a 400+ kilometer section of paddling is still something I’m processing. In the moment, it was relieving and I ate a pizza in celebration.
Her Odyssey donated to the IM Able Foundation this month. The Foundation’s mission is ‘to remove obstacles that prevent people affected by disabilities from being physically active by providing grants, resources, fitness opportunities and motivation’. Created and run by Neon’s Brother-in-Law, Chris Kaag, it is inspiring to think about others pursuing their passions while we chase ours across continents. Chris and Gretchen (one of Neon’s sisters) have helped organize talks, donated monetarily, donated time, and so much more. I don’t know that we’ll ever truly be able to pay them back for their unwavering support and encouragement.