Paddling the Matapalo Mangroves in Costa Rica
Touring the Matapalo Mangroves in Costa Rica
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A gorgeous estuary paddle trip through a remote mangrove forest off the Pacific Ocean-side of Costa Rica, this guided tour packs a lot in a little punch, featuring a knowledgeable guide explaining the intricacies of a saltwater ecosystem, exotic flora and fauna, and simply the thrilling, soothing tonic of being in a boat somewhere wholly new and different.
February 6, 2020
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
<1′ per mile.
Water levels are always reliable.
Put-In + Take-Out:
2.5 miles northwest of Matapalo. Costa Rica doesn’t really name roads.
Time: Put in at 11:00a. Out at 1:15p.
Total Time: 2h 15m
Miles Paddled: 2
Wildlife: Three-toed sloth, white-faced capuchin monkeys, a gazillion tree crabs, tiger heron, white egret, brown pelicans, great-tailed gracko, ringed kingfisher, turkey vultures, iguanas, morpho butterflies and sinister-looking but perfectly harmless orb-weaving spiders.
Needless to say, you need to be in Costa Rica to paddle this trip. I (Timothy) had the good fortune that was in equal measures stupid and stupefying to travel to Costa Rica and have this trip planned out ahead of time. (It’s a long story, but the next time you hear me mutter something about my bad luck, just throw a brick at my head to remind me of the mangroves!) It was a toss-up between three different paddle trips, all with a tour guide: a bioluminescent excursion at night in a bay, sea caves and rock arches on the open ocean, or a mangrove estuary. We went with the latter for a few reasons – the bioluminescent trip, while truly in my must-do bucket list, was logistically convoluted since we weren’t in the right part of the country for that and would have had to change the itinerary, which wouldn’t have been an ultimate deal-breaker were it not for the fact that the moon was waxing all week (and would be full the day we flew back to the States); and when you’re set upon doing a once-in-a-lifetime, make-a-wish kind of activity, you pretty much need to do it under ideal circumstances. As for the sea caves and arches, don’t get me wrong – I’m sure they’re spectacular… it’s Costa Rica, everything is spectacular! But mangroves are rare, and more exotic than rocks. And we have Lake Superior for caves and arches. Plus, the Matapalo mangroves and the tour company that takes you to them are right in the town where we were staying – Dominical – so we rooted for the cool, freaky trees.
So, what exactly is a mangrove? Honestly, I myself wasn’t 100% certain. It’s one of those things in life I think I know, more or less assume that I have a comfortable understanding of, but then when put on the spot to explain it to another suddenly feel flooded with wishy-washy inadequacy. The whole sub-prime mortgage debacle is another. Or the difference between AC and DC. (Do I really know the difference between alternating and direct current? Nope.) Anyway, according to the good folks at Enciclopedia de Costa Rica, a mangrove is “a group of species of trees or shrubs that have adaptations that allow them to colonize flooded lands that are subject to saltwater intrusion.”
That said, not all mangroves are the same. There are four separate species of mangrove, accordingly colorful: red, white, black, and “button.” And each type has a different tolerance of salinity, with red having the highest – and therefore growing closest to the ocean itself – and white having the least, which results in it growing further upstream in an estuary. Red and white mangroves feature the quintessential mangrove look with looping roots at their bases, while black mangroves have roots that basically act like snorkels to provide air even when fully submerged in brackish water. (If that weren’t cool enough, they excrete salt from their leaves.) The button mangrove looks more like a shrub and therefore is somewhat humdrum compared to its cousins.
Fun fact about the fruit of the white mangrove: it can float for 20-30 years before germinating. Think about that… incredible!
What do mangroves do (besides look really cool)? For starters, they stabilize shorelines; their interlacing aerial roots act as a kind of web trapping sand and sediment into a muddy soil rather than erode and wash away with each lap of tide. Secondly, they provide habitat for all sorts of critters, like raccoons, crabs, fish, shellfish, sloths, monkeys, and even tropical cats. (Alas, we saw no tropical cats.) Indeed, mangroves act as a nursery for some fish before they venture out into the open ocean.
We were in the excellent hands of Pineapple Tours, who took care of all the details – gear, driving, and even a bountiful tropical fruit board after we got off the water (fitting for a company named Pineapple, after all). It’s for this reason, not to mention Google Maps offering next to no relevant information on the area, that I have no earthly idea what road led to the put-in/take-out at the mangrove estuary. How about this: an unnamed dirt road full of sunning iguanas that ran parallel to the Pacific Ocean with snoozing sloths snug in shady trees that eventually dead-ended at a few corrugated tin shacks in the middle of nowhere? That’s where we were. It felt a little like getting to the Bat Cave from Batman: you have no idea how you actually got there, but you recognize it immediately for what it is and just awed to be there at all.
It’s more lagoon than anything else. It might have been part of the Rio Sevegre, but there were braided back channels in every direction. We followed our guide – an awesome, hilarious guy named Victor – who was truly, to use a Costa Rican expression, tuanis, which is to say “cool, laid back, and very nice.” Since this was a guided tour, and one perfectly suitable for folks who’ve never paddled before, it was short and simple – about two miles total and as many hours long. Basically a there-and-back trip. But exquisite, exotic, beautiful, and really fun.
What we liked:
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: my favorite place to go is where I’ve never been. And boy oh boy, was this ever new! I know we have mangroves in the U.S., but I haven’t been to them. For years now I’ve had a fuzzy idea of what a mangrove is. Like the baobab (about which also I have only a marginal understanding), mangrove conjured something in my head that was outlined but not really filled in. This trip, along with our guide, amply supplied the basic 101 of mangroves. Seeing the reticulated root systems along with eventually identifying the different types of trees was truly an extraordinary opportunity. To be sure, it’s one thing to have a love of being on the water and paddling through the natural world. But it’s quite another to be somewhere so distinctly different than the Upper Midwest region of North America. Everything looked and felt different, and it was all very, very cool.
Along with that were all the divergent flora and fauna we saw along the way. Yes, we have egrets and turkey vultures – hell, even pelicans. And, yes, we have herons; but we don’t have tiger herons. And we sure as hell don’t have monkeys and sloths! Or dragon-like iguanas! On our way back to the launching site, after getting out to stretch our legs for a short amble on the beach, we deliberately passed the launching site and paddled in the opposite direction of where we’d come from. Privately, I was hoping this would be the case. It wasn’t only that I didn’t want our trip to end right then and there, but I had a hunch there were still some beguiling backwaters to explore. Indeed, in a kind of mangrove back alley we spotted a half-dozen monkeys high up in some very tall trees. And then half a dozen more, swinging, swaying, scampering, stretching, reaching, dangling, falling, crashing into branches, always gripping some limb with a hand, foot, or prehensile tail. It truly seemed like they were putting on a display for our sakes.
In addition to the headliner mangroves were subtler landscape effects. Like juxtaposed palm trees along the beach. The staggering backdrop of lush green mountains behind us. The estuary mouth at the Pacific Ocean. These are not things we experience paddling in Wisconsin. To have our recreational passport stamped in tropical Costa Rica was out of this world. It all truly looks like what you’d expect to see or what you have seen in commercials, billboards, magazines. Nothing’s air-brushed or Photoshopped; it’s all insanely beautiful.
And then something downright surreal you don’t expect to see. While we were walking along the beach and breaking surf, behind us, from out of nowhere, came a middle-aged man pushing a bicycle through the sand (you couldn’t ride through it) with large bags and plastic bottles strung to it like some kind of market cart full of wares to sell. When the man came nearer to us our guide said hello and spoke to him. To make a very complicated story short, he was out collecting coconuts (which are everywhere, of course, this being paradise) to eventually make coconut oil from. Not unlike cooking down maple sap to make syrup, coconut oil is a very arduous process with an almost pointless ratio of a lot to get just a little. Similarly, the same can be said about the retail vendors of coconut oil and their suppliers, the ones who make it. The guy on the beach explained that the cost of fuel – fire – alone to cook the coconut water to a reduction is prohibitive, so squeezed out by the retailers he and suppliers like him are. And yet this is still what he did, via bicycle, with big sacks of collected coconuts, and somehow made a living. (Again, throw a brick at me the next time I start bellyaching about my own first-world problems.)
The whole thing was like a mirage, the man disappearing as suddenly and randomly as he appeared in the first place. The dude was the Central American equivalent of a character from a Samuel Beckett story, some itinerant tramp trying to get by. And yet I got the feeling that, as isolated as that vignette was, it’s one of countless stories of people trying to get by day after day. I felt lucky as hell to have been a witness and know in my soul that no matter how cranky and frustrated and even fed up I’ll get about my own life or job or the weather or politics or car repairs, or the Packers losing again – because inevitably we all get caught up and bogged down with our daily drama – occasionally there are chance encounters and experiences that stand apart and cleanse perspective.
And isn’t that why we go paddling in the first place?
What we didn’t like:
If anything, it was too short. But that’s coming from a fanatic. For normal people, this was the perfect amount of time on the water.
If we did this trip again:
I would do this again, for sure, but realistically the odds of that are slim since it’s so, so far away. But if I could do it again, I’d insist that Barry join me. He’s the beach guy, way more than I am. Beach and pina colada tiki bar. The whole time I wished he had been there.
Nonetheless, I absolutely recommend this for anyone who’d be in or is thinking about traveling to Costa Rica. The Dominical area is postcard perfect, period. There’s so much abundant beauty and exhilarating activities. From Chicago, it’s only a 5-hour flight to San Jose, the capital. And from there, Dominical is only a 3.5-hour drive. You’re still in Central Time! Moreover, everyone we met was extremely kind (and patient with my rudimentary Spanish). But as for this specific trip experience, it was a really fun, informative, and wildly beautiful excursion.