Skin is crawling but kayak down Rio Ora is a cure that doesn’t bite

Iguana on the Rio Ora.
Iguana on the Rio Ora.

I have to make this fast. I’m leaving in an hour for a long boat ride through a national park. Crocs. Macaws. Monkeys. The breadth of Costa Rican wildlife. The problem is I need more than an hour to document the breadth of Costa Rican wildlife I saw yesterday on a kayak trip. Hell, I need an hour to itch.

My lower legs look like an aerial view of strawberry fields. I’m itching like a $20 whore. I walk outside and going from A-C to humidity is like sending millions of red ants under my skin. I can barely walk without bending over and digging into my flesh for 20 minutes. Yeah, I know. Don’t do it. Tell that to a heroin addict. It causes infection. I’ve learned how to spell dengue fever without looking it up. But itching does feel good. The switch between pain and pleasure is the Costa Rican call of the Sirens. Now they’re on my arms. After every sentence, I stop typing to dig my nails into my reddening flesh.

I don’t know if they’re mosquito bites, the sand fleas that seem to be Central America’s continental bird or little pests called No See ‘Ems. I’ve never seen one. Never heard one. And I’ve never felt one bite. But every few hours another part of my skin is on fire.

Fortunately, water seems to appease it. Nothing like a two-hour kayak ride to keep you from itching.
The Samara Adventure Company picked me up in a open-bed truck with kayaks stacked on the top. I joined five others as we took the road south through Carrillo. On a Saturday, this lovely beach finally burst with life. Tico families had picnics on tables further down from where I was, down where the sentry of palm trees was thicker and sand a bit more barren of driftwood. The waves were crashing. If this had been a public bus I would’ve buzzed to get out.

Instead we wound our way up the hill through the pleasant town of Carrillo, then through thick overgrown vegetation that seemed to engulf the road. We forded a couple of shallow streams until we reached the Rio Ora. If rivers truly can be lazy, the Ora is a 16-year-old unemployed runaway. It was shallow and as green as an emerald. It meandered through a thick jungle with massive trees hundreds of years of old on one side. We could hear birds of a dozen species.

We put three boats in the water and I settled in, leaning back on the portable back rest that didn’t rest my back much. It’s not a comfortable fit but kayak paddles are very powerful. Just a couple of strokes and you fly through the water.

Our guide was Alex, a short, mustachioed kid in his early 20s who cursed when he realized the camera he took didn’t have a memory card. Still, he was able to point out all kinds of wildlife I’m not good enough to photograph. After only a few minutes, he pointed out a blue kingfisher. His head looks just like the Blue Jay on Toronto’s uniforms. We paddled a little longer then he yelled, “Iguana!” He pointed up and on a branch in front of me a meter-long iguana was resting.

“Careful,” one person said. “They shit on you.”

The paddling was as pleasant as the wildlife. The river had no current and each bend revealed another thicket of jungle. They filmed part of “After Earth” in Costa Rica. I can see why. It was seven kayakers and wildlife. That’s all that survived a nuclear war. Iguanas, I’m convinced, could survive anything, even boredom.

Alex pointed again at a low-lying branch. A bright pink Rosette Spoonbill was perched, looking like a giant pink candle. Of course, by the time I got my camera out, he flew away but to watch a giant pink bird much prettier than a flamingo fly overhead was worth the trip itself.

We paddled all the way to the ocean. We found a beach filled with random driftwood and ate pineapple and watermelon and chatted. One Hispanic couple from Rialto, Calif., just became empty nesters and he had tons of vacation time. He had never traveled. Costa Rica is perfect for him. It’s adventurous yet with modern conveniences. And he’s fluent in Spanish. Next they can’t decide between Africa and Panama. Go figure.

The ride back was arduous. My legs were cramping from sitting up in these flimsy seat backs. I finally said screw it and laid back as if in a chaise lounge chair and paddled that way. It looked bush. I looked like an old man but then again, I am. And it was very comfortable.

We passed some long boarders. They stand on extra-large surfboards with a tether around their ankle and paddle slowly down the river.

“Is it fun?” I asked one.

“Yes,” said one guy with a European accent. “It’s zen. It’s like yoga.”

When we reached the truck, we didn’t go a half mile home before we heard this scream similar to a small child being tortured. It was a howler monkey. We got out and a whole family was hanging out in the trees above us. A mother, a father, a teen and a baby.

I noticed they were itching.