Bruce in kayak.

"We specialize in small group travel, which minimizes environmental impact, increases safety standards and allows for personalized, enriching and authentic experiences."

— Bruce Smith, founder and owner, Seascape Kayak Tours Inc.

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SEASCAPES – Winter 2009

The Newsletter for the SKT Community

This issue’s focus is Costa Rica, where Seascape is currently based and in full swing. The stories below will catch you up on recent exciting developments at our Southern base of operations.


Seascape relocates its southern base

Since arriving in Costa Rica to begin the 2008/2009 Winter season, Seascape has relocated its Southern base of operations to the intimate, boutique hotel Tambor Tropical in the village of Tambor, less than 30 minutes from Curú Wildlife Refuge, where most day trips and all the Pacific multi-day trips are run. An office and living quarters are set up near the reception office at Tambor Tropical and Seascape offers guests of the hotel sunrise and sunset trips in Bahia Ballena just off Playa Tambor.

Tambor Tropical's Poolside Bar/RestaurantTAMBOR TROPICAL’S POOLSIDE BAR/RESTAURANT

Guests of Tambor Tropical enjoy the poolside bar/restaurant and the beautifully designed teak-wood architecture of the dramatically rustic accommodations, which eschew TVs, phones and air conditioning in favor of peace, relaxation and the cool ocean breezes and sounds of the surf that grace the property. Owners Mark Nelson and Pamela Jones of Portland, Oregon, hire a 95 percent local Tico staff, recycle on the property, and create a lovely ambiance for the many weddings and other special events held here.



Business thrives despite economy

Although the economic crisis is permeating the travel industry worldwide, Seascape is having a fairly good season so far. We attribute this to three factors:

  • Our company’s success comes from its consistent focus on staying small, both in terms of our staff and our group size. Whereas many large tour operators are experiencing a decrease in the numbers of travelers since last year, this is not the case with us. Read more about the sustainability of staying small in the article Bruce Smith speaks at sustainability conference below.
  • Much of our business is repeat and word-of-mouth; people keep coming back to us and referring others to us because they know we have a great product.
  • We have shifted our product development focus in Costa Rica this year to include day trips, which provide a perfect complement to the regular multi-day excursions we run annually, both on the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the country. Contributing to this day-trip business are partnerships with local hotels in the area of our southern base, which you can read about in Partner accommodations fuel day trips below.

Several spots left on yoga/paddling trip

There is still time to sign up for the exclusive El Espiritu del Mar, a 5-day trip on the Nicoya Peninsula March 14-22 that combines sea kayaking with yoga practice. Read more about the trip here or download a promotional flier or the full itinerary here.

yogaflier (pdf) | yogaitinerary (pdf)


Seascape named web site of the month

The Tourism Industry Association of New Brunswick designated the Seascape Kayak Tours web site as their official Web Site of the Month for November 2008. Both the site and our new Seascape logo were designed by Paul Wagner at Pyrographic Media in Lexington, Kentucky.

Bruce Smith speaks at sustainability conference

Readers who know Bruce know he is first and foremost an educator – and more than anything else he is passionate about educating others about sustainable tourism. This is why the government of New Brunswick sent him to Newfoundland in late September to speak at the Gros Morne Institute for Sustainable Tourism’s (GMIST’s) annual leadership conference. The title of Bruce’s talk was Bucking the Trend: Staying Small and Truly Sustainable. One of the opening paragraphs from his notes reads: “In an age of globalization and company mergers, the consensus is that ‘bigger is better.’ The more boats you have on the water, the more hikers in the rainforest or cyclists on trails, the more revenue generated. But, is this sustainable tourism?” I’m sure you can guess the answer, but if you are interested in reading the paper, you can access it here.buckingthetrend (MS Word doc)



Partner accommodations fuel day trips

Over the years, Seascape has developed industry partnerships with several accommodations in Costa Rica. These are hotels and resorts that we support by referring clients to their facility, booking room nights for our clients at their accommodation or taking groups to dinner at their restaurant, and who in turn refer clients to us for paddling or book their clients on trips with us as part of their activity base. In addition to Tambor Tropical, where Seascape now has its offices and runs some trips, another accommodation in Tambor that Seascape partners with is Costa Coral, conveniently located along the main road through town and offering an excellent restaurant. About an hour’s drive from Tambor down the Pacific Coast is the lively Santa Teresa/Malpais area, known for its great surfing beaches. Here two upscale accommodations, Red Palm Villas and Florblanca at Latitude 10, send Seascape their clients who want to paddle. We take them on day trips into Curú Wildlife Refuge, which you can read about by clicking onto our Costa Rica page. When clients fly into San José, Seascape meets them at the airport and takes them directly to their accommodation for the evening, usually either the Hotel Don Carlos or the Hotel Aranjuez. Seascape has worked with the friendly and accommodating staff at the upscale yet economical Hotel Don Carlos for many years, but has only recently begun to use the more intimate Aranjuez, an eco-friendly B&B with an excellent breakfast served in its attractive gardens. Seascape works with several accommodations on its trips to the Caribbean Coast, which you can read about in the Spotlight on Tortuguero National Park below.

Seascape to be featured in two publications

Seascape’s tours in Costa Rica will be the topic of two articles to be published in the next few months. The first will appear in Costa Rica’s Guru Magazine, promoting responsible travel. Published in Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula by an American/Costa Rican couple, Nancy Goodfellow and Jesus Zabala, Guru is a high-quality travel guide with modern graphic design geared to both a national Tico (Costa Rican) and international tourist audience. It features wild and natural destinations, progressive responsible developments, sustainable community projects, luxury eco-accommodations, and the hottest adventure activities Costa Rica has to offer. The article is being written by Jennifer Harter and will appear in the March issue. In April, the trade publication known as the Group Travel Leader will run a story on Seascape as well. Published since 1991 in Lexington, Ky., USA, by Mac Lacy and Charlie Presley, the Group Travel Leader is the national newspaper for the Group Travel Industry. With a targeted readership of 30,000, it is America’s only monthly newspaper published exclusively for the billion-dollar group-travel and packaged-travel markets.



Spotlight on Tortuguero National Park

Have you ever thought about why they call a rainforest a rainforest? It’s because it rains, and rains, and rains some more, and then it rains softly for a while, and then it rains really hard, and then it switches to medium rain and … well, you get the idea.

Thanks to Bruce Smith and his team of local Costa Rican drivers, boat captains hoteliers and guides, I got to experience this rain and all the other wonders of the rainforest for a whole week in December. But, also thanks to Bruce, I got to experience it from a vantage point that few others actually have: from a kayak!

We were, of course, in Tortuguero National Park, on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, the opposite coast from the Pacific one, where Bruce runs most of the southern Seascape trips. He takes groups into Tortuguero about twice a season, and wanted me to have a first-hand encounter with this magical place, which is situated in the largest tropical wet forest in Costa Rica, is home to more than half the bird and reptile species in the country, and offers some of the most intriguing paddling I have ever done.


The word “Tortuguero” has been translated as “turtle catcher,” “turtle seller,” “turtle region” and numerous other ways. But the important takeaway is that this park – with its 45,000 acres of terrestrial habitat and 21,000 acres of ocean reserve, natural rivers and manmade canals – is one of Costa Rica’s most important national treasures precisely because it is the nesting ground where four different species of sea turtles come year after year to lay their eggs: the small Hawksbill turtle, the green turtle, the loggerhead, and the great leatherback, largest of all.

Much has been written about how the sea turtle was used by the Caribbean culture for many years (as a source of food, for its shell, and countless other uses) and the unspeakable ways the animal suffered and died for human gain. But thankfully, around the middle of the 20th century, researchers realized that these sea turtles would soon be extinct if not protected, which is the reason Tortuguero was established as a national park in the 1970s.


During our drive down the Caribbean slope from Turrialba, through shade-grown coffee farms and monoculture banana plantations, Bruce told me this trip to Tortuguero would be life-changing. And when I saw the huge jungle vegetation of buttressed-root giants appear along either side of the road just before the put-in at Pavona, I knew he was right. Seeing the density, magnitude and exotic quality of these ancient and lush marsh woods and palm groves gave me that overflowing feeling that comes when you know you are about have an experience beyond your wildest imagination.

Writer Yehudi Monestel described Tortuguero as “a sheltered world with warm but not blazing temperatures, watered by refreshing rains. A living, dynamic jungle and an authentic network of rivers, meanders, lakes and canals transform the region into a kind of special Venice; a Venice with no palaces or romantic gondolas, but where the tranquility can be cut in slices like bread, where the air is purer than any other place on earth and where the thickness of the water plants releases a fragrance which is perfect to unknot nerves and soothe tension away.”

Because of the thickness of vegetation and complex system of canals – built in the 1960s to link the indigenous communities living along the rios and lagunas – the park can only be accessed by plane or boat. Most people are taken in by motorboats of varying sizes and speeds. But not Seascape clients. Just like Bruce’s regular groups, I paddled the three and a half hours into the park, and although I arrived looking like a drowned rat due to a steady rain, I enjoyed every minute. Average annual rainfall is over 5 meters or 200+ inches. That having been said, some groups that kayak in experience very little rain during the paddling day. Rainfall is said to be less in February and March, for those who want to pick the driest time to paddle here.


My favorite memories of the rain were during the nights spent at Evergreen Adventure Lodge, where Bruce usually brings his groups. This cozy collection of cabinas is situated right in the forest, with lodges and walkways erected on stilts to prevent flooding during heavy rains. In the evenings, just as dusk descends, the frogs and toads come out. After being delighted by a tiny tree frog I found on a large leaf, I was surprised near the pool by the biggest Bufo Marinus (American Toad) I have ever seen. You can walk along and look down upon the habitat of dozens of Anurans (frog species such as poison dart and the bug-eyed gaudy leaf frog) which during the night provide a colorful chorus that seems to correspond to every note you’d find on a piano, from the highest high plink to the lowest low plunk. The cabins, by the way, have really tight, tiny screens in their many windows, preventing any bugs or Bufos from sharing your quarters.

From Evergreen, it’s just a short paddle over to the little town of Tortuguero, a vibrant community with no cars. Here you can access the park’s hiking trails, shop at tiny grocery stores and souvenir shops, check your e-mail (if you must!) and have some amazing home cooked food, Caribbean style. We spent two nights here at the best B&B in the village, Casa Marbellla, run by Canadian-turned-local guide Daryl Loth. This humble and homey clean abode is right on the river, has solar assisted hot water and great sunset views and bird-watching from its well-appointed dock.

Kayaking is far and above the best way to have an intimate interaction with Tortuguero’s amazing marine environment; we saw so many things that were quite obviously missed by the tourists in bigger, faster, louder boats. During the paddling days, I was delighted to encounter amazing wildlife, including howler, capuchin and spider monkeys and a variety of fresh-water turtles. On the first day, when we took a snack break by the river bank, I saw something moving very slowly high up in a tree and was delighted to realize it was a three-toed sloth, my first sighting! The bird species alone would fill several pages – there are more than 400! My favorites were: the slaty-tailed trogon; Montezuma oropendola; wattled jacana; collared aracari; chestnut-mandibled toucan; keel-billed toucan, little blue heron, tiger heron and yellow-crowned night-heron (shown here), which perches over the caños in a trance-like stillness during the day, making for great photo ops.

One day during the buffet-style breakfast at Evergreen, we suddenly heard some loud squeaky squawking noises outside. The birders in the cafeteria all made a mad dash for the door, and as we followed suit, Bruce told me we were about to see the endangered great green macaw! A pair had flown into the canopy to feed on the almendro (almond) trees, whose fruits and seeds they love and whose survival – lots of these trees are turned into floorboards – is critical to the bird’s. Tortuguero, like many places in Costa Rica, is truly a birder’s paradise.


Many of the animals that exist in and around the park are rarely, if ever, seen by humans. One special canal is off limits to any boat traffic so that its shy inhabitants, the reclusive and endangered manatees, can live in peace. Hidden in the undergrowth, ocelots, jaguars, cougars, peccaries, giant anteaters and the fishing bulldog bat, with a very large wingspan, also grace these rainforests.

One day we visited the Caño Palma Biological Station, a research outpost of the Canadian Organization for Tropical Education and Rainforest Conservation (COTERC) in the Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge. Bruce arranges for a local guide to lead each of his groups on a special hike in this refuge. Here we met scientists and volunteers who monitor and tag the nesting endangered sea turtles, track bird migration, and try to learn as much as they can about the large mammals in the area. The day we were there, we heard about their new jag-cam, a video monitor set up to capture footage of jaguar in the forest.


Gliding down the intimate caños, we would sometimes encounter a lazy Caiman basking in the partial sunlight that makes its way through the canopy. These reptiles, though capable of doing some damage if provoked, are shy, small and simply want to be left alone. We were delighted to see them, gave them a wide berth and, thankfully, the only thing snapping was our camera shutter.


The highlight of the trip for me, though it’s very hard to choose just one, was paddling silently up into very narrow and secretive canals, where the vegetation was so lush and dense that you felt completely a part of this hushed watery world, mesmerized by the reflections of huge palm fronds and not knowing what you would encounter around the next alluring bend. The enticing journey into these private places, the expectancy of unknown beautiful creatures, the trancelike state produced by one’s own rhythmic paddling – this part of the trip intrigued and fascinated me the most. And it made me realize that without my kayak, I could not have experienced the true nature of this enchanting park.

A great paddling trip? Definitely yes. A dry place to visit? Not exactly. A life-changing experience? You bet. For Bruce’s favorite memory of the trip, see the Parting Shot below. For more information on Tortuguero, check this site.


Trouble in paradise

Banana production in Costa Rica is not as environmentally friendly as it should be. In the monoculture plantations near Tortuguero, harmful insecticides are sprayed on plants and blue plastic bags envelop the fruit to prevent insect damage and promote growth. During heavy rain, chemicals and plastic bags alike wash into quebradas (streams or creeks) and eventually into the caños and lagunas of Tortugueuro National Park. You can help promote green farming practices by purchasing organic bananas at home. Simple choices can make a big difference.


Bella Vista Ranch, the perfect mountain retreat

Seascape clients who choose to do the Tortuguero Explorer trip are picked up in San José and, on the way to and from the coast, spend a night in a wonderful mountain retreat near the area of the Turrialba Volcano. Bella Vista Ranch is comprised of a series of simple cabins linked by a raised walkway and set into a hillside overlooking thevolcán and several other montañas. This special getaway is owned by Mark Shultz and Anabelle Solano, from the U.S. and Costa Rica respectively, who also own a lovely beach house in Manuel Antonio, which is sometimes used for a relaxing trip extension after a challenging five-day paddling excursion. YouTube has a great little slide show promoting Bella Vista, its flora and fauna and its majestic views.

Spiff up your Spanish

Should you be among the suerte who decide to visit Costa Rica, you’ll need to know a few simple but key palabras y frasas in Español.

Hola! Hi!
Buenos días Good morning
Buenas tardes Good afternoon
Buenas noches Good evening
¿Cómo está? How are you?
Muy bien, gracias Fine, thank you
Mucho gusto With much pleasure / Nice to meet you
Por favor Please
¿Habla Inglés? Do you speak English?
No habló Español I don’t speak Spanish
¿Dónde está el baño? Where is the bathroom?
Buena suerte Good luck
¿Por qué? Why?


Parting shot

Paddling near the Jalova Ranger Station in the southern part of Tortuguero Naitonal Park, Bruce spotted this silent sentinel from about 30 feet out in his kayak. He used his zoom lens to get this shot and two others and described the moment this way: “The look he gave me was dead on, and seemed to grant temporary permission to enter and enjoy his unique water world.” When Bruce turned to paddle off, the beautiful American Crocodile of some 10-12 feet in length lazily stirred and followed us into the water, never to be seen again.

View our Fall Newsletter

All copy for SEASCAPES is written by Frances Figart, director of marketing and communications. Photos are by Bruce Smith and Frances Figart.