27 Jul Michael Kaye Changed My Life and the Path of Tourism in Costa Rica Forever
Michael Kaye, founder of Costa Rica Expeditions and a giant figure in travel and tourism in Costa Rica, passed away on July 12, 2018, at the age of 76. Tributes, remembrances and messages have since poured in from around the world on social media, blogs and news feeds.
Michael has been called a pioneer in adventure travel, a titan of the Costa Rican tourism industry, and the godfather of ecotourism. To Rafael Gallo, president and co-founder of Rios Tropicales adventure company in Costa Rica, Michael was not only a mentor, he was the catalyst that forever changed his life.
Michael Kaye was quite an individual. He was my mentor. Thanks to Michael Kaye, my company Rios Tropicales exists. If it had not been for Michael, I probably never would have come to Costa Rica and not had the life I’ve led. He completely changed my life.
I first met Michael in 1982 at an “end of the season” party on the Chattooga River (North Carolina), where I was working as a river rafting guide in the southeastern U.S. All of the different rafting companies would get together for these big parties. Someone introduced us and I told him I was from El Salvador. Michael said he had been surfing in El Salvador, had married a Salvadoran woman (his wife, Yolanda), and had started a whitewater rafting company in Costa Rica.
He said, “Why don’t you come join me?” And it so happened that the people who had worked for him in Costa Rica were people I knew. Growing up in El Salvador, we never really thought about traveling in Central America, so Costa Rica wasn’t on my radar. I probably would have gone to New Zealand with my other rafting friends.
I went and became Michael’s rafting manager for Costa Rica Expeditions. He opened the Pacuare and the Reventazón rivers to me. I thank Michael deep from my heart to have brought me to Costa Rica, which allowed me to see the Pacuare River. What I’m doing here is thanks to him. I thank Yolanda, his wife and a fellow Salvadoran, for welcoming me into their family and their home.
Michael started whitewater rafting in Costa Rica. We both believed in very high standards for rafting and that is why Costa Rica has such a high level of rafting in the world.
Even though Michael and I ended up having different visions of the future of rafting in Costa Rica – back then I still wanted to explore more rivers and Michael saw the future of tourism in national parks and nature – by having different visions, it inspired me to start my own company of Rios Tropicales in 1985 and to really grow rafting. Thanks to him, Rios Tropicales was created. And thanks to Rios Tropicales, many, many people have benefitted over the years. The best part is that Michael and I regained our friendship, stronger than ever, and I always enjoyed our long talks.
Michael put Costa Rica on the map for world tourism. If it hadn’t been for Michael Kaye, Costa Rica might have gone down a similar path like many other Latin American countries where people came, explored, and then left without developing tourism. Michael stayed and he developed tourism that was well done. He did it right.
Costa Rica owes Michael Kaye for its success in tourism.
Jul 16, 2018
If you ever visited Costa Rica as a tourist, Michael Kaye influenced your vacation, too. Even if you’ve never heard of him before. He was THAT important to the tourism industry in this part of the world.
A trailblazer, a pioneer, a titan of the travel biz in Costa Rica, and the godfather of Costa Rican eco-tourism.
I only met Michael Kaye once. It was around 2005 and we were both on a puddle-jumper from San Jose, Costa Rica to Granada, Nicaragua.
Also on the plane was a friend of mine, and his father, who was the CEO of the airline we were flying on. Michael was sitting with my friend’s dad, and someone made introductions. We the only four people on the flight.
Once we landed in Granada, Michael had a driver waiting for him and he offered me a ride into town, about fifteen minutes away, which I accepted. On the way, he asked if I was around for dinner that evening, with some other people. I declined that invite because I didn’t want to be a spare wheel so he dropped me off at my hotel and we went our separate ways.
I mention this innocuous encounter because, during it, Michael’s enthusiasm for Nicaragua struck me.
He wanted to make Nicaragua as much of a tourist mecca as Costa Rica, or at least he did in those days. I remember him loving the fact I was enthusiastic about Nicaragua too. Not me personally, of course, but that someone else felt the same way about Nicaragua’s potential as he did. He liked that.
I doubt Michael would remember this meeting, but it doesn’t matter. Those who knew him and worked with him over the years will recognize the passion for travel and tourism I saw that day almost fifteen years ago.
Journalist and Costa Rica Custom Trips head honcho Eliot Greenspan recognized that same passion in 1995 when Frommer’s hired him to update and maintain their Costa Rica guidebook.
“Michael was one of the first people I contacted – his reputation obviously preceded him,” he said.
“Michael was always immensely helpful, open and generous. He opened many doors for me, including those to his hotels and home. Michael was opinionated, set in his ways, and self-assured. I always knew to block off a good hour if I planned to call Michael, cause there was almost no way to have a short conversation with him.”
Costa Rica in the year 2000, when I arrived, was a different country to the Costa Rica I live in now.
I’m talking in tourism terms. So I can only imagine what it was like back in 1978 when Michael and his wife first came here. Back then – in tourism terms – Costa Rica was more of an exotic backwater than a mainstream eco-tourist center. Or any kind of tourist center, for that matter.
Costa Rica wasn’t just a different country in the seventies, it was a different planet. The surfers hadn’t even arrived en masse in those pre-Endless Summer II days, and Central America was slipping into the war and conflict that would define it through the 1980s.
But in 1978, Michael found himself on the old train from San Jose to Limon. Looking out the window, he noticed the Rio Reventazon flowing through a gorge below the railway line. As a whitewater rafter and river guide, he knew back then, according to a 2012 interview with livingabroadincosta.com, he’d struck gold.
“This river’s gonna put food in our mouths,” he told his wife.
That was the start of Costa Rica Expeditions and the start of river rafting and eco-tourism in Costa Rica.
Before Michael Kaye set eyes on the Rio Reventazon, there was no eco-tourism industry in Costa Rica. No-one had done it before. Michael put Costa Rica on the map for the brand of tourism it’s now a world-leader in, and everyone followed.
“It’s almost impossible to predict what would have happened to the industry if Michael hadn’t come down here and explored the Reventazon, Pacuare, and General Rivers,” says Rafael Gallo, the founder of rafting and adventure travel company Rios Tropicales. “Who knows how eco and adventure tourism in Costa Rica would have turned out? We’d probably be in a similar state to those countries that try to emulate our model today.”
The Namu Travel Group would like to extend our deepest sympathies to Michael’s wife Yolanda, his family, the Costa Rica Expeditions family, and to the Costa Rican tourism industry as a whole.
James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.