Water has always been the driving force for "Swissraft" founder Daniel Chézière and his wife Charlotte. In Africa, it carried them to Timbuktu. In Flims, it turned them into rafting pioneers. And it led them to Costa Rica, which is now their second home.

When Daniel Chézière puts his mind to something, he gets the task done. So he wasted no time when, in 1988, an employee mentioned that the pristine rivers of Costa Rica were ideal for rafting. Daniel travelled there and was mesmerized by the tropical, natural scenery. He decided then and there to invest in, and expand, a local rafting company. Then he built a lodge, in the middle of the Caribbean forest, only accessible by boat. Two years later, he converted an old colonial-style house in San José, the capital, into a hotel.

Photos: Imagenes Tropicales/pictures provided

Expansion to Costa Rica

Founded in Flims in 1982, Chézière‘s firm "Swissraft" was one of the first providers of the then up-and-coming river rafting sport in Switzerland. "In the 1980s, there were scarcely any experienced rafting guides in Switzerland. We had to train them ourselves," Chézière explains. "But then, during the off-peak season, we didn’t have enough work for everyone. The fact that the high season in Costa Rica coincides with winter in Switzerland was fortuitous. The development of a rafting enterprise in Costa Rica presented the perfect expansion of our business in Flims."

In those days, tourism in Central America was still in its infancy. The only people who dared to go to Costa Rica were eccentrics, biologists, researchers and the first surfers. The starting point for all activities was the capital, San José. Accommodation was largely only available there. But, as Chézière points out, the lodgings were not exactly appealing. "We wanted to offer our customers a pleasant stay. So we found a Victorian-style colonial house and converted it into the Hotel Fleur de Lys." Daniel’s wife Charlotte –who grew up in Arosa in a family of hoteliers– was not keen on the idea: "Running a hotel is a 24-hour job. There is no such thing as quiet time. I told Daniel I wanted nothing to do with it. However he had already set his mind on the idea." Today, Charlotte is just as fond of the romantic villa in the centre of San José as her husband. Meanwhile, the Hotel Fleur de Lys has become a much valued venue, including for the locals.

Adventure on land and water

Adventure is the common thread that runs through the Chézières’ life. The couple met in 1968 in the French ski resort Morzine, where they lived for several years. Neighbours who had spent time in Africa raved to them about Niamey, the capital of Niger. In 1975, Daniel sold his physiotherapy practice and they set off to explore Africa. "The buyer of the practice was supposed to transfer monthly instalments to us, which we wanted to use to fund our trip. The money never arrived, so we had to find work in Niamey." They bought a small shop and sold gift items and party decorations to middle-class customers. Later, Daniel began to import lorries from France. This endeavour grew into a transport company which Daniel used to transport goods across the desert. That is when he was given the nickname "the white Touareg".

Fascinated by the desert, the couple undertook countless expeditions across Niger, Mali, Senegal, Algeria and Morocco. Until they discovered "the water" and spent over a year building a traditional, 21-metre long pirogue in which they travelled down the Niger River. Africa’s third-longest river, which also runs through the legendary city of Timbuktu, has been the downfall of numerous adventurers. The Chézières even dared to travel with their son and daughter, then aged three and seven respectively. Friends of theirs –also a couple with two children– joined them. "Throughout our travels, we had good contacts with the locals who always greeted us warmly. It’s not often that you see European families travel on the Niger River in this way."

Creativity and a positive attitude to life

When, in 1988, Daniel Chézière travelled for the first time on the Reventazón and Pacuare rivers in Costa Rica, much of what he saw reminded him of his experiences in Africa: intact nature, a phenomenal glimpse of the rainforest, indigenous villages, mangrove forests, parrots and monkeys were all part and parcel of the trip. Chézière viewed the lack of appropriate infrastructure as a challenge rather than an obstacle. "Back then, Costa Rica was still a bit like the 'Wild West'. But having spent six years in Africa, we were used to many things. Costa Rica’s potholed roads felt like luxurious motorways to us," he reminisces with a laugh. Within just a few years, Daniel Chézière, in collaboration with his Costa Rican partners, built a lodge in the heart of the Caribbean rainforest. The location of the lodge was so remote, there were no roads to access it. "Every piece of construction material had to be transported via the Pacuare River. And, after its opening, so did the food."

This doer mentality runs in the Chézières‘ blood. "In Africa, we always had to come up with solutions when things didn’t function. That experience helped us in Costa Rica," Charlotte Chézière points out. As well as their creativity, Charlotte’s positive attitude to life has kept them fresh and helped them cope with fate. In 2006, Charlotte had a serious accident with a horse-drawn carriage and suffered an injury that caused quadriplegia. The prognosis was not good. A physician even recommended ligation of her hands so that they wouldn’t get in her way since, in his view, she would never be able to use them again anyway. Charlotte refused to let such predictions get to her. Instead, supported by her family, she worked on her rehabilitation with an iron will. Today, she can use her hands again and walk short distances unassisted. Two years after the accident, she even rode a horse again. But Charlotte is still dependent on a wheelchair.

The Chézières spend six months of the year living by a beach in Guanacaste. The Swiss winters are too limiting for Charlotte’s mobility, which is why they decided to move to the warmth of Central America during the cold months of the year. This also gives them the chance to see their son, Franck, regularly. Franck has lived in Costa Rica for ten years. He is married to a Costa Rican and runs a travel agency. He, too, caught the "paddle virus" and spent several years working as a rafting guide. Franck knows every navigable river in the country.

Office work in bathing trunks thanks to modern technology

Nowadays, the internet in Costa Rica is just as reliable as in Europe. For Daniel, Costa Rica’s improved infrastructure is one of the main differences compared with when he first visited. These days, power cuts are rare, mobile network coverage is available almost everywhere and, in some cases, travel times have been halved as a result of better roads. This progress allows Daniel Chézière to work remotely. He takes Swissraft customer calls in the morning and organises programmes for various recreational sports. Daniel laughs: "Our customers probably think I am in an office in Switzerland somewhere – when the truth is I am sitting in our bungalow clad in bathing trunks and enjoying temperatures of 30° Celsius. I can do everything via the internet. Modern technology is a blessing for me."

Though, strictly speaking, Daniel and Charlotte are retired, they are showing no signs of slowing down. Daniel still cycles regularly and Charlotte swims every day. They kayak out to sea two or three times a week. And a few years ago, Daniel discovered yet another passion: the balloonist and paraglider trained to be a gyrocopter, which allows him to explore Costa Rica from above in his mini helicopter. He also offers aerial sightseeing tours to tourists. The tours depart from Tamarindo.

Staying young in the land of centenarians

That is how the Chézières keep fit, mentally and physically. How very fitting it is that Costa Rica boasts the highest life expectancy in Latin America. The Nicoya Peninsula is a "Blue Zone" – one of the seven regions in the world where the inhabitants experience extraordinary longevity. What might be the reason for this? Charlotte believes it is because of less environmental pollution, a life with plenty of fresh air and sunshine, and a balanced diet with fresh, regional ingredients. Almost everything grows in Costa Rica so that very little needs to be imported. And Costa Rica’s traditional, regional agriculture has basically always been primarily organic. The positive attitude of the Costa Ricans who –especially in this region– never get flustered by anything, is probably also conducive to longevity. So there is every reason to expect to see the ever-active Chézières in Costa Rica for many years to come.

Travelling made easier thanks to direct flights

The direct Edelweiss flights from Zurich to San José make life much easier for the Chézières. "We always travel with our small dog Nicki. Travelling is probably more strenuous for Daniel than for me," Charlotte points out. "He has to push the wheelchair, carry our hand luggage and, on top of that, a dog. The transfers were tedious, especially in the US. I am very glad that small dogs are permitted to travel in the cabin on Edelweiss flights. That is an important prerequisite for me." Straight from one home to the other – a blessing for Charlotte and Daniel Chézière.

(Text: Philipp Bühler )