Sure you could go to the beach to get wet when you travel to Costa Rica. Us? We headed for the Rio Pacuare for some Costa Rican white water rafting.
The right rafting company in Costa Rica
There are plenty of companies that will take you rafting in Costa Rica but we liked the sustainable tourism approach of an operation called Rios Tropicales. The company has planted more than 50,000 indigenous trees on the 2,000 acres it owns along the river in a massive reforestation effort. They formed a foundation to create and implement environmental education programs in local schools and they helped build two rural health clinics. Staff for their river lodge was also hired from local villages.
But what about the rafting? It all starts with your guides. Rios Tropicales has a river guide training program that’s based on international standards and practices but the guides themselves are 100% local. Back in 1985 they were the first rafting company to hire guides from the nearby town of Turrialba then they started hiring and training locals from the small community of El Tigre including indigenous Cabecar Indians.
Over the years some of Rios Troipicales guides have gone on to open their own rafting businesses in other parts of Costa Rica and the company continues to help promote them. They’re called “ecopreneurs” and they include one former Rios Tropicales guide who is now offering awesome-sounding chute rafting down a unique stretch of river near Manuel Antonio National Park.
The right river in Costa Rica
You have a number of raftable rivers to choose from in Costa Rica but one that’s near the top of everyone’s list is the Rio Pacuare. It’s a beautiful river and it’s got kick too. The Rafting World Championships were held on the Rio Pacuare in October 2011.
Rios Tropicales offers single day rafting trips on the Rio Pacuare all the way through to four days on the river. We opted for the two day Rio Pacuare rafting trip with an overnight in the Rios Tropicales eco lodge on the banks of the river.
Day 1 on the Rio Pacuare
We got wet a bit sooner than planned during our Rio Pacuare rafting adventure. During the second set of rapids our guide, Ricardo, steered us left when we should have gone right (or maybe it was the other way around) and we ended up rocketing down a hairy little line through whitewater with a huge boulder and a five foot drop over a mini-waterfall directly in our path. The white water commandeered our raft and we high-sided on the boulder. It’s a miracle we didn’t flip.
The word Pacuare means “little macaw” in the local native language. We didn’t see any macaws, but we did enjoy the jungle as we got in some sight seeing during the tranquil floats between exciting rapids on our 7 mile (11 km) trip to the Rios Tropicales eco lodge.
Lounging at the greenest river lodge in Costa Rica
The wooden buildings of the Rios Tropicales eco lodge, the first one ever built on the river, spill out along a stretch of riverbank and include a shared dorm, clean, basic private rooms with bathrooms, and some plusher private rooms with more space and even better views.
The entire staff is from local villages and the whole place is powered with hydro-generated electricity which makes perfect sense as you watch the river rush by and listen to umpteen waterfalls tumble down the hillsides, one of them crashing past our room.
If a day of rafting didn’t release enough adrenaline for you you can fill the afternoon with zip lining, horseback riding, hiking and swimming in waterfall-fed natural pools.
Even though we were all off the river our guides were definitely not off duty. They doubled as cooks, waiters, and bar tenders too and they were good at it, serving up Cacique-spiked punch during happy hour and whipping up a big, fresh, filling dinner made with local ingredients whenever possible.
Day 2 on the Rio Pacuare
Our second day on the Rio Pacuare was even more exciting than the first. Our 11 mile (17 km) journey took us through class III and IV rapids with very few dead stretches in between. In some stretches the canyon was so narrow it felt like the rafts might not fit through.
What slower water we encountered was livened up by Ricardo who had us surfing standing waves in the raft, out of the raft and riding the current down stream and generally goofing off. Then it was back to doing our best to paddle in unison in order to get through the next rapids. Turns out, white water rafting in Costa Rica is a pretty good way to learn the Spanish words for “left,” “right,” “forward,” and “back.”
Watch us flip, float, and flail through the rapids, sail through the zip line and surf standing waves in our video, below, shot on our GoPro during our white water rafting adventure on Costa Rica’s Rio Pacuare. It’s long, but we didn’t want to leave any of the adrenaline out.
Costa Rica rafting travel tip
Water levels in the Rio Pacuare are highest from October through December so if it’s big white water you want (class IV and V) plan a trip then.
Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica