River Rafting in Costa Rica

The author rides the bow through class-4 rapids. Credit: Rios Tropicales

The author rides the bow through class-4 rapids. Credit: Rios Tropicales

I perched in the front of the bouncing rubber raft like a figurehead, clinging to the side straps for dear life, forgetting not to scream as wave after wave slapped my face and filled my mouth. Peals of pure laughter followed my shrieks of  joy while my raft mates paddled furiously. Then all was calm. I turned, still sputtering and quaking with delight, to see the paddlers high five with their oars, shouting “pura vida!” (Costa Rica’s “pure life” bon mot) and high-fiving me the normal way, being as I was without paddle at the moment.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Life has gotten a little too dry for you.
  • Lush scenery + pure exhilaration
  • Great for adventure- and water-lovers.

It’s the traditional way to paddle through the class-4 Cimarrones – Wild Horses – rapids on the Pacuare River in mideastern Costa Rica. One team member rides the bow like a bucking bronco. It was my first time whitewater river rafting, so my number came up – a baptism by white water that capped an exhilarating three days on the river.

Getting ready to rock and roll

A highly respected Costa Rican outfitter – the second in the nation to open circa 1985 – Rios Tropicales makes a series of river adventures an unforgettable, seamless experience. It begins with a bus ride to the company’s operations base in El Cairo de Siquirres. There I dropped my luggage in a locker after packing a small backpack to see me through three days. Following a typical Costa Rican lunch of salad, black beans and rice, and pasta, the tour group traveled to the river first by bus then tractor-drawn wagon.

At the river, our guide Andres and oar boatsman Leo stowed our packs in dry bags and loaded up coolers full of the food and drink we would need in coming days. Our first day raft would take us downstream seven miles, beginning with relatively gentle class 2 and 3 (out of 6) rapids. After a lengthy tutorial that included terms like “falling out,” “tipping over,” and “foot entrapment,” I was simultaneously excited and doubting the wisdom of this long-time bucket wish of mine. My favorite terminology became the “lean in” and “get down” commands, which I often found myself following without prompting.

Life on the Pacuare River

“I did not say ‘get down’,” Andres would tease me. I started in the back, but eventually worked up the nerve to move to the front, where the two paddlers take the worst beating from waves breaking over the bow – a bit chilly on that rainy day but impossible to resist. Andres expertly commanded my six-person team to paddle around rocks, down drops, and through a couple dozen patches of rapids in quick succession. The Pacuare River is known worldwide for its variety, challenge, and rainforest wildlife – often named among the planet’s top 10 commercial rafting destinations.

Rios Tropicales owns 2,000 acres of surrounding rainforest where founder Rafael Gallo has built a rustic lodge and activities for spending a day or two between rafting excursions. The best rooms line the raging river and its soothing nighttime white noise. Three fresh-cooked meals daily come with the package as do adventures including canopy zip lining, mountain horseback riding, a butterfly research and gardens center tour, waterfall rappelling, hiking the 847 steps up and down the mountain rainforest trail, and a swing bridge over the river.

Pura vida! Credit: Rios Tropicales

Pura vida! Credit: Rios Tropicales

After two nights at the jungle lodge, we were packing up the passenger and supply boats once again to make the 14-mile paddle downstream – this time advancing to rapids in the class-4 category under sunny skies. Along the way, we climbed rocks up to a waterfall pool for a refreshing break. In the distance we could see the river disappear – our first class-4 drop: a rush that left us yawning at the smaller rapids that had me anxious only two days before.

After the fifth and final class-4 of the day, at Dos Montanas Gorge we all jumped into the river to float the current through the gorgeous V-shaped natural wonder – one of a continuum of scenic waterfalls, bird-flocked trees, rock fields, sheer plant-plastered walls, and other breathtaking features that made my river rafting initiation a go-to-the-top-of-the-lifelist experience.


  • Rio Tropicales offers a number of different river adventures ranging from day trips to four-day trips.
  • No prior experience is necessary.











  1. says

    Having been on this river with Chelle, I enjoyed how she captured the beauty and invigorating experience we shared rafting down the Pacuare River. It was “pure vida” and I’ll always remember the look on her face as buckets of cool river water slammed across the front of the raft where she was positioned like our masthead. Great article! Thanks for the memories.


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