The Pacuare is the best rafting experience in Costa Rica and National Geographic lists it as one of the top three guided rivers in the world.
White water rafting in Costa Rica is a whole different experience for travelers from Canada and the U.S. where the water in the rivers might have been snow or ice a few days earlier. There are no wetsuits and between the rapids you can slip into the river and float alongside the boat in the warm tropical water watching for monkeys or trogons in the jungle treetops.
When we’re not in Costa Rica we live on the Cache la Poudre – one of the last truly wild undammed rivers in the United States. Most of our Costa Rica rafting connections come through guides and company owners who spend half the season there and half here (high water is reversed in Colorado and Costa Rica). We could probably raft the icy waters of the Poudre every day for free if we wanted to but we always hold out for tropical trips.
The majority of visitors are thrilled just to pass through the indigenous protected zone surrounded by some of the most pristine rainforest remaining in Costa Rica, but a lucky few spend a night or two in the tropical wilderness. There are two “camps” on opposite sides of the river and opposite ends of the price spectrum. Green Frog Adventures offers inclusive three day trips including delicious meals, double cabins, cold beer and other beverages, guides, a hike to the indigenous village, and of course the raft trip for under $500 (“camp” pictured above).
Across the river you’ll find back country upscale eco-luxury starting around $1,500 per person for two nights with Rios Tropicales but the beer is exactly the same temperature and the view is the same. The sheets and mattresses are admittedly much nicer.
Rafting Day Trips in Costa Rica
Although the Pacuare is the ultimate many other rivers in Costa Rica hold their own for world class white water experiences. From Manuel Antonio, Jaco and other Central Pacific beaches the Río Naranjo and Savegre class III runs are a bit shorter but just as scenic and wild.
If you’re visiting Arenal Volcano there are several neighboring rivers including the Balsa (great class III fun run), Sarapiquí (class II to IV depending on the section) and the Toro (class III and IV).
However, our favorite day trip river has to be the Tenorio (video above) and if you’re staying at one of the Guanacaste or Nicoya beach resorts you’re lucky that this is one of the only rivers close enough for a (long) day trip. As commercial rafting rivers go it’s nearly undiscovered and it’s completely possible that your trip will be the only boats on the river on any given day.
Located in the driest region of Costa Rica the river is filled by runoff from the cloud forests surrounding the peak of Volcán Tenorio to the north but you’re more likely to find year round warm sunshine here than on any other river in Costa Rica.
The Tenorio has the added advantage of a calm section downstream where anyone in your group who’s not up for sailing over a waterfall can enjoy a wildlife watching float trip instead and you can all meet back at the rancho to swap stories and photos while enjoying lunch together.
We’ve done a lot in Costa Rica in the past couple of decades and for pure unadulterated fun there’s not much that beats white water inner-tubing.
The slot canyons at Hacienda Guachipelín are one of our go to adventures when we take friends or family to Costa Rica. Sometimes we convince them ahead of time but sometimes they insist that all they really want to do is lay on the beach. After about two days we always hear the same thing “what is there to do around here anyway?” That’s when we break out white water inner-tubing!
About 45 minutes from the Pacific beaches the cool fresh water, birds and wildlife and horses, zip-lines, waterfalls, canyoneering and hiking trails on the slopes of Rincón de la Vieja are the perfect answer to that inevitable question.
White Water Kayaking
Costa Rica is an amazing place to learn how to kayak which makes it surprising that it’s nearly impossible to find anyone willing to teach you. Although surf schools, yoga training, Spanish lessons, and even kite-boarding academies abound, seemingly no one has recognized that the nearly unlimited multi-class warm tropical white waters of Costa Rica are the perfect setting to learn to paddle.
It’s likely that if you do as I did (see my first lesson above) and simply express an interest you’ll find a white water rafting guide who’s real passion is kayaking that will take you out and attempt to drown you in exchange for a couple of rounds of beers at the bar later (if you survive…otherwise they’ll recover your wallet and buy rounds for the house). After my rather precipitous introduction I spent the rest of the day bouncing my helmet off the rocks on the bottom of the lower (class II and III) section of the Río Balsa while trying to learn the Eskimo roll on the fly.