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Rafting Rivers of Costa Rica

John Chenery

Costa Rica rates as one of the world's most popular destinations for both experienced and beginning river runners. Dozens of jungle-lined, warm tropical rivers on both sides of the continental divide offer churning white water almost year-round. Wet season (from May to November) is best because there's always plenty of water. In fact, some rivers get too high to run during the rains. In the dry season, you are limited to the wetter Atlantic slope, but that still leaves plenty to choose from. Here's an overview of the country's most popular rafting rivers:

Río Reventazón
The name means "bursting waves" and the Río Reventazón certainly lives up to its moniker. Whether you're a Class II neophyte, an experienced Class V daredevil or something in between, the Reventazón delivers. And because the flow of the water is controlled by the Cachí Dam, it delivers during wet season or dry. An easy drive from San José, and with excellent access at put-in points at the start of its various sections, the Atlantic slope Reventazón is Costa Rica's most popular rafting river and certainly one of its best. There are four sections of various degrees of difficulty. Single-section day trips are the most popular option, but some outfitters also offer two-day Reventazón tours to let you run the Class II and IV sections on consecutive days.

Powerhouse to Tucurrique (Class III-IV):
The three-mile run begins with a relentless 115-feet-per-mile drop creating a series of big waves that could be a borderline Class IV water, except that you'll be too busy to notice. Further along, the gradient flattens out a bit but the whitewater remains consistent and exciting.

Tucurrique to Angostura (Class III):
This 12-mile section is the most popular rafting trip in Costa Rica and its big, wet action from the put-in is ideal for first-time rafters. Several exciting rapids, and the highlight of the trip is the El Gordo, the biggest rapid in the Class II section, which you hit about a mile before the end of the run.

Peralta Section—Angostura to Peralta (Class V):
With lots of water and steep drops, this section contains some of the heaviest whitewater in Central America and has been compared to the classic big-water run at Upper Gauley in West Virginia. This nine-mile run is for experts only during the low water season, December through May.

Pascua Section—Peralta to Siquirres (Class IV):
If you've done Class III and want to step up a notch, there's nowhere better to do it. This 16-mile run is one of the longest, most consistent and intense stretches of non-stop Class IV whitewater you'll find anywhere. The river drops from 1,148 to 262 feet, propelling rafters through rapids with names like North Sea and the famous Six-in-a-Row section—Cola del Dragón (Dragon's Tail), The Wall, Frankenstein, El Horrendito (the Little Horror), Mente Sucia (Dirty Mind) and Aleta de Tiburón (Shark's Fin).

Río Pacuare
The Reventazón might be easier to get to, longer and more popular, but among the international paddling sports fraternity, the Río Pacuare is Costa Rica's whitewater jewel. It is a fixture on lists of the world's top-ten rafting and kayaking rivers, a heady combination of beauty and excitement which makes running the Pacuare an experience that will never be forgotten. Even without the rapids, this would be quite a trip. The Pacuare isn't called "the quintessential tropical river" for nothing. It's narrow course winds through a series of densely forested gorges, punctuated by about 20 waterfalls. The 150-foot cascade called Huacas Falls is one of the natural wonders of Costa Rica. The surrounding primary rainforest shelters jaguars, ocelots, monkeys, sloths and hundreds of species of birds—a nature-lover's wet dream.

Bajo Pacuare—San Martín (Class V, VI):
Only the brave and skillful attempt this 15 miles of classic boiling whitewater and even they are forced to walk around at least one of this section's more treacherous Class VI rapids. Some of the local outfitters run the trip for groups of expert paddlers from all over the world that come to Costa Rica to challenge this section, but you won't find it on any of the lists of tours offered by the major rafting outfitters.

San Martín—Siquirres (Class III, IV):
This is the trip your friends back home will get sick of hearing about. In this magical place, you are surrounded by sheer gorges, magnificent waterfalls and all the incredible beauty of the tropical forest as you plunge through some of the best whitewater in Central America. There are stomach-churning drops, tricky boulder gardens and then there's the Lower Huacas, a 150-yard stretch of ledges and rocks that produce the toughest rapid on the river's lower section. The Pacuare's final spectacle is the famous float between the sheer rock walls of Dos Montañas canyon before the gentler Class II and III paddle to the takeout point at the Limón highway. The lower Pacuare can be tackled in a long and exhausting day trip but a better option are the two-day packages offered by some outfitters, with lots of swimming and sightseeing stops along the way and the chance to spend the night at unique rainforest lodges along the river.

Río General
San Isidro—El Brujo (Class III, IV):
Although there are more than 1,000 miles of fine rapids in this huge river system, this is the section that gets the most commercial attention. The General is not only long, but it also carries a massive volume of water during the paddling months from June to November. This produces a different kind of whitewater experience from most other Costa Rica rivers. Kayakers, in particular, love surfing the General's huge waves and tackling the big holes and rapids. Access, however, is not the General's strong point. This 40-mile run takes you through some of the country's most remote areas and is generally undertaken as a four-day trip, camping out along the way.

Río Sarapiquí
This Atlantic slope river has something for everyone, with wild times at the top, a gentle float at the bottom and a fine section of intermediate whitewater in between. This picturesque river is ideal for nature lovers, particularly bird-watchers.

San Miguel—La Virgen (Class IV, V):
Narrow channels and lots of boulders mean that you're unlikely to see a raft attempting this congested section of the Sarapiquí. Experienced kayakers, however, relish the challenge of its rocks and big drops.

La Virgen—Chilamate (Class III):
This is a great run for first-timers, especially those who like a bit of ecotourism with their whitewater excitement. The seven-mile section features flashes of difficulty among mostly moderate rapids in beautiful clean water where river otters play. The river runs through lowland wet forest with truly spectacular bird-watching.

Chilamate—Puerto Viejo (Class I, II):
This section is pretty much flat water all the way, which might not do much for your adrenaline level but which will afford you an opportunity to have a memorable wildlife experience as you float along. If you're lucky you might spot an otter playing in the water, and you'll almost certainly see monkeys and lots of birds, including toucans, parrots, herons, hawks and big kingfishers.

Río Corobicí
Cañas—Bebedero (Class I, II):
The country's most popular "float" is a scenic gem, and a must for nature lovers, particularly bird-watchers. This gentle trip is in the vicinity of Palo Verde National Park for an unforgettable wildlife experience that can be enjoyed by everyone, from the very young to the very old. More than 300 hundred species of birds have been identified in Palo Verde and you'll see lots of them along the Corobicí. Sliding by unobtrusively in a raft is one of the best ways to see ospreys, mot-mots, several kinds of herons, cormorants, kingfishers, jacanas and many more. Howler monkeys, iguanas, river otters and various other mammals and reptiles are often spotted in the primary forest along the riverbank. A very different kind of rafting excitement.

These five rivers—the Reventazón, Pacuare and Sarapiquí on the Atlantic slope, and the General and Corobicí on the Pacific side—are the trusty favorites of Costa Rica's whitewater rafting industry. Pretty much every outfitter in the country will have all or most of them on its books. But as rafting and kayaking ride the worldwide boom in adventure sports, more rivers are being explored and opened up to thrill seekers.

Two relatively recent additions to the list of whitewater attractions are the Pacific slope rivers Savegre and Naranjo. Both are pretty rivers with clean water and challenging Class III runs about seven miles long that make them a popular excursion out of the central Pacific resort area of Quepos and Manuel Antonio. For the truly dedicated and adventurous paddle sport enthusiast, Costa Rica has literally dozens more stretches of whitewater which, either because they are too difficult or too remote, are never visited by commercial tourist operations.

Thrill seekers should get ahold of a copy of "The Rivers of Costa Rica—A Canoeing, Kayaking and Rafting Guide," by Michael W. Mayfield and Rafael E. Gallo (Menasha Ridge Press), which describes all Costa Rica's paddling venues in loving, and sometimes scary, detail. The book is available from most river outfitters.

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