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       pacuare waterfall 
  - Costa Rica

Whitewater Rafting the Pacuare River

Whitewater Rafting the Pacuare River

Destination: Arenal, Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, San Jose


  • Location : Caribbean, 2 hours from San Jose
  • Hours : approximately 6:30 a.m. (depends on pick-up time)
  • Time Length : All day
  • Price : $105 per person with transportation and two meals

The Pacuare River is often considered one of the world's best whitewater rafting destinations, known for its warm waters, dazzling rainforest, colorful wildlife and immense canyon walls. But an excursion down the Pacuare is more than just a rafting trip, it's a glimpse back through time; a journey that reveals Costa Rica's development from the primordial rainforest to thriving urban centers connected by a series of bridges dating back more than a hundred years.

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Finding a tour

Jump on any number of different Pacuare River tours offering pick-ups from San Jose, Arenal or Puerto Viejo. Most tour operators offer either one day eight-hour rafting trips or overnight trips where the journey downriver is split in two with a night spent at a river lodge.

In addition, most tour operators offer adventure connections that will pick you up, take you on the trip then drop you off at a different location for an extra $10; making it one of the most fun ways to get around the country without having to rely on regular transportation.

A day on the river

Typical day-trips begin early with a shuttle picking you up from your hotel and taking you to the tour operator's adventure center near the Pacuare River. At the center, you'll have the chance to eat breakfast, change and store your things before driving to the river.

Make sure to wear a bathing suit and old tennis shoes, water shoes, sandals with straps (no flip flops). Also you'll probably want to bring along some sunscreen and a water bottle. You can bring a waterproof camera, but your tour operator will also be taking pictures on the river and cameras can be more of a hassle than they're worth.

In route to the river, a guide will present you the basics to raft including safety instructions, how to paddle and what to do if you fall in the river. After about an hour-drive from the adventure center, you'll reach the river's entrance where you'll throw on a life jacket and helmet, gather up your paddle and jump in the raft. With an assorted six-person team and a guide, you'll practice what you learned on the way to the river, learning to work as a team before setting out on your journey.

On the rapids

The first set of rapids feels like driving down a bumpy dirt road, you can feel the strength of the current below as your guide yells out to paddle forward. A single thread of excitement begins to unravel. That's when you'll pass underneath the first of five bridges. This one, nothing more than a single steel cable running from one side of the river to the other. At one end a small hand-powered cable car sits waiting for someone to cross the river. This bridge belongs to the Cabecar tribe, the descendants of the original people to inhabit the land around the Pacuare River.

Class II rapids begin to percolate around the bend as small white caps denote a series of smooth cobblestones along the river bottom. Pass back and forth between rapids and a tranquil floating river while keeping an eye for the different lodges occasionally visible along the riverbanks – these are the hotels for the overnight guests along the river.

The real rapids begin as you pass underneath a small footbridge belonging to the Rios Tropicales River Lodge, your first Class III rapid, known as the Rodeo. Hold on tight as the river bucks and tosses you over the rocks down cascading rapids past small waterfalls filling the Pacuare's already mighty waters.

Pass onto the Upper Huacas and Lower Huacas' class IV rapids.  With huge waves, boulders and frothing undulating currents, your guide shouts for you to keep paddling and your heart feels like it may burst from adrenaline and excitement. But just at that peak moment, you'll enter the towering Huacas gorge where the water calms into a lazy river and you have a chance to jump out and float alongside the raft. 

After two to three hours on the river you'll have an hour long stop for lunch. Most tour operators pack ingredients to make sandwiches and wraps, with chips, peanuts, cookies, drinks and fresh fruit. The guides prepare lunch while you relax along the shores of the river. 

Back on the river, you'll be heading into the home stretch; a whirlwind of rapids, scenic views, wildlife and good times with the new friends on your rafting team. The scenic beauty culminates as you pass through a series of rapids, around a sharp bend and appear before the Two Mountains Gorge. 

Here, the Pacuare runs 15-feet wide between two colossal canyon walls that tower over your head, flora brimming over the walls, waterfalls pitching droplets down into the river. In the middle, the remnants of the third bridge rust away, a reminder of when Costa Rica's electric company once tried to build a hydroelectric dam at this very spot, but ultimately stopped because of the public's disapproval. 

The fourth bridge signals that you're nearing the end of the journey. It's an endearing, aging iron train bridge and an important part of Costa Rica's history. For decades, the train was the only transportation from San Jose to the Caribbean coast and the country's largest port in Limon. 

The fifth bridge follows shortly. A testament to modern times, the bridge is part of the modern highway that now connects the Caribbean with the rest of the country. As you pass underneath, you'll reach the end of your journey. Shortly up ahead you'll stop along the river banks where shuttles are already waiting to take you back to the adventure center, clean up and depart for the next adventure.

Departure & Return

  • Departure point : Tour departs from all major hotels in San Jose, La Fortuna, Arenal, Cahuita, Puerto Viejo Limon
  • Departure time : Hotel pickup is 7 a.m. or earlier depending on your hotel location
  • Return details : Tour returns to original departure point between 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Whitewater Rafting the Pacuare River in Pictures

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