Paddling the Pacuare: The best, most accessible, family-friendly jungle raft trip in the world

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“Thirty-three, dad!” says my daughter, Casey, 12. No, she’s not guessing my age (I can only wish). We’re near the end of our three-day rafting trip down Costa Rica’s Pacuare River and she’s been counting riverside waterfalls, just one of many perks paddling perhaps the greatest, family-friendly jungle raft trip in the world.

Some have been massive, like 200-foot Huacas, and some not so. But they’ve all been picturesque ribbons of white coursing against a backdrop of primordial green.

That, of course, is when we’ve had the time to look at them. The 21-mile stretch drops 1,150 feet to its near sea level take-out at the town of Siquerres, meaning it’s riddled with constant Class II-III rapids, and a smattering of Class IVs. Combine this with its primary rainforest setting and a road-free jungle lodge en route — complete with bar, hammock-lined deck overlooking the river, and well-appointed, flush-toilet rooms, with heart-folded towels on the beds — and it’s hard to find a better, more accessible jungle rafting trip in the world.

Our trip started with a van ride through Braulio Carrillo National Park and by the Turrialba volcano, Costa Rica’s most active that a week earlier had sent a plume of ash into San Jose (that’s how Jurassic Park-ish the scenery is). From there, we hopped on a walled-in trailer behind a tractor to descend a rutted dirt road 1,000 feet into the gorge, passing an arm’s length from fence posts that had sprouted with leaves.

At the bottom, while Ricardo and Rey finished rigging the boats, the kids plunged into a pool of water greener than any they had ever seen. It was April and the end of the “dry” season, so the river was at its lowest and clearest, matching the impenetrable emerald foliage lining the banks.

The low water also meant ample beaches, several of which were littered with cat tracks. They were of an oncilla, said Rey, one of six cat species that live in the region, including jaguars, puma, jaguarundi, margay and ocelot. Also adding to the floating zoo are monkeys, sloths, giant tapir, peccarys and more birds than you could ever count, from toucans and parrots to orioles and green macaws. As recently as 2012, 30 more bird species were discovered in the country, bringing its total to more than 900.

Of course, with the kids in a paddle raft and myself trailing in a kayak, we also had to keep our eyes on the river. Five miles of rock-dodging constant Class II-III rapids, on a gradient that kept the kids busier than bedazzling, brought us to a wide bend where the Rios Tropicales lodge straddles a creek on the right. To build it, Gallo and partner Jimmy Nixon had to float everything from lumber to beds and bar in on rafts, an impressive feat for all its appointments.
Including two dorm buildings for student trips, the lodge can sleep 120, with electricity coming from a small scale hydro Pelton Wheel system that generates 4 KW of DC power. Overlooking the river, the rooms, complete with fully plumbed bathrooms, are as romantic as the flower-and waterfall-lined setting, with towels folded into heart shapes atop the beds.

The formula — combining a world-class jungle river trip with eco-consciousness and rustic elegance in lodging — works. Rios has won a host of national and international ecotourism awards for its conservation efforts, most recently, becoming Costa Rica’s first adventure company to win the Gold Medal in Trip Advisor’s Green Leaders Award, which helps travelers plan greener trips by highlighting businesses meeting strict environmental standards. Also winning a National Geographic Geotourism Award for sustainability, it encourages guests to plant trees to offset their carbon footprints.

To date, it’s protected over 2,000 acres of primary and secondary growth rainforest, while reforesting 100 acres with more than 20,000 native Costa Rican hardwoods in the largest private rainforest reserve in the region. The company is now celebrating its 30th anniversary and takes about 25,000 people down the Pacuare each year.
The kids, of course, were more interested in the waterfall plunge pool a short hike away than the lodge’s accoutrements. So we grabbed our suits and hiked up the stream crossed by the bridge leading to our rooms. There, a giant log served as our platform for cannonballs into the cool, green water.

In the morning, after a breakfast of fresh fruit, juice, banana pancakes and thick Costa Rican coffee, we put the first SUP the river had ever seen to use by hiking upstream to a crystal clear pool above the lodge. Jumping off riverside rocks and staging SUP shots in front of the lodge, we revel in Eden until lunch called us back to the lodge. Later, we hiked across a downstream suspension bridge to another waterfall, which we plugged with our derrieres to unleash a torrent on bathers below. The trail leads up to the gorge’s rim and Gallo’s preserve, where guests can horseback, and is the escape route during rain-fed high water, when a red line is covered on a boulder below the lodge. Then we swam in another creek pool below the lodge, and later hiked to yet another, this one a natural rock water slide into an emerald cauldron. On the way back to the lodge, we marveled at giant canoe-shaped ground leaves holding rain water, and bullet ant nests guarding fan-shaped bratsi roots, engineered to offer the trees protection from the wind.

We arrived back at the lodge for a brief spell of hammock time, swinging lazily with beer and book in hand while watching other raft parties float by as if in a video game. Before we got too relaxed, another short hike led us to the lodge’s in-house zipline tour, whisking us through the rainforest canopy like its resident howler monkeys. At one tree-top station, a boa constrictor guarded the crook of a branch. It’s a good place to either get over your snake-o-phobia or sear it into your skull for life. They’re as common as the jungle’s shades of green, including such venomous ones as the fer de lance, which can have up to 90 babies per year, bushmaster and viper, which hunt in heliconia flowers for camouflage.

Rios offers a wealth of other activities to do as well for those laying over at the lodge, from horseback riding on the canyon rim to rappelling through waterfalls. You can also take a day hike through the jungle to a remote Cabecar Indian village, the largest indigenous group in the country. In the olden days, their remoteness, coupled with an unwillingness to be subdued, made them one of the few Indian tribes that never got conquered by the Spanish.

We returned from our canopy tour just in time for a deckside happy hour of cacique-infused Jungle Juice, where we watched the waning sun turn the jungle into a kaleidoscope of greens matching the river below. For dinner, lodge manager Doña Dina — a local who has 15 children, all the boys but one now working as river guides — whipped up Jungle Chicken with raisins, coconut and macadamia nuts, as well as fresh-squeezed key lime pie.

The next morning, a light rain pattering on the roof overrode the sound of the toucans. Outside, the river’s emerald green had turned earthen-brown and had already risen a few feet. After a breakfast of fresh banana pancakes, mango and papaya, we shoved off onto a water level perfect for rafting.

The rapids came as quickly as the waterfalls. Wake-up Falls appeared suddenly around a corner, as did marquee Class IV rapids Upper and Lower Huacas, whose approach is marked by 200-foot Huacas Falls. While these rapids pale in comparison to a Class V section farther upstream—in 2011, Gallo used the stretch to hosted the World Rafting Championships, drawing teams from 32 countries (the Costa Rican team finished ninth—it’s plenty for the kids. Following the raft in my kayak, we paddled beneath it to take giant group shower in its ribbon of white.

We broke out the SUP on flat pools where we could, especially at the Dos Montanas Gorge, the river’s narrowest point where its green waters slim to just a few boat widths across, flanked by black, foliage-lined cliffs. It was here where Rios Tropicales and an organization called Project RAFT staged an international rally in 1991 to help defeat the proposed Dos Montanas Dam, which would have drowned the canyon we just floated through.

“I’m glad they didn’t dam it,” says my older daughter, Brooke, 16, the first person to ever paddleboard between the canyon’s hallowed walls. “It would have buried all of this.”

“And also the waterfalls,” chimes in Casey. “Look! There’s number 34!”

If You Go:
For lodging in San Jose, try the Hotel Oro de Grano, a restored mansion in the heart of downtown, or the Park Inn Radisson. To run the Pacuare, or book other adventure travel trips in Costa Rica, hook up with 30-year outfitter Rios Tropicales.Another favorite: Supping and rec kayaking Mawamba Lodge.