Costa Rica Ups Ante for Raft Guide Certification

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Want to raft in Costa Rica? You’ll be in good hands.

In an initiative to promote tourism safety, the Costa Rica Sports Association for Adventure and Paddling, which represents the International Rafting Federation in Costa Rica, has conducted a massive certification mission in the country to certify 178 raft guides and safety kayakers with the goal of improving safety in adventure tourism.

The initiative, supported by the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) and the Costa Rican National Training Institute (INA), is the largest effort at one time in the world to certify guides in the rafting industry in guiding and safety skills.

Between Nov. 27 and Dec. 14, 151 raft guides and 27 safety kayakers from all over Costa Rica were certified to IRF standards using the Guide Training and Education Award System (GTE), the most widely recognized whitewater raft guide qualification in the world. In total in 2018, between September and December, more than 275 guides have been IRF certified in Costa Rica, including four female guides. INA has agreed to officially validate the certification.

Safety conditions on rafting trips for national and foreign tourists in Costa Rica is the highest priority for Rafael Gallo, IRF Honorary President and representative in Costa Rica as President of the Costa Rica Sports Association for Adventure and Paddling.

“Costa Rica has an abundance of excellent raft guides and kayakers, who have national and international experience. As leaders in rafting in Costa Rica, we have united in our experience to certify guides and safety kayakers to IRF standards to ensure that Costa Rica remains a leader in safety and excellence in rafting,” says Gallo.

The IRF certification measures raft guides’ skills in paddling, making preventative safety decisions, and capacity in case of rescue and emergencies. It consists of a theoretical-practical exam with topics such as water levels and common sense. The certification levels range from RG2 and RG3 to RG4 (Class II-IV rapids) and Safety Kayaker.

The certification by the IRF in Costa Rica permits the recognition of a rafting guide or safety kayaker in any part of the world, said Gallo, who is one of only two IRF guide training assessors – the highest level of expertise possible – in Costa Rica.

To apply for this certification, participants had to be active guides, over 18 years old, and have a valid CPR and First Aid Certificate. The accreditation must be renewed every three years; and in case of bad performance by a guide, it can be withdrawn, which allows for regulation of the standard.

“All were active guides, many of whom have been working as guides for more than 10 years. In Costa Rica, since they work 12 months a year, not only short seasons like in the U.S. and Europe, that means that guides have a lot of experience,” says Gallo.

The 27 safety kayakers who also participated in the initiative are the first IRF certified safety kayakers in Costa Rica. This group represents the most safety kayakers certified by the IRF at one time in the world.

Safety kayakers accompany rafting trips in class 3 or higher rapids to help point out dangers in the river to raft guides and assist with rescues in case a person falls out of a raft or the raft flips over.

Additionally, Costa Rica now has the first IRF certified Safety Kayak Instructors in the country. On Dec. 14, five highly experienced safety kayakers were accredited as instructors – Joaquin “Miti” Garcia, Albert Obando, Johnny Obando, Roy Obando, and Randall Solano – all of whom have more than 25 years of experience in river kayaking.

Safety Kayak Instructor is the newest certification by the IRF, since 2017, and there are only 15 now total in the world, said Gallo.

“These guides have been working for many years already as safety kayakers in Costa Rica and now they are recognized and certified for their abilities by the IRF,” says Gallo. “We are proud to recognize these safety kayakers for their heroic efforts in participating in rescue efforts when necessary on rafting trips. They go the extra mile to keep people safe.”

The recent guide and kayaker certification exams were conducted over the three-week period around the country on the Pacuare River, Sarapiqui River, Tenorio River in Guanacaste, and the Naranjo and Savegre rivers by Manuel Antonio. Despite not having an exact figure, it is estimated that there may be more than 500 raft guides throughout the country, who Gallo said they hope to train during 2019.

These efforts come after four U.S. tourists and a Costa Rican guide died on Oct. 20 during a rafting trip on the Naranjo River when their rafts capsized in high water flow. Ten tourists and three guides were rescued.

“It is important for Costa Rica to have guides certified to an international level. If the government will validate this certification, then we can have their support for regulation enforcement in the industry throughout the country,” says Victorino “Tori” Urzola, the IRF assessor in charge of the certification initiative.

“We want to raise the level of quality of the guides. In addition, the public and private sector must take more actions to work together for the welfare of the country,” said Gallo, whose rafting and adventure tour company Rios Tropicales has been operating in Costa Rica for 33 years.

“At my company of Rios Tropicales, we have been certifying guides voluntarily for our own requirements and peace of mind for years; however, not all companies do it and not all meet the requirements, that is the problem. So, tourists should check this when booking their tour,” says Gallo.

To continue raising the level of rafting in Costa Rica, Gallo is planning the first IRF World Whitewater Summit in Costa Rica in October 2019. He plans to invite high-profile international keynote speakers from the industry, hold a rafting and kayaking rescue competition, and an instructors’ workshop, among other events.

“This is a worldwide message that rafting is a safe sport and we want to work together with all rafting guides and associations all over the world to show this,” Gallo says.