White Water Rafting in Costa Rica

As part of a very fun 10 day vacation in Costa Rica, we signed up with Desafio Adventure Company for a white water raft trip down the Rio Balsa. The stretch of the Balsa River we rafted for two and a half hours had over 25 fun and exciting rolling Class II-III rapids. The river flow is controlled by a dam upstream and when we arrived at the put-in point the river looked pretty intimidating - rushing white roaring rapids as the river bounced over and around huge black boulders littered everywhere. Got my heart pumping and when I asked the guide about how fast the river was flowing (typically measured in cubic feet per second) he just said "fast!" and followed that with "the flow from the dam release should be here soon." Plus it had been raining cats and dogs all night! We are in for bumpy and exciting ride!


Our family ready to go white water raftingThe first step was to divide the rafters into groups of 4 to 6 per raft. We had a group of 7, which included my 9 year old grandson. My brother (the dufus in the blue rain jacket) is notorious for breaking rules and always pushing the limits. So he persuaded our guide to take all of us in one raft. Which worried me a little bit since the fours guys in our group are big (one son-in-law is six five and the other is six two) and the raft looks a little too small for seven plus the guide! Hmmmm.

Next was some safety instructions like what to do when you fall out in rapidly rushing water full of huge boulders - sounds scary particularly when we are in a raft that is over loaded and the water is flowing faster than normal - scary. After the safety instructions and several rules (keep both hands on the paddle, one foot securely under the side of the boat, never raise the paddle, etc.), we jumped in our raft on land with our guide Diego. Diego spent several minutes giving us paddling instructions, for example:

  • Right Side Forward - the right side paddles forward and the left side paddle backwards
  • Down - everyone jumps into the middle of the raft and bends down
  • Right - means the left paddlers jump to the right side of the raft

Why and when would we need Right or Down? Hmmmm - guess I'll worry about that later. And then we shoved off and started heading downstream at a very fast pace!

Some of the bigger rapids on Rio Balsa have names like "Rock around the Croc" and the first rapid we encountered was "Morning Coffee" and like that first cup of coffee in the morning, it was strong and hot and got our attention and hit us with a refreshing spray of river water. From there we hit a few more rapids, paddled furiously "Right Side Forward", "Back", and some other paddling commands that Diego yelled at us to keep us heading down river and around, instead of over boulders.


It wasn't long before we found out why we learned "Right" - after we hit a huge boulder, rode the left of the raft up onto the top of the boulder, we needed to jump to the right side of the raft to help get it off the boulder - that was fun! But I still couldn't imagine when "Down" would come into play. The picture to the left is the first shot of brother Scott (looking very scared while the rest of us are smiling) breaking one of the rules - always hold onto the top of your paddle.

Running the Rio BalsaMorning Coffee raipid on Rio Balsa

After several exciting rapids we hit a calm stretch of water and a few of us jumped in for a quick swim and a jump off a small cliff. Then Diego got us back in the raft and ready for some more rapids!

white water rafting in Costa RicaFloating the river

On one set of rapids I wondered why my brother Scott, who always seems to break the rules, was shooting a rapid with his paddle in the air - that's a no no and Diego, our guide doesn't look real happy with him!

Rafting in Costa Rica

Here he goes again and this time it looks like he is posing for the camera. And then I saw the Desafio cameraman on shore shooting some pictures of us running the rapids. And shortly after that Scott breaks another rule and lets go of his paddle (a very big no no!) and it looks like he's yelling stop!

Rafting with Desafio in Costa Rica Why is his hand in the air?

The expressions on our faces are great - from wide smiles and open mouths to some looks of terror to sheer determination (complete with tongue out) to keep paddling! And the look is different depending on where we were sitting. And our grandson always had a smile on his face.

Desafio White Water RaftingGrandson having a blastWhite Water Rafting on the Rio Balsa

The cameraman caught Scott, again the guy in the blue, with his paddle out of the water again and the pictures prove that most of the time he wasn't paddling! But he does a good job of posing for the camera. Mel (Scott's wife in green right behind him) always looked a little terrified and during the whole ride Mel's mouth was in various states of screams, yells, and expressions of fear!

White Water Rafting on the Rio BalsaWhite Water Rafting on the Rio Balsa

We were having a blast! Running the rapids, bouncing off rocks, lots of giggles, screams of joy, great scenery, and some synchronized paddling.

White Water Rafting with Desafio

White Water Rafting on the Rio BalsaOn another set of rapids, the cameraman caught that something is wrong - we all have smiles but Diego looks scared or is he just yelling orders at us again - he does seem to be looking directly at Scott! It may have been that while we were laughing and having a great time, he was worried about that huge boulder just in front of us - yep, we landed on top of it because we weren't listening closely to Diego's commands! On top of the boulder we got a "jump left" command! That was followed a few minutes later with "down" and, of course, Scott didn't obey and he got bonked with a tree branch as we skirted along the shore.

About half way down our rafting tour, we stopped on a calm stretch of river and the guides flipped over a raft and cut up fresh watermelon and pineapple into a nice boat shape. It was delicious and was quickly devoured by all of us.

Getting the watermellon and pineapple readyReady to eat

ToucanAfter another dip in the river as we gently rafted through some calm water and Diego pointed out some wildlife including a colorful Toucan. Although we didn't see them, on other raft trips, some of the wildlife that has been spotted included monkeys, sloths, and other tropical birds such as Ospreys, and Oropéndolas.

Poisenous Red Tree FrogMore rapids and then a short stretch of calm water where a couple boats pulled up on the shore with us and the guides jumped off and starting walking through the jungle like they were looking for something. A couple minutes later Diego came back holding a small red tree frog and then told us how poisonous it is! Mel and Susie almost jumped in the water!

After one dunking for four of us, several bounces off rocks including getting stuck on top of a rock, Scott never following rules and maybe not even paddling, my wife yelling at me for not being in sync with her paddling (her strokes are much too short!), Diego losing his voice from yelling commands and yelling at Scott about keeping his paddle in the water, a rapid that drenched all of us and filled the raft with water, and being disappointed about not seeing a monkey, we successfully made it to the take out point with a loud "Costa" and "Punta" and a resounding "Rica" and "Vida."

We made ita thumbs up on rafting with Desafio


At the take out point, we changed into some dry clothes and jumped back on the bus for a short trip to La Casona Río Fortuna which is a famous attraction in the Arenal Volcano area - it was the home of former Costa Rican president Rafael Iglesias and served as the starting point for families colonizing the near-by La Fortuna communities. Here we were served a typical and very tasty Costa Rican meal - rice, beans, fruit, chicken, and some moonshine. While we were eating the guides toasted us with a song and then showed us how sugar cane was distilled and turned into brown sugar. Very interesting.

Our meal the guides singing us a songThe cows distilling sugar cane

What a fun white water rafting trip with Desafio Adventure Company. And our thanks to Diego for navigating us on a outstanding ride down Rio Balsa.

Diego, our Desafio white water rafting guideDesafio Adventures

Return to our Costa Rica Vacation to read more about this fantastic vacation.

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