Rafting Costa Rica’s Pacuare River to a Luxury Eco Lodge

Costa Rica's Pacuare River is one of the world's most beautiful rafting rivers

Rafting Costa Rica’s Pacuare River to stay at the eco-sensitive Pacuare Lodge is a perfect experience for those of you who like to combine your serious adventures with luxurious landings.

Costa Rica is a gutsy little Central American democracy that has capitalized on its ecological riches. A quarter of its landmass  is classified as national park or biosphere reserve, and its many eco lodges help showcase the country’s natural beauty.

Costa Rica’s all purpose saying: This is living…cool! pure life!

“Pura Vida!” shouts our barrel-chested guide Luis Achoy after we bounce through a set of boiling rapids on the Pacuare River. We all raise our paddles high above the churning, café-latte-colored water and echo his cheer with the best exclamation ever invented, “Pura Vida!” a Costa Rican all-purpose phrase that means “this is living…cool…pure life.”

We have certainly found Pura Vida and it’s not just the adrenalin rush. Sure there is the novelty factor of our self-powered way of accessing the raft-in, raft-out Pacuare Lodge smack in the middle of a tropical wilderness. But it is also the luxuries we enjoy while there, like sleeping on a sumptuous mattress on a bamboo four-poster bed, bathing in an outdoor shower as giant iridescent blue Morpho butterflies flit from flower to flower, and washing down local organic goats’ cheese rolls with a fine Chilean red in the airy restaurant, serenaded by the rushing river below. It is easy to see why the Pacuare Lodge has been named by National Geographic Traveler as one of the world’s top 25 eco lodges.

The Pacuare River is one of the world's most beautiful rafting rivers

Rafting beside a waterfall on the Pacuare River

The Pacuare River: one of the world’s most beautiful rivers

The Pacuare River has also been described by National Geographic as “one of the most beautiful rivers in the world.”  It is the last great waterway in Costa Rica, running unrestricted from the pristine Talamanca Mountains 180 kilometers to the Caribbean Sea. It is considered by rafting and kayaking experts to be one of the world’s best white-water rivers, yet it also offers great adventures for everyday fit folk because of its fabulous cadre of professional guides who ensure the highest safety standards.

How to get to the Pacuare River from San Jose

Our family of five is pumped at 6:30am when the minibus picks us up at our downtown hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, for the 2 1/2-hour drive to the put-in place. It is pouring.  I mean bucketing, sloshing down fog-shrouded mountain passes, washing over the highway. And this is supposedly the dry season. Our ebullient guide, Alex Artavia, is unfazed….until we get to the Adventures Naturales rafting base to find out that the river is in flood and simply not safe enough to raft.

Now the only way to get to Pacuare Lodge, which, of course, has no road access, is to slip-slide down a muddy, pot-holed goat path in a four-wheel drive, and be pulleyed across the raging torrent in a sort of tropical gondola cage strung from a high-tensile wire. On the other side, general manager Willmann Solano leads us along a path lined with hot-pink heliconias.  At the soaring two-story, palm-thatched main lodge he explains, “This is the social hub of Pacuare.”  Downstairs, dining tables and chairs sprawl out onto the expansive deck whilst upstairs is a comfortable lounge and bar where nibbles and drinks are served around 5pm.  “The rest of the time, feel free to relax here like one of our native sloths,” he laughs and that is exactly what my husband decides to do.

Ziplining, hiking and other adventures are also available at Pacuare Lodge

Ziplining, hiking and other adventures are also available at Pacuare Lodge

My daughters and I have other adventures in mind and we are soon rigged with harnesses ready to try the zip-line course that spans across the 300 hectare property, which will protect the rainforest in perpetuity. The diminutive Alex peppily gives instructions and doesn’t for a moment let us think the whole prospect might be a little scary.  Luis, with his reassuring “Ahaaa” and his massive bear hug, is just what I need to swing myself beside Tarzan-like vines across jungle-covered valleys 80 meters above banana and palm trees.  When I stop shaking, I even manage to admire the mists swirling around the lime-green canopy.


Pacuare Lodge: Sustainable tourism and luxury trappings

At dusk, my husband and I retire to our splendid Linda Vista (beautiful view) suite, an expansive understated haven of polished teak floors, comfy chairs, and four-poster bed swathed in romantic netting. On the large deck, we cool off in the volcanic-rock plunge pool and lie in a large hammock to search for macaws (“pacuare” means baby macaw in the Cabecar Indian dialect) and chestnut-mandibled toucans brazenly bright against the jungle green. I take a long bath in the claw-footed tub as daylight slowly drains from the sky and we light candles in the lanterns carefully placed around the suite.

Wandering down to the main lodge, now twinkling with hundreds of candles, we enjoy a feast of local squash soup, tilapia fish with macadamia and mango salsa and delectable fried yuca (cassava), and for dessert,  organic chocolate pie with vanilla ice-cream, all served by the multi-tasking, fun-loving guides.

All the furniture at Pacaure Lodge was handmade from sustainable materials

A luxurious four-poster bed in the Linda Vista suite at Pacuare Lodge

So harmonious is the blending of sustainable tourism and luxury trappings that Pacuare Lodge effortlessly offers a guilt-free and wildly appealing holiday experience, which is exactly what owner and former local river guide, Roberto Fernandez, intends. “My goal was to create a place where people could enjoy nature while respecting and protecting the environment. From day one, I’ve tried to have a positive impact on the lodge’s surroundings and neighbors while providing guests with an educational, exciting and sublimely natural experience.”

So our showers are solar powered, lighting is by candles and back-up power for the kitchen and office is provided by a small hydro-generated turbine. All the staff are local; organic waste is composted and all other materials are taken out by raft and recycled; and the guides run an expansive education program in eight local schools. “It is vital to educate the kids because they will help change the habits of their parents, many of whom cut down the rainforest and poached the wild animals,” says manager Willmann.

Rafting the Pacuare rapids

The sound of rushing water lulls us to sleep and we wake to brilliant sunshine and the guides pumped to take us down the river.  Inflatable blue rafts are prepared, helmets and life-jackets donned and a safety scout kayaker in a nifty midget kayak takes off downstream. I am thrilled that Luis is our guide.  The river may still be high but it will be no match for the powerful Luis, who has guided on the Pacuare for 20 years.

He gives us three simple commands…forward, back, down… and with that we set off to tackle more than 20 Class III and IV rapids that charge between hulking volcanic boulders. And charge so furiously that we have photos (a kayaking photographer provides action shots that you can buy on CD) where Luis is completely hidden underneath a wall of water but is still ruddering the boat against almost certain destruction.  Others have half of us pummeling the air because our boat is careening high above the waves.  All have us grinning so widely that our mouths hurt for days.

And in the quiet stretches we swim in deep emerald water and gaze up mossy canyon walls where waterfalls plunge and oriels hang from upside-down nests in the tangle of the jungle.  Pura Vida indeed.

This is the sort of adventure I love because it combines adventure, nature, family-friendly activities, great food and wine and a touch of luxury. I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions for other similar adventures.



The grade 4 and 5 Pacuare River delivers an adrenalin rush in Costa Rica

Pura Vida on the Pacuare River



Rafting Costa Rica’s Pacuare River to a Luxury Eco Lodge

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Rafting Costa Rica’s Pacuare River to a Luxury Eco Lodge 9.999728, -83.543279 Rafting Costa Rica’s Pacuare River to a Luxury Eco Lodge



Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

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