Best Rivers in Costa Rica
The best rivers in Costa Rica are arguably the most beautiful in Central America. In fact, the rivers in Costa Rica are also among the most beautiful rivers in the Americas. Costa Rica’s rivers, in fact, are in the conversation for most beautiful in the world. What qualifies as the “most beautiful” is debatable.
What is not is the fact that, for a country its size, Costa Rica has a tremendous number of rivers. And, Costa Rica has one more element that is critical with respect to great rafting rivers, big mountains and lots of them!
The heart of Costa Rica’s rafting revolves around Cerro Chirripó. All of Costa Rica’s best rivers spill off Cerro Chirripó. The Pacuare River spills of the northeastern side of Chirripó, Central America’s second highest peak.
The waters that spill of the western slope of Chirripó constitute the Rio Naranjo and the Rio Savegre. The water that runs down the northern slope of Chirripó become the Pejivalle River. And, the Chirripó Atlántico — the single best river in all of Costa Rica and still a hidden gem that is extremely difficult to access and manage logistically — runs off the eastern slope of Chirripó.
All five rivers have remarkable scenery, thrilling whitewater, and the Pacuare, Savegre, Naranjo, Pejivalle, and Chirripó Atlantico are all currently dam-free.
There are several other rivers in Costa Rica it is a mistake to overlook as well. They include the Sarapaqui, the General, and the Rio Toro.
But, while there are outstanding rivers all over Costa Rica, those running out of La Amistad International Reserve are the best rivers in Costa Rica. And, they are found in the most concentrated area.
Costa Rica’s Rivers Off Chirripó
Cerro Chirripó is on the continental divide. As such, three of its biggest rivers spill into the Caribbean Sea: the Pacuare, the Pejivalle, and the Chirripó Atlantico. The Rio Naranjo and Savegre, on the other hand, feed into the Pacific Ocean south of Quepos/Manuel Antonio.
Only the Rio Pejivalle does not make the entire run from the peak of Cerro Chirripó to the sea. Just east of the town of Pejivalle, the river feeds into the Reventazon River, one of the largest rivers in Costa Rica.
The Pacuare River is the most famous river in Costa Rica. Again, on the east side of Cerro Chirripó begin its headwaters. One of the country’s largest rivers by volume, the Pacuare also travels a greater distance to the Caribbean than other river in Costa Rica. That includes the Chirripó Atlantico and the Rio Reventazon.
And, the Pacuare River is the most commercially run river in the country. There are people who not only argue that the Pacuare River is one of the best rivers in Costa Rica, but that it is on the short list of the best rivers in the world.
There are three whitewater sections on the Pacuare river.
Upper and Upper-Upper Pacuare
The Upper and Upper-Upper Pacuare sections are class IV+ and V. Though they were in the past, the Upper and Upper-Upper are hardly ever run commercially anymore. The only commercial trips on the two upper sections of the Pacuare are kayak trips.
The lower Pacuare is the section most often run by commercial rafting companies. While it is still a formadble class III+, the two upper sections are considerably more challenging, though lower volume.
The lower Pacuare at low water is almost exclusively class III section with one, maybe two, class IV rapids. No matter what the water level, Lower Huacas is always class IV. The entrance of Lower Huacas is the crux and almost never changes. At times, depending on the year — as there is no dam, the river changes constantly — both Cimmarrones and Dos Montanas can be class IV as well. Rarely, but on some years, Upper Huacas is class IV as well. Upper Huacus, though not as technical as Lower Huacas, it is considerably longer. Other rapids of note on the Pacuare include Bienvenidos, Double Drop, Pin Ball, and Indio.
At high water, however, the entire river becomes class IV with several class V rapids. At high water, only kayakers and raft teams should be running the Pacuare.
In total, there are more than ten miles worth of rapids on the Pacuare. There is never more than a couple hundred yards between rapids on the Pacuare.
The Pejivalle River begins on the north side of Cerro Chirripó. It travels for more than 30 miles before finally spilling out of the forests of La Amistad above a small community named Taus. A tributary of the Reventazon River, the Pejivalle is a small volume, class III river at low water.
The four mile stretch from Taus down through the town of Pejivalle and out to the flats near Ouray is the section run commercially. At high water, the Pejivalle is more dangerous than a high-water Pacuare because of its hard curves and steep gradient.
But, at medium to medium high levels, the Pejivalle may be the most fun of any of the Cerro Chirripó rivers.
Río Chirripó Atlántico
The Río Chirripó Atlántico is the heart of Costa Rica. Almost exclusively run by kayakers, the Río Chirripó Atlántico is a class IV/V river. Without question, the Chirripó Atlántico is also Costa Rica’s most beautiful river. With no road access, the Chirripó Atlántico runs through virgin forest. The water of the Chirripó Atlántico is the bluest of blue.
The Chirripó Atlántico is comperable to the Pacuare in volume. Big water by Costa Rican standards, it typically runs around 800 cfs but can get as high as 3,ooo or 4,000.
If not the best, it is certainly one of the top two or three best rivers in Costa Rica. With respect to water quality, scenery, remoteness and sheer beauty, the Chirripó Atlántico exemplafies Costa Rica.
A low volume river similar the the Pejivalle, the Savegre has bigger drops. A riot in an 8 or 9-foot raft, the Savegre spills off the west side of the Cerro Chirripó as does its sister river the Naranjo. The forest around the Savegre is as visually stunning as the river is exciting to run.
The Naranjo is the Savegre on steriods. Steep, narrow, and chocked with big drops, the Naranjo is the Chirripó Atlántico minituraized. Run commerially at low to medium levels, of all the rivers worth running in Costa Rica, the Naranjo should be on everyone’s list!
Without question, the Rio Naranjo is one of the best rivers in Costa Rica!
Costa Rica’s Rivers Near Arenal
The rivers near Arenal are neither as challenging as the rivers that run out of La Amistad International reserve nor as large. Still, the rivers around Arenal are some of the best rafting rivers in Costa Rica. If you are interested in the scenery as much as the whitewater, the Rio Sarapiqui, Rio Balsa, and Rio Toro are more than worth the trip. And, since the logistics of these rivers are more straight forward than those around Turrialba and Quepos, it is easy to mix in a second activity on the same day including zip lining, rapelling/canyoning, horseback riding or four-wheeling.
The Sarapiqui River near the town of Sarapiqui is medium volume and has a few good drops. It is primarily class II and III. If you are interested in a mellow float through the lowlands of Costa Rica’s Caribbean side, the Sarapiqui is an excellent river for doing just that. It is also a great river to learn how to kayak or ducky on because every drop is followed by a long flat section. So, if you swim, you’re relatively safe.
While the Sarapiqui is not as clean as the rivers that run out of La Amistad, it is hardly polluted either. The Sarapiqui is ideal for taking younger kids and people with disabilities or family members that are older, but that still love to get outside for some action!
The Toro River near Arenal/La Fortuna is the most beautiful and exciting river in the northern half of the country. In addition to having several sections to run, it is relatively high volume for a Costa Rican river. There is both a class II/III section as well as a section that is class III/IV. And, the Rio Toro is clean. Because it comes right out of the mountains, there is not a great deal of agriculture nor resideneces that muddy it up.
Less than an hour’s shuttle from the center of La Fortuna, it is easy to run the Rio Toro in the afternoon after a morning activity. Along with Turriabla, Quepos, and Sarapiqui, La Fortuna is one of the four major raftig areas in the country. And, with the exception of Quepos, La Fortuna offers more recreation and outdoor activity tours than any other place in Costa Rica!
The Balsa River, also near Arenal, is a smaller version of the Rio Toro. Though it has less volume, it too is a very exciting river. If you are able to catch the Rio Balsa with some water in it, it can be the best run in the area. Much like the Pejivalle River near Turrialba, the Balsa can come up quickly and drops just as fast. While it’s not easy to hit the sweet spot with respect to volume, it’s always a great run, even at low water. Part of the reason why, the the Rio Balsa travels through some wonderfully beautiful areas.