Costa Rica's TravelWEB

Río Pacuare

The Pacuare (pah KWAH ray) is the quintessential tropical river. Along its course lie several densely vegetated gorges which shelter jaguars, ocelots, monkeys, sloths, and an incredible variety of birds. Also found within these gorges is some of the best whitewater in all of Central America, ranging up to Class V in difficulty. The Pacuare is the only river in Costa Rica which contains these amenities, including virgin rain forest, while also being quite accessible. The lowland tropical forest here is remarkable for its luxuriant variety and the amazing abundance and diversity of wildlife found within it. Other rivers such as the Telire and the Chirripó Atántico can match the attractions of the Pacuare but require either a multi-day carry-in or the services of a helicopter.

There are several access points along the Pacuare other than the ones described below, but we believe these to be the best. Tres Equis is the most convenient since four wheel drive vehicles can drive right to the river bank. The land here is privately owned and the managers currently charge approximately $4 per person for access. The put-in at San Mart╠n, which was formerly known as the oxcart put-in, has changed a lot in recent years. The San Mart╠n road was being improved as this book went to press, so it would be wise to inquire about its status at the offices of any of the outfitters in Turrialba. This upper put-in gives an extra two miles (3.2 km) of good rapids. A third option is to use the ICE access road which approaches the river from Loma Linda, but the drive is longer and the last mile is very steep.

Unfortunately, this tropical utopia is threatened in the long-term by the deforestation that is rampant throughout the tropical rain forests of Latin America and in the very near term by governmental plans to construct a massive hydroelectric dam at Dos Montañas. Costa Rica's national utility, ICE, has formulated plans for a complex set of dams, diversions, reservoirs, and generating facilities to take advantage of the steep gradients and strong flows of the Pacuare and Reventaz█n rivers. The cornerstone of the project is a huge dam on the Pacuare at Dos MontaĎas gorge. This structure would flood the river nearly all the way to the put-in. A second dam further upstream would drown the upper gorges and divert the flow from the stream bed to a point just upstream of the lower reservoir. Between drowning under reservoirs and being dried up by diversions, essentially all of the Pacuare would be lost. This most beautiful of Central American rivers would be destroyed, along with its wildlife, its spectacular waterfalls, its Indian villages, and its stunning scenery in order to produce electricity for as little as 25 years or as long as 50 years, depending on the rate at which the reservoirs fill with sediment. Most of the whitewater of the Reventaz█n would also be lost because of the construction of two diversion dams. The first would remove the water from the stream bed and divert it to a generating station 6 miles (10 km) downstream, where it would immediately be removed again and diverted through a tunnel to a point at the head of the lower Pacuare reservoir. As a result of these diversions, the classic CATIE, Peralta, and Pascua sections would be lost. These two rivers currently account for 90% of all river recreation in Costa Rica.

Efforts to protect the Pacuare and Reventazón from these projects are being coordinated by the R╠os Tropicales Foundation. Several international conservation agencies are also involved. Please support these efforts by contacting the government of Costa Rica and the organizations listed below. To lose these spectacular rivers forever in exchange for a few short decades of electricity and a mountain of debt would be a tremendous tragedy.

The narrow gorge at Dos Montañas is, no doubt, the dam builder's dream. Through this narrow cleft flows a river with a large, dependable flow and the gorge itself provides an ideal dam site. Completion of this project would supply a large number of jobs during construction and a valuable commodity afterwards but invaluable resources would be lost. Efforts to protect the lower gorge of the Pacuare by inclusion as part of Costa Rica's exemplary national park system are moving ahead sluggishly. We desperately hope that either preservationist legislation or economic conditions will force abandonment of this project. Those concerned with preservation of this unique river and the jungle wilderness around it should contact the R╠os Tropicales Foundation:  

Degree of Difficulty: III-IV
87 feet/mile (16.4 m/km)
7.2 miles (11.6 km)
Put-in Elevation:
2525 feet (770 m)
Take-out Elevation:
1900 feet (580 m)
Drainage Area:
142 square miles (367 km2) at take-out
Average Discharge:
1200 cfs (34 cms)
Season: All year:
inaccessible during wet weather


For years, people have speculated about the possibility of paddling the Pacuare upstream from the Class V Bajo Pacuare section. After months of planning, scrutinizing maps, talking to locals, scouting from a low-flying airplane, and an aborted attempt due to flooding, the upper-upper Pacuare was finally run in January 1994. Rafael Gallo, Miti Garc╠a, and Simon Thorpe kayaked the section from Pacuare Arriba to Bajo Pacuare. They found that this uppermost section of the river contains beautiful scenery and excellent whitewater. R╠os Tropicales is now offering extended trips of up to six days on the Pacuare, putting in at Pacuare Arriba. These trips offer an ideal whitewater sampler, with some of the most spectacular virgin rainforest to be found in Central America and some of its most challenging whitewater as well.

The Pacuare Arriba section has an entirely different feel from the two downstream sections. While paddling this section, it is obvious that you are in the Talamanca Mountains. Signs of Indian activity are common and the river typically runs clear and cool. Landslide scars from the 1991 earthquake are still evident and debris slides caused by heavy rains in 1993 and early 1994 are common.

The most difficult aspect of paddling this section of the Pacuare is in getting equipment to the river. The dirt road from Jicotea to R╠o Vereh is in good shape for the first two miles, but landslides have damaged much of the road beyond that point. The distance from the turn-off to R╠o Vereh is 4 mi. (6.6 km), then the trail from R╠o Vereh to Pacuare Arriba is another 2.6 miles (4.2 km). Depending on weather conditions, it might be necessary to carry boats and equipment for up to four miles (6.6 km). It is possible to hire horses from a farm at R╠o Vereh, but advance arrangements are necessary.

Throughout this section of the Pacuare, the gradient is fairly steep but the rapids are only moderately difficult at reasonably low water levels. There are no long pools or sections of flat water; neither are there excessively steep sections. All of the rapids can be boat scouted at moderate water levels, but at higher water levels, the run gets pushy and big holes develop in the blind drops.

For the first 2.8 miles (4.5 km) below Pacuare Arriba, the river drops at a rate of 58 feet per mile (11 m/km). The steepest section of the run begins at that point, with the gradient increasing to 131 feet per mile (25 m/km) for half a mile (.8 km). Even in this steep section, none of the individual drops is especially difficult, but several are in the low to moderate Class IV range.

The Pacuare contains considerably more difficult rapids in the section from Bajo Pacuare to Tres Equis. Paddlers who are not comfortable in Class V rapids should take out at the end of this section. Those wishing to run the two sections back to back will probably need to have a shuttle vehicle meet them at Bajo Pacuare in order to stock up on food supplies and avoid carrying camping gear down the difficult gorge sections.  

Degree of Difficulty: V
Gradient: 68 feet/mile (3 @ 94 feet/mile) (12.9 m/km)
Length: 15 miles (24 km)
Put-in Elevation: 1900 feet (580 m)
Take-out Elevation: 886 feet (270 m)
Drainage Area: 142 square miles (367 km2) at put-in
Average Discharge: 1200 cfs (34 cms)
Season: All year

This section of the Pacuare is one of the world's great whitewater treasures. Until recently, its length, difficulty, and isolation precluded all but a few of the most determined and skilled paddlers from attempting it. Boating on the upper Pacuare has become increasingly common in recent years. From 1980 until 1991, most of the people running the upper Pacuare were visitors from the States and there were few opportunities for them to catch the river at the right level. Guides living in Turrialba have been running the river regularly since 1991 and commercial trips are now offered by R╠os Tropicales to experienced paddlers. This amazing stretch of water is now accessible to people who have previously run rivers such as the lower Reventazón.

This section is typically run as a day trip, although fifteen miles (24 km) of paddling on water of such difficulty, with several possible portages, makes for a very arduous single day descent. Carrying camping gear in boats makes this Class V run all the more difficult. In addition, the standard take-out at Tres Equis is over two miles (3.2 km) from the highway, with a steep rutted road being the only means of egress. An excellent option is, of course, to continue downstream through the scenic lower canyons. The difficulty lies in carrying sufficient gear for a 2- or 3-day trip in a boat while negotiating the extremely difficult rapids of the upper section. An excellent option is to arrange for raft support from Tres Equis to Siqu╠rres. Another way to ease the difficulty of a long day on the river is to use the town of Bajo Pacuare #2 (also known as San Joaqu╠n), thus avoiding most of the flatwater and cutting six miles (9.5 km) from the trip.

The river gage at Bajo Pacuare is used to judge water levels for the upper canyons of the Pacuare. The river has been run at levels above 2.0 meters, but levels above 1.7 meters produce very pushy rapids in the critical sections of the river, especially in the Bobo Falls area and at Minefield. Local boaters consider a flow level of 1.5 meters to be ideal, although the river is run as low as 0.8 meters; below 1.3 meters, the run is primarily Class IV-IV+.

Almost all of the difficult rapids in this section occur in a congested section near the put-in and within two canyons which are separated by more open sections where the canyon walls are not as steep or confining. If difficulties should arise, it would be best to continue downstream or return upstream to one of the open areas to hike out on the left bank (there are only a few isolated farms for 100 miles (161 km) from river right). One could easily depart on foot from San Joaquin, six miles (9.5 km) downstream from the put-in, or with greater difficulty at any one of several small clusters of houses. There are several small bridges across the river; in all cases, exit left. A steep fishermen's trail exits the canyon from river left at Bobo Falls.

The rapids of the upper Pacuare are susceptible to rapid change, perhaps more so than those of other rivers in Costa Rica. Log jams are especially common here, so use all possible caution in running this river. Preliminary work on an upper dam in Bobo Falls canyon threatens to loose logs and debris. The earthquake of April 1991 impacted the river substantially and frequent floods tend to rearrange even the larger rapids. Because of this frequent change, steep gradient, and isolation, attempts to run the upper Pacuare should be made with all possible preparation and precautions.

The upper and lower Pacuare were first run by the Polish Canoandes expedition in 1980. Led by Piotr Chmielinski, the group paddled the difficult upper gorges during the high water month of September, making this among the most difficult rivers that the expedition attempted.

Michael Shulte, a river ranger on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, led two other kayakers on the next descent of the upper Pacuare in 1983. They portaged three rapids that were described as Class V-VI and named several of the rapids in the gorge. The third trip down this section was inadvertent. A group of rafters from the U.S. put in at Bajo Pacuare, thinking that this was the correct launch site for the main Pacuare run. Fortunately, the group consisted of experienced rafters who had the sense to scout whenever the river became difficult and to portage several of the more difficult drops.

Whitewater photographer Tom Stults, Fernando Castañeda, and Rafael Gallo were the next group to attempt this section of the Pacuare, relying on Michael Shulte's detailed river notes. The group managed to run several drops that had previously been portaged and obtained photographs of this remarkable river. With increasing numbers of hard boaters based in Turrialba, the upper Pacuare is being paddled more often than ever before.

Below the put-in at Bajo Pacuare, the river flows through open fields where small farms reach to the river's edge. Small houses line the river and fishermen are often seen along the banks. The first big rapid, known as Squeezeplay, appears after three and one-half miles (6 km). This Class V rapid may require a portage, although it is commonly run. Several moderately difficult rapids follow Squeezeplay before the river flattens above San Joaquin. The river opens up somewhat after approximately five miles (8 km), then the rapids are fairly easy until the small village appears on the left.

The first major rapid below San Joaquin is called Moving Log Rapid because it regularly traps debris, making a difficult rapid even more dangerous. If you choose to run it, start left, then work hard to the right to avoid the center log-jam slot, but watch out for the large hole at the bottom. Ciao's Curve (a.k.a The Thing) is up next, featuring a river wide hole that has flipped at least half of all of the rafts that have attempted it. Hard boats can sneak through the rocks on the right.

The river soon narrows down appreciably and enters the first of two canyons, producing the largest drops on the upper Pacuare. A long Class IV+ rapid signals the beginning of the Bobo Falls section. The next rapid, known as The Rapid Above (above Hydraulic Blood), is a tough one. Most boaters start left, move to the right of a large hole in the center rock, then hit the curler at the bottom ledge. The curler will throw you into the right hand wall, but that beats getting pummeled by the deep hole that stretches across the rest of the river.

Hydraulic Blood (or Twist and Shout), follows immediately. It consists of a long, difficult sequence of ledges and boulders. Scout from the left. Hydraulic Blood is intimidating by itself, but the real screw-up factor is provided by Jumping Bobo Falls, which lies at the foot of the rapid. The rapid would be only marginally runnable without the waterfall at its end; most parties portage the entire stretch. The falls are named for the bobo fish, which migrate upstream to reproduce. The ten-foot (3 m) falls are a major obstacle to their migration, and they can often be seen making spectacular leaps to clear the cataract. The water at the top of Bobo Falls is especially squirrelly, but cresting the falls without a lot of momentum will guarantee a swim in the hydraulic at the base.

Earl Alderson accomplished the first "successful" run of the falls in 1984. He managed to find a clean line over the edge, using a powerful stroke to clear the drop, only to be endured and severely thrashed in the reversal at the bottom. Channel altering floods have opened up a boot/slide route on the right side of the falls that is being run regularly, but the approach should not be taken lightly. An inadvertent sideways drop down the left would be traumatic.

Below the Bobo Falls gorge, the Pacuare opens up for a brief respite before entering a second narrow section. The second "gorge" is not as steep-walled or well-defined as the first, but it contains more rapids than the upper (Bobo Falls) gorge. The rapids are long, congested, and challenging. The named drops are Minefield, The Slide, and Voyager's Vortex. At water levels above 1.7 meters, the Minefield is the pushiest rapid on the river.

Degree of Difficulty: III(IV)
48 feet per mile (10.9 m/km)
14.3 miles (23 km)
Put-in Elevation:
886' (270 m)
Take-out Elevation:
195' (20 m)
Drainage Area:
254 square miles (650 km2) at take-out
Average Discharge:
2100 cfs (60 cms)
All year


It is not difficult to paddle the entire lower Pacuare in a day, but overnight trips are much more relaxed. With a two-day trip it is possible to hike up two or three side canyons; a three day trip allows time to explore the jungle by way of the numerous trails that have been used by the local Indians and Campesinos for years. The low beaches are not good places to camp because the river often rises dramatically at night. Most of the prime camping spots above the inner gorge are privately owned. There is a privately owned campground that caters to private groups at the cable crossing approximately 3 miles (5 km) below Tres Equis.

One of the most memorable aspects of the Pacuare trip has always been the put-in. For several years, one outfitter used the original river access plan, wherein local campesinos shuttle rafts, kayaks, equipment, and food down a dirt path on an oxcart. The road to the river is was wiped out by a flood, so the oxcart method of transport was been abandoned. Although the old road/trail through San Mart╠n has recently been regraded and improved, most trips now begin at a drive-in access point two miles downstream.

From the put-in to the beginning of the inner gorge, the river drops through numerous Class II-III boulder gardens and simple drops as it becomes sequestered in the ever more verdant rain forest. Among the more interesting residents of the lowland forest are ocelots and jaguars. The big cats are rarely seen, but somehow you just know that they are watching you warily from the dark shadows of the enclosing jungle.

Many parties camp at a riverside farm on a low terrace three miles (5 km) below the put-in. This camp is now leased by one of the commercial outfitters, so private boaters will have to find another spot. Hundreds of parakeets living in a huge tree in the midst of the clearing provide entertainment but grazing cattle tend to be a nuisance. Several smaller camps offer equivalent amenities, including trails through the verdant jungle and easy access to nearby waterfalls.

Just beyond the established camps of the commercial rafting companies, the river is pinched to one-half its former width by steep rock walls; it is here that the intriguing inner gorge begins. During the rainy season, there are no acceptable campsites beyond this point. One mile after entering the gorge, Terciopelo (velvet, or Fer-de-Lance) Creek cascades in from river left. Take the time for a hike up its canyon, where numerous waterfalls and plunge pools await the adventurous. Approximately six-tenths of a mile (1 km) downstream from Terciopelo Creek, a small tributary cascades into the river from the right. This stream, known as Quebrada Fria, has some of the best waterfalls in the Pacuare gorge. The hike up its narrow gorge is truly spectacular, but ropes are needed to ascend a large sloping waterfall. Above this is a series of dramatic waterfalls, slides, and plunge pools.

Immediately below Quebrada Fria is Double Drop rapid. The lower drop is the larger of the two and tends to develop a large hole at high water. The next rapid is Upper Huacas, a Class III+ drop through a congested boulder garden. It presents no real difficulties for kayaks but rafts must maneuver carefully at the top to avoid boulder pins. At moderately high water levels, a particularly tenacious hole develops at the base of the rapid. It is known as Traitor Hole, and even expert kayakers have been forced to swim out of it. The sneak route is found on the left, just past the large boulder.

Just beyond the end of Upper Huacas, a most incredible sight appears: a tributary stream plunges over a 150' (45 m) free-fall directly into the Pacuare. Above the main drop, the small stream recedes from sight in a series of small waterfalls encased in slickrock walls. The sight of Huacas Falls alone is worth a trip to Costa Rica. Another 200 yards (180 m) downstream, the lower Pacuare produces its toughest rapid: Lower Huacas. At moderate to high water levels, this 150-yard (135 m) stretch of ledges and boulders is a solid Class IV rapid. Lower Huacas can be scouted or portaged on the right.

Beyond lower Huacas are several class III rapids but none of difficulty comparable to lower Huacas. Three of these are virtual pinball courses for rafts. The canyon opens up gradually after another two miles (3.2 km) and rapids become easier and more widely spaced, with one exception. Cimarr█n rapid is a steep boulder garden through which the river disperses into multiple channels. Kayaks can negotiate the rapid with relative ease, but rafts have a very difficult time of it, for frequent changes of course are required to avoid wrapping on one of the numerous boulders. Below Cimarrón is the Can Opener, which at times has harbored an ugly strainer.

At a deep pool in the river some five miles (8 km) past Lower Huacas, a sandy beach appears on the right. A short hike up the trail from the beach reveals a small Indian village of grass huts and small gardens. These indigenous people are true subsistence farmers. All of their food is grown in their fields, gathered in the forest, or caught from the river itself. The huts are made entirely from the wood and leaves of the Cola de Gallo palm, one of the few woods that resist the rapid decay brought on by the perennial warm, moist conditions of the Atlantic lowlands.

The river is littered with dark remnants of young basaltic lava flows in the stretch beyond the Indian village. Fantastic geometric forms speak of the forces of contraction during cooling and subsequent weathering that have altered these stone monoliths. As the river's gradient decreases and the valley becomes wider, more and more traces of man are seen: larger fields of crops and occasional huts are encountered. The river has one last set of wonders to awe the newcomer to this land, however: Dos Montañas, the rapid and the canyon. The rapid changes with every flood, so a detailed description cannot be given. The right side is usually the preferred route, but there are large boulders which make powerful pour-overs at high water. One hundred yards (90 m) downstream stands the river's last spectacle: the deep cleft known as Dos Montañas gorge. As the name suggests, two mountains pinch the river into a narrow defile. The mighty Pacuare has done its work effectively, however. It has cut cleanly through the obstacle, leaving no rapids in the gorge. The Pacuare runs in eerie silence through the rock walled gorge as if to evade by secrecy the fate designed for it by the hydroelectric engineers.

Preliminary work on the dam site has commenced. Construction crews cleared all vegetation from the canyon wall, then drilled, blasted, and graded extensively in the canyon area. Construction of the Dos Montañas dam is scheduled to commence in 1998. Unless the government of Costa Rica is convinced that the project should be abandoned, one of the world's premier whitewater rivers will be silenced by the concrete tomb to be built here. A related project has already begun which will divert the polluted waters of the Reventaz█n into the Pacuare just below Tres Equis. When the diversion is completed, flows will be increased to the point that the river will be too high to paddle for most of the year.

All that remains now is an anticlimactic Class II-III paddle of two and a half miles (4 km) to the take-out under the Lim█n-San Jos╚ highway bridge. Far from being boring, however, this section opens up new vistas of tropical agriculture and distant mountains. As adrenaline levels recede and weariness settles in, one finally has the opportunity to reflect on the scenic wonders of the Pacuare River and the dam that may soon destroy them all.

The Pacuare was first paddled by the Polish Canoandes expedition in 1980. The participants included Piotr Chmielinski, Jerzy Majcherczyk, Zbigniew Bzdak, Jacek Boguki, Andrzej Pietowski, and Jarostaw Samsel.

Evacuations from the Pacuare are especially difficult because there are few access points and much of the river is surrounded by dense jungle. Before entering the gorge, there are several roads leading out from river left. A trail following Terciopelo Creek leads to a road, which leads to Santa Marta. Beyond Terciopelo Creek, the recommended way to evacuate is by river to the ICE construction road at Dos Montañas or the bridge at Siquirres.

The table below indicates discharge values corresponding to various gage readings from the gage station at Dos Montañas. Unfortunately, there is no convenient gage for streamflow determination at the put-in. Minimum discharge levels for a raft trip down the gorge are in the 800-1000 cfs (22-28 cms) range but kayak and canoe trips at lower levels are quite enjoyable. As the accompanying hydrograph indicates, substantial flows are almost always available from June until December, and occasional flows of above 1000 cfs (28 cms) occur frequently even during the dry season.

Trips during January, February, and March do not provide the whitewater thrills of the wet season, but the exquisite scenery, abundant wildlife, and clear water more than compensate for the loss of action. Excessive water levels occasionally interfere with paddling, primarily during the month of October. A reasonable upper limit would be approximately 6000 cfs (170 cms), although the river has been run as high as 12,000 cfs (350 cms, or 3.2 on the Dos Montañas guage).


San Mart╠n to Siquirres (18 miles) A trip of pure magic, unsurpassed beauty, exuberant wildlife and spectacular rapids. A quintessential tropical river -- its densely vegetated gorges shelter jaguars, ocelots, monkeys, sloths and an incredible variety of birds and butterflies. Also found within these gorges is some of the best whitewater in the world. Two day and three day trips also available. Your stay at our rustic lodge will be unforgettable.



Early morning pick you up at your hotel (Exact pick up time is given at the time of the reservation). After a 2 1/2 hour drive, past several picturesque valleys we arrive at our put in point. Here our guides will help load your gear into dry bags, prepare the equipment raft and undergo a precise safety and paddle talk.
This first day provide an amazing welcome to the Pacuare gorge its rapids and beauty. Depending on water levels our arrival at Rios Tropicales Lodge will come as a surprise.
You can spend the afternoon relaxing, hiking, soaking in waterfalls or simply wondering around. Our Lodge, "Cabecar Indians Style" bungalows, offers all the sleeping comforts you need. Enough energy is created by our own self-sufficient hydro plant. (B,L,D)

Don't worry about wake up time, the beauty of the light through the forestt, the sound of the toucans and the smell of coffee will get you going.
After loading our gear-boats, prepare to paddle through the spectacular gorge of Rio Pacuare with amazing rapids, waterfalls, bird-life, butterflies and more.
Lunch is served along the river. You will never forget rapids like: Upper and Lower Huacas, Cimarron, Dos Montanas and many more. At our private take-out bathrooms, changing rooms, cold drinks and bocas are available. Drive back to San Jose or continue enjoying Costa Rica's Caribbean. (B,L)



Early morning pick you up at your hotel (Exact pick up time is given at the time of the reservation). After a 2 1/2 hour drive, past several picturesque valleys we arrive at our put in point. Here our guides will help load your gear into dry bags, prepare the equipment raft and undergo a precise safety and paddle talk.
This first day provide an amazing welcome to the Pacuare gorge its rapids and beauty. Depending on water levels our arrival at Rios Tropicales Lodge will come as a surprise.
You can spend the afternoon relaxing, hiking, soaking in waterfalls or simply wondering around. Our Lodge, "Cabecar Indians Style" bungalows, offers all the sleeping comforts you need. Enough energy is created by our own self-sufficient hydro plant. (B,L,D)

This day is designed to remain at the lodge and enjoy its beautiful surroundings. If good long rainforest hiking is what you want, our expert trail guides will plan a 5 hour hike into Garcias' Indian Village. Experience the side of the Pacuare few people know! Overnight at our Lodge. (B,L,D)

Don't worry about wake up time, the beauty of the light through the forest, the sound of the toucans and the smell of coffee will get you going.
After loading our gear-boats, prepare to paddle through the spectacular gorge of Rio Pacuare with amazing rapids, waterfalls, bird-life, butterflies and more.
Lunch is served along the river. You will never forget rapids like: Upper and Lower Huacas, Cimarron, Dos Montanas and many more. At our private take-out bathrooms, changing rooms, cold drinks and bocas are available. Drive back to San Jose or continue enjoying Costa Rica's Caribbean. (B,L)


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