Where You Should Go White Water Rafting in Costa Rica

White water rafting the Balsa River in Costa Rica

The first time I went river rafting, I was about nine years old. It was in Lake Tahoe, and at that young age, I was more of a raft ornament than a productive paddler.

The first time I went river rafting that I actually remember was in Glacier National Park, Montana. It was one of those moments that you try something for the first time and love it so much you can’t seem to stop grinning with pleasure, wondering “why haven’t I tried this sooner?”

So I could barely contain my excitement for white water river rafting in Costa Rica with my family. After 3 months of traveling solo through Central America, I was excited for an important piece of home to join me for some Costa Rica adventures!

We decided on rafting The Balsa river, containing class II and III rapids.

For the rafting novices, there are 6 classes or levels of river rapids:

  • Class I: Easy - Moving water with small waves that tug at the boat - it's a relaxing way to spend the day. You’ll float down the river without any effort involved.

  • Class II: Novice - Easy rapids, waves up to three feet tall that are readily seen, and wide channels that can be discovered without scouting. Some maneuvering is required.

  • Class III: Intermediate - Waves up to four feet and narrow passages that make the boat oscillate. Plenty of excitement.

  • Class IV: Advanced - Long, difficult rapids, narrow passages and turbulent water that requires precise maneuvering.

  • Class V: Expert - All of the above and then some - large, complex, gushing rapids, twisting, and spinning.

  • Class VI: Extreme - The ultimate extreme, only the most expert should attempt this. Raft trips don't go here.

With it’s Class II and III rapids, rafting the Balsa River near La Fortuna, Costa Rica is more engaging and exciting than it is dangerous!

The beginning of the river rafting adventure starts roughly 45 minutes outside of the town of La Fortuna, famous for the Arenal Volcano.

La Fortuna Arenal volcano | Costa Rica adventures

The company we booked, Wave Expeditions, brought a couple bus loads of people to the start of the river. Our driver told us tidbits to keep us entertained along the way, including fun facts such as a banana is actually an herb, and a pineapple is actually a flower. You're welcome. 

Sapphire & Elm Travel co-founder, stephanie, with our raft captain, Orlando

Sapphire & Elm Travel co-founder, stephanie, with our raft captain, Orlando

Upon arrival, we all pile out of the bus to gear up – helmets, life jackets and paddles. Each group then meets with their assigned raft captain then enter the river to start loading the rafts to begin the adventure.

Grass as tall as giants stood on either side of the river. Thick forests of trees spread as far as the eye could see. Above us there was only soft blue sky.

white water rafting the Balsa River in Costa Rica

Almost immediately upon entering the river we approach rapids, white water crashing onto itself over rocks.  

As my family in this one raft coordinated paddle movements we laughed and screamed with childlike giddy-ness.

We maneuvered through turns, around boulders, and underneath overgrown trees.

It’s such a great mix of exciting white water rapids and scenic floats so you can enjoy the dense Costa Rican forests and wildlife as you move through.

the balsa river | white water rafting in costa rica

Truly a good option for the whole family, we saw many children between age 6 and 10 on the rafts!

We stopped halfway for snacks of refreshing pineapple and watermelon, which the group promptly scarfed down.

snack of fresh fruit on the balsa river | white water rafting costa rica

I mean, is there anything as delicious as fresh fruit in Central & South America?

We went river rafting in April, the end of dry season so the water was low in some spots. It’s to be expected to have larger rapids later in the year, during or at the end rainy season. 

Traveler's Tip: Rainy season in Costa Rica is May to December.

Comparing this to Glacier National Park when we went river rafting in June, at the start on the season. Since Glacier, just having opened the week prior, the snow hadn’t quite melted enough to give us massive rapids.

A major difference between rafting experiences is that even in June in Glacier National Park, Montana you’ll need to wear a dry suit where as in Costa Rica no such thing will be needed! The water isn’t warm per se in April, but refreshing!

Our captain often splashed us to “wake us up” before a set of rapids! Additionally he encouraged us to hop off the front of the raft and “ride it” like a bull – so fun! I’ve never tried that before! He also did a little trick called the washing machine in which we went round and round in a set of rapids, moving in circular motions like a washing machine. So hilarious!

Here I am as a hood ornament! It was Like bull riding - holding on for dear life!

Here I am as a hood ornament! It was Like bull riding - holding on for dear life!

White water rafting on the Balsa River in Costa Rica was a thrilling way to spend an afternoon!

Before you return back into La Fortuna, you’ll stop for lunch at a small organic finca (farm) called Vida Campesina. You will get to try traditional Costa Rican dishes, cooked over an old-fashioned wood-burning stove. The food is absolutely incredible!

lunch on our costa rican adventure of white water rafting

Then they serve coffee produced on the farm, followed by sugar cane lesson and demonstration accompanied with rum shorts for the adults.

costa rica adventures

This tour departs daily at 10:00-10:30 AM and returns at 3:00-3:30 PM.

This tour included transportation to and from your hotel, bilingual certified guides, lunch, snacks, drinks, and towels.

We brought quick-dry clothes, swimsuit, sunscreen, secure shoes, GoPro and a dry bag. This was the first time using this dry bag. Luckily we kept no expensive electronics in it, just some clothing because our stuff was wet when we pulled it out.

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