The pandemic has hit home for river runners—especially those who love paddling Costa Rica’s beloved Pacuare River.
Ríos Tropicales, a pioneer on the Pacuare and for rafting in Costa Rica in general, recently announced it is shutting down its operations as a result of the pandemic, after 35 years of operating.
“For 35 years, Rios Tropicales has led Costa Rica adventure travel and ecotourism,” says owner and founder Rafael Gallo. “We pioneered whitewater rafting in Costa Rica, advanced sustainability standards, and even saved the Pacuare River from a hydroelectric dam. It is with a heavy heart, we regret to inform you that due to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, we are permanently closing Rios Tropicales. This past year of major transition across the world and for us at home has prevented us from continuing our adventure travel goals.”
The co-founder of the International Rafting Federation (IRF), Gallo is rightly considered the grandfather of rafting in Costa Rica, bringing the highest river safety standards and guide training to Costa Rica and worldwide. Under his direction, Costa Rica has hosted four international rafting events – the Project RAFT Rainforest Festival in 1991, the Camel Challenge and first IRF World Rafting Championship in 1998, the 2011 IRF World Rafting Championship, and the first World Whitewater Rafting Summit in 2019.
Gallo is handing the reins of the company to trusted and longtime former Rios Tropicales guides, who are forming their own completely new and independent rafting company to keep fulfilling the dreams of Costa Rica whitewater rafting fans. The new company, Rios Adventure Travel, is founded by Johnny, Roy, Albert, Walter, and David Obando, five brothers who grew up in the Rios Tropicales family and helped Gallo reforest their family’s farm in 1990 to build the Rios Tropicales Lodge alongside the river. “They have spent their entire lives on and in the Pacuare, and their mother, Doña Dina, managed the lodge,” says Gallo. “For decades, they’ve been my top rafting guides and managers. They’re energetic and eager to continue our traditions of impeccable safety, exhilarating adventures, and exemplary customer service in their new company, Rios Adventure Travel. I’m certain they will continue to uphold our core values and beliefs in their own business.”
Reservations will be handled by longtime Rios Tropicales sales director Ana Patricia Quesada, who is forming her own company – Tropical Rivers and Adventure Tours.
Tough Economic Times
Gallo told Costa Rica’s leading newspaper, “La Nación,” that it was difficult to maintain the operation, since they went from serving 1,500 people rafting per month, to none. Gallo said they tried to keep the company operational, but it was not possible due to the lengthening of the pandemic and the delay in reactivating the tourism sector.
“It was difficult to make the decision and all that it entails, after being for many years at the service of good tourism; but it is a reality,” he says. “The pandemic has lasted longer than expected; we employed more than 40 people, and it was difficult to keep our assets protected.”
Comments poured in from Facebook on the closing, from the likes of Dagger founder Joe Pulliam to whitewater instructor Kent Ford, author Peter Heller and others who have visited Gallo’s operation.
“We are heartbroken,” posted Heller. “Rios, and you, have been such a force—for the love of rivers and nature, and good stewardship and sustainability. You have touched thousands snd thousands with a joy and fierce love of the planet that comes straight from your spirit. And you changed my own life, truly.”
Added swiftwater rescue instructor Julie Munger, who held countless courses via Rios on the Pacuare: “I am so incredibly saddened by this post. I was part of Rios”s first guide crew in 1985, and was fortunate enough to be with Rafa during his incredible World Whitewater Summit Conference in 2019. WhatRafa and Fernando Esquivel have done with Rios for the environment, recreation, and pure joy in the absolute wonder of Costa Rica is unparalleled. Their professionalism in the river industry has set the standard, not only in Costa Rica, but around the world. Rios is a company with heart and integrity, and has united many of us from around the world for over 35 years as a community of river people that care about each other and the environment. It will always be alive in the hearts and souls of all of us who know them and we will continue to promote their ethics and the experience of pure joy that we all share on rivers and in wild places.”
Costa Rica will authorize the arrival of Chinese tourists without the need for a visa, starting in March.
But the reopening Nov. 1 last year was too little too late, and local tourism was insufficient to keep the company going, he explained.
“Maintaining adequate salary levels, and responsibilities such as social charges was weighed over time. State aid, if there was any, never came. Now there is talk, but it is a year late. Tourism worldwide is going through the same thing—a tremendous financial unsustainability,” said Gallo, whose operation helped preserve the rainforest through groundbreaking sustainability efforts and employed locals who went from working in rural areas to being bilingual adventure guides.
COVID’s Effect on Tourism
According to the country’s monthly index of economic activity (IMAE), tourism fell 49.6%, compared to the same month the previous year.
In 2019, Gallo says the country saw 3.1 million tourists. The drop, he says, is a devastating blow.
“To stay open we needed enough clientele,” he says. “The reopening is not adequate, nor sufficient. The cake of tourism companies is too big; we received more than three million people and it went to less than 500,000. The reopening just didn’t have the numbers to have a stable average activity.”
Gallo added that he wished state aid would’ve been more punctual in selecting entrepreneurs who deserve financial help. On February 17, Costa Rican Minister of Tourism Gustavo Segura presented 20 measures to support tourism, among them authorizing the arrival of Chinese tourists without a prior visa. He also advocated for banks to extend debt payment arrangements to tourism entrepreneurs throughout 2021.
The move lets Gallo get down to what he loves just as much as showing people the joys of rafting and Costa Rica’s unique environment: conservation.
“I am retiring from being an adventure company owner to focus my efforts on my deep love for conservation,” he said. “Over the past three decades, we’ve created the largest private rainforest reserve in the Pacuare valley, planting over 30,960 native hardwood trees and restoring biodiversity. Now it’s time to grow an even larger conservation initiative in the Pacuare River region. Project RAFA – Rivers and Forests Alliance – will continue to spread the positive impact we have made for the rainforest, biodiversity, the Pacuare River and watersheds, rural communities, Costa Rica, and the planet.”
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