Rafting Community Loses a Legend with the Passing of Rafael Gallo


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The international rafting community lost one of its biggest stalwarts and promoters with the passing Tuesday, March 23, of Rafael Gallo, founder of Costa Rica’s Rios Tropicales rafting company and the International Rafting Federation’s first Honorary President. Gallo’s passing comes after a more than year-long battle with pancreatic cancer.

Gallo, a former president and executive committee member of IRF, was known far and wide for his role promoting rafting across the world, as well as on his beloved Pacuare River in Costa Rica, which he helped stop from getting dammed in 1991, through his company Rios Tropicales. In 2009, Gallo, who also has a host of first descents to his credit, was inducted into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame for being an advocate for conservation, a leader in river rafting in the world. He was also a member of the prestigious Explorer’s Club, Costa Rica’s first-ever member, nominated by Yurek Majcherczyk, who notched the first descent of the Pacuare with his CanoAndes team in 1980.

“We lost the Sheriff…he did more for the industry in 35 years than all of us other companies have combined and that’s no exaggeration.”

—Tom Ranieri, pacuare outdoor center

“It’s a super, super sad day,” says fellow Costa Rican outfitter Tom Ranieri of Pacuare Outdoor Center. “We lost the Sheriff. It’s pretty hard to sum up the role he played in Costa Rica rafting as his effect was pretty global. I went to the National Rafting Championships in Colombia with him and I felt like I was walking around with Lebron James at a local pick-up game.”
Gallo’s beloved Pacuare.

“I told him when he mentioned that Rios Tropicales was shutting down last month that he did more for the industry in 35 years than all of us other companies have combined and that was no exaggeration,” Ranieri adds. “While a few in the rafting industry came before him, he was the one that put it on the map outside of the rafting community. He brought it to a new level and was a leader that could be followed by other local companies allowing them to have success.”

Gallo’s passion for rafting also circulated globally.

“Everyone who takes part in rafting sport today is beholden to the dedication and effort of those that worked to create it—Rafa’s years of service to rafting and to the IRF put us all in his debt. Without Rafa, it is likely that the IRF would not exist,” says current IRF president Joe Willis Jones.

Gallo was one of the original founders of the IRF, serving as its first vice-president from 1997 to 2006 before taking over as president from 2006 to 2013. He helped improve rafting safety rules and guide training around the world, and was one of the first IRF assessors, the highest level for river guide training certification.

“He was integral to waking everyone up to the need for an international governing body for rafting….the IRF will continue to benefit from his years of experience in the international rafting world,” says Sue Liell-Cock, IRF Secretary General.

Team USA at the 2011 World Rafting Championships on the Upper Pacuare, an event organized by Gallo.

Gallo competed in the first Project RAFT event held on the Chuya River in Siberia during the 1989 Chuya Rally, an event designed to override political animosity through the sport of rafting.

“I went to the National Rafting Championships in Colombia with him and I felt like I was walking around with Lebron James at a local pick-up game.”

Jones, on the IRF website, recalls meeting Gallo at the Chuya Rally where they each represented their respective countries. “Rafa and I became fast friends and he invited me to Costa Rica to work as a river guide and guide trainer for his newly-formed rafting company,” he says. “The ‘Pura Vida’ lifestyle of Costa Rica and the Project Raft ethos was fully merged at Rios Tropicales, and it attracted some of the best river guides in the world to work at Rafa’s company.”

After a follow-up event in 1990 on the Nantahala River in North Carolina, Gallo helped organized a similar world championships in 1991 on the Reventazón and Pacuare Rivers in Costa Rica. At the 1994 World Championships in Italy Gallo and Peter Micheler laid the foundation for forming the IRF, an international rafting organization that could represent all competitors, guides, and aspects of rafting. By October 1997, the IRF was officially launched at the 1997 Camel White Water Challenge on Africa’s Zambezi River. The first official IRF World Championships was held in Costa Rica in 1998, hosted by Gallo and Rios Tropicales. Gallo brought the event back to the Upper Pacuare in 2011, the first-ever Carbon Neutral World Championship in any sport.

Rafael gallo
Rios Tropicales founder Rafael Gallo.
Attendees at the 2019 World Rafting Summit, organized by Gallo, taking a break from the presentation rooms to paddle the Pacuare.

Whatever qualifications Gallo helped bestow for international river guides, he also adopted for his own guides working on the Pacuare. And he always kept preserving rivers and the environment at the forefront. His outfitting company won the 2014 Sustainable Tourism Award from Skål International. Over three decades, he also created the largest private rainforest reserve in the Pacuare valley, planting over 30,960 native hardwood trees and restoring biodiversity.

Throughout it all, from paddling to preservation and government bureaucracies—and even venturing to Colombia to teach FARC rebels how to become raft guides—Gallo endeared himself to everyone who knew him. “Rafa was one of those legendary guys, moving through the same conference or convention spaces as us adventure travel outfitters, but standing above by head and shoulders,” says OARS President Tyler Wendt. “A lot of that was notoriety from founding the International Rafting Federation, and breaking new ground with his eco-tourism initiatives on the Pacuare; but it probably also had something to do with who he was as a person.”

Acknowledging that his company, Rios Tropicales—which he founded in 1986 and was the longest-running rafting outfitter in Costa Rica—was hit hard by the pandemic restrictions, earlier this year Gallo announced that he was closing down Rios and selling it to a consortium of his guides, who are now operating it, and his cherished riverside eco-lodge, under the name Rios Adventure Travel.

The Rios Tropicales eco-lodge on Costa Rica’s Pacuare River (courtesy Rios Tropicales)

“The crazy part is his positive effect on the rafting industry Costa Rica was  second to what he did best, which was conservation and bringing attention to ecotourism,” says Ranieri. “While his rafting company closed last month his efforts on ecotourism and conservation will live on for generations to come and the Costa Rica river community while sad plans to celebrate his amazing life and how much he was able to get done.”

Links to other Rafael Gallo stories:



  1. So sad to hear this news. Rafa was certainly an icon in the river running community worldwide. He was a wonderful host when I ventured down there with some Perception dealers in 1988. What an introduction to Costa Rica. May his legacy in conservation live on forever. We never know what cards Father Time will deal us. Thanks Rafa for all you contributed to the rivers of the world.

  2. Sad news. I know Rafa for many years as he was co founder of IRF and made tremendous input in rafting as a sport. Glad that I was able to meet and spent time with him on international rafting events. He was a good diplomat too as it is not easy to be President of international sport organization. RIP. We will always remember his smile.

  3. I first met Rafa in 1993 on a slalom training trip to Costa Rica. then in 1994 for the world surfing championships at boca barranca which he organized… then partnered with his first subsidiary in Costa Rica – aventuras H20 & protégée Arturo Oropeza to run 12 whitewater trips using his amazing paquare lodge & facilitated team river runners first international whitewater kayak trip to Costa Rica with aventuras h20. Arturo & I teamed up to run the first IRF guide training / education course in the US on the Rogue river… & my experience at the 2016 world rafting champs in Abu Dhabi- where we brought home medals for teamUSA would have never happened without IRF & Rafa’s effort/vision. The sport just lost a legend… RIP- Rafa. Thanks for your leadership on the world stage, in adventure travel & sustainability.

  4. Excellent Article Eugene, all adventures had with Rafa have been wonderful.. I should write a book…any tips ? 🙂 The world has lost a whitewater/eco hero …I’m still getting over his lost …and regretting spending precious little time with the man at the recent IRF World Raft Champs in Tully, Australia ….Alas , will catch up next time Rafa , one day in a eddy downstream….R.I.P Rafa me ole mate ….watch over us , guide us !

  5. We met only one time on the Bio Bio; some years ago. OK, many years ago (!) but the inspiration remains.

    There was an unplanned ‘pool party’ in Don Vitorino’s hot springs. An international event with some 5-6 nations in attendance. Certainly, a festive gathering considering we were all still standing downstream of Lava South
    The chance gathering of ‘river people’ (i.e. rafters & kayakers!) at times became an unplanned strategic planning session. Sharing energy, ideas and the future.

    In Chile, we’d just finalized setting up GABB in Santiago (an extension of Mark & FOR, BBAC of Angels Camp & IRN). With JPablo we shared our drive and plans our plans for the Bio Bio campaign.

    The sun set too soon and we parted ways. Some upstream, some down. But at the final drop it’s clear all in the same direction. Toward respect and long life for people, the planet and rivers.

    For several years after our chance meeting, we were in contact. Saying he would cover my expenses Rafa often asked me to come to Costa Rica to help defend the Pacuare. To this day I regret not accepting.
    R.I.P. ~ See you downstream ~

    Thank you ~ Eugene

  6. What an incredible loss for the boating world. Rafa was truly an icon and a leader. I spent a few month shooting whitewater photos for Rio Tropicales in 91/92 and Rafa was always generous and fair and a pleasure to be around. He was an inspiration to many and an example for all of us. R.I.P Rafa. See you downstream.

  7. My friends John Reynolds and Peter Weingarten and I had a great trip years ago renting our boat from Rios Tropicales. Our last river was the upper Pacuare, and we were lucky to meet a local paddler who had paddled with the American team who were practicing on that river. He said ” You can’t scout this. There is a big hole on river right and a high falls right after it. Just trust and follow me”. Reynolds and I were right on his tail and made it. Weingarten and the fourth member of our group tried scouting more and the other guy went in the hole and over the falls upside down. The other guy had made fun of me earlier because I had to get out of my C1 when I went over on my off paddle side in an easy rapid because it was too shallow to get under my boat to make my roll. I was glad the guy didn’t get hurt in the falls but did finally understand the concept of Shaddenfreud.


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