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
“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.
“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.
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 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:
- Paddling the Pacuare: The best, most accessible, family-friendly jungle raft trip in the world
- New Film Aims to Protect Costa Rica’s Pacuare River
- A Corona Note from an Outfitter: We’re all Paddling a First Descent
- Costa Rica is Navigating Rough Waters with Coronavirus and Tourism
- 2021 Paddling Events