Rafael Gallo standing against the backdrop of his Pacuare reserve.

by Shannon Farley

Flowing from high in Costa Rica’s Talamanca Mountains, past indigenous Cabecar communities, through dense jungle populated with jaguars, the Pacuare River travels 85 miles to the Caribbean Sea. It is one of Costa Rica’s most acclaimed rivers for its scenic beauty and is revered by whitewater paddling enthusiasts.

Thanks primarily to conservationist and whitewater adventure company owner Rafael Gallo, the Pacuare River still flows free. Gallo helped stop two hydroelectric dam attempts and advocated for the river’s permanent protection for decades. A presidential decree now protects the Pacuare until 2040.

After a 14-month battle with pancreatic cancer, Gallo, unfortunately, passed away at the end of March 2021 – an immense loss for the conservation and river communities in Costa Rica and worldwide. 

Enchanted by the Pacuare 

Born in the U.S. to Salvadoran parents, Gallo first came to Costa Rica in 1984 to work for the country’s then-only whitewater rafting company. The Pacuare River and exuberant rainforest enchanted him, enticing him to call the country forever home. 

Rafa kayaking with his whitewater adventure company, Rios Tropicales. He smiles at the camera. The shore behind him is lined with green foliage and rocks.
Rafa kayaking with his whitewater adventure company, Rios Tropicales

He founded his own whitewater adventure company, Rios Tropicales, in 1985 with two childhood friends. Rios Tropicales became a leading adventure company dedicated to conservation, winning National Geographic’s 2008 Geotourism Award and the Best Outfitter in the World award, and Skål International’s 2014 Sustainable Tourism Award, among many others. Before his passing, Gallo’s cherished company permanently closed in February 2021 due to the economic crisis caused by the global coronavirus pandemic.

A natural and charismatic leader, Gallo pioneered both adventure tourism and ecotourism in Costa Rica. He worked with the indigenous Cabecar people in the Pacuare region, teaching the first Cabecar rafting guides and employing local community members at his jungle ecolodge that he built alongside the Pacuare.

Gallo co-founded the International Rafting Federation, serving as vice president and president from 1997 to 2013, and is the IRF’s first Honorary President. He put Costa Rica on the world map for whitewater rafting and kayaking and was inducted into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame in 2009. He also co-authored the book “The Rivers of Costa Rica.” In addition, Gallo served as president of the Costa Rican Network of Nature Reserves from 2007 to 2017, was a board member of the Biodiversity Partnership Mesoamerica alliance, and was appointed an honorary member of Costa Rica’s Blue Flag Program National Commission.

Uniting paddling sports and conservation

Rafael Gallo at the Pacuare reserve. He looks up to the right. Behind him is a scene of light green foliage, with a beautiful light green tree behind his right shoulder. He wears a Rios Tropicales uniform.
Rafael Gallo at the Pacuare reserve

For over 35 years, Gallo protected the Pacuare watershed from hydroelectric dams and exploitation by loggers, hunters, and developers. He purchased 2,470 acres of land in the Pacuare River Valley with family and friends, composing the region’s largest private reserve. Besides protecting primary forest, Gallo reforested cut land with over 30,960 native hardwood trees, thus regenerating the forest and restoring habitats for endangered species like Great Green Macaws, ocelots, and jaguars.

Rios Tropicales participated in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) worldwide tree planting campaign between 2006 and 2011. Gallo then made history in 2011 by planting 3,000 trees in his Pacuare reserve during the IRF World Rafting Championship in Costa Rica, making it the world’s first carbon-neutral sporting event. He replicated the accomplishment in 2016, planting 5,000 trees to make that year’s Adventure Travel Trade Association’s World Summit carbon neutral.

In 2019, Gallo united the rafting industry worldwide toward stronger safety measures and environmental protection at the IRF’s first-ever World Whitewater Rafting Summit. During the landmark event in Costa Rica, International Rivers and the IRF signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together to benefit global rivers and waterways.

As a result of Gallo’s far-reaching conservation achievements, the Costa Rica National Alliance of Rivers and Watersheds named an environmental award after him in 2019 – the Rafael Gallo Palomo Award, Safeguarding the Future of Our Rivers. 

PROJECT RAFA

At the end of 2020, Gallo focused his deep love for conservation on creating Project RAFA – Rivers and Forests Alliance. His goal was to protect the Pacuare watershed from its source to the sea and regenerate forest habitat and biodiversity.

In his final months, he outlined and communicated his conservation dreams for environmental stewardship in his beloved Pacuare region. He planted the seed, and now friends and family have united to develop and grow Project RAFA in his honor. Those wishing to follow or participate in Project RAFA can find more information at www.ProjectRAFA.org.  

Rafa Gallo with Blue Flag awards draped over his arms.
Rafa Gallo with Blue Flag awards