Never Winter – Family Whitewater Adventures: Part one

Costa Rica – a super family friendly kayaking destination   

It’s winter and for most people the kayaking season has been over for a few months. For those in the northern hemispheres that are still paddling, you are likely wearing a lot of layers to ward off the chill. Time to think about heading SOUTH for warm water and warm weather…

Most people think that they can’t go off on a winter kayaking trip unless they are solid class 4/5 paddlers, and you definitely can’t go with kids. This is absolutely not the case! Over a series of four posts, we are going to lay out our experiences and recommendations for heading south as a kayaking family. 

Costa Rica is located in Central America and is one of the simplest southern destinations to visit. It is safe and clean, with good roads, education and health care systems. In most places, the water is safe to drink which can make life with kids soooo much easier! People are very friendly and you can get away with English in most places. People are also good sports about trying out your “spanglish” and teaching you new words. The colonne is the local currency, however American dollars are taken in most places.

The main airport is San Jose, which is pretty central within the country. Costa Rica is bordered by both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The majority of the paddling takes place in the mountains east of San Jose, and just west of the Caribbean Sea. A great place to base yourself out of is the town of Turrialba.

Within a few hours are an amazing assortment of class 2 -5 rivers or river sections. The water and the air temps are generally warm. With this being the jungle/rain forest you also want to plan for the fact that it is possible to see rain at some point every day.

We have been going on winter family kayaking trips for the last four years since Hunter was 10. We have found that picking a good guide company makes all the difference in the world. For our trip to Costa Rica we went with CostaRica Rios, who have been recognized by National Geographic for their experiences. The other two companies that we have heard really positive reviews on are Esprit Rafting (with a summer base on the Ottawa River) and Endless River Adventures (with a summer base on the Nantahalla River).

We started our trip out on the Pejibaye River. The morning was spent on the class I//III lower section to get back in the groove. After a yummy jungle lunch you could step things up by running the upper, a class III/IV steeper creeking section or head back to do the lower section again and hook up with the gang from the upper when they came through.

Day Two and Three were spent on the Sarapiqui, which is about 3.5 hours from Turrialba and is considered the “Jewel of Costa Rica” – it is further into the jungle and has a more tropical feel, with lots of greenery and lushness. There are three distinct sections of the river, ranging from class II to class IV so again there is something to match up with every paddler.

Day Four was spent on the Upper Upper Pacuare – a traditional creeky, boulder section of river. This is a class II/III river that has a road paralleling it for the entire class II section, so those not confident to run the class III can do laps on the class II section. The class III section can be stepped up a bit by finding tricky lines and lots of boofs for the more advanced paddler. After the main takeout, the bottom four rapids of this run are class IV and are a fabulous way to end the day for the more advanced paddler. You meet up with the rest of the group at a picnic lunch with beverages to celebrate a fabulous end to a beautiful section.

Day Five and Six were spent on the Lower Pacuare, which is a 24 km (17m) section of river that is split up with an overnight stay in a jungle lodge. The day five section is a mixture of class II and III with lots of surfing waves and fun little rapids. There is an amazing lunch stop beside a creek with a small waterfall curtain/cave that is a perfect place for exploring.

The lodge is rustic but perfect for families – individual huts have lots of room to spread out and the more adventurous teens can sleep in a hammock in the main building. It’s pretty cool to experience sleeping in a hammock in the jungle and hearing all those noises all night!

The lower section of the Lower Pacuare are a mixture of class III+/IV. Those that are not comfortable with this level get to raft the section, which again means that all of the family members get to experience the river and have a great time together. 

During the low water of the “summer season” (mid Jan – mid March) the Upper Pacuare section is also available as an option. It is another fun boulder filled creek run that will keep the class III/IV paddlers on their toes. 

Things to think about when considering Costa Rica:

  • It is a very humid country and therefore hard to get gear to dry. Bring multiple sets of swim tops and shorts if you can
  • For those that are really warm blooded, you can get away with just a swim top and a shorty for the cooler days. I would wear a shorty on the warm rivers and a dry top with a swim top underneath for the cooler days
  • Bring both bug spray and sun screen for on and off the river
  • You can use US $$ in most places but be sure to have lots of small bills. It is still handy to have some colonnes for use in the small town stores for snacks and drinks.
  • We have invested in break apart paddles so we can bring our own paddles easily with us on the plane. For those that don’t have them, you can rent paddles in most places, which is often easier than checking full paddles as luggage (no matter how well you pack them)
  • Experiencing the culture of a new country is half the fun – be sure to check out the fun foods that can be found at the corner stores and the small community restaurants
  • If you have the time, consider extending your visit by even a few days and check out the beaches on either the Pacific or the Caribbean side. The week on the river is busy and tiring so beach time is a great way to slow right down truly chill out

 Every guide company we have ever travelled with has offered options for non-paddling companions so if someone in the family doesn’t paddle then there are still amazing adventures to be had. They are also always open to finding childcare to help parents still feel like they are on vacation!

 Are you starting to see what’s possible? Dreaming of warm water paddling and adventures with your family? Stay tuned for next week to learn more about family kayaking adventures in Ecuador!

 The Vincent Family ( // // // )

More info can be found at:

Costa Rica Rios (

Esprit Rafting (

Endless River Adventures (

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