When preparing for your Costa Rica whitewater rafting adventure the topic of water level will come up.
This is important because the level of the river will depend on the level of the rapids you will be experiencing. Costa Rica is a country that is on average 50 miles wide, with mountains that run down the center of the country reaching 13,000ft. Along with this you have heavy amounts of rain which make for fast running rivers. Because of the short distance between the start of most of the rivers and the mouth where they let out into the ocean water levels can rise and lower in a very short time which can affect the planning of your whitewater rafting tour.
I will use the Pacuare River as an example of what you can expect during different water levels and some of the reasons for why the water levels in rivers can change so quickly. First of all when you raft down the Pacuare river your tour guide will make it clear to you that you are rafting down virgin rainforest that is untouched and with just a few of the Cabecar indians living in and around their reserve. This all happens to be true but if you make your way up-stream you will notice that not everything is untouched.
There are areas up stream that is land from farmers that has been deforested in order to make room for cattle. When land is deforested upstream from a river and followed by heavy rains this affects the water level of the river dramatically. If a land is covered in forest as compared to land that is cleared for cattle it makes a huge difference in how much rainwater the area can absorb. The land that is covered in forest can absorb 60 times more rainwater than the land that is cleared for cattle. The roots of trees break up the soil and allow for rainwater to flow more easily into the ground along with other attributes from the tree.
It should be noticed that much more top soil is run off into the river Pacuare from the farms that have been cleared for cattle and agriculture compared to the farms that have been left as forest. This top soil mixed with rainwater gives a brownish-orange color to the river when rafting after heave rains. Just as fast as the top soil rushes in it can rush out. You can compare this to a river that has had little deforestation upstream and you will notice that the river stays at a similar level all year. These types of rivers also stays a clear transparent color and never seem to get cloudy with topsoil.
What are the different water levels and are they safe?
We will continue to use the Pacuare river as an example of the different water levels for most rivers in Costa Rica. The water level ultimately affects the level of rapids you will be running. The Pacuare River has a few different levels among guides and to make it easy to understand we will divide it into the four levels below. There is a rock in the Pacuare river that is painted with different levels for guides to see so they can get a feel for what level the upcoming class IV rapids will be running. This water level can be reported to all companies through radio:
Very Low Water Level - A very low water level in the river Pacuare will be more common in the months of January, February, and March. If you visit the Pacuare and most rivers in Costa Rica during the very low water level you will see it at it's most beautiful form. This is a long day on the river and you can spend up to over four hours because of the slow moving current. The water is as clear as it gets and many beautiful rocks are exposed. The reason for this is that there has not been heavy rains for a few weeks in the area of the river. There is a down side to rafting the Pacuare River during this time of year because the river is running slow. With many rocks exposed you are finding your raft caught on many rocks on the bottom. A day on the Pacuare River during a very low water level then you will not experience some of the super adrenaline pumping rapids that the river is known for. There is still the chance of falling out and it is usually from sudden jerks of hitting rocks. If you fall out in this water level it is in slower currents that leaves you in a calm pool for an easy rescue pretty much at all times. This can be a hassle for those looking for constant adventure. To some it is a great adventure and pushing the raft, getting caught on rocks, and just having the chance to spend more time on one of the most beautiful rivers on the planet.
Low Water Level - A low water level is when the river is running low but not very low. This means there are still rocks exposed, the river is very clear, but their is enough random rains to keep a steady level enough water to give the guides good lines to choose from that they will not get stuck on many rocks. In a day with a low water level there are some nice waves and holes to play in. Even though the river is running low you still want to come prepared and bring your best rafting skills to the river. On a day when there is low water level the sun will probably be shining bright and the river will give you some adventure but you will not experience the full adrenaline of the Pacuare.
Medium Water Level - A medium water level is a great water level. The topsoil starts to flow into the river from the farms above and the river becomes a more merky color. The rapids start to become quite adventurous. There are less areas of the river where you guide will find himself pushing the raft from being stuck because most rocks are hidden under strong currents. You are probably rafting the river in a month that is common for some heavy rainfall which this day in age could be any month it seems. At this water level you want to make sure your team is paying attention, understands the commands, and let the fun begin. There are chances of falling out in this water level along with all water levels but chances are you will have a nice smooth swim in some strong currents as most rocks are hidden.\
High Water Level - The high water level is one of my favorite levels. Here you will notice that the river might look orange. It might be an overcast day and you will probably want to play a little Guns N Roses (Welcome to the Jungle) as you make your way to the put-in. You want to come mentally prepared for your rafting trip. You also want to be paying full attention during the guides safety instructions. The high water level means you will spend much less time on the river. This means you will spend around 2 1/2 hours making your way down the Pacuare River. The river is filled with huge waves, large holes, and some rapids you might even have to take what we call the "chicken line". The "chicken line" is just a safety call. Depending on how your group of rowers look, you want to make sure you have the strength to get through some of the rapids. A chicken line would be just floating down the edge of a a rapid and taking the easiest line possible. Assuming that most of you are looking for the full adventure on a High Water Level day then you will enjoy this river rafting adventure like none other on the planet. I do not mean to be biased just for living in Costa Rica but it is a day that you get more water in your face than all of the showers combined in your life.
Canceled Water Level - Safety is first and when the Pacuare River gets to a certain level unfortunately your whitewater rafting adventure must be canceled. This is more common in the months of September and October during the heavy rains. When you look at the water level on a day that it is canceled it is very impressive. You can hear, see, and feel the power of the river and the rainfall. It is a feeling of getting those butterflies in your stomach and thinking of what the rapids down below must look like. You might be asking who can raft this level. This is a water level that is only for experts. This water level is not commercially rafted. We have run the river with a group of guides on a canceled day and just to give you an idea we made it down in 1 hour and 15 minutes.