Remembering International Rafting Community Visionary Rafael Gallo
The international rafting community is mourning the loss of one of its biggest visionaries. On March 23, the legendary Rafael Gallo of Costa Rica’s Rios Tropicales rafting company passed away after a 14-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
For those who don’t know, Rafael—or Rafa as he was most well known—was one of the original founders of the International Rafting Federation (IRF), serving as its first vice-president from 1997 to 2006 before leading as president from 2006 to 2013. He fought unflinchingly to improve rafting safety rules and guide training around the world, and was one of the first IRF assessors (the highest level possible for river guide training certification).
The inaugural IRF World Championships was hosted in Costa Rica in 1998 by Gallo himself, who brought the event back to the Upper Pacuare in 2011 and made it the first-ever Carbon Neutral World Championship in any sport.
In 2009, Rafael Gallo was inducted into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame. He has a host of first descents to his name and was even admitted into the prestigious Explorer’s Club.
Rafa had a vision for Costa Rica adventure tourism before Costa Rica adventure tourism was even on most people’s radar. It all began when the Obando family met Rafa on a beach on the Pacuare River in the early 1980s. Anibal Obando, Dina Fuentes and their 12 children owned the land where Rios Tropicales Lodge is today. They walked miles from the town of Turrialba every day to work the land they had cleared for rice and were quite surprised one day to be met by yellow rafts coming down the river. That first meeting blossomed into a decades-long relationship after Rafa bought the land and created stable employment for the entire Obando family. Over three decades, together they created a massively successful rafting company and the largest private rainforest reserve in the Pacuare valley, planting over 30,960 native hardwood trees and restoring biodiversity.
The last time I visited him at his lodge on the river, he would wake up before everyone else to sit with the hummingbirds that had begun to call the lodge home. He treated those hummingbirds so reverently, as though each one represented all of the dedication that had gone into protecting the land. Over coffee he told me about the time he defiantly camped on a raft in the Pacuare River to save it from being dammed, nostalgic like a somewhat weathered grown man recalling his mischievous youth. Rafa was nothing if not determined, and in the end not only did his efforts succeed, but he inspired environmental impact studies to be done by the organization that once despised him for blocking their efforts. ICE (a Costa Rican electricity company) actually asked for his help to recuperate the rapids of the Reventazon River, which had been affected by a hydroelectric dam.
“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 affect 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. 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.”
Rafa had his hands and heart in so many issues—from rafting to conservation to schmoozing government bureaucracies—even venturing to Colombia to teach FARC rebels how to become raft guides through the Paddling for Peace program. He was impossible not to genuinely like and admire. “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.
“His battle phrase was ‘Row Forward’ because that is done when facing very difficult rapids in a river. That was Rafita, he never stopped rowing forward,” recounts Mario Socatelli, tourism consultant and friend. Just a month before he passed away, Rafa, looking to the future, sold Rios Tropicales to five members of the Obando family, who are now operating both it and his cherished riverside eco-lodge, currently under the name Rios Adventure Travel. This is what Rafa said to Albert Obando: “You have helped me all my life. You have always had my back. Now I want you to fly. You have everything you need: you have the ability, you have the experience, and you know this work better than anyone. I trust that you will do well and I will continue to help you.”
“I think my wisdom was accumulated and acquired. It all came with time,” said Rafa in his final months when he worked hard to outline and communicate his conservation dreams of environmental stewardship and protection of his beloved Pacuare watershed region. His vision became Project RAFA – Rivers and Forests Alliance – and he was downright giddy about its future and potential.
Rafa planted so many seeds, literally and figuratively in his life, that the fruits of his passion will be with us for generations to come. Thank you, Rafa, for leading a life filled with so much commitment to the natural world and those who care for it. You were an exemplary human being who showed us through action how to “Row Forward,” and row forward in your honor we will, dear friend.