The wisdom of a life on the river

“Forward hard!” yelled the guide. And I, with all the energy and emotion of a 16-year-old, rowed with all my heart. In the split second that followed, I realized that my inexperience—not just in rowing, but in life—was about to play a bad joke on me.

It was the first time that my whole family, including our exchange student, had experienced whitewater rafting. Sitting on the raft behind me was my father, who, not because of any rafting expertise but just from life experience, could see the danger I was in as my enthusiastic rowing pulled me too far up the side of the raft. With a single pull he threw me into the center of the raft and kept me from going over. That descent of the Pacuare River on a Ríos Tropicales raft is one of the best memories of my adolescence. I will always wonder if it would have been the same without my dad’s wise instinct that saved me from a good wallop.

Mónica Quesada (front right) during her Ríos Tropicales whitewater rafting trip on the Pacuare River in 1997. Archive photo / El Colectivo 506

There are tens of thousands of people in the world who, like me, remember the Costa Rican company Ríos Tropicales because of an unforgettable experience. Since its founding in 1985 by Rafael Gallo Palomo and his two childhood friends, Fernando Esquivel and Jimmy Nixon, this company has pursued its desire “show Costa Ricans the beautiful wilderness of their country, and to protect the forests and rivers,” according to their website.

On February 15 of this year, Rafael Gallo announced that “due to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic,” Ríos Tropicales had officially closed operations two weeks before, on February 1, and was being dismantled as a company. On March 23, after fighting cancer for more than a year, Rafa Gallo passed away at the age of 62.

However—like my father facing an unknown river, sport and situation, all those years ago—don Rafa, facing the unexpected context of a pandemic and the unknown reality of his own future, performed an act of love and courage. He took his collaborators by the vest and threw them into the center of the raft, hoping they would be able to float on when waters of COVID calmed down.

Paying it forward, and the Obando family

“I don’t think this would be possible,” Rafa Gallo responded to me on March 19 about what he would do if he could go back to 1985, but with the wisdom of 2020. “I think my wisdom was accumulated and acquired. It all came with time. There is nothing to be changed. Wisdom comes with time.”

That wisdom consists of much more than creating a successful adventure tourism company in Costa Rica that would eventually take up to 200 people down the Pacuare in a single day. It was also made up of tireless conservation efforts including opposition to the creation of a hydroelectric dam on the Pacuare River, and forest regeneration that led to carbon neutral sporting events and international summits.

Those he left behind also say that part of his wisdom involved creating a close relationship with his staff and looking for ways to generate new opportunities for them.

“Leaving something that will benefit someone in the future is amazing,” don Rafa said in that March 19th exchange, just four days before his death. We were going to talk on Zoom, but when his health did not allow him to connect, I sent him questions through his press officer and that he answered personally in audios that she then put together and sent to me. “I mean, if I have to close my business and have no profit, but I know that someone else can benefit greatly (in this case, Ana Patricia Quesada and the Obando family) then I feel very, very satisfied that what I have done has power.”

The Obando family met don Rafa on a beach on the Pacuare River in the first half of the 1980s. At that time, Anibal Obando, Dina Fuentes and their 12 children owned the land where Ríos Tropicales Lodge stands today. They came on foot from the town of Bajo del Tigre de Turrialba, about 5 km from the river crossing, to work the land and take care of their livestock.

The older children and doña Dina recall being surprised to see yellow rafts coming down the river, but their biggest surprise was to find out that the people in those rafts were spending the night on their property’s beach.

“What’s going on with these people?” Albert Obando, the eighth son, remembers his father saying when he saw the “machillos,” fair-haired and fair-skinned strangers, on the beach. “He left us there and went to see what was happening.”

It might seem like a setup for an argument, but instead, that first meeting between don Rafa and don Aníbal resulted in a decades-long relationship. Rios Tropicales started by renting the beach for its overnight stays during river trips; later, the company would buy the property that today not only houses the Ríos Tropicales Lodge, but that has also been reforested in its entirety, recovering the land that had been cleared for rice and bean fields and livestock pastures. That friendship culminated in early 2021 with the friendly push that has now allowed five members of the Obando Fuentes family, now 14 strong, to start a new adventure company that has absorbed the clientele of Ríos Tropicales.

“My father was a country man, a campesino, from dawn to dusk,” says Roy Obando, the family’s sixth child. “[He] didn’t have that notion, ‘Look, tourism is coming to me, I’m going to keep this property, I’m going to be an entrepreneur.’ When he sold, he planned to sell and take the family to Guayabo de Turrialba. He was already tired of working in the fields.”

But according to the Obando brothers, Rafa Gallo had something else in mind.

The Obando Fuentes family with Rafael Gallo (center, no shirt) in the early 1990s. Anibal Obando is wearing a hat; Dina Fuentes is to his left. Courtesy of the Obando Family / El Colectivo 506

“[Don Rafa] bought the land with the agreement that they [my parents] would stay there, help out and eventually work for him,” says Roy. He describes a Rafael Gallo who knew that no one could give more love and dedication to his new land than those who had worked it with their own hands and sweat. Those who had been born and raised on it.

That’s how the Obando family, led by Aníbal and Dina—who at that time was caring for a two-month-old baby, number 14—returned to the property that no longer belonged to them and worked to reforest it. They would also help raise another kind of baby there: the effort that would become Ríos Tropicales Lodge.

On March 23—the day of don Rafa’s death, although neither of us had heard the news—I interviewed doña Dina, now 70, in the same spot next to the Pacuare. She told me her story sitting at one of the benches of the now-empty lodge’s kitchen. She once worked as the manager of the hotel that is still her home today. Ríos Tropicales and don Rafa gave her a formal job that helped support her family, which became especially important when her own journey took another unexpected twist. Her husband left the family when seven of the kids were still underage; don Rafa put her on the payroll, giving her the job formerly held by her husband. This also allowed her to contribute towards a pension that has supported her since she retired. As she talked to me, Johnny, Roy, Albert, Walter, and David tended the property, pruning, weeding the trails, and installing a new water tank.

The love and dedication of the Obando family is replicated in thousands of rural tourism entrepreneurs in Costa Rica, who value and care for the culture and environment that is found in every corner of Costa Rica.

How many thousands of entrepreneurs are they, exactly? In 2019, tourism in Costa Rica generated more than $3.97 billion (compared to $276 million for the coffee industry and $997 million for the banana industry). As we found out in recent days, It is not easy to calculate how much of this income is generated by the rural and community sector, but it is one of the tasks that we want to achieve this month.

Santa Rafa: Ríos Tropicales and his legacy

Walter Obando, the ninth of the children, remembers how don Rafa used to walk the paths of the Ríos Tropicales Lodge property dressed as Santa Claus with a bag full of gifts for the whole family. However, according to the family, don Rafa’s most important gift was teaching everyone who wanted to learn how to navigate the Pacuare River, including helping them become certified instructors with the International Rafting Federation (IRF).

“They were little fish, pescaditos,” doña Dina says, remembering how her children would play in the river, floating on wooden logs before learning to handle the rafts. And it was el pescadito de don Rafa, as she herself called him in the interview, that brought the family a kayak and first took Johnny, the oldest of the boys, to descend a part of the river, discovering that “the boy has a future.”

“I’m surprised that don Rafael didn’t say, ‘I’m going to bring five or 10 guides from the United States, my friends,'” says Albert. “No, he preferred to come here and make more work for himself and train guides, because he formed the first guides in the whole area. Ríos Tropicales was able to bring progress and job opportunities to the area. Most of the guides are from here. The vast majority are on Route 10 between Turrialba and Siquirres.”

Rafa Gallo was born in El Salvador and went on to college in the United States. He first came to Costa Rica to work for Costa Rica Expeditions’s whitewater rafting tours, but he decided to leave the company and start his own. His vision was to take Ticos to enjoy their own rivers. “These rivers are incredible. Make them accessible to the Ticos,” said don Rafa, according to his old friend and press officer Shannon Farley, who organized our interview by email with her boss.

In the last pre-pandemic years, Ríos Tropicales hired up to 45 rafting guides in the high season. “[Ríos Tropicales] has helped the communities, the neighboring towns, the indigenous community: an impressive number of individuals and families have worked for Ríos Tropicales, foreign and local,” says Albert, who was the chief operating officer until the company’s closure. “[They were] people who were going to be like us, campesinos. They were going to have to work in the fields or move to the city.”

A new chapter: Ríos Adventures Tours

Johnny, David, Roy, Albert and Walter Obando (left to right) in a raft belonging to their new company. Mónica Quesada Cordero / El Colectivo 506

Before closing operations in February, don Rafa brought together the brothers Johnny, Roy, Albert, Walter and David Obando, to give them the news.

This is what don Rafa said to the brothers, in Albert’s recollection: “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.”

And so it was. Just like that, don Rafa and his wife opened the doors of the Ríos Tropicales warehouse so that the Obandos could take all the equipment they needed. The brothers invested their benefits and capital from another business belonging to Roy and Albert to found their own rafting company, called Ríos Adventures Tours. The difference will be paid little by little.

“We saw an opportunity, and all five of us said, let’s go,” says Roy. The initial investment to be able to start their rafting company could have been around $50,000, so when Don Rafa offered to acquire the considerable gear they would need, they went for it. “We have almost 100 years of cumulative experience between the five of us,” he added.

“Don Rafael saw that we had that spirit of improving ourselves, of taking on challenges and eventually having our own business,” said Albert. “We have had the experience of being able to look back, and see the impact of doing things well, or not doing things well.”

The present and COVID-19

Very few rural tourism entrepreneurs get a head start like this, or receive gifts of gear and facilities. The Obando story has a sort of fairy godfather, but the stories of thousands of entrepreneurs is full of difficulties and bureaucracy. We couldn’t resist asking don Rafa what his advice was to the many other rural tourism businesses that are struggling, or even closing, during the economic crisis caused by COVID-19.

“My advice is to hold on tight,” he responded. “It depends on what your situation is. It depends on how you are managing your finances, your banking, your suppliers and how your whole situation is. This is a long-term problem. In the short term, this is not easy to fix. Do a good analysis of your economic recovery and be realistic about what the market is going to do, because this is not going to be a fast and constant increase.”

The Obando brothers have started a new brand-new business at a challenging time, despite the head start they were given. The timing is extraordinarily difficult, even for a family that grew up and trained in tourism.

“We don’t know if we are going to have clients for who knows how long,” said Walter, but he adds that at don Rafa’s side, “everything we have done, we earned.” He says he feels that the new team he’s started with his brothers will be successful.

“We feel very positive, not nervous, because we are entering a business already as owners,” added Roy. “The five brothers are very close and working together. I feel very happy to know that I am still doing something that I have been doing all my life and that I know like the back of my hand.”

The Obando brothers say they want to continue the legacy of Ríos Tropicales and its founder. “[We want] to grow with all the people around us,” said Albert, “If things go well for us, I want to make sure that all our guides do well.”

The Obando brothers, now the owners of Ríos Adventure Tours, with their mother at Ríos Tropicales Lodge on March 23, 2021. Left to right: David, Walter, Dina, Albert, Roy and Johnny. Mónica Quesada Cordero / El Colectivo 506

As we chat while sitting at a picnic table in a borrowed warehouse that now belongs to an Obando relative and once belonged to Costa Rica White Water, a rafting company that closed a few years ago, Albert, Walter, and Roy tell me the shared success stories they already have under their belt. An adventure photographer who started his own company and now contracts with them directly, rather than working for a middleman. A family of three women who have installed showers and are arranging the gardens of their small restaurant, or soda, so that they can host Ríos Adventure Travel tourists for breakfast. Guides they worked with for years who now lead their tours.

“I wish the best for the future of tourism in Costa Rica,” don Rafa said in his email to me. “The tourism industry must be kept formal and organized. It cannot fall into the informality of people who work without permits or training as guides and transportation.
There needs to be more collaboration in the industry. The industry needs to talk a lot more among all the players and needs to unite and work together. It can’t be as selfish as it has been.”

What the ‘little fish’ know now

Asked a similar question, Albert has the following advice for the tourism industry in Costa Rica:

“What the client wants is to be honest,” he says. “The client is well informed and that is going to force us to give a good service. [We must] work hard, give our best, and make sure that the client is getting what they are paying for ”.

“You have to be very respectful to customers and speak the truth to them,” said Walter. “Respect and honesty are the main thing.” .

For Roy, it is very important “not to expose yourself and the client on the subject of security. My safety and that of the client is worth a lot.”

Albert believes that closing Ríos Tropicales was a very difficult decision for Don Rafa, “because it was like a child that he raised for 35 years, and now he just disconnected it.”

Roy, Albert and Walter Obando show off the rafts they acquired from Ríos Tropicales at their storage facility in Turrialba. Mónica Quesada Cordero / El Colectivo 506

“We have a big challenge. It’s tough,” Albert said about following the Ríos Tropicales business and conservation legacy. “We have an outstanding debt to the river, to the families, to the guides, helping to keep the river clean, instilling or promoting self-sustainability, recycling projects. We do not want to be a company that continues to grow without caring about the environment.” And it also recognizes the importance of taking care of the people who will work for them, as Don Rafa did for 35 years.

“First you have to think about people, because people need to generate income,” said don Rafa. “Once people make money and are in business, in addition to being environmentally responsible, they should think about investing in the environment.”

Forward hard!

A 2008 descent of the Pacuare with Ríos Tropicales. Mónica Quesada Cordero / El Colectivo 506

The Costa Rican tourism industry, especially rural and community tourism, is facing an unprecedented crisis that has already caused massive damage, leaving many families and entrepreneurs in economic conditions as serious as bankruptcy. Don Rafa predicted in our interview that a 50% recovery in the industry will be good news.

However, the press release that announced the closure of Ríos Tropicales ended with a Forward Hard!

For Albert, this expression means “Let’s stay together, let’s not back down. We have to give it our all.”

Roy says he uses the expression on the raft because “I really need it sometimes when I want to avoid an obstacle.”

Says Walter: “Todo pa’lante, nada pa’trás. Give it all. Hold nothing back. Give all the strength we can muster.”

Throughout the month of April, we’ll continue our exploration of how the idea of “forward hard” is being demonstrated by entrepreneurs throughout Costa Rica’s rural tourism industry. Next week, this journey takes us to the mountaintop. Read our full interview with Rafael Gallo Palomo here.