A unique way to see some of Costa Rica’s best wildlife is on a river float tour. Many animals are attracted to water sources. Gently coasting down the river lets you sneak up on them in their natural habitat. In this post, we’ll tell you all about a fun safari river float trip we took in La Fortuna, near Arenal Volcano. It goes down a long section of the Penas Blancas River. We’ll also share how you can plan an excursion like this for yourself.
We did this tour while staying near downtown La Fortuna in Costa Rica’s Northern Highlands. This area is famous for the cone-shaped Arenal Volcano, but it also has many other activities like hiking, hanging bridges, adventure tours, and even cultural tours.
La Fortuna is about 2.5 hours from both of Costa Rica’s international airports, SJO near San Jose and LIR in Liberia.
For the river float tour, we headed east from La Fortuna. It was just a short drive to a river called the Penas Blancas.
This river flows north, merging with the Fortuna River, and its waters eventually flow into Nicaragua.
The safari float tour travels along 5.6 miles (9 km) of the Penas Blancas River and just a half mile (about one km) of the Fortuna River.
On the ride to the river put in, we passed large agricultural fields of pineapple, papaya, and yucca. Our guide, Fauricio, told us some cool facts about each crop.
After a little time to use the restroom and get our life jackets on, it was time to push off the rocks and head down the river.
With a short safety talk from Fauricio, we felt at ease about our responsibilities. We would be on a large inflatable raft, with the guide leading the way. We would be asked to paddle occasionally, but mostly we could enjoy the ride along the calm, yet swift, river.
Our raft and paddles were the same type used in more extreme whitewater rafting tours. Although we wouldn’t be getting jolted around on this river, we still put some of our belongings in the company’s dry bags, just in case.
Tip: There are definitely some things you’ll want to bring on this tour to make yourself more comfortable. See our list at the end of this post.
The Beautiful Penas Blancas River
Setting off from the bank, the first thing you’ll notice during the safari float are the beautiful surrounds.
The Penas Blancas River has lofty trees that overhang many parts of it. The thick canopy filters the sunlight and creates almost a tunnel of jungle around you. There are birds calling in the trees, and smaller streams trickling into the larger river.
The size of the river varies, but overall is about 40-60 feet (12-18 meters) wide. Our guide Fauricio also told us that it can be anywhere from five to 25 feet (1.5-7.6 meters) deep, depending on water levels. With more rain, the river runs faster, but is still not very rough.
What You’ll See
As we floated down the water, Fauricio pointed out different things. Many were easy to spot like ducks, kingfishers, and iguanas. But he had a great eye for some harder to spot things as well.
At one point, he asked us to paddle backwards and slow the boat to a stop. Then he said, “Look right above you.”
We had to squint to understand what we were looking at. But sure enough, on the underside of a branch, was a family of small bats. They were very camouflaged, blending into the brown background almost perfectly. Fauricio explained that these were long-nosed bats and that they are important for the ecosystem because they eat a lot of mosquitoes!
In addition to wildlife, we learned about the surrounding environment. Fauricio told us about many of the tree species along the river, including the balsa and rubber. We also learned about some interesting plants like the tabacon and various types of banana.
While it was really interesting to learn about the plants, local weather patterns, and indigenous groups of Costa Rica, most people take the safari float trip for the wildlife viewing. And for this, it did not disappoint.
For us, some highlights were seeing several families of howler monkeys, a mother sloth and her baby really close up (picture above), and crocodiles on four different occasions.
One crocodile was at least eight feet (2.4 meters) long, while the rest were smaller. Our five-year old was very happy to see these and even happier that they were shy and scared of us.
Interesting birds we saw included the Anhinga, Amazon Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Whistling Ducks, Buff-rumped Warbler, and many Mangrove Swallows.
After a couple of hours on the Penas Blancas River, we drifted into the Fortuna River. At this point, the river was wider and had less of a canopy, but still very similar.
Shortly after, we came to the spot where we’d get off the boat.
Here, we climbed a set of steps to find a small farm and outdoor dining room. Once Faurico and the driver hauled up the raft, he joined us again to teach us about some traditional crops.
The first thing we learned about was how to juice raw sugar cane using an old-fashioned hand-crank press.
Our son had a great time turning the handle as we all watched the sugary water pour out. We then got to taste this, with a little sugar-cane-based liquor.
Fauricio taught us a traditional drinking chant, in Spanish, as a way to say cheers!
Next, we were shown some cacao plants growing in the yard. Fauricio took one of the strange looking pods off the small tree and briefly explained how chocolate is made from the seeds.
We then got to grind some of the dried cacao and mix it into a traditional drink. This drink was reserved for only the most important indigenous leaders at one time.
Finally, we got to sit down for a traditional snack of handmade tortillas, cheese, and roasted plantains. These tasted great after building up an appetite on the river. We also enjoyed some local coffee and fruit juice.
One of the highlights of the snack was the fact that all the chickens, ducks, and turkeys in the yard apparently love the plantain skins. Our son Sam had the time of his life flinging scraps to them on the other side of the fence.
Planning a Safari Float Tour in La Fortuna
Several tour operators in La Fortuna offer river float trips to see wildlife. You can usually either go in the morning or late afternoon as part of a twilight tour. Both times are great for wildlife viewing because that is when animals are most active.
If you’d like to book a safari float tour through the company we used and often send clients to, send us an email at bookings(at)twoweeksincostarica(dot)com with the number of adults, children (with ages), date and time you’d like to do the tour, as well as your pickup location. Booking through us costs the same and helps support our website!
7:30 a.m. or 2:00 p.m.
Approximately 4 hours (including driving time)
$54 per person adults, $32 per person children (ages 3-11)
*The minimum recommended age for children is three-years old.
Round-trip transportation from La Fortuna-area hotels, bilingual naturalist guide, all equipment, water, and a stop at a local farm for snacks, juice, and coffee.
What to Bring
It can be sunny along the river. We recommend bringing a hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, camera, sandals or sneakers, quick drying clothing, and an extra reusable water bottle. Binoculars also would be handy to see high up in the canopy.
You don’t need a bathing suit since you won’t be swimming.
Our biggest question was if it was okay to bring our large (expensive) SLR camera. It turns out it was completely fine; we just made sure to keep it strapped around our neck the whole time. We also used our cell phone to take pictures and videos.
The safari float tour along the Penas Blancas River near La Fortuna was one of the highlights of our most recent visit to the area. Not only did we get to see some amazing wildlife, but the boat ride along the river was fun and not stressful at all. If you are planning activities in La Fortuna, we would highly recommend it.
Have a question about the safari float tour in La Fortuna? Post a comment below.
Looking for more information to plan your trip? Check out these posts:
La Fortuna: What to Expect from Costa Rica’s Most Popular Destination – There is a reason why most travelers pass through La Fortuna. Check out this post for an overview of the town, hotel and restaurant picks, and much more.
Driving in Costa Rica – Worried about driving during your upcoming trip? Most people tell us it wasn’t nearly as scary as they thought it would be. Check out this article to get prepared and learn the rules of the road.
Hiking in Arenal Volcano National Park – Even though it is the official national park for Arenal Volcano, the trails here are usually much less busy than some of the other options nearby. Plan your visit with this post.