Top five places to work as a river guide this winter | Rapid Magazine | Rapid Media
A raft guide takes a group of paddlers downstream. Photo: Flickr User Jenny Lee Silver

See the world and stay on the river with this list of the best places to work as a raft guide in the off-season

Turquoise water, tropical canyons, an international trip lined with world-renowned rivers—it’s what whitewater dreams are made of. If you’re like most raft guides, however, a vacation on the other side of the world probably isn’t in the budget. So, try getting paid for it instead. 

For most raft guides, the end of summer means hanging up the guide stick, heading back to school, sliding into a desk job or hitting the ski resorts to coax runny-nosed toddlers down the bunny hill. It doesn’t have to be that way. Operations on some rivers continue throughout the winter months, and while turning raft guiding into a means for travel or a year-round career can be intimidating, by following the sun, you can make raft guiding more than just a summer fling. When temps cool in North America, we recommend looking for work in these five gorgeous and balmy locales.

1) New Zealand

As soon as you reach this Southern Hemisphere gem, you won’t be far from the pristine whitewater that lines both the North and South islands of New Zealand. From remote wilderness multi-day trips that begin with a helicopter ride to the put-in to half-day trips just outside of town, the small country has more whitewater than many countries larger in size. For international guides seeking work, locating a job close to a tourism hub such as Queenstown is the best bet for consistent work. While guiding in New Zealand is worthy of the fantasies of whitewater guides around the world, it’s not an easy country to get work. It is recommended that guides secure a job and visa in advance, and upon arrival at a company they will be required to test for a NZ specific guide certificate. 

Commercially rafted rivers: (Level of whitewater): Kaituna (Class V), Shotover (II-V) Dart (II), Kawarau (III-IV), Karamea (IV-V), Tongariro River (Taupo), Clarence (II-III), Mohaka (II-V), Rangitata (V) Rangitaiki (III-IV), Buller River (II-IV), Ngarururo (II-IV), Whanganui (III-IV) and others

Visa requirements: Work visa (obtained with the help of employer) or working holiday visa needed

Guiding requirements: New Zealand Guide Award, First Aid Certificate 

Potential pay: Approximately $70 to $200 per day

Cost of living: Approximately $200 per week. Guide housing/camping available in some cases. 

Language needed: English, multi-lingual a plus 

2) Chile 

The high-volume, warm turquoise waters of Chile draw in whitewater chasers from around the world both for the unique scenery and top-level rapids. Found in the depths of steep boulder-clustered canyons surrounded by snow-covered peaks, the Futaleufu is known as the Grand Canyon of South America but is steeper and more challenging than the infamous whitewater section of the same name in the U.S. Seeking work as a whitewater raft guide in Chile should be reserved for guides with extensive guiding experience on both technical and high-volume rivers. 

Rivers: Futaleufu (III-V), Espolon (III), Maipo (III-V) and others

Visa requirements: Work visa required. Recommended to obtain in advance with sponsorship of employer. 

Guiding requirements: High level of expertise, certified to guide class IV-V whitewater

Potential pay: Approximately $50 to $80 per day

Cost of living: Approximately $150 per week. Guide housing/camping available in some cases. 

Language needed: English, basic Spanish 

READ MORE: Your ultimate winter paddle fitness plan 

3) Costa Rica 

For the tropical whitewater experience, Costa Rica is your spot. Not only does Costa Rica have the whitewater — from steep, technical canyons to float trips through the rainforest — it has the tourists needed to create business. While rivers can be found throughout the country, the Rio Pacuare is known by many as the best for commercial guiding and companies operating on the river offer everything from one day trips to a variety of multi-day adventures. Be advised that while potential pay for a raft guide in Costa Rica is relatively low, living expenses are comparable to the U.S. and much higher than in other countries in Central America, especially in touristy areas. 

Rivers: Rio Pacuare (IV), Sarapiqui (III-IV), Naranjo (II-IV), Tenorio (III-IV), Savegre (III-IV), Corobici (II), Balsa (II-III) and others. 

Visa: Work visas needed in some cases, some guides work on tourism visas

Guiding requirements: Experience guiding on class IV whitewater, International Rafting Federation certification, Swift Water Rescue and First Aid 

Pay: $30-$75 per day 

Cost of living: Approximately $100 per week. Guide housing/camping available in some cases. 

Language needed: English, Spanish beneficial 

READ MORE: 14 tips for buying your next whitewater kayak 

4) South Africa

The rivers of South Africa are as diverse as the country itself. With deserts, mountains, two oceans and 12 national languages across the country, a day on the job could take you into the depths of a desert canyon or send you cascading through lush green mountains. SA has relatively few regulations for international guides, making it easier to get work here than in some other countries. Due to the current state of the economy, both pay and living expenses tend to be quite low, so while you can support yourself while in the country, don’t expect to take money home. 

Rivers: Ash (IV), Blyde (IV), Breede (II), Doring (III) Orange (II-IV), Tugela (III-V), Vaal (II-III) and others.  

Visa: Possible to work on tourism visa 

Guiding requirements: Experience on class IV whitewater 

Pay: Approximately $25-$50 per day 

Cost of living: Approximately $70 per week. Guide housing/camping available in some cases. 

Languages needed: English needed, multi-lingual beneficial 

5) Texas, U.S.A.

For raft guides who want to continue to guide throughout the winter but aren’t interested in traveling all the way to the Southern Hemisphere, work can also be found on the border between the U.S. and Mexico on the Rio Grande. While the section of the Rio Grande that is operating during the winter months is not known for its whitewater, scenic floats and multi-day trips offer expedition experiences through the stunning desert canyons. In addition, pay is higher than most other winter raft guiding options. 

Rivers: Rio Grande (I-II)

Visa: Permission to work in the U.S. 

Guiding requirements:  CPR and Wilderness Advance First Aid or above 

Pay: Approximately $100 to $130 per day

Cost of living: Approximately $150 per week. Guide housing/camping available in some cases. 

Languages needed: English, Spanish beneficial 

Remember: If you choose to seek work in any of these countries keep in mind that most countries are required to seek residents to do the job before hiring an international guide. It is recommended that you approach your first international guiding experience as a chance to travel, and not depend on making a profit. 

All costs and pay ranges are averages and estimates provided by individual companies in each country. All dollar amounts are listed in USD. 

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