From industrial engineer to adventure tour guide


How’s this for a career change? Two alumni went from engineering to launching an eco-friendly river tourism company in Costa Rica.

Rafael Gallo grew up in El Salvador, where he lived until he decided to come to UT Knoxville to pursue a degree in industrial engineering. He came to UT as a sophomore having earned credits from El Salvador University.

Jimmy Nixon, also from El Salvador and one of Gallo’s best friends, introduced him to the hiking and canoeing club at UT, where Gallo learned how to “run rivers,” hike, and camp. The hiking and canoeing club would wind up paving the way for his profession, much more so than his industrial engineering degree, with which he graduated in 1980.

Rafael GalloGallo says he loved the mountains and rivers of East Tennessee, preferring to spend his free time at the Smoky Mountains National Park or Cumberland Plateau.

After graduation and brief experiences in the engineering field, Nixon and Gallo moved to Costa Rica and started an adventure tours company called “Rios Tropicales.”

“We figured out that the rivers in Costa Rica were really amazing,” Gallo says. “We were in the middle of the tropics and we wanted to share the rivers with the rest of the world.”

Their ecotourism company started out with two rafts and $9,000 and now boasts fifty rafts, kayaks, canoes, and bicycles, more than 100 employees, and a multi-million dollar label.

From the beginning, Gallo and Nixon decided that sustainability would be an integral part of the company. In its twenty-six years of business, they have been able to purchase 2,000 acres of rainforest for conservation. They are currently in the midst of re-forestation and sustainable agricultural projects.

Tours can be as short as one day or as long as ten days. Gallo says he loves being out in nature, being on the rivers, and sharing the beauty of Costa Rica with tourists.

Gallo has personally kayaked and rafted rivers all over the world, in places such as Siberia, Chile, California, Australia, and China. He advises students seeking jobs to merge their hobby with their profession.

“Don’t close your options off,” Gallo says. “There are a lot of options out there. Try to do what you like—what you have a passion for.”

Visit the Rios Tropicales website to learn more or book your adventure.

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