Canyoneering in Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano – Costa Rica

Most visitors to Costa Rica inevitably find themselves in the small town of La Fortuna, in hopes of seeing molten rock tumbling down the steep cone of Arenal Volcano. There are few sights to scare the hell out of you quite like an active volcano, but what the brochures conveniently fail to mention is that Arenal is clouded over for much of the year, and many visitors spend days looking at cloud when they’d much rather be baking on the sandy beaches along the Pacific coast. So as I waited for the clouds to lift and reveal the Mount Doom-like volcano in all its glory, I discovered the unusual but thoroughly thrilling sport of canyoneering. Thus I found myself dangling 60m above the ground like a fly wrapped in dental floss, soaked to the bone, beneath a recently discovered waterfall.

Canyoneering combines aspects of climbing (ropes, abseiling), hiking, and where applicable, swimming.   The idea, simply, is that you climb, walk and slide your way down a canyon, often on your butt. In this particular case, alongside stunning waterfalls and thick jungle foliage.   Former adventure guide Christine Larson and her husband Suresh Krishnan call it “The Lost Canyon” because they only discovered it a few years ago, clearing the canyon of natural rubble, and preparing wooden platforms from which to abseil.   Every effort was made to conserve the rich eco-system, while at the same time allowing inexperienced climbers to rappel down two large waterfalls.   Climbers like myself – the last time I abseiled I caught one of my testicles in the harness, arriving back on solid ground well capable of reaching Michael Jackson’s high notes.   Through Christine and Suresh’s adventure company Desafio,  I joined a dozen other nervous tourists for a short drive from the town and a quick lesson in safety. Being one of the first groups to visit this rediscovered canyon meant extra precautions, and amongst the group was canyoneering legend Rich Hall – a certifier from the American Canyoneering Association. Rich, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the late actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, told me about the time he got lost for three days and almost died in a canyon. This calmed my nerves the way hot cheese cools your mouth. After a few small practice rappels, we arrived at the first major drop.   A wooden platform had been built alongside a tree, and the idea was to jump off it into the ravine below.   I swung myself around the last safety pole, leaned back (making sure my family jewels were well positioned), and slid down into the lush canyon below. I could whoop in joy without a high-pitched falsetto.

Kitted out with gloves, helmet and harness, the group slowly made our way into the ravine.   Even with my camera in a plastic bag, I was nervous about wading through the rock pools, preferring to remain relatively dry by pulling Spiderman manoeuvres along the narrow canyon walls.   This made no difference once I descended over another 60m drop, since Suresh, guiding below, swung the rope directly into the waterfall – a thrilling natural baptism that defied photographs anyway.     Safely at the bottom, I joined the rest of the group, all wearing the “did I really just do that?” expression one finds in similar thrilling activities, like skydiving, or not paying traffic fines.   With the jungle teeming with life around us – toucans, lizards, bugs – Suresh explained the exhaustive work it took to clear out old logs, wood and muck, and also to navigate Costa Rican politics.   The country has strict laws when it comes to protecting its natural assets, and it’s no accident Costa Rica has become one of the best places on earth for eco-tourism.

After three hours, we reached a narrow exit point, unprepared but ready for a short, steep hike up the canyon to the road. Everyone had a rosy watermelon smile at the end, perfect to fit the fresh-cut watermelon waiting for us after the steep climb out. Rich gave the experience two-thumbs up, and so did I.   The cloud over Arenal never did clear up. Some days you win, some days you discover canyoneering.

Bucket List Underwater Attractions

Museums, sculptures, hotels, bars, wildlife – it can all be experienced underwater, allowing you to truly glimpse a different world, whether you decide to get wet or not.  Join us as we dive headfirst into these remarkable Global Bucket List Underwater Attractions. 

Underwater Sculpture Parks

British sculptor Jason de Caires Taylor took his art below sea-level, creating the world’s first underwater gallery in the warm Caribbean waters of Granada. The Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park opened in 2006, accessible by snorkelling, diving or glass-bottom boat. The 65 cement sculptures, mostly of people, covers an 800 square metre area and has been an environmental boon, relieving pressure on surrounding reefs.   Taylor followed this success with his Cancun Underwater Museum, using PH-neutral concrete to create 400 life-size human statues in the shallow waters of Cancun’s National Marine Park.   Both parks have become immensely popular with visiting tourists.

Poseidon Underwater Resort, Fiji

It took a few decades and many a foiled plan, but the world’s first luxury seabed hotel has opened inside a 5000-acre crystal Fijian lagoon. Unlike the research origins of the Jules Lodge, the Poseidon is a no-expense-spared underwater fantasy escape, complete with guests’ private 16-passenger Triton submarine (pilot training included), spas, six underwater restaurants and lounges, shopping, libraries and sports facilities. Elevators shuttle guests 40 feet underwater to 24 underwater suites and one luxury underwater villa. An acrylic viewing window in each room means the ocean literally surrounds you, and if you want to interact with the fish, simply push a button on your control console to automatically feed them. How much will this experience set you back? A special offer on the website currently advertises $15,000 per person for seven days and six nights.

Agnete and the Merman, Copenhagen

I’m drifting on a boat through the canals of Copenhagen on a glorious summer day. Citizens of the Danish capital relish their summer, walking the streets, enjoying a refreshment in the outdoor cafes.   As the boat passes under Højbro bridge, something catches my eye underwater. Could that be?   We stop the boat and reverse so I can get a better look. Originally submerged in 1992, the statue is a Merman and his Seven Sons, awaiting the return of their wife and mother, Agnete. In Danish mythology, she was an earthling who fell in love with a Merman, but went back to the land of her birth, never to return again.   Designed by artist Suste Bonnén, the sculpture is ethereal and distant, just like the characters in the tale it represents, and a wonderful example of underwater art.

Atlantis Submarine

If you fancy exploring the ocean depths without getting wet, then Atlantis Submarines are just for you. The company has safely taken over 13 million customers 150ft below the surface with operations in Hawaii, Guam, and Caribbean destinations like Aruba, the Cayman Islands, Curacao and St.Martin. In Barbados, I entered the white, tubular 48-passenger Atlantis III, eagerly watching the captain seated inside his cockpit bubble, like a character in a Jules Verne novel. With surprising manoeuvrability, we explored an old shipwreck, teeming with fish and marine life. I was fascinated to see how light filters the deeper you go, and how peaceful life below water can be.


World’s Best Aquariums

Aquariums are often the only exposure many kids and adults have to the world underwater, serving an important role in conservation, research and biology.   The world’s biggest aquarium is in Atlanta, Georgia, home to 120,000 animals and 500 species, scattered over 60 different animal habitats. Dubai boasts the world’s largest viewing window for its Aquarium, which no surprise, is located in a shopping mall. At the Sydney Aquarium, you can view sharks beneath a glass bottom boat, while London’s Sea Life lets you feed sharks, rays and catfish. Monterey has a million-gallon Outer Bay tank that houses blue-fin tuna, hammerhead sharks, and other creatures from the open ocean.   And let’s not forget the Vancouver Aquarium, consistently rated amongst the world’s best.


Underwater Dining, Maldives

Surrounded by the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives seems like the right spot to find an underwater restaurant. Heck, the islands are only three metres above sea level, to begin with.   Eat with the fish at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island’s Ithaa restaurant, which sits five metres below the sea, enclosed in clear acrylic walls providing patrons with a 270-degree underwater view of the ocean around them. Also in the Maldives, the Anantara Kihavah Resort offers underwater dining in its signature Sea.Fire.Salt.Sky restaurant, which allows guests to also enjoy the sea breeze in a rooftop bar. Meanwhile, the Huvafen Fushi Resort has two of its eight spa treatment rooms underwater, the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

Photo: Nadia Aly

Best Dive Sites

Scuba divers know there’s no shortage of underwater attractions around the world. Just about every site has something to offer, whether it’s shipwrecks, reefs, marine life or caves.   Some of my favourites: Diving the freshwater limestone caves, or cenotes of Mexico is truly another world, with stalactites and stalagmites reflected by sunlight in crystal clear water. The coral reefs surrounding Palau have made the island one of the world’s top scuba destinations. Belize’s Blue Hole is another diver favourite, an almost perfect circular cave that descends 135m into the deep. Diving with the world’s biggest fish – the whale shark – is best done in the Philippines or off Koh Tachai, Thailand. Some of the best wreck diving is off Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Australia. You don’t have to look too far to find sensational diving. The waters off British Columbia offer some of the world’s best cold diving.

Herod’s Harbour, Israel

It’s one thing walking amongst the ruins of ancient temples, but how about swimming through the streets of a 2000-year old city?   King Herod opened his harbour in Caesarea, once the most important cities in the world, in 10 B.C. Today the remains of the great harbour sit six metres underwater. With waterproof maps and a handy guide, snorkelers and divers can visit the 36 numbered exhibits, following ropes tied to poles on the sea bed. You’ll pass giant anchors, ancient marble columns, and even a sunken Roman vessel. From here, head south to the Red Sea Star, located in the resort town of Eilat. This underwater bar and restaurant offer panoramic views of marine life in the Red Sea, and you can stay perfectly dry while you enjoy them.

Underwater Post Office, Vanuatu

I’ve been collecting postcards from my travels for years, but they don’t get more unusual than this. Fifty metres offshore from Hideaway Island near Port Vila is the world’s only underwater post office. Over 100,000 people have swum to this branch to post special waterproof postcards, which are “stamped” underwater using an embossing tool. The branch is manned for an hour each day by one of four scuba-diving postmen.  A flag flies above the underwater booth to let swimmers know when it is open for business. If snorkelers cannot reach the booth, situated 3m underwater, the postmen will gladly retrieve your mail from the surface. Now that’s service!