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.

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