3-Day Arenal Getaway: High-Flying Fun
A trip to Arenal would not be complete without the high-flying fun of a Sky Trek canopy tour. Every day -- rain or shine -- hundreds of tourists rocket more than six miles over treetop canopies at speeds topping 50 mph. The tour's zip lines span up to 2,475 feet (that's half a mile!), and crisscross some of the country's most spectacular scenery.
As we boarded the gondola for our ride up into the rainforest, I cautioned my sister on the addictive nature of adrenaline. This was my third visit to Sky Trek and it certainly wouldn't be my last. The tram silently ascended two miles to an observation deck where panoramic views of Lake Arenal and the volcano could be enjoyed on sunny days. Our group of 15 milled about in oversized helmets and clunky harnesses, anticipating our "test run" on a practice zip line. After a quick safety talk, our guides demonstrated the correct body position before hurtling towards the next platform.
A few shouts of glee later and it was my turn to brave the first cable. Despite my experience on dozens of canopy tours, I still get the butterflies every time. I took a deep breath, assumed my finest aero-dynamic form and zoomed across -- what a rush! Just like the slippery waterslide at the hot springs, canopy tours plaster a smile on your face every time. Cameras flashed as we took turns soaring more than 600 feet above the ground. Our collective hoots and hollers of encouragement no doubt frightened away any wildlife, but this tour was all about speed, insane heights and just letting go.
Our guides used a special braking system which allowed us to relax and enjoy the ride. Just when it seemed that you'd reached terminal velocity, a cheery guide would do his job and save you from imminent tree-trunk collision. The second to last cable was our indisputable favorite: a 50-second, half-mile ride past Arenal Volcano and the lake. A niggling fear gripped my chest when the wind picked up, spinning me sideways as I barreled down the line. Would I make it across, or get stuck on a cable some 500 feet above Earth?
I wasn't that fun-loving tourist who liked going backwards, upside down or without hands while suspended mid-air. I was a travel writer (with a certain fear of heights) putting on a brave face for family and friends; I willed my body forward to the platform, where my guide screamed "Pura vida -- what a great ride!" Two hours and eight zip lines later, I was ready to fly again.
In keeping with our adrenaline theme, we signed up for an afternoon of canyoning with our friends at Desafio Adventure Company. Why not rappel down a 200-foot waterfall and make a real day of it? My sister, her friend and I piled into a van with ten other thrill-seekers and traveled to the outskirts of La Fortuna, past grazing cattle and waving children. A half hour later, we arrived at a two-story tree house, a.k.a. base camp, for the "Lost Canyon." Once again, we got extra cool points for our enormous cock-eyed helmets, which were mandatory gear for shimmying down rainforest canyons.
After a brief but thorough safety talk and description of the tour, our affable guides led us to the first waterfall -- a 20-footer designed to get us wet while whetting our appetite for the adventure to come. Our group moved quickly down the first cascade, excited and nervous all at once.
The surroundings were phenomenal -- thick jungle cloaked the canyon walls and the waters were crystal clear. At the next platform, bravado gave way to apprehension when I stepped onto the grated ledge and made the mistake of looking down. Our guide Diego sensed my hesitation and reassured me with a charming grin. Clipped in to our guides both above and below, we were in safe hands at all times.
I gently eased down the 140-foot fall, taking in the perfect 360 view around me. The best part was watching my little sister flying down with confidence. She looked so small from below, and was never once deterred by the vertical plunges. We transformed into spider monkeys as we climbed, scooted and scrambled between rocks and logs, and cannon-balled into hidden pools of water.
The fourth and final rappel was a monster at some 210 feet. By this point, most of us had conquered that initial fear and were raring to take on the Big Daddy. A burst of adrenaline coursed through me as I sped down the falls -- I was completely soaked to the bone and loving every minute of it!
Our motley crew was drenched but beaming as we hiked 350 steps back up to the tree house. The Desafio team had been cooking up a storm, and we sat down to a typical casado of rice, beans, chicken and salad -- one of the best meals in Costa Rica. Hearts still racing, we reminisced about the rappels and the sensation of flying and vowed to do it again.
Note: Desafio's professional photographer took all our photos, so no need to worry about packing a camera.