Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 2: Adrenaline is Good for the Soul

Destination: Arenal

prepping for the big swingToday was the day. I had been awaiting this morning with equal parts excited expectation and downright dread. I don't like heights -- you could venture so far as to say that I respect them with a healthy (and plentiful) fear -- but I love to conquer my acrophobia at every chance. After numerous canopy tours and two adrenaline-pumping Tarzan swings, I had done all I could to prepare myself for today's early morning activity: Arenal Bungee's big swing and rocket launcher/catapult.

nervous before ascent on the big swingDespite the delicious scents wafting off the plentiful buffet breakfast at my hotel, my appetite was in a firm holding pattern. I grabbed some dry toast and a yogurt -- protein fixes frazzled nerves, right? -- and read a book over orange juice and more coffee than can be good for anyone. At 9:30, my transport arrived, and a jovial man stepped out to greet me.

Searching for some sort of comfort -- have I mentioned that everyone I know responded with an incredulous "really?!" when hearing of my bungee plans? -- I asked him what he thought of the big swing and rocket launcher. His eyes, vaguely reminiscent of saucers, fogged over and he proclaimed, "You couldn't get me to do that in a million years. And not for a million dollars, either!" Status of self-comfort plan: miserably failed.

I mumbled nervously during the 10-minute drive into town, making sure to mention that I'd done "a bunch" of Tarzan swings. (That's really only a slight exaggeration. Two is a couple, so three is probably a bunch, right?) He was not convinced. But when I told him that he was exacerbating the apprehension already coursing through my body, he quickly assured me that Arenal Bungee uses every safety measure and that no one had ever been hurt on any of the activities.

moment of release on the big swingWhat little relief his statement had brought quickly slipped my mind as we pulled up to the bungee facilities. Colossal steel towers loomed in front of me, painted in happy colors. A spiral staircase led up, up and further up -- "if I don't have to climb that," I told myself, "I'll be fine." Melissa, the manager of Arenal Bungee, greeted me. I sat down to fill out the waiver forms and stow my bags, and she called to the guides to set up the bungee jump. In a strangled voice, I blurted out that I would not, could not do the bungee today.

Melissa encouraged me to do the bungee, but I held firm: it was the big swing and rocket launcher for me. She laughed and said that, for some, the bungee is easier than both of the other activities, and the guides seconded her assertion. Unconvinced, I shook my head; I had mentally readied myself for everything but the bungee, and simply could not summon the courage.

flying on the big swingAfter weighing myself (safety measures are based on body weight), I headed over to the big swing. I had decided to start with it, since the swing involves free falling downward, a bigger issue for me than the rocket launcher, which catapults its victims up into the air. Gingerly, I stepped into a five foot-long body brace. Loops, hooks and bars covered the contraption, and as two guides tightened, checked and rechecked each harness, I calmed myself with thoughts of warm beaches, gentle waves and suntans.

Almost too soon, a guide was instructing me on how the big swing would work. First, they would lift me into the air on a giant pendulum. I would do this backwards. (Backwards?! I almost opted out right then.) Then, I would grab onto a red cord, pull it taught, and, on the backward count of five, yank hard to release myself into free fall. I just stared at him. I think my mouth may have been hanging open. I would have to release myself into free fall? They were joking, I knew it... the big swing was scary enough, and they were going to give me control over my own fate?

thumbs up after the big swingI waited for the punch line, or at least something to indicate that he was joking. Nothing came. I asked him to repeat, to clarify. He was speaking in Spanish, so I must have misunderstood. No dice, Erin. I had been right the first time: my own hand would determine my free fall. Completely unsure of myself and terribly apprehensive, I nodded my understanding and readiness to begin.

I grabbed onto a pole in front of me, and, walking my feet backward, slowly felt my body go horizontal. This is the flying, or falling position for the big swing: belly down, face forward. When I was ready, the guides wheeled the metal platform out from under me, and I was left hanging in mid-air, about 10 feet off the ground, in a very prone and vulnerable position. I wondered if I could still back out?

readying for human rocket launchBefore I could make my decision, I heard "here we go!" and felt myself floating backward. "This isn't too bad!" I told myself. Just then, the gentle gliding motion became jerky, and I began to ascend upward. As each second went by, I thought that there was no possible way that I could go any higher. How high was 100 feet? Not that high, right? Then I remembered: it's like jumping out the 11th story window. As this registered, I heard from far below, "Grab onto the rope!"

Dutifully, I grabbed on to the red rope and again wondered if I could still back out? Could they let me down easy? As these thoughts ran through my head, I heard the countdown: "Five, four, three, two, ONE!!" My brain was on autopilot, for I knew not what I did: yanking with all my might, I released myself into mind-numbing, gut-wrenching free fall.

flipping upside-down on catapultIn between murmured mantras of "Don't pee yourself! Don't pee yourself!", I found that I was having fun. The incredible motion of free falling for 80 feet, feeling the rope go taut, and then swooping and gliding like a graceful bird was like nothing I had ever experienced before. With each pendulum swing of the rope, I felt my body relax into the movement, enjoying the wind in my face and the sense of virtual weightlessness. I had always dreamed of flying, and this was it. It was amazing, and too soon, it was over.

By the time the guides had slowed my swing, the adrenaline was hurtling through my veins. It was incredible, invigorating and an almost out-of-body experience. As my legs found the ground, they shook and wobbled, but not from fear. "Let's do it again! And again!" my mind shouted at me.

big smile after flipping on rocket launcherLuckily for me, the rocket launcher was next. Again, nervousness gripped me, but I knew I was going to have a blast. As I tried to convince myself, one of my guides laughed and proclaimed the rocket launcher to be "more intense" than even the bungee. "Pardon me?" I asked, sure that I had again misunderstood. He clarified: "It is our most intense activity!" "But it's an upward activity," I countered, "no free fall!" Again, the grin. "We'll see," said he.

They hooked me into my harness, this one so tight I wondered if I would be able to breath. Once they had the belts and buckles as cinched tight as humanly possible, they had me hunch forward, and tightened my straps even more. Outlook: not good. Why was everything so tight? What could possibly lay in wait? This was supposed to be a simple catapult, shooting me into the air, akin to a giant trampoline.

finishing ride on the rocket launcherThey had me stand on the platform edge, and began to tie giant, 3-inch in diameter rubber ropes to my sides. It was then that the fear really gripped me, and I asked where I could hold on. They indicated the rope. Grabbing tight, I couldn't even encircle it with my hand. "What if I let go?" I asked. Laughing, my guide assured me that "you just won't."

When I had been checked for safety about ten times, they asked if I was ready. I really wonder what kind of question that was... how can anyone be ready for the "intense" unknown? Again, my auto-pilot brain nodded, and the day's second countdown began: "five, four, three, two, ONE!!" Nothing, and I do mean nothing, could have prepared me for what came next: I, a human projectile, hurtled up into the air at over 60 miles per hour, reaching the apex of my launch in less than two seconds, and then somersaulting backwards in the air.

leaping off tarzan swingNow, I tell you, I am not a screamer. I don't scream on canopy tours, I don't make a peep on the Tarzan swings and I even kept my mouth shut for the big swing. But as I flipped over backward, momentarily relieving the tension on my rubber lifelines, a small, ladylike bellow escaped my lips. Maybe it wasn't small. Or ladylike. There may even have been a few expletives thrown into the mix. I can't really say. I just know that, even as a former gymnast, the thrill of somersaulting more than 200 feet off the ground was almost more than my heart could take. And I mean that in the most exhilarating, electrifying and mind-blowing way possible.

After the first launch and somersault, I had regained my dignity and had begun to enjoy myself. In the heat of an adrenaline moment, it's often hard to get your wits about you and look around, but the view from 200 feet above La Fortuna is incredible. As I ascended the second time, I looked around at the mountains in front of me and the volcano to my left. Then, I flipped again. I definitely rocked it, and hurtled down with a big smile plastered on my face (and there are photos to prove it!).

sweeping views from canopy treetopsOn the third ascent, my speed was slowing, and instead of flipping backwards, I did a half somersault and got stuck, my head facing straight down toward the quickly approaching ground. Disoriented, I struggled to right myself. A tip: just don't. The bungee rope dictates your trajectory, and when you're flying through the air faster than a speeding Superman, you are powerless against gravity. But surrendering to the forces that be was incredible, and the accompanying adrenaline rush was worth every ounce of trepidation and much more.

When I had dismounted from the catapult, walked off my still tingling nerves and properly thanked my guides and Melissa for such an unforgettable experience, I hopped in a van, on my way to the Ecoglide canopy tour. We climbed up the road, picking up a few travelers on the way, before pulling in to the canopy tour grounds.

la fortuna catholic church and arenal volcanoAs I suited up, I watched in astonishment as a tiny, 4 year-old girl donned a harness and canopy gear. A huge smile on her face, she marched over to the test cable, hopped up, and glided down with a buddy guide behind her. After we had all taken our turns on the practice cable, we were ready to start our tour. We boarded an open-top truck and drove to the first platform.

Climbing rustic stairs, we readied for the first platform. It was a short cable, and helped reassure the group that we were safe and in for a great time. When it was my turn, I waited to be hooked on to the primary and safety cables, sat down in my harness, and sped off. After that, it was a blur of cable, height and beautiful views: as soon as I had finished one cable, the guides had sent me onto the next. In fact, we moved so quickly that I sometimes was not hooked on to any safety cable.

my room at arenal springsHalfway into the 18-platform tour, I began to hear screams and excited yelps. "The Tarzan swing?" I asked. A nod assured me that yes, the swing was next on the itinerary. I lined up and watched as, one by one, each canopy-er fell off the platform, tumbling down into the abyss. Soon, it was my turn. Still buzzed from the morning's swing and catapult, I virtually leapt off of the platform. I swung back and forth, reaching pendulum swings of almost 100 feet. For 60 seconds, I enjoyed the giant swing and gentle tingle of a body aflame with adrenaline.

Energized, we quickly finished out the canopy tour. Dripping with sweat from the day's heat, I gulped down the water offered me. It was cool and delicious, a welcome respite from the early afternoon heat. I caught a ride into town with my friends Laura and Allison, who I had met on yesterday's rafting tour, and we enjoyed lunch and an afternoon in town, basking in the shadow of Arenal Volcano. Later, with a fully belly and excitement still coursing through my body, I headed back for some well-deserved rest at my Arenal Springs Resort suite.

Day 2: Adrenaline is Good for the Soul in Pictures