Costa RicaCosta Rica

From Tarzan Swings to Porcupines

Destination: Monteverde

I woke eager to begin the day: today we would fly through the sky on the Extremos canopy tour. I had heard good things about the adventure, namely that it was, indeed, as extreme as its name implied, and that its Tarzan swing was terrifyingly exciting.

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Vincent and I breakfasted light -- I wouldn't recommend canopying on a fully stomach -- before the Extremos transport van picked us up at the hotel. Passing through downtown Santa Elena, we turned northwest out of town, past the Cloud Forest Reserve and up into the green mountains. Bumpy roads were softened by lavender-sprinkled hillsides, and I happily chatted with fellow tourists about their vacation plans.

We arrived at the Extremos base station 20 minutes later and entered to get our gear. When we had been suited up in full safety regalia, Vincent and I waited in the parking lot for our fellow zip liners. My excitement had transitioned into absolute anticipation, and I couldn't wait to begin the tour: 13 cables, a 115-foot rappel, and a heart-stopping Tarzan swing were all on the day's list of adventures. We would reach up to 30 mph on the cables, the longest measuring almost 1/2 mile and the highest climbing to 500 feet above the ground.

We began the canopy tour with two practice cables that were slow enough to give confidence and fast enough to encourage adrenaline to pump through my veins. The cables became progressively faster, and when we arrived at the sixth cable, I looked out over a long, deep canyon.

The cable measured 2,000 feet long, the tour's second longest. Our guides warned us not to brake until we reached the end; if we accidentally stopped short, we would have to wait for someone to maneuver out onto the cable, hand-over-hand, to rescue us. Determined not to make a fool of myself, I hurled myself off of the platform and out over the sweeping valley.

Zipping through the air at top speeds, I felt like a hawk soaring high above the ground. For more than 20 seconds, I teetered along the cable and, finally, braked to a stop just a few feet before the end platform. It's difficult to describe the joy of a canopy tour -- it's similar to riding the tallest, fastest roller coaster at the amusement park... without the safety bars. Wind in your hair, you have the freedom to move around and to control your own fate; it's an amazing feeling.

After several more cables, we arrived at the rappel. My breath caught in my throat as I looked below: the 115-foot drop went straight down, and we were to be lowered by pulley at near-breakneck speed. One by one, we stepped up to our vertical doom. Last in line, I was awarded the dubious pleasure of watching everyone rappel first. In addition, many of my fellow adrenaline junkies began their dives off the Tarzan swing before I had rappelled, more than doubling my anxiety.

Soon, it was my turn to rappel down the giant tree. Nervous, I asked the guide to be gentle and then sat back into my harness. Less than 10 seconds later, my feet were firmly planted on the ground, my hands still hot from the rope's fast friction. I regained my balance and toddled up the dirt path, emerging at the Tarzan swing's entrance.

If rappelling had been nerve-racking, then the Tarzan swing was truly terrifying. All tourists may choose to skip the swing, but I was determined to bite back my fear and jump. As one after another jumped, I felt my bravery ebb and flow; finally, I decided that it was my turn.

Inching up to the platform edge, I looked down at the 110-foot jump. I was scared. I turned to the guide and asked him, "What's the easiest way to do this?" Grinning, he declared, "There is no easy way!" before pushing me off. I felt weightless for a moment, my stomach and heart literally floating in my throat. I fell straight down, and silently begged (through my very audible screams) for the cables to catch me.

Suddenly, I lurched forward -- the cables had broken my fall, and I was swinging forward. I flew up, up, up into the sky, my feet dangling over a 100+ foot drop. I was exhilarated, excited and enjoying myself, and I didn't want the feeling to stop. Too soon, the tour guides were grabbing onto my legs, slowing my swing. After a few more pendulous motions, they stopped me with a rubber sling.

I wiggled out of the cables and extra equipment, heading back toward Vincent. I hoped he had taken good photos, as this was a moment that I wanted documented for posterity. We continued on, finally arriving at the last cable. Almost 1/2 mile long, it was a lengthy, fast trip: the perfect end to a great canopy tour.

Jumping out into the nothingness, I flew over the valley one last time. The Gulf of Nicoya played on the horizon, and the wind blew my body from side to side. Slightly rumpled but very happy, I had finished the tour. We walked quickly back to the Extremos base station, took our equipment off and thanked our guides.

Later, as we traveled back to Santa Elena, I could still feel the breeze in my hair and the amazing weightless feeling of canopying. Gulping down a quick lunch, Vincent and I prepared for our evening night walk at the Hidden Valley reserve, scheduled for 5:30 that evening.

When we arrived at the 30-acre reserve, I was surprised to see at least 35 people lined up for the night tour. Though the private reserve is quiet by day, it is one of the most popular night walks. I would soon find out why: an energetic and friendly guide introduced himself, and we set off into the forest.

Coatimundi -- medium-sized mammals that resemble raccoons -- dotted our path. Unconcerned by our presence, they rooted for food in the ground and sparred for territory. We trudged on, climbing over small stones and traversing groomed, dirt pathways. Suddenly, our guide put a finger to his lips.

A small hole was carved out of the ground before us; inside, an orange-kneed tarantula made her home. Baiting her with a thin branch, the guide coaxed her out. Convinced that she had found something good to eat, the huge arachnid hurried out of her home, emerging before our interested faces. Quickly, she realized that no bugs lurked outside, and she stubbornly returned to her comfy bed.

Our next stop -- the most exciting of the night -- was at a giant strangler fig, which housed a sleeping porcupine inside its hollow trunk. His prehensile tail, similar to a monkey's, allowed him to climb the tree for bedtime. His tiny, spiny body was curled into a small ball, and his nose flattened like a pig's. Though nocturnal, he had slumbered well into the evening.

We wound up our night tour, and headed to a local pizzeria and steak house for dinner. Vincent ordered fresh pasta in a seafood sauce and I ordered homemade ravioli -- within minutes, we were happily eating, discussing the day's events and preparing for our final day in Monteverde.

From Tarzan Swings to Porcupines in Pictures

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