Costa RicaCosta Rica

Soaring Through the Sky at 50 mph

Destination: Arenal

The final day of Gracie's Great Adventure took us bucketing through the mountains to SkyTrek in Arenal where the kids decided to truly test my mettle as a cool mom.

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All I knew was that it would involve flying again via zip lines and that was enough for me. I had already proven I could do it. Heck, I had given birth twice and that was far easier than getting up the courage to do this again. But they assured me this experience was going to be "different" and what they didn't tell me is that over the next two hours I would fly six times, totaling over 2.5 miles, suspended only by a fabric harness and a pulley attached to a huge cable. Gulp.

SkyTrek is in a spectacular location with an unfettered view of Lake Arenal and the volcano. They offer a myriad of adventures, but we were here to zip above the treetops. Plain and simple.

We met up with a few other daredevils, including a family with teenage daughters and a honeymooning couple. Our guides, Alan and Mark, helped us into our harnesses and helmets and we jumped on the aerial tram for a leisurely ride up, up, and farther up. Below we could see the awakening of the cloud forest, so aptly named as we literally watched the clouds lift as the sun warmed.

Once at the top of the mountain, we stood on a platform and received instructions on how this was going to play out. First, we had to put on thick gloves and practice. They had a "baby" zip line that allowed us to get the feel of the experience. I was hooked on and went sailing a whopping 10 feet off the ground. Not bad, I thought.

Next up was the slightly longer, slightly higher cable. Again, we all passed the test and landed on a larger platform. At this point, I was feeling pretty darn competent. My legs had been properly tucked, I hadn't let go of the pulley, and I hadn't had a heart attack.

Mark and Alan gave us some last minute instructions and turned us to face the next zip line. Ohmygod. The cable stretched to infinity. I swear I couldn't see where it ended and it looked no stronger than a piece of monofilament by the time it disappeared into the forest a half mile away.

Fortunately they offered us a graceful exit. We could opt to take the "Chicken Trail," get back on the tram and wait at reception if we were too afraid to continue. My feet automatically started moving in that direction, but then I looked at the younger folks and decided I would really come off like a scaredy cat coward and I wanted to maintain my sense of dignity and coolest mom status. I'll show them, I thought.

My daughter again volunteered to go first. They hooked her securely to the cable where she hung like a balled up sloth and gave her a push. She zoomed away from us and was soon little more than a blip in the distance.

Now it was my turn. The guides took a certain delight in good-naturedly goofing with me while encouraging me and I got a false sense of security. They were absolutely safety conscious and made sure all my lines and harnesses were properly fastened. Once I was in the sloth-hang position, I figured I had some time to stabilize my breathing and would tell them when I was ready. Before that thought was even complete, I was soaring in absurdity.

I picked up speed and zoomed nearly 400 feet above the forest with the volcano and lake spread out on my left. I couldn't tell you what was on my right since I don't think I got around to turning that way before I felt a jiggling of the cable. That was the signal from the guides to spread my legs apart as I approached the platform where they would brake me in my slightly less-than-dignified position. Note: long pants are better than shorts.

My daughter cheered as I landed and once my heart stopped doing its way too rapid rat-a-tat-tat, I was cheering too. Her fiance zipped across next and I was sooooo glad to have our little family safely together again. It was beyond exhilarating, definitely a challenge, but most assuredly the kind of fun you can only have when you leap out of your comfort zone.

From there, we zipped in a zigzag from mountain to mountain. Some of the lines were higher than others, one zoomed directly into a tunnel formed by the tree canopy, and a couple of them were so steep that I felt as though I was going way faster than 50 mph.

One of the young girls weighed just slightly more than a bag of flour and on two occasions she stopped a few feet short of the receiving platform since she didn't weigh quite enough to carry her the distance. No worries. Alan shimmied the cable and in a matter of seconds had brought her in.

Once back on terra firma, we thanked our guides who had treated us with great humor, enormous patience, and who had focused on our collective safety. I think my biggest fear was that my harness would fray and snap, but every piece of equipment is double-checked before each leap. They did a fabulous job of creating an astounding adventure.

To walk off our adrenaline, we took a hike through the Arenal Hanging Bridges where howler monkeys serenaded us with their booming voices echoing back and forth through the forest. A perfect visual end to the adventure was the sight of a blue and gold macaw that flew right past us and into a tree just a few steps away.

Exhausted, we headed to Montana de Fuego, a beautiful luxury hotel with spectacular views of the volcano. The dining room has floor to ceiling windows, great food, and never-ending cups of coffee. Our individual bungalows were elegant suites with private porches, sitting rooms and feathery soft beds. Our tired bodies were pampered in comfort and I only wish we had had enough time to enjoy their spa which offered everything from volcanic mud baths to chocolate masks. Next time...

But it was time to go home and I spent much of the return travel time doing a mental comparison of my recent experience with the ones I had in Costa Rica 20 years ago.

The people are every bit as friendly as I remembered, many of the roads are still more like boulder-laden paths, and everything still runs on Tico time, that wondrous slow motion, no-stress lifestyle that makes you savor the moment.

Yes, there are more tourist activities and, thankfully, more directional signs (on my last trip I spent more than half the time being lost) but there is still an authenticness about the country that makes you realize how simply beautiful and uncomplicated life can be.

There does not need to be a Publix on every corner nor neon signs blaring nonsensical advertising. A good, no, great meal can be had for little more than a pittance in an open air restaurant run by a farming family.

The most unexpected realization I had is that the people of Costa Rica are still welcoming and kind. There is no rudeness. I sensed no resentment of the influx of tourists. Instead, everyone we met along the way seemed to actually want to share the Pura Vida that is Costa Rica.

Aren't we the lucky ones?

Soaring Through the Sky at 50 mph in Pictures

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