Having scrambled down a lush, slippery ravine, I'm about to step off a 60-metre wooden platform, and descend ass-forward through an icy waterfall. With my hardhat, I look like a swollen tick sliding down a strand of dental floss.
No matter how often you might do this, and no matter how many times you safety check the ropes, there is always something unnatural about forcing your body to do something your brain would rather it didn't. As a survival instinct, my mind flashes images of cracking caribinas, shredded rope, and rocks as sharp as daggers. They call this the Lost Canyon, but I'm not sure if that's because it's only recently been discovered, or it's reserved for those who have lost their mind.
The country is Costa Rica, surging ahead in its quest to become the world's premiere eco-tourism destination. Sustainable, environmentally friendly projects are the norm in a country that has over 25 per cent of its land passionately protected from development. It's no accident that pioneering eco-activities like ziplining rainforest canopies was invented here, and the country's biodiversity offers terrific jungle, river, ocean, and mountain adventure. Included amongst them, the growing sport of canyoning.
The physical act of exploring canyons is known by other names in other countries. South Africans call it kloofing, Japanese called it river tracing, and our neighbours south of the border add a few vowels to call it canonyeering. Until I arrived at La Fortuna, I had never heard of it, but figured canyoning must be close to mountaineering, save for the canyons. Having really taken off in the last decade, canyoning combines aspects of climbing, hiking, and where appropriate, swimming. One could add dangling, skin tingling, and waterfalling too. The idea is to head somewhere remote, and make your way up or down a particular canyon, relying on a range of wilderness skills to aid your escape. The dangers are many: flash floods, falls, inaccessible rescues, heat, cold, getting stuck, and in the case of Costa Rica, encountering poisonous snakes. Much like the one I almost stepped on, leading to a hasty but controlled detour as directed by my guide, Suresh.
It took years for the husband and wife team of Suresh Krishnan and Christine Larson to prepare the Lost Canyon for the average, adventurous visitor. Christine, a former adventure guide, and Suresh, a member of the Costa Rican Search and Rescue Team, operate Desafio Adventures in La Fortuna. The town sees a steady stream of tourists year-round hoping to witness lava dramatically blast off the cone of the nearby and very active Arenal Volcano. Since thick clouds often prevent any lava sightings at all, companies like Desafio have sprouted to offer alternative recreation. Introducing the thrill of canyoning to anyone with a sense of adventure, the company delicately cleared debris from a recently discovered canyon, navigating the terrain and a myriad of strict national eco-tourism bylaws. I was amongst the first groups in, accompanied by a suitably impressed certifier from the US Canyoneering Association.
Ropes, gloves, harnesses — the provided gear is not unlike that of mountain climbing, except we're going to be getting very wet, and ropes and water mix like rats and royalty. We have driven quite deep into the jungle, which in Costa Rica is only a few miles outside of town, and have scrambled to the top of a narrow ravine. The first waterfall is just a few metres high, something to literally wet your feet. It provides a refreshing shower, even as the rich green foliage provides shade from the sun above. What follows is a fun mix of hiking, wading through rock pools, and bouldering, until we arrive at the highlight of the three-hour adventure: the 60-metre drop. I take a deep breath, lean back, and begin to abseil directly through the waterfall, down to the rocks below. Midway through, I pause for a few minutes, as Suresh swings me in and out of the cascade, eliciting a scream from the icy force of the water, the pure thrill of it all. Harnessed and somewhat helpless, I'm surrounded by pristine nature, experiencing a natural baptism within the bosom of Costa Rica.
If you go:
Desafio Adventures offer three trips a day to the Lost Canyon, located outside the town of La Fortuna. The company provides transportation, equipment, qualified guides and lunch. The cost is $90US per person, and the activity takes about four hours. The company advises its clients to be in good physical condition. Make sure to bring secure shoes or performance sandals, swimming gear, and a change of clothes. For more information, visit desafiocostarica.com