Fear on the Menu in Costa Rica
By Tim Leffel

Our editor heads to the adventure wonderland of Costa Rica to pick up some fear in a safe package.

I climb the steps up to the platform and step into a harness. A worker fastens clips and buckles around me in a flurry of activity, tugging on each one to make sure it's secure. "Step off when you're ready," he says. With a gulp and "Here goes," I take a leap of faith and walk into thin air. Just as it looks like I'm about to go splat on the forest floor, I reach the end of the cable and go swinging up into the air, several stories above the ground. I swing back to within a foot of the platform I just left, then up above the treetops, and then back toward the platform again. I go from fear to elation in a few seconds, then just smile and enjoy the ride.

monteverde tarzan swingThis is the Tarzan Swing, one dread-producing contraption bundled in with one company's zipline rides near the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. Zipping through the treetops suspended from a cable seems tame compared to this. Only three of the eleven gathered go through with it. The rest wanted some fear, but not that much fear.

Some have said that humans are the only animals that go out looking for danger on purpose. I'm not so sure that's true; you certainly see plenty of male mammals picking fights with bigger rivals. Plus you've got to think at least a few black widow spiders and praying mantises know that they're going to die in the pursuit of mating.

Nevertheless, it's obvious that we have the cushiest life of all the beasts so we need to pay somebody to get our fear-induced adrenaline pumping. We'll wait an hour in line for a two-minute roller coaster ride or travel all the way to Central America to come face to face with poison dart frogs, or go flying through the air hooked to cable lines suspended over a gorge.

One Adventure, Coming Right Up
Zipline tours, whitewater rafting, downhill mountain biking, "lost caves" exploration, crocodile boat trips—in Costa Rica you can literally pick your hair-raising adventure off a menu. When I stopped in an adventure tour company's office, their list of adventure activities was two full pages long, with lots of emphasis on how cool it'll sound to talk about later. On one tour they buckle you to a winch line and lower you down next to waterfalls. "Perfect for those looking to combine the thrill of descending breath-taking waterfalls in a gigantic, jungle canyon. This tour has serious bragging rights—something to boast about when you get back home!"

The country has been at this a while and has parleyed the desk jockey's thirst for adventure and a rapid heartbeat into a roaring tourism economy that attracts a reported 1.2 million visitors a year. The travel industry has taken its natural scary attributes—live volcanoes, deadly snakes, and raging rivers—and added their own man-made ones to up the ante. (Never mind the official tag line, "No Artificial Ingredients.")

I'm on a nine-day, action-packed tour of Costa Rica with a fittingly named outfitter: Adventure Life. There's a lot packed into that phrase, "Adventure Life." If we already lived an adventure life, would we need to pay a tour company to give us more of the same somewhere else? The phrase certainly sounds more interesting than our actual life: sleep, eat, work, sleep. Somehow "Treadmill Life" just doesn't have the same cachet. We sign on with Adventure Life so we can stop being softies for a while and remember what it is to get a natural rush.

Hot Lava, Close and at a Distance
volcano costa ricaThis instinctual urge to get away from the mundane same-old and experience a little fear is probably what drives us to try activities that sound, well, a bit nuts. While backpacking around the world in the 1990s I traveled to Lombok to hike a live volcano. I had to abort after it started erupting the day before our scheduled climb. So I later climbed Merapi, on the island of Java, instead. At the top I peered into the glowing crater while dodging bursts of sulphurous steam. One year later it blew its top and the large explosion killed 43 people.

Later I hiked up Mayon in the Philippines. On the way up my guide told a story about two young German tourists who had literally outrun the lava pouring down the side when their hike turned into an escape in 1993. Surrounding residents weren't so lucky: 77 died from the pyroclastic flows of gas and ash on the other side of the cone. One year ago, Mayon started rumbling and spewing lava again, leading to the evacuation of 35,000 villagers.

Are we unhinged to get this close to a real threat on purpose? Merapi, after all, translates to "Mountain of Fire." Is it some kind of symbolic attempt to cheat death?

On another trip a group of travelers in Antigua, Guatemala told me that they spent $7 each to go on a hike around Pacaya, a live volcano nearby. For that price they didn't exactly get rigid safety procedures. "We were holding each other's hands and stepping over steaming lava flows," one of them explained, excited but incredulous. "For a while we didn't even know where our guide was-he had skipped up ahead somewhere."

Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano hasn't erupted since 1998, but that doesn't mean it won't any day now. Fortunately there are thousands of monitors implanted in the ground all over, keeping tabs on activity.

arenal volcano costa rica

This particular live volcano serves up a spectacular show that draws some 600,000 visitors a year. I spend one night gazing out at it from the window of my room at Arenal Observatory Lodge. I watch a great fireworks display of hot red lava rocks rolling down the mountain, sounding like thunder and creating showers of sparks. It looks threatening and dangerous, but nuzzled in comfy sheets on a soft mattress, not too threatening.

Danger is at safe a distance from my bed, only because I'm in a good spot. Our guide advises us to avoid the Tabacón hot springs and visit a rival one instead. The others are a better deal, he says, but more importantly they're out of the destruction path should something go wrong. In 1993 some 500 small lava rocks rained down in the same area, blasted out of the cone up above.  

Deadly Creatures Who Slither and Hop
There is another kind of threat nearby the morning after my bedtime view of the volcano: a viper snake nestled in a landscaping plant, a few steps from the hotel's check-in desk. costa rica snakeI take a photo, but am thankful I have a good zoom.

Costa Rica has 22 varieties of poisonous snakes, a fact you don't read too much about in the tourism bureau literature. The bushmaster is the second-longest poisonous snake in the world, stretching to three meters. The pit viper wreaks the most havoc though, biting hundreds of people a year, killing a few and seriously wounding others who don't get the anti-venom quickly enough. It doesn't help that one mother can give birth to 90 babies in her lifetime.

It doesn't stop there of course. In a country where wildlife is the big draw, you have to expect some "wild." We're told never to touch the frogs—the colorful ones are often poisonous. "Always check your shoes for scorpions before you put them on." Costa Rica's got 14 varieties of scorpions, after all. Heck, they've even got a poisonous sea turtle in this hotbed of breeding.

High Water Rafting
A few days after the nature hiking and zipping through the trees, we drive through eight hours of relentless rain to a town near where we'll go whitewater rafting. "Don't worry," says our guide. "The rafting company has a line painted on one of the rocks. If the water is too high and they can't see the line, they don't go out on the water that day."

"Where's the line on the rock?" I ask our rafting guide the next day, as we put on our helmets and pick up our life vests. It has rained most of the night and is still sprinkling.

"Huh?" he replies, and we push off into one of the few calm spots we'll see on the river that day. I'm not worried though, as Amigos del Rio has their act together. I've been on some rafting trips where the equipment had obviously been through two seasons too many and the guides' only skills seemed to be the ability to tell bad jokes in English. These guys demonstrate why Costa Rica manages to stay the safe adventure destination: experience and an assurance that you only tempt injury—you don't actually get one.

Photo by Evelio Ramirez

We pound through class 3 rapids for hours, on a bouncy ride that's all adrenaline. When we finally come to a flat part, there's a view of virgin jungle all around us, steep cliffs covered with a hundred shades of green. Out of 23 rafters, only one person falls out. Nobody gets hurt. Downright scary at times, but good clean fun.

Back home, friends ask what I did on my trip to Costa Rica. "Oh, a zipline tour, jungle hikes, some whitewater rafting. You know, the usual menu."


Editor Tim Leffel is author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune, The World's Cheapest Destinations, and co-author of the planning guide Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America.

Photos by Tim Leffel except where indicated.

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