November 28 2012
A tiny, peace-loving country and a pioneer of Central America’s ecotourism industry, Costa Rica is arguably the region’s most hassle-free adventure paradise. Works for me; while no stranger to arduous terrain and heart-quickening physical challenges, I’m a jungle neophyte. Costa Rica is where I’ll get my tropics feet wet – and every other part of me, if necessary.
For two days I’ll forsake the concrete and steel canyons of Manhattan for rainforests replete with daunting trials: gruelling hikes in the shadow of Arenal Volcano (making use of waterways crisscrossed by massive roots instead of paths); dexterous manoeuvering in and out of caves – some of them very tight squeezes; and 50mph zip-wire descents that will put 600ft between me and the jungle floor. I pack little more than shorts, shoes and a readiness (I hope) for the task. Fear of heights, confined spaces, large spiders and impromptu mud baths… best leave those at home.
Enough office monkeys; bring on the real ones. I buckle up for the nonstop flight from JFK to San José.
I pass briskly through immigration and under a sign that reads, “Welcome to the happiest country in the world.” Someone actually did conduct a survey, I’m informed by Ronald – the upbeat driver that Nayara, the resort I’m staying at, has sent for me – as we speed north in his Chevy Tahoe. “Do you get carsick easily?” he asks, as the well-paved but narrow jungle road starts to resemble a roller coaster. Luckily, I don’t. We spiral up into the cloud forest, the foliage and bungalows wrapped in gauze-like mist. At one point Ronald hits the brakes and abruptly backs up; incredibly, he’s spotted a two-toed sloth dangling on a telephone wire. I’ve already had a significant wildlife sighting, and I haven’t even hit the trail yet.
I awake feeling good and throw open the doors to my porch. Right in front of me, closer than I’d imagined, is mighty Arenal, emitting twin plumes into the sky.
Time to blow off some steam of my own. With Arenal permanently off limits to visitors, I’ll be climbing a dormant volcano called Chato because I’m told it’s the most strenuous hike around. At the moment, I’m bouncing along the gravel road into Arenal Volcano National Park with my genial guide Edwin. We pass walls of tall pampas grass and guava groves pocked with giant holes left in the wake of the volcano’s 1968 eruption. The lava only stopped flowing two years ago, Edwin tells me, and Arenal remains an insurance nightmare for local hotels.
Chato has no trail per se, only a natural watercourse; time for a muddy climb. Plant life runs riot here; the trees are furred with bromeliads, moss and lichen and lashed with strangler figs. During a water break, Edwin corrects a common misconception: “Everyone says that Tarzan swung on vines, but actually they were roots. Vines grow up.” He shows me one that’s begging to be ridden. I grasp hold of it and take a running leap, but veer off and rip my shorts in mid-air.
Breathing hard – it’s been very steep going for the past hour – we reach the summit, a small clearing that looks down on a chartreuse lagoon, and bolt down a few granola bars. Feeling raindrops, we don’t linger. As we descend in the downpour over slick and muddy terrain, Edwin and I make a wager: he who tumbles foregoes lunch. In the end, neither of us takes a spill, and I’m therefore entitled to a no-nonsense meal of casado (rice, black beans, salad, plantain) with fried fish in the tidy little tourist town of La Fortuna.
Wearing borrowed rubber boots and a hard hat, I peer dubiously into the void. The dank, twisty, black-as-pitch Venado Caves are “not for everyone”, Edwin had said mildly on the way here. Agreed. As we wade through ankle-deep water, it becomes apparent that there are bats everywhere, quivering in thick clusters on the ceiling and whizzing perilously close by our ears. But more primal fears await. Edwin trains his headlamp on a scorpion spider – two horrifying creatures for the price of one.
I’d told Edwin to do his worst, which is how I find myself squeezing through a short tunnel he calls “the birth canal”. And the name fits: this is the sort of passage a person should go through once in life, at most. I feel a genuine wave of panic as I realise one of my arms is momentarily trapped, but I push through. After hauling myself up two consecutive 10ft walls with no footholds to speak of, I’m dripping more profusely than the rocks around me – some of which have been sculpted by constant trickles into truly bizarre formations (one a huge papaya, another a creature from Alien). Getting out requires more hard crawling through seriously mucky water. Silly me; I’d thought I might emerge half-dry.
I’m covered in volcanic mud again, but this time it’s part of a spa treatment at Nayara. The lubricating continues at the restaurant, with flights of wine accompanying a five-course meal. I fall to sleep amid a symphony of chirps and whistles and the sound of the breeze gently jostling the leaves.
I head to the dining room for granola with dried fruit and fresh banana. Edwin picks me up, looking more refreshed than I do, and we head back into the park for the next challenge in my bespoke jungle adventure: the zip line.
The canopy rolls by in front of me. Behind, vast Lake Arenal spreads across the horizon. I’m rising through the rainforest in a wire-mesh gondola car, en route to a series of high-altitude cables that I’m about to ride back and forth at breakneck speed. The instructions are fairly simple: lean back, keep your knees up and whatever you do don’t get stuck in the middle; terror and discomfort aside, it’s just embarrassing.
I’ve done a few zip lines before – but never at 50mph, and never a full 600ft above the ground. This is a serious run and, as it happens, that particular stomach-turning drop is the first. “Am I absolutely, positively clipped in?”, I ask the operator. “I think so,” he quips, and next thing I know the metal trolley is humming along the cable and I hear my own voice – woo-hoo! – as the forest whips by me. When I land on firm ground, my legs are shaking but I’m flooded with adrenaline. One thought possesses me: again. I whizz through the next six lines, including a downright luxurious half-miler near the end.
The rain starts coming down again on our way to the 600-acre private reserve that’s home to the network of Arenal Hanging Bridges, further enshrouding the ever-present volcano. While not as tricky as yesterday’s clamber up the mountainside, it’s no walk in the park.
About a quarter of a mile in, I smell something foul. “Wild pigs,” Edwin explains, and seconds later a dozen or so appear. Further on, he pokes a torch into a small hole in an exposed bank. He has me do the same, and I say hello (very much against my will) to a tarantula’s scrunched-up hairy legs. Later still, a few feet off the path, a nasty-looking green snake lies curled up like a Bavarian pretzel. “That’s one of the deadly ones,” Edwin tells me quietly. I watch this unmoving little killer with a mix of primal revulsion and curiosity.
Mostly, though, I marvel at the majestic metal bridges we cross every 15 minutes or so. Great feats of engineering, they cut straight lines through the leafy chaos and offer an airy (and gratifying) sense of freedom from the slimy goings-on of the jungle floor.
After swinging by the hotel one last time to grab my backpack and a sandwich for the road, I jump into Ronald’s Tahoe. The drive back through the cloud forest and its hill farms, free of mist this time, feels completely different. Ronald even manages to locate another sloth, three-toed this time, clinging lazily (or so it seems) to a branch. We pull up to the airport well before my 6.45pm flight – a bit too early, even. A pity; we might have had time for a dip in a hot spring.
After a wee-hours taxi ride home from JFK and a quick sleep, I’m back in the office. Hanging bridges and stunning volcano views are one thing, but who’d have thought I’d miss the bat cave? Here I sit, two feet on the floor, body dry from head to toe, everything well-lit and comfortable – and I’m not sure how much I like any of it.