I’m on the lower forest-clad slopes of Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica. Nerves and my carabina-draped harness are jangling as I step into the ‘departure lounge’, a steel platform hovering in the trees 200 metres above the rainforest floor. SNAP! I’m now attached to a wire that slants down into a sea of green. “Pura Vida” screams the cabin crew as he pushes me into the void.
Pura vida means pure life and is a phrase oft heard in Costa Rica. I’m here to check out the great range of thrilling outdoor activities and experiences for which the country has developed a reputation. Costa Rica is renowned for its epic volcanic scenery and incredibly rich and varied flora and fauna. My previous visits have been happily spent gently ambling through pristine tropical rainforest and cloud forest in search of wildlife. The wild life I’m discovering on this trip is of a very different nature and Costa Rica is extremely creative at coming up with new and thrilling ways of accessing and exploring its wilderness.
Within 24 hours of stepping off the new direct BA flight into San Jose, I’m in a raft, floating down the Pacuare River along a very well behaved stretch of water that has just a few slightly bumpy sections. We drift through the most astonishing beautiful river-cut valley, past galleries of intensely green tropical forest, filled with insanely colourful birds and squealing cicadas. The lodge clings to a bend in the river that is embraced by forest and welcomes us with terrific food and beautiful cabins that are lit at night by candles and oil lamps. This is soft-adventure bliss!
Things change….the following morning we are trussed up in our harnesses and hike up a steep valley side to platform #1 to embark on a series of zip lines that zig-zag their way back down to the lodge. The unique thing here is that you are zipping just metres away from trees and the forest canopy, keeping your eyes open for sloths, toucans and howler monkeys. The lines are fairly short but thrilling and views from the platforms across the valley suck the breath out of you. By the last platform I’m converted to zipping as my preferred mode of transport. Prosecco and canapes on the last platform seal this view and make the final 30 metre rappel down from the tree eminently manageable.
The following morning I discover that the ‘float’ into the lodge in no way resembles the white water that waits for us downstream and this was where our thorough rafting instruction is really tested over 3 hours (punctuated by a riverside picnic lunch) as we negotiate a series of grade 3 and 4 rapids. The Pacuare River tosses and drenches us as we are sluiced through a procession of stunning gorges. Along a less ‘extreme’ section, I’m allowed to helm the raft for a while until my rafting companions scream at me to let our guide reclaim control (further encouraged by the sighting of an extremely venomous fer de lance snake swimming next to the raft). I still assert that I was deliberately trying to reverse through the rapids but the very experienced guides definitely know how to command our raft and tame the water. White water rafting is addictive and towards the more sedate end of our journey, we are all straining to hear the next ‘rumble’ that announces our approach to a new set of rapids.
Zip-lining and rafting are two of the most iconic experiences on offer but there are a wide range of thrilling activities that will keep the adrenaline flowing and take you into Costa Rica’s pristine interior. Over the next week, I take aerial trams up volcanoes, hike to waterfalls, swim under waterfalls, take night hikes, stroll along forest canopy walkways, kayak through coastal mangrove forests, ride horses, mountain bike, do canyoning and river tubing (white water rafting but replace the raft with an over-inflated inner-tube that you sit in!).
I finish up at the fabulous Rio Perdido hotel in the north of Costa Rica. This is a wonderfully remote lodge that specialises in outdoor activities but also offers a series of natural hot springs that feed into thermal pools along a river that cuts through a magical forested gorge. You don’t have to sacrifice comfort to visit some of the more remote wilderness areas of Costa Rica and the thermal pools at Rio Perdido are a great spot to sooth the muscles after a day of action and reflect on the trip. All of the activities I experienced were remarkably well arranged and very safe. Costa Rica is a great destination for adventure addicts and active families but why Costa Rica rather than a Centrepark or activity centre in the UK? Simple – it’s the outstanding scenery witnessed from zip platforms, the baby black howler monkey that watched me from the gorge rim that morning while I was Tarzan-swinging across the river, the laughing falcon that was sat on a post while I was horse riding, the fer de lance snake that swam by our raft, the dolphins that accompanied my boat on Golfo Dulce, the sloth seen along the mountain bike trail, the snakes, frogs, insects and night time smells and noises on a nocturnal forest hike.
And so back to Arenal – I’m nearing the end of a zip line that’s almost a kilometre long, having reached speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. The huge bulk of Arenal volcano looms behind me, the forest stretches out below me and Lake Arenal is the backdrop to the rapidly approaching platform. I’ve just witnessed a toucan take a baby snake and as I glide towards the landing platform, I see a coati climbing a tree. “You made it” shouts the guide. “Pura vida” I whimper.