Seeing things from a different perspective adds to the fun of adventures, tours and activities in Costa Rica – canopy suspension bridges, zip-lines, scuba diving, rafting, para-sailing – all give a different view and I assure you that the view from the inside of a waterfall is different than the view from the outside.
Much like zip-lines there are a wide variety of different ways to descend a river ranging from wild and extreme to relatively mild. Like the zip-lines the advertising focuses on the -est aspects. Highest, biggest, and wettest are all invoked to entice travelers but when it comes right down to it they are all a blast.
Waterfall Rappelling Tours
About ten years ago the rafting companies near Arenal volcano realized that there was another way to go downstream and several of them started building platforms, rigging anchors and setting trails to create canyoning tours.
Now there are half a dozen to choose from around the volcano and a few more sprouting up around the country. It’s one of our favorite things to do so we’ve tried them all.
For all round fun, a beautiful setting and high safety standards our favorite is La Roca on a tributary of the Río Arenal across from the volcano.
They’ve done an excellent job of integrating the canyon tour into the amazing rain forest that was originally protected as part of the Arenal Hanging Bridges reserve (now known as Mistico).
Besides the waterfall rappelling the tour includes a fun zip-line section over the river so it a great way to get a taste of what zip-lining is like to help decide whether to do it 15-20 more times on a full blown canopy tour (we usually get a bit bored after the first six or eight and start looking around for a waterfall to slide down…).
Be warned that you do have to climb over a kilometer back to the top after the rappels end at the Arenal River. Most people consider this a great opportunity to enjoy a highly improved path through the rainforest and combine some excellent wildlife watching with a canyon experience. Others might prefer a different tour that ends at a road to avoid the hike.
By far the most extreme commercially operated tour we’ve found is at the Family Brenes Finca Modelo Waterfall Rappelling (see image at the top and complete description on the link) northwest of Monteverde. Because of the high elevation the water is a bit colder than some of the other tours but you’ll probably never even notice because the adrenaline and fear will keep you warm.
Canyoning & Canyoneering
Costa Rica is an undiscovered mecca for free form canyon exploration where there are no platforms or trails – just you, your partners, the rope, the rappel device, anchors and the watercourse.
Our friends from the American Canyoneering Association inevitably start searching for the best airfare whenever they hear about the thousands of unexplored and deserted canyons, gorges and quebradas filled with warm tropical streams and rivers just waiting for protection to be placed and ropes to be hauled.
A few years ago we were Guinea pigs for friends of ours that have owned and operated the first Costa Rican rappelling adventure since its inception.
Their original tour to the Casa Piedra is an amazing experience with an overnight stay behind a waterfall on the upper Diamante river northeast of Dominical beach on the central Pacific coast. A short hike, an introduction to rappelling and the wilderness camp complete with freshly prepared organic, home grown vegetarian meals (I’m a carnivore and even I thought the food was excellent) round out one of our favorite trips in Costa Rica.
But back to the Guinea pigs. A few years ago Jesse and his family decided to open the lower Diamante to canyoneering tours and we were fortunate enough to be the first test tourists they tried it out on. The canyon is amazing and receives very few visitors so you’re likely to see rare wildlife – we spotted a kinkajoo and a 2 meter long unidentified fat gray snake in addition to the more routine rainforest species.
Now, everyone who’s reasonably fit can descend this amazing route. This is not a commercial, set route, steel platform tour. It’s real canyoning at its best. No experience is necessary because the excellent guides will provide instruction, set all the anchors and ensure your gear is rigged correctly. You need to be able to swim and hike and scramble over slick rocks for a few kilometers but if that sounds like fun then this is the best tour you could imagine.
Quebrada means ravine and there’s no more apt word to describe the steep walled canyon that the Gata river runs through for a few kilometers before emptying into the Río Peñas Blancas. Adjacent to Arenal volcano and bordering on the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest reserve this is one of the wildest areas remaining in north central Costa Rica.
The walls of the ravine are so steep that no one knew what was at the bottom. You could climb to the mouth of the canyon where there was a small waterfall, but the next four kilometers were unknown territory until we pulled out the ropes and headed down. We were lucky enough to pass through the canyon and down the beautiful waterfalls before the drainage was developed for hydro-electric power. Read the details of the descent and watch the video…
Canyoneering can be extremely dangerous and you’re likely to end up dead if you attempt to descend (or ascend) a river without the proper training, equipment, and team. Flash flooding is common when a tropical downpour miles away dumps millions of gallons of rainwater into a narrow gorge. It rushes down in a wall of water scouring everything in its path…including canyoners.
The danger inherent in dropping off a fifty foot cliff dangling from a rope may seem dramatic, but if you know what you’re doing that’s actually the safest part. Walking the slick moss and algae covered river bed between rappels is where most injuries occur. Helmets are absolutely necessary at all times and you should know how to treat shock and have an evacuation plan since breaking an ankle in a rock trap is a distinct possibility.
If you have the slightest doubt stick with the commercial tours.