Arenal Rappelling: Extremo! Maximo! Super!

To read my Costa Rica journal from the beginning, click here.

In Monteverde, we had been accosted with huge billboards and countless flyers, hounding us to take extreme, adrenaline-filled adventures through the canopy. Zip-line across yawning chasms! Bungee-jump from high cliffs! Tarzan-swing from dizzying heights!

“EXTREMO! MAXIMO! SUPER!” screamed the signs.

No thank you! We preferred wandering through the quiet cloud forests, listening to the music of tropical birds rather than the shrieks of pumped-up people.

And yet… here we were, in Arenal, signing disclaimer “We won’t sue you if we die” forms in the front office of Pure Trek, a canyoning company that offers adventures for stupid plucky folks like us.

Adventures like, you know, risking your life rappelling down the thundering throat of waterfalls. EXTREMO! MAXIMO! SUPER!

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?


About ten of us crazy adventurous idiots people piled into a large van, where we were driven through the Costa Rican countryside. At a dirt pull-out, we were herded into smaller pick-up trucks. Martin, Dakota and I sat on rickety wooden benches in the bed of an old truck, with splintered railings to keep us from jouncing right out of the back. We rattled along the dirt road through picturesque jungle, past colorful flowers and ramshackle houses.

At our destination, the people in the trucks ahead of us were beaming. “Did you see them?” they asked, radiating happiness. “The Toucans? Did you see those Toucans on the drive up?”

We couldn’t believe it.

No, we did not see the Toucans. How did we miss them? They seem to know when we’re in the area, and quickly duck out of sight.

Feeling very bad-ass. Oh yeah, baby, going rappelling down a waterfall.

But we couldn’t feel disappointed for long, because we were being handed spray jackets and harnesses, gloves and helmets. Feeling very bad-ass, we donned the gear and tripped enthusiastically down a short trail along a rushing creek to the first (and biggest) waterfall of the day.

The mood suddenly turned much more serious.

The creek poured over the edge, becoming a churning waterfall. Harnesses were clipped to safety wires as we inched closer to the precipice. We were given instructions, shouted over the roar of the water: The speed of the descent is controlled by your dominant hand, held down at the hip. Hold the rope tight, and you stop. Open your grip, and you descend.

Got it? Go!

Martin, Dakota, and I were at the back and watched as, one by one, fellow participants were clipped to the rappel rope, guided to the very edge of the wooden platform, told to turn their backs on the dizzying drop-off… lean back… go on, leeeeean back… and then jump off backwards.

Bye bye, participants!

One by one, they disappeared from our sight, sometimes with whoops of excitement, other times with screams of … was it sheer terror we heard?

It is not instinctive to stand at the very edge of a waterfall gushing over a cliff, turn one’s back to the abyss, and then lean back!

It is even less instinctive to voluntarily let yourself fall into the void.

In a small voice: It is awfully extremo, maximo, super.

Martin, sporting his GoPro camera strapped to his helmet, went first. Harnessed in, he turned at the cliff’s lip, leaned back into it, and then leapt backwards, dropping alongside the waterfall like a pro. Dakota went next, descending (as later seen on Martin’s GoPro) relatively smoothly, with only a few minor mishaps. At times he is seen spinning across the cliff’s face, propelled right into (and then down) the crashing core of the waterfall.

I suspect he did that on purpose. The video shows him exiting the pool at the bottom, soaking wet, flashing an enormous and very satisfied grin.

I was next. I stepped up, was harnessed to the rappel rope, and turned my back on the yawning chasm. I was feeling pretty cocky. I’ve done this before! I’ve rappelled almost 200 feet down into an echoing underground cave! This is a piece of cake!

I leaned back over the edge, flashed the tour guides a confident grin, and jumped backwards, intending to repeat Martin’s phenomenal descent – or certainly match Dakota’s impressive one – and instead just dangled there. At the top. Hello! The point is to rappel!  That means down!

I opened my rope hand. I kicked off against the cliff face. I pushed and rocked in the harness. Come on, dammit! Go down!

But I just hung there, a little dinglebob refusing to drop.

I mean, that’s just embarrassing.

The guys leading the tour kept shouting at me to OPEN MY HAND, but my gosh, it’s open, it’s open! I’m just touching the rope for balance, I’m not even grasping it! What more do you want me to do?

I think the tour guides were somehow holding me with the safety rope. I suspect that they were the ones controlling the speed of the descent, not us – that they were just giving us the illusion of control. I heard one of them whisper to another, “Oh! She’s really light!”

I’m not sure how I feel about them being so very surprised at how “light” I was. Apparently they thought I weighed much, much more. But I gave a tremendous kick at the rock, and felt myself finally, blessedly, drop an inch.

And that’s how it went. Martin’s video footage shows me struggling down the cliff face. I wasn’t rappelling so much as scooching my way painfully downwards in tiny little hops and kicks. I spun helplessly around, legs flailing uselessly at the air. I banged into the cliff face. I twisted ineffectively on the rope, then kicked off again, pitching sideways and getting drenched by the waterfall’s spray. I dangled there, sputtering, gathering strength and resolve, and tried again.

I looked positively amateurish, clumsily bumping my way down, being battered against the rock.

So much for all that cocky confidence.

I think I was also sitting way more upright in the harness than I should have been. Why didn’t they yell at me to lean back further? (Probably everyone was just trying to get me down the damn waterfall before night fell.) By the end of that first rappel, my stomach muscles were cramped and sore from the effort of sitting upright. Indeed, those muscles would hurt for the remainder of our trip.

Still, the three of us whooped it up and high-fived each other at the bottom – EXTREMO! MAXIMO! SUPER! – while wearing sloppy grins.

Who cares if any of us looked ridiculous? This is fun.

That, by the way, is a really good life motto.

Survived the waterfall rappel! EXTREMO! MAXIMO! SUPER!

In high spirits, we frolicked down the trail to our second waterfall rappel. This time we dropped straight down a slot canyon, through a narrow passage which widened out at the bottom. Again, Martin and Dakota descended like pros, dropping straight down through the slot. Again, I spun and dangled and banged my knee. Again, I flailed my legs and whacked the rocks and generally looked like an idiot.

Sheesh. I really thought I’d be better than this.

Still, it was fun and exhilarating, and I did drop a little faster than the first time. At the bottom, jubilant, I stood thigh-high in the waterfall’s pool and jumped up and down, arms raised in triumph, until the tour guide told me to settle down so he could unclip me from the ropes.

We took another short hike to the one dry rappel of the day, down a stubby little cliff face. It hardly seemed worth the trouble of all that clipping and unclipping of ropes, although I guess I’ll take as many rappels as I can get. It’s obvious that I need the practice.

And finally we were standing before our last rappel, next to the gushing waterfall. Dakota went first, disappearing with confidence, to record Martin’s and my descents.

I rappelled next, still requiring hops, push-offs, and bum-jiggles in the harness to desperately bounce my way downward, but at least not completely dangling and spinning out like before.

If we’d had just one more rappel, I’d probably look like a total pro.

Then Martin appeared high on the platform above us. He leaned back over the gorge and launched himself backwards. The camera captures him covering the entire 80-foot drop in one graceful fluid sweep, coming to a gentle stop mere inches from the ground, a breathtaking and spectacular display of skill and athleticism. He hopped to the ground and turned to us with a grin.

That, right there, was hands-down extremo, maximo, and super.

The whole thing was over entirely too fast. Feeling thrilled but sporting wobbly legs, sore arms, and aching stomach muscles, we started a long slog up endless stairs to the waiting trucks. Up, up, up. It felt like yesterday’s slog out of Hanging Bridges, although today we were dripping wet from waterfall spray, feeling nice and cool, not hot and sticky.

Happiness is a day of rappelling down extreme waterfalls in Costa Rica.

Driving back to El Castillo on the rocky bumpy road, we saw a knot of people standing to the side, spotting scope set up, binoculars out. We pulled over hopefully, asking what they were looking at. “Toucans!” they answered radiantly. Our hearts leapt.

“Although,” they added sadly, “they’ve just flown off.”

No! How do those Toucans know when we’re coming? We’re leaving Arenal tomorrow… will we really not see a Toucan here in Costa Rica? It’s unthinkable!

We vowed to stay right there until those Toucans returned. We would not be denied! We prowled up and down the roadside, searching the trees. The other birders would call out to us, “Come look, it’s a Crested Guan!” And we would call out to them, “Over here! It’s a – ” well, a Gray Hawk, but I’m sure we got them something better than that.

The other birders eventually left. The sky was darkening. There was absolutely no sign of any Toucans. Dejected, we were preparing to leave when a couple on a motorcycle suddenly skidded to a halt in front of us. They breathlessly told us that there were Toucans – just up ahead! – around the corner, flocks and flocks of them!

Finally! Our Toucan-moment had finally arrived!

We raced up the road, around the corner… and discovered flocks of oropendolas.

Montezuma oropendola (left) and Chestnut-headed oropendola (right). THESE ARE NOT TOUCANS!

I mean… I know oropendolas have kind of a heavy bill, but gosh, we all know the Fruit Loops Toucan, right? That big curved bill is just different. I’m sure it was an honest mistake. I’m sure the couple will return home and excitedly show everyone their photos of “Toucans.” I wonder if anyone will correct them.

“Wait a minute, someone grab the Fruit Loops box! Is that really the same bird?”

On the way home, anticipating (dreading?) yet another dinner of eggs-and-cheese-wrapped in a tortilla (we’ve eaten breakfast- and dinner-burritos every meal), Dakota insisted we go out to dinner. Without consulting any guide books, we blundered our way into Fusion Grill. Wow. It had a quiet, elegant atmosphere with flickering candlelight, demur waiters who hovered discreetly about, and a live musician who lovingly played the guitar and some sort of flutey pipes.

We ordered drinks, the waiter helping me with my Spanish. For those of you who care: One has a copa of wine, a taza of coffee, and a vaso of juice or water.

Drinking our copas of goodness, we were encompassed in warm fuzzy feelings. I can’t quite remember what I ordered (probably some sort of creamy seafood pasta), but I know it was a delicious meal with good company and lively conversation.

A perfect end to a perfect day.

At the end of the meal, I drew a shout of laughter from our Very Proper And Reserved waiter when I insisted he kiss the chef for me, and to make the kiss (I said in Spanish) “big and wet.”

And then I marched right up to the musician and planted a big ole appreciative kiss on his cheek. He was clearly startled but managed to keep playing.

The wine must have been very, very good.


Like our entire day.

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