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COSTA RICA ADVENTURE TOUR

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We're in Costa Rica, sliding through the forest canopy on a zip-line, 44 meters above the ground. Now we know how Tarzan felt, swinging through the jungle on a liana vine.

Canopy tour participants stand on a platform high in a strangler fig-embraced kapok tree.
Canopy tour participants stand on a platform high in a strangler fig-embraced kapok tree.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We just had to work up the courage to take that first step off the platform.

The Original Canopy Tour™ was founded in December 1993 by Canadians, Darren Hreniuk and Rick Graham. "I wanted to show visitors the rainforest from a different perspective," says Darren. "Up in the trees, there's more wildlife than on the ground, so it's a learning experience as well as an adventure."

Canopy tours consist of zip-lines strung between platforms attached to tall trees. Participants wear harnesses and use techniques and equipment used by spelunkers (cavers) and rappelers.

"It's safe," he claims. "Thousands of people have traveled through the jungle canopy without accidents. We even had two ladies in their 80s, who took the ride and wanted to do it all over again."

The eight British, American and Canadian members of our group are coolheaded, even when we sign the liability waivers. Only Jim from Florida is apprehensive. His cold, clammy hands shake like the leaves in the trees around us, but he's determined to conquer his fear of heights.

One look at the equipment is reassuring. It's top-quality PMI-PETZL climbing gear. The weakest part, a sling, supports a weight of 3,000 kilograms.

Once tightly strapped into our harnesses we walk, with pulleys and clamps clanging, to the platforms. "I'm sure these harnesses were designed by a woman," complains one guy. "The trip is worth the pain," replies another, back for his second tour.

Costa Rica eco tour

Guides Fred and Diego stop frequently to point out Costa Rica's biodiversity. "These acacia tree leaves look like those of the sensitive plant," says Fred, "but don't touch them. Fire ants live here. If they sense your vibrations, they'll pee formic acid on you. The pain will last for hours."

A step-like monkey ladder liana crosses our path. "It's a natural diuretic," explains Fred. "You'll see it ground up in San José's Central Market. People boil it and mix it with milk to mellow the bitter taste."

Wild purple orchids
Wild purple orchids
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A giant blue morph butterfly flits by, as Diego leads us to a hollowed-out espavel tree, which is a member of the cashew family. Inside, we discover several bats, sleeping upside-down.

Farther along the trail, Fred shows us a Royal Palm. "Those round fruits taste like a combination of pineapple and banana," he says. "But it's a death trap. Snakes lurk by the roots to ambush any rodents, iguanas, or people picking the fruit."

We decide to stick with safer pursuits — like swinging between trees. Craning our necks back, mouths slack, we look up to the first platform in the giant limbs of a guanacaste tree.

A woman swings through the jungle tree tops on a zip line.
A woman swings through the jungle tree tops on a zip line.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Fred connects each of us to a safety rope before we climb the ladder to the 15-meter platform. "We always attach you to something," he assures us, "just like kids in the mall on their mothers' leashes."

The wooden platform reminds us of a treehouse — one without sides and a roof, but with enough steel cables to support a major bridge. From here, the second platform, in the arms of a huge strangler fig, looks very far away.

"There's no turning back now," says Fred. "From now on, I want you to call me the Almighty Lord of the Costa Rica Jungle." His humor breaks the tension and makes us all laugh, except Jim, who clings to the trunk like Velcro™.

Fred demonstrates how to control our speed, by using leather gloves to grip the cable behind the pulley attached to our harnesses.

"It's time to fly," he shouts. Our group becomes silent as we each ponder: "Why are we doing this?" (We'll do anything for a good story.)

The scenery dissolves in a green blur, as we whiz across. Fortunately, there's plenty of time to admire the wonders of nature, while the others traverse to the second platform.

Ziplines

Man rappels down from a 44-metre platform in a kapok tree.
Man rappels down from a 44-metre platform in a kapok tree.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Cicadas chatter. Macaws squawk. Christmas cacti, bromeliads and orchids decorate the limbs around us. Rick Graham once saw an ocelot from the platform. Visitors are more likely to see armadillos, white-tailed deer and sloths. "We don't guarantee that you'll see animals, but we do guarantee excitement," he says.

We find it on the 45-meter-traverse to the third platform. One person brakes too much and stops midway, dangling 30 meters above the ground. Fred reassures her, as he comes to the rescue. Wrapping a leg around her, he uses his hands to pull them both across the cable.

Once on the platform, he asks the obviously-shaken woman if she wants a drink of water. "No," she gasps. "But do you have any gin and tonic?"

Her dilemma only makes Jim more nervous. Fred nonchalantly leans off the edge of the platform, supporting his weight with the safety rope. "The height doesn't scare me," he says. "It's the birds.

Yesterday, a toucan and a scarlet macaw perched on these branches. I kept wondering what they were going to do to me." He explains that he developed a bird-phobia as a young child when he visited Sesame Street. "It was hot, so Big Bird took off his head. It freaked me out."

Even Jim laughs at the story. Relaxed, he musters up the courage to rappel 44 meters down the huge kapok. Diego attaches us, each in turn, to a figure-eight, which disperses our weight. He then teaches us to control our rate of descent by gripping the rope held behind our backs.

Stepping off the platform, it takes a few seconds to realize we're not falling. We ease the ropes slowly through our hands, taking in the transition of the cathedral forest from the canopy to the floor.

When Jim makes it to the ground, grinning from ear-to-ear, we all cheer. "I'm going to do it again," he vows.

Tarzan would be proud of him.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

The Original Canopy Tour™: www.canopytour.com

More things to see and do in Costa Rica:

Costa Rica Trips for Nature Lovers

Central America on a Shoestring (Lonely Planet)