Detours: Over the top

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2007, 12:00am

Most visitors to Costa Rica make a beeline for the small town of La Fortuna, in the hope of seeing molten rock tumbling down the steep cone of the Arenal volcano. There are few sights quite like it, but what the brochures fail to mention is that Arenal is clouded over for much of the year, and many visitors spend days looking at cloud when they'd much rather be on the beach.

As a result, operators in La Fortuna have been quick to keep visitors occupied, offering everything from all-terrain adventures and horse riding to river rafting and wildlife spotting.

As I wait for the clouds to lift for a glimpse of Mount Doom, I discover the thrilling sport of canyoneering, which involves dangling 60m above the ground, soaked to the bone beneath a waterfall.

Canyoneering combines aspects of climbing, hiking and, at times, swimming. Former adventure guide Christine Larson, and her husband, Suresh Krishnan, call this the Lost Canyon because they discovered it only a few years ago.

Every effort is made to conserve the rich eco-system, while allowing inexperienced climbers to rappel down two large waterfalls.

Through their adventure company Desafio, I join a dozen other travellers for a short drive from the town and a quick safety lesson. Several experienced guides and well-maintained equipment ensure maximum thrills at minimum risk.

After a few small rappels we arrive at the first major drop. I swing myself around the platform, lean back and slide down into the lush canyon below.

Kitted out with gloves, helmets and harnesses, we slowly make our way into the ravine. Even with my camera in a plastic bag, I'm nervous about wading through the rock pools, preferring to remain relatively dry by pulling Spiderman manoeuvres along the narrow canyon walls. This makes no difference once I descend over a 60-metre drop because Krishnan, guiding below, swings the rope directly into the waterfall. Safely at the bottom, I join the rest of the group, all wearing 'did I really just do that?' expressions.

As the jungle teems with life around us - tucans, lizards, bugs - Krishnan explains the exhaustive work it took to clear out old logs, wood and muck, and to navigate Costa Rican tourism politics.

The country has strict laws when it comes to protecting its natural assets and it's no accident that it has become one of the best eco-tourism destinations in the world.

After three hours, we reach a narrow exit point, unprepared but resigned to a painful hike up the canyon to the road.

As it turns out, the cloud over Arenal remained for weeks, but descending the Lost Canyon outside La Fortuna meant I didn't leave disappointed.

Trips to the Lost Canyon outside La Fortuna leave four times a day and cost about US$85 per person. For more information, go to