Fancy flying over the costa rican cloudforest with a harness and a pulley? It was a dream come true for CONAL HANNA.
My favourite dream, better than the one when I score a hat-trick for Arsenal, even better than my Ashes-winning double century in the Baggy Green, is the one where I am flying. Gliding through the air without a care in the world, this dream always leaves me disappointed to have woken up. So when I found myself actually soaring high above the trees, over Costa Rican cloudforest, no less, it took some convincing for me to believe it was happening. But one more look out over the pristine panorama below confirmed it had to be true – even my wildest dreams weren’t this vivid.
Zip-line tours are big business in Costa Rica. The local Tico Times estimates there are more than 50 scattered through the country’s countless national parks. In Monteverde and Santa Elena, the popular nature reserves in Costa Rica’s central north, four companies battle it out for supremacy of the skies.
The tours consist of steel cables tied between mammoth cloudforest trees. Sitting in a harness below a pulley, riders literally zip between wooden platforms connected to the trees. Once there, a guide disconnects your pulley (you remain safely harnessed to one line at all times) and connects you to the next one. And like this you glide carefree through ancient woodland.
Riders control their own speed with a reinforced glove that rests on the cable behind them. The harder you pull down, the slower you go. Any temptation to take the first line slow is negated by the fact that if you hamper your momentum too much, you get stuck – all alone, dangling 150m in the air until a guide comes to collect you.
With 15 different lines, the layout of the tour was not unlike a golf course, starting and ending from the one ‘clubhouse’. And, like the holes on a course, every line had its own character traits. Some cut through the shadows of the canopy above, narrowly avoiding magnificent moss-covered trees. Others were built primarily for speed, with the high-pitched whirr of the pulley mirroring my heart rate as I hurtled along. But perhaps the best lines were those that were high and long.
With the wet season in Monteverde generally year round, from the platform all we could see was a cable trailing out into the mist beyond. It wasn’t until I left the trees behind and sailed out hundreds of feet above the valley, to find an uninterrupted view for kilometres in all directions, that I fully appreciated the scale and beauty of the untamed cloudforest.
For those who prefer to take in nature at a more sedate pace, many zip-line companies also offer suspension bridge tours. Starting out like a normal bushwalk, you’re soon wandering across 200m bridges, 60m above the tree-line. This is a far better way to absorb Costa Rica’s renowned wildlife, which includes monkeys, sloths and hundreds of species of bird, the most revered of which is the quetzal.
But for me, the adrenaline rush of the zip-lines was, just like my dream, infectious. Before long the brake was not being touched until the very last second, when I’d grind it on hard to step gracefully onto the platform – not unlike James Bond, or so I liked to think. The reality was we were nowhere near as glamorous. Waddling single file through the forest between runs, harnesses around our waist, with matching orange helmets and mud-splattered faces, we resembled lemmings desperate for a new platform to launch ourselves off.
Just as I had the hang (sorry) of the zip-lines, we reached the Tarzan swing. This was a new challenge, a 25m rope tied at just one end to a tree above. Picture the playground swing on steroids. Stepping off the platform I fell for a fraction of a second, allowing just enough time for my heart to reach my mouth before the rope kicked into gear, launching me up toward the tree tops and back in a giant pendulum motion. As terrifying as it was for me, it was perhaps worse for the guys whose job it was to grab me by a leg to bring me to a not-so-graceful halt.
Another few zip-lines later and we were back at the bus. It was even more depressing than waking up, but my elation refused to wane. With some 14% of the country made up of national parks, Costa Rica has no shortage of natural beauty, and the virgin cloudforest around Monteverde is among the nation’s best. At ground level, this region is a nature-lover’s dream. From the sky, it’s a dream come true.