Caves and Canyons in the Volcanic Jungle of Costa Rica

View of Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica

I recently took a trip down to Costa Rica, a country with nearly zero COVID restrictions and abundant English. The highlights were definitely rappelling alongside waterfalls and some very moderate cave exploration in the Arenal volcanic region.

This trip was unlike most for me, but also one with also very different goals. This was not rugged adventure in an emerging economy… this was tours, food and relaxing in intense humidity. It took some getting used to, however my needs now are different than when I traveled to India, Madagascar or climbing while living out of my car.

Tourismo de la Canyoning

Its hard to tell how developed a tour will be when you sign up. This canyoneering tour for example was sold as natural canyoneering, but was not a guided experience as much as an industrial adventure factory. It had full steel cables and via ferrata connectors every step of the way. Still, it had five drops and one 165 ft long which ends by getting pulled through a waterfall. It was… sorta synthetic experience but I still had a good time and it was nice to not have to worry about safety for once while canyoneering.

The only time I felt a bit nervous was when I had to give up my control to the safety of others. A ‘rappel’ where the downstream belayer completely controlled your decent as you ‘fell’ into the canyon, centered and then were quickly dropped into a pool of water (which I bottomed out in). Given the independence of climbing and canyoneering in The States, it was uncomfortable to me going essentially hands free without a backup. I got over it though. 🙂

Exploring the Venado Caves

If canyoneering was tourismo to the letter, caving was not. We walked through a river to enter the cave and found a variety of spiders and dozens of bats who flew when you shed your light upon them. I was impressed by the bat construction of 8 inch diameter holes cut in the ceiling using claws and guano that could be a foot or more deep.

Bat holes cut into the ceiling

The first thing we did was go through a chest sized hole into another compartment and then climb out of there using slippery rocks. I am not a spelunker. I am conservative I caves with my large body and long limbs. I’ll admit I was nervous with it but it was actually more comfortable than it looked.

Sadie entering the first compartment through chest sized hole

Our trip went through compartments you could stand in connected by short segments of low crouching or hands-knees. We saw the -mites, -tites and guano wonders.

Otherworldly cave-scape

The last adventurous connector was a tunnel 1/3 filled with water you had to crawl through. I don’t fuck with water, especially when I imagine few if any people my height have been down this tunnel. This was a rare instance in these “adventure travel” experiences that I didn’t rise to the challenge and I’m okay with that.

On our way out I enjoyed listening to our guide describing a 2km cave adventure he went on. He recounts:

Trip Leader – “Now jump into this black pool which has the sound of rushing water. Once inside, the current will take you. You will need to grab one of six ropes then to pull yourself out.”

Our guide – “What if you don’t grab one of the ropes?!?”

Trip Leader – “That’s why I put six!”

Our guide – “I think I’m ready to turn around.”

I thought about this story more and more afterward. Each time it sank in what it would have been like to been in their positions. How wild it is to go 2km underground and how absolutely wild a thing where the options are grab one of six ropes or drown in an underground river.

Finishing on Reflection

You either have money or have time. This experience I had a job which allowed a short trip to Costa Rica with many tours. My needs were to relax and reset my lizard brain which decided some months ago that feelings of panic in the chest was a helpful constant state. Having someone remove the risk of activities helped and even though it took some getting used to… I know that this kind of trip is what I needed.

Don’t forget to be kind to yourself.

Relaxing in front of Arenal Volcano from our patio.