Terrifying Experience Alert: Zip-lining in Arenal, Costa Rica

The beautiful Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Zip-lining is the thing to do in Costa Rica.  It’s advertised heavily in areas such as La Fortuna and the land surrounding Arenal.  Helmet clad tourists appear on billboards giving a thumbs up sign while hanging rather casually from a cable.  Almost always there are kids on these billboards, too – look! So easy!  Even a child can do it!

I’m not really sure where I stand on the “Adventurous” scale or 1 to 10.  I guess I am adventurous enough to travel to almost anywhere (yes, almost, I do have restrictions) but not adventurous enough to jump out of a plane or climb a mountain.  What’s that, a 7 or something?  Who knows.

Point is, I’ve never really thought of zip-lining as an adventure sport.  I never thought of the height of the lines above the ground, the speed at which you’d be cruising along a thin cable, or the seemingly little amount of material between hanging on said cable and crashing to the ground below.  When I booked our zip-lining adventure in Costa Rica, I honestly didn’t give it too much thought.  I knew I wanted to do it and I knew it would probably be cool.  I’m glad that I didn’t really consider anything else.

Chandra wearing ziplining gear Arenal Costa Rica

Not the most stylish, I'll admit.

We arrived at Sky Tram & Sky Trek just as the rain of the morning was dying down.  October is most certainly the rainy (-er) season in Costa Rica, but we were fortunate with weather.  We were introduced to our two guides that would be helping us today: Diego and Reynaldo.  Both were young Costa Ricans with friendly smiles and good, relaxed senses of humor.  They both looked like they loved their jobs, which is exactly the attitude that you want when you need to trust a stranger with your life.  We were fitted for helmets, ponchos and harnesses.

There are many zip-line operators in the Arenal area but this one is a bit unique in that it offers a tram ride to the top of the “mountain”.  I had assumed that the tram ride would be more of just a means of transportation to the first line, but it ended up being a very cool experience.  The tram glided along on cables without making a sound, its path carved out along the route to provide walls of wet-forest (nearly rainforest) on either side, and a cushion of secondary forest below.  Reynaldo explained the forests in Costa Rica and the flora and fauna that we were passing through.  In the distance, he heard some howler monkeys and radioed to stop the tram.  He then called out to them, mimicking their sounds, until we were able to spot them climbing all through the trees!  These monkeys sound exactly like dogs – adorable!  Pics of those guys later…


When we arrived at the platform about 10 minutes later, we were greeted with welcome drinks and had some time to meander around the area.  Bad idea.  Slowly each of us walked over to peer over the side of the platform at the first real zip-line.  The cable was steep and after a couple hundred feet it disappeared into the clouds.  Oh no!!  How am I ever going to fling myself off of this platform into a cloud?

Off into the abyss...just 2,000 feet until solid land!


Oh. My. Gawd.

Our guides gave us a quick yet thorough round of instructions and then we had time to practice on two short lines.  These were on about 80 feet long each (24 meters) and barely above the ground.  Still, gliding along a cable while hanging from a nylon strap isn’t the most natural of feelings, so these two practice lines were very necessary.  Time for the first “real” line.

There was no way I was going first.  Or second.  Or even third.  There were 8 of us in total: a family of four with two adorable girls, two middle aged women from Georgia/Kentucky, and Dave and me.  The family went first.  Every girl screamed as she entered the cloud and lost visibility.  The father was last and you could tell he was trying to be macho.  Big fail though.  The second he entered the cloud he let out a thundering yell that sent the rest of us into a fit of nervous laughter.  I wanted to go before Dave, so next it was my turn.

I’ve never been so scared, but at the same time I knew it would all be ok.  I think I was more scared of getting stuck in the middle of the line than anything else because I was pretty sure that I lacked the upper body strength to pull myself along the line to the platform.  Soon I was strapped onto my little metal widget that would glide along the line and I was leaning back, my arms straight and clutching the handles, and my knees bent into my stomach.  Away I went!  I was ok for the first few seconds, I’m sure because I couldn’t see that I was so far off of the ground, but as I entered the cloud I completely lost any visibility and let out an ear piercing scream.  I could only see a tunnel of white in front of me and I was approaching speeds of 40mph (65 km/h)!  I began to turn to the side because I had bent one of my arms and I realized I was now completely perpendicular to the cable – not good!  I decided at this point that the best thing to do was to just go with it and completely turn around.  Ok then.  Well now I was going 40 mph backwards.  Less good.  Ok, had to turn around.  Not sure how I did this, but I rearranged my hands, spun around, and was still hurdling into the cloud with about 10 seconds to go before reaching the platform.  I guess it was a good thing that this particular line was a respectable 1,525 feet (nearly half a kilometer!).  What a rush!  I skidded into the platform, maybe still screaming, but definitely so excited for the next zip-line.  So exhilarating!!  Video here:

The next four lines were better and better.  I mastered my technique and managed to stay facing front.  The fog cleared as soon as we set out on the second line and from then on we could look to the side and see either Lake Arenal or the forest below.  The lines varied in length from 1,300 feet (400m) to 2,460 feet (780m)!  The longest line was also the fastest and we each reached speeds of 45mph (72km/h) – this line also passed over the forest and then through a tunnel of rainforest!  The feeling was sensational and I wish we could have rode that line over and over for hours.

Dave coming in for his landing...at 45mph!

All in all zip-lining was not what I expected it to be.  It was much scarier, but because of that it was much more rewarding than I had thought it would be.  Dave has done zip-lines in both Australia and South Africa and he told me that the experience in Costa Rica was by far the best.  Have you ever done zip-lines?  Does this sound more or less frightening than bungee or sky-diving?

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4 Responses to “Terrifying Experience Alert: Zip-lining in Arenal, Costa Rica”

  1. Michael
    October 26, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

    Having done bungee and skydiving…and a zip line. I think I decided the order of scary. Bungee is the scariest. It is just unnatural to do. So is skydiving .. noone normally just jumps out of an airplane. But with both of those, the feelings are expected to be scary and you have an idea what to expect. It is known to be insane.

    With that said, the zipline seems like the same deal as a roller coaster, but with much more risk of falling to your death. It must have been thrilling and no doubt scary. Perhaps bungee and skydiving are in the near future? Hah 🙂

    • Chandra
      October 26, 2011 at 8:56 pm #

      I’d consider skydiving, but I don’t think I could do bungee. The ground feels too close for it to be safe! And at least with skydiving you’re attached to someone who hopefully knows what they are doing and also doesn’t want to die 🙂

  2. October 26, 2011 at 7:07 pm #

    I zip lined in Costa Rica too & it was pretty scary whenever you looked down. I kept thinking that at least all the trees would break my fall.
    Looks like you had an amazing time & that’s what it’s all about 🙂

    • Chandra
      October 26, 2011 at 8:54 pm #

      Oh definitely – I don’t think I looked down once, and looking up at the cable freaked me out too! I already wish I could do it again though 🙂 Thanks for reading.