Canyoning Excursions Thrill Tourists Safely in North-Central Costa Rica
Not many canyoneers would show up for a long day of trekking in a shirt that reads, “Stop talking. Start shopping.”
But they arrive at the Pure Trek staging area outside the north-central Costa Rica town of La Fortuna in bikinis and Converse sneakers – honeymooners and families with sulking teenagers, ranging in age from barely old enough to read to deep into retirement.
The mother of a 6-year-old boasts, “She did this a year ago, when she was 5. She’s just like me – loves adventure.”
Only in Costa Rica could every technical sport become a tour. From the rain-forest canopy to Class V whitewater, it seems enterprising companies have found a way to place the average tourist in just about any environment where he or she is not naturally found.
Why not let a 6-year-old rappel from a waterfall as well?
When Pure Trek co-owners Scott Bradley and Cynthia Crummer were brainstorming names for their new tour, they settled on “canyoning” for its user-friendly appeal.
Unlike canyoneering (or, as it’s known in some countries, abseiling), “it’s zippy,” says Bradley, who also owns a hotel and restaurant in the La Fortuna area.
In 2001, Crummer, former owner of Canopy Safari canopy tour near Manuel Antonio, on the central Pacific coast, collaborated with Bradley on how to bring waterfall rappelling to the masses, and found an appropriate home in the adventure tour breeding grounds around La Fortuna.
Crummer and Bradley built platforms above four waterfalls and one dry wall in a canyon straddling a local watershed, with anchors similar to the cable wraps used in the canopy tour.
For safety’s sake, they included exit trails out of the canyon that avoid the waterway, a measure they insist would prevent accidents like the one that occurred last month, when a family rappelling with an unlicensed company drowned during a flash flood in San Ramón, northwest of the capital (TT, July 13). However, Crummer says, this canyon has never flooded, even during periods of high rain, because it is located close to the source of the stream.
Further adaptations include the use of three guides and two ropes to belay each client. Clients are locked in at all times before and during the rappel to cables wrapped around trees far from the canyon edges, to eliminate risk from erosion. The Wilderness First Aid and CPR-trained guides carry both evacuation gear and a cellular phone in trucks parked at the exit to the canyon.
“Some associations that have come to Costa Rica are accustomed to canyoning/ canyoneering as a sport and are not conscious of the need to adapt this sport to a tour that anyone can do safely,” Pure Trek said in a statement to The Tico Times and other media after last month’s tragic accident.
As one of the companies licensed to operate rappelling activities in the country, Pure Trek holds a permit to conduct adventure tourism activities from the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), which it obtained after submitting a pile of supporting documentation, including an approval from the Health Ministry, operation manuals for both safety and emergency situations, logbooks for equipment maintenance, a civil liability policy and proof of staff certification in first aid and CPR. The license must be renewed every five years.
Either the tourists are unfazed by the recent tragedy or Pure Trek’s reputation precedes it, because on a recent Saturday morning the tour is maxed out with 22 guests led by six athletically built, Chaco sandal-shod Tico guides.After a brief hike into the woods, the group approaches the first ledge at a crawl – both from natural trepidation and the fact that the guides have locked everyone into a safety line away from the edge.
Only when it is his or her turn is the client able to see the distance to the ground below – some 100 feet to the spray-soaked forest floor. Clipping her from one rope to another, the guides pass off a rappeller until she is more or less seated, facing forward, above the void. Bryan Rodríguez, the 16-year-old photographer, snaps a close-up (on sale later for an additional $30), and then with a steady release, friction does its thing.
Three guides belay the clients one at a time, with one at the top and one at the bottom of the rappel, and one on the backuprope threaded through the guest’s carabiner.
Descending to the whoops and catcalls of fellow Pure Trekkers, each client bottoms out to a hearty “Congratulations! You did it!”
The group congregates in the runoff beneath the falls, herded together by the guides as they wait for everyone to finish so they can be ushered to the next rappel. Conversations spring up, and even the family with the sulking teens talks amongst itself, eliciting a single word from the black-clad eldest son: “Wow.” Three waterfalls later they will argue over whose idea it was to go.
On the ride back to the Pure Trek offices, the turismo van is abuzz with happy voices, minus that of the 6-year-old, who has fallen asleep on her mom’s lap. All the patrons seem glad to have dropped $90 on the halfday excursion and are now headed to their next all-inclusive adventure tour – either rafting with outfitter Ríos Tropicales or canopying with Sky Trek.
Crummer, a hip, tan 40-something, emerges with a waft of incense from the office to invite the group to have coffee and watch their photographs played back on television. Once everyone has settled with a cup of cinnamon-infused Café Rey and glanced at the immaculate, unbent covers of the Rock and Ice and Outside magazines lining the coffee table, Cynthia polls, “How was it, guys? Pretty cool, huh?”
The mother of the sulking teens walks over and hugs her.
Contact Pure Trek
Phone: 461-2110, 461-2112; 1-866-569-5723 toll-free from the United States and CanadaWeb: www.puretrekcostarica.com
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