MONTEVERDE — I have always had a peculiar way of relaxing: This time, I would hurl myself into the arms of God, entrusting life and limb to a 150-foot rope as I swung like Tarzan in the forests of Central America.
I had come to Costa Rica hoping for a respite from the breakneck pace of covering national politics, including the presidential campaign, for The Globe’s Washington bureau. And here I was about to possibly break my neck.
For a week, Costa Rica would be my playground. I zip-lined, rappelled down waterfalls, rafted rapids, and traversed rain-muddied trails on horseback. The Costa Ricans have a favorite mantra — pura vida — that seemed to capture what I sought, an experience that was full of life. I wanted my pulse to race, my senses to appreciate the grandeur of something as majestic as the cloud forests of Costa Rica.
On this particular day, I was 325 feet above a lush canyon, aloft on a platform suspended by tautly strung cables.
“Walk to the edge,” my adventure guide commanded, and I willed my feet to comply.
I tried not to look down, but my eyes would not cooperate. It was an otherwise spectacular view: the sky gleaming with varying hues of blue, verdant hills rolling deep into the horizon, and clouds hanging like halos over distant peaks.
This would have been heaven, if not for the dread that preceded my daredevil pursuit.
“Como se dice ‘splat’ en Espanol?” I asked a Spanish-speaking companion, who was apparently too preoccupied with controlling his own nerves. My humor fell flat.
Somewhere hundreds of feet below me were monkeys, toucans, sloths, tarantulas, snakes, and other wild things — bemused, if they could be, by the buffoonery of thrill-seeking humans.
Monteverde is set in mountains west of Arenal volcano, a popular attraction in its own right for its hot springs and conical volcano, one of the world’s most active until recently going dormant. The region has become one of the most popular destinations for adventurists and nature lovers, and one of the gems in Costa Rica’s booming ecotourism industry.
The cloud forests here are some the world’s best known, with Monteverde among the most popular destinations for ecotourists. Clouds sweep into the mountains, dripping moisture into an ecosystem that hosts more than 2,500 varieties of plants, including 420 kinds of orchids, and 400 species of birds. Deforestation continues to be a problem, although the government in the last few decades has taken steps to protect more of its wildlands by establishing dozens of national parks and wildlife refuges.
This was my second trip to Monteverde; the first was nearly four years ago, just before the last presidential election. I recalled having spent an evening with about a dozen US expats — from a nearby Quaker colony — who had gathered at the lodge in which I was staying to watch a presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama.
Much of that first trip was rained out, and the excursion to the cloud forest was far too brief. I had made the mistake of spending four nights in the capital San Jose, trapped by my foolish decision to prepay for my hotel room. You don’t go to Costa Rica to visit San Jose. If you yearn for adventure, wildlife, beaches, and breathtaking scenery — you find a quick way out.
On this trip, I spent one night in San Jose, arriving on a Sunday evening with no pre-booked itinerary, except for my night’s lodging at a hotel outside town. I settled into my room and went online to begin researching plans for my first full day. I didn’t bother unpacking because I would be hopping a 6 a.m. bus for a four-hour ride to Monteverde.
I slept much of the way, awakening as the bus groaned up into the mountains and meandered over dusty gravel roads lined with tin-roofed homes, cow-dotted pastures, splashes of purple bougainvillea, sprawling acacia trees, and grand vistas of sky and mountains.
The bus unloaded its passengers in the town of Santa Elena, a small grid of gift shops, restaurants, bars, tourist agencies, and hostels. I descended into a throng of youthful travelers, the air slightly thick. I headed straight to the visitors center to find accommodations for the night, in a more secluded part of the forest, away from the constant flow of taxis.
Most tourists refer to the region as Monteverde, which translates to “green mountain” and is more descriptive of the region. I booked a room at La Colina Lodge, where I had stayed the last time. It was just a short jaunt from a yoga and massage studio and Quakers run a cheese factory and ice cream shop nearby.
My room was charming and colorfully painted, and the bed comfortable. The innkeeper, Cindy, was helpful and enthusiastic, a good conversationalist who spoke about leaving the States to establish a new life in Costa Rica. She helped book a full slate of activities, including a flashlight-guided hike in the nearby woods later that night to prowl for nocturnal jungle creatures, including sloths, tree-dwelling porcupines, and a host of creepy crawlers.
But I wanted blood-thumping excitement. Back at the inn, I flipped through an array of brochures, my eyes drawn to a word that needed no translation: “Extremo.”
I’ve zip-lined before, but Extremo’s offerings looked daring and extreme, indeed. I could fly like Superman, my arms, legs, and body stretched into a plank while gliding face-first through breathtaking views.
But it was Tarzan I wanted to be — swinging through the jungle with abandon, and yelling ferociously into the wind. There is something about risk that is alluring, perhaps even transformative. Risk begets fear, but it also begets self-confidence. “I can do this,” I told myself.
I fidgeted with my swing harness, making sure it was secure. I was fastened to a rope connected to one of the metal cables stretching across the canyon. I had signed a waiver acknowledging that accidents could happen, possibly ending badly and messily. If one did occur, it would be the first, my guide assured me.
“Are you ready?” he asked after coaxing me off the platform.
“No,” I replied, as I gripped tightly on my rope, my feet now dangling into nothing but air. There was no backing out. I gulped a final breath.
I was in free fall, gravity thrusting my fluttering stomach into my lungs, and my voice switching from panic to euphoric wails.
My body tingled from the rush of adrenaline, and I breathed deeply with an appreciation of how lucky I was to be here, to be away from the rigors of hopscotching the country chasing after politicians.
My knees trembled and my pulse throbbed as I was pulled back atop the platform. My face must have looked flushed. “Are you OK, Bobby?” my guide asked. I grinned broadly as I nodded, a bit speechless from the heart-pounding excitement. “How was it?” my Spanish companion asked.
There was only one way to answer: “Pura vida!”
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