San Jose, Costa Rica. How does it feel to play Tarzan and Jane for a day? Just ask one of the 30,000 plus people who have taken The Original Canopy Tour in Costa Rica and they will be more than happy to let you know how it feels. What is The Canopy Tour? Basically it as a unique concept put together by 2 Canadians, Darren Rennick, from Laval, Quebec, near Montreal and Rick Graham from Toronto. "The idea is to take tourists with no previous knowledge of climbing techniques up into the rainforest canopy and, using a system of platforms in the treetops, allow the tourists to safely traverse from platform to platform and rappel back down to the forest floor. While up there they will see the rainforest from a monkeys-eye view," explains Rick.
The tour starts from a tourist center, either at the Cloud Forest Lodge in Monteverde, home of the first Canopy Tour, at Termales del Bosque (a natural hot water spring) near Ciudad Quesada, or at Iguana Park located near the Carara Biological Reserve, where we started our tour. In each location a hike through the forest leads to the site of the platforms. Here at Iguana Park, the hike takes about 40 minutes. The guide describes the highlights of the tropical transition zone's unique flora and fauna. In fact this is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth and it seems that every few feet we stop to see something that we have never seen before, birds, animals and vegetation alike. "There's no doubt that after strolling through the forest a part of you is left behind as you become just one more element of this natural setting" says Deborah from California, one of our fellow travelling companions today.
Actually the hike through the forest is only a warm-up for the adventure yet to come. Craning our necks back, mouths open, we gape up in awe at the first platform we will mount, 15 meters high in a giant Guanacaste tree. A team of guides takes care of us every step of the way. In fact we are connected to a safety rope before we even get one foot off the ground. From the top of the first platform the second platform, in the crown of a huge strangler fig, looks very far away indeed. The head guide tells us everything we need to know about our journey through the treetops. "We use this mountain climbing harness connected to a pulley by a "sling", basically a nylon climbing strap which can hold a jeep". That's extremely comforting I think, especially after that huge dinner last night. "You are then connected via this system to a horizontal traverse cable between the platforms," he explains. This traverse cable is suspended about 30 meters (100 feet) above the ground. As we look at each other with eyes as big as silver dollars he then reassures us "Don't worry, it's very safe. In fact we have been in business for over 5 years and have never had a single accident". He continues the explanation by telling us about how we are going to control our speed, by using leather gloves to grip the rope behind the pulley, using them as "brakes". Following the in depth instructions is easy as he then demonstrates for us how to do it. "Look Mom, no hands" he shouts as he lets himself out over the jungle foliage below. And he then takes off to the second platform, gliding through the air, reminiscent of Tarzan. I'm next, as the second guide then hooks me up. All too soon it is my turn to "fly" through the treetops. At first my heart leaps into my throat as my feet are no longer anywhere near the ground. My fears are suddenly gone as I look out over this wonderous panorama and the second platform is suddenly underfoot. "Brake now" says the guide, even though it is unneccessary, as he is helping to control the speed himself. "Nothing to it!" I tell the others, "A piece of cake!". I now have plenty of time to enjoy the wonders around us, while waiting for the others to come across. Even though they tell us in advance that they don't guarantee we'll actually see any wildlife, there is plenty. A pair of scarlet macaws squawk by overhead and a pack of coatimundis, with babies chatter off down river. After the others have caught up and an explanation of the strangler fig life cycle and other useful information has been shared with us, it is now time to continue our journey to the third platform, which is located 40 meters up a gigantic Kapok tree. The flight to the 3rd platform is a little different from the previous because a greater sense of freedom takes over. We now know what we are intended to do and so we can sit back and enjoy it more. Don't worry for you adrenaline seekers, there's still plenty of this, as you look down 44 meters below your feet to the forest floor.
At the third platform there is plenty of time to sit back and enjoy the nature around us. But our guide explains that the tour is not over yet. "We still have to get back to the ground", something which most of us haven't yet contemplated. But then as we look at each other wondering, exactly how this will be accomplished, he says "There is no elevator here. You all must rappel down to the ground". As it turns out, it's much easier done than said. A short explanation on the use of the equipment and chldren and us older folks are on our way. The rappel is an amazing experience and the perfect ending to the tour. When the guide said "trust the equipment", even though the brain says "don't listen to him you fool", the heart says, "let's go". Stepping off the platform, it takes a few seconds for it to register that I am not falling. Following the guides instructions, the rope slips gently through the palm of the gloved hand. As soon as your feet hit the ground, you know you have accomplished something special. Jack, a 64 year old Texan says, "That was so much fun, I think I'll do it again!". Rick explains that he has his choice of 2 other locations now and about 4 more by the start of next year.
At all times we had a feeling of being very safe, from the cool, easy going attitudes of the guides, to the step-by-step instructions and the extreme caution of all the Canopy Tour personnel. The guides leave nothing to chance. They even have special harnesses for smaller kids. Darren explains, "We have tried to make it easily accessible and safe for people of all ages. In fact we have had kids as young as 6 months to "kids" in their 60's, 70's and 80's. We even recently had several ladies in their 80's and even a 92 year old, as well as a pair of blind twins and some physically and mentally challenged. Everyone had such a great time. But the Canopy Tour is more than just an adventure. All of our sites give back to the environment or the local community as well. Here in Iguana Park, all people who take the tour are required to pay a $10 admission to the park, which goes to help to save the green iguana and the scarlet macaws through unique breeding programs and ultimately the rainforest as well. In Monteverde we are helping local schools and contributing to other rainforest projects as well, the Monteverde Conservation League among them". He also cautions us to beware of cheap imitations which may not have the same safety record as The Canopy Tour. Words of wisdom, especially after you have experienced the dizzying 44 meter drop. Darren has many years experience hanging in the trees, after helping the filming of National Geographics "The High Frontier" among other movies and TV commercials.
The Canopy Tour offers tours daily, including holidays, with pick ups at many hotels around the country. They say it's a safe adventure for kids of all ages. I know this "kid" will definitely be doing it again when I return to Costa Rica. If you do travel there, this is one tour you don't want to miss. Oh, by the way, don't forget to tell them Tarzan sent you.