ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING
IN THE SOUTHWEST

© Christopher Earls Brennen

Hike P3. Puente Vigas Canyon, Turrialba, Costa Rica

Characteristics

Preparing to zip-line
(Photo by Luca Chiarabini)
The Central American country of Costa Rica is a prime destination for canyoneers because there the sport is significantly developed and, for US canyoneers, presents a new dimension of experiences. This is because Costa Rica has a spine of steep mountains and volcanoes covered in dense tropical forest. Consequently the canyons through this forest are spectacular and present very different flora and fauna, a very different visual experience than any in the USA or Europe. Many small companies run guided canyoneering (or rather canyoning) trips through their local canyons (for example Pure Trek Canyoning and Desafio in La Fortuna and Explornatura in Turrialba) These companies have developed ``commercial canyons'' and the trips through them are not cheap, averaging about $60 to $90 for a half day descent. However the first time visitor is strongly advised to sign up for these commercial canyons and not attempt any wilder, ``non-commercial'' canyons that might involve unwitting trespass or worse. In this compendium we describe a number of commercial canyons that the author descended and recommends, some near La Fortuna in the Arenal Volcano area northwest of San Jose and some near Turrialba southeast of San Jose. For balance we also describe a ``non-commercial'' canyon near Turrialba though a guide would also be needed to find the entrance to and exit from that canyon.

The defect with commercial canyons is that they have usually been significantly altered to ease the passage for the guides and their clients. These alterations often include the installation not only of extensive fixed anchors but also of wooden platforms from which to enter the rappels. Some even have steps cut in the canyon bottom rock to ease downclimbs while in other canyons trails conduct the clients from one rappel to the next. Despite these alterations the canyons are spectacularly beautiful with luxurious multi-level canopies of tropical forest and exotic flora and fauna. It is a unique experience for a howler monkey to let loose with its terrifying howl just as you are about to enter a 150ft free rappel!

Many of the adventure companies also offer zip-line canopy adventures. Explornatura offers a combined zip-line and canyoneering descent of Puente Vigas Canyon (translated as Rope Bridge Canyon) just above their wharehouse on the outskirts of the town of Turrialba. It features a number of waterfalls descents as well as three very exciting and long zip-line transits in the canopy and rappels from the tree perches in which they end.

Trailhead

From their wharehouse in Turrialba, Explornatura will transport you by bus along sideroads and dirt roads to the drop-in point in Puente Vigas Canyon near Calle Chirraca on the outskirts of Turrialba. It is just a few yards from the dirt road to the top of the first rappel at an elevation of 2750ft.

Hike

Rappelling out of a tree
(Photo by Lauren Jefferis)
Just beyond the trail entrance the guides provide rappelling instruction at the top of the first rappel (elevation 2750ft), a straightforward 40ft inclined drop down a broad and shallow waterfall using the large re-bar eye-bolts imbedded in the rock as anchor. This ends in a shallow pool and you will then ascend a short trail on the left to the start of the first zip-line, a spectacular 180yds ride across the top of the canopy and across the canyon to a platform high in a large tree. You will then free rappel 60ft from this platform to the ground. This is immediately followed by a 50ft sloping rappel down a waterfall from rebar anchors. Again you ascend to the left to the start of the second zip-line, a 200yds thrill ride across the canopy to another high tree platform. You then rappel down 60ft from the platform to the ground. At the base of the tree a 132ft long rope bridge with substantial exposure crosses over to the left side of the canyon; make sure to clip in your safety tethers to the wire rope handline for this is perhaps the scariest part of the descent.

At the end of the bridge hike upstrea for a few yards to the top of the third rappel, a 25ft drop down the face of another broad waterfall. Once at the base look for the imbedded rebar footholds with which to climb back up on the right side of the falls to a small ledge which is the start of the third zip-line. This whizzes you another 160yds above the canopy to a ground platform on the canyon left. Just below this platform you will come to the last rappel, a 60ft drop down a slippery waterfall face into a knee-deep pool. Here you will get significantly wetter than during the earlier rappels. From the bottom of this last rappel follow the trail on the left up and out of the canyon and then down the hillside to the Exlornatura Wharehouse at an elevation of 2290ft. The whole descent should take about 2hrs.

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Last updated 9/11/07.
Christopher E. Brennen