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Adventures in Central America

Eleanor Hughes

Contributor

There are numerous opportunities to get adventurous in the natural landscapes of Central America. From Belize down to Costa Rica, rainforest experiences to caves and waterfalls here’s some of the best to get the adrenaline pumping.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, Belize

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave is in the subtropical forest of Tapir Mountain Reserve. It’s an Indiana Jones-type adventure.

After a short forest walk, and three river crossings, visitors must swim into the cave entrance which is shrouded in greenery. From there it’s a three hours return trip underground in pitch blackness for around three kilometres. Hardhats and headlamps are required to follow the crystal-clear stream, walking, wading or swimming between cave walls, which narrow at one point to a body-width gap. See stalagmites, stalactites, white icing-like calcification seemingly pouring over rocks, and in high-ceilinged places pinkish and rusty orange-coloured rock. Climbing to a dry upper chamber visitors are surprised with the sight of smashed and intact Maya pots strewn across the cave floor along with arrangements of ‘tripod’ stones for pots to sit on. This Maya burial site is thought to date between 800 and 920AD. Twelve skeletons lie calcified white, believed to be sacrifices to the gods. The cave opens up forming a spectacular cathedral of stalagmites and stalactites, thousands of years old. Climb up a metal ladder to the moving sight of the ‘Crystal Maiden’. Perfectly intact, sprawled on its back, the skeleton sparkles in torchlight.

Guided half-day tours are the only way to access the caves with transport provided from San Igancio, an hour’s drive away. Visitor numbers are limited. No cameras are permitted – dropped by previous visitors, they’ve damaged artefacts and skeletons.

Behind Pulhapanzak Waterfall, Honduras

Walking behind Pulhapanzak, the largest waterfall in Honduras at 43 metres… it’s extreme adventure.

Kitted in lifejackets and hardhats, venturing behind the falls starts with a slippery rock walk before requiring a jump of several metres down into a seething white pool of water and fighting the force of it to reach the other side. From there a deluge of water pounds overhead as visitors hug rock, head down so they’re able to breathe as it’s like being underwater, following the feet of the person in front – barely able to be seen at times. Two overhead rock ledges provide respite from the torrent, one being directly behind the waterfall. There’s little room to stand if in a group and it can get cold waiting for the brave to crawl through a narrow opening into a cave behind the waterfall which is not for the claustrophobic. Looking out from behind the waterfall when the water eases, sky, greenery and a safe world can be glimpsed. On the return, it’s possible to leap off several rocks into turbulent waters. At times scary, this tour takes around one and a half hours. Guides are extremely helpful keeping participants safe.

Pulhapanzak Waterfall is in a private park about three-quarters of an hour drive from Lake Yojoa. Return tours are available from San Pedro Sula taking 8-12 hours and include other destinations.

Canyoning in Somoto Canyon, Nicaragua

Somoto Canyon is around 6 kilometres from the Honduras border at El Espino, 224 kilometres by road from León to the southwest and 230 kilometres north from Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. Somoto Canyon Tours, on the Panamericana Highway, are situated at the entrance to the canyon. They can provide basic accommodation, meals and pickup from nearby Somoto. Local buses stop at their property frontage.

Their four hour tour, covering around 9 kilometres, takes visitors along the greenish Coco River between towering white, grey and brown rock walls around 120 to 150 metres high. In placid waters, it’s incredibly peaceful to float, life-jacketed, peering up at the sky, the only view of the outside world. At times paddling is required in still waters or rock scrambling when it becomes too shallow. Rapid waters take canyoners for a faster ride. The river, around 19°C, widens and narrows, from 15 metres to 5 metres.

For adrenaline junkies, it’s possible to jump from 4, 10 or 20 metre ledges into a pool around 30 metres deep. The faint-hearted can be lowered into it by ropes.  

Zip-lining Monteverde, Costa Rica

There are five zip-lining adventure parks around Monteverde. The activity is still worth doing even if the day is dull and drizzly - it happens a lot in this area with significant rain every month, worse between May and November. Given the elevation, 1400 metres, the forests are normally enveloped in cloud or mist which makes for great zip-lining as you fly through cloud above pompom-like treetops far below. Fly Superman-style at 100% Aventura in Parque de Aventura on their advertised ‘longest and highest zip-line in Latin America’ – 1590 metres. There’re eleven other cables, the majority self-braking. Suspension bridges allow visitors to walk amongst the treetop canopy. Their ultimate adventure is the Tarzan swing. Plummeting 45 metres from a height of 90 metres has most screaming.

Tour operators limit numbers and offer pick-ups from accommodation.

Around a five-hour bus trip from San José, Monteverde is a small Costa Rican town, but also refers to an area which incorporates it, and Santa Elena where most accommodation, restaurants, banks and tour providers are situated. If hiring a vehicle, get a 4-wheel drive SUV. Some roads are steep and windy, some dirt.  

Adventure in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Situated approximately 140 kilometres north-west of San José, La Fortuna is the adventure capital of Costa Rica. Activities include waterfall jumping, canyoning, whitewater rafting, kayaking, hiking, mountain biking and horse riding.

A guided bike ride through the surrounding rural landscape is a good way to learn about the area. A 20km cycle will take riders through small villages and past family farms planted in papaya, yucca, sugarcane and sweet potato. Lush vegetation and tropical flowers bloom making for picturesque scenery. Howler monkeys can be heard and perhaps spot iguana and variegated squirrels. Arenal Volcano, erupting in 1968 and active up until 2010, can be sighted and stop by Rio Fortuna’s swimming hole on the outskirts of town to cool down. There are also multiday bicycle and multisport tours available. 

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