Costa Rica Canyoneering: Jungles and Waterfalls!
Guest Rave by Ali White. All photos this Rave Ali White except as noted.
Costa Rica… After a few days descending verdant canyons with spectacular waterfalls on the slopes of Volcan Turrialba, we awoke at 3:30AM to drive half way across the (small) country in search of more. First up – the incredibly gorgeous La Vieja Canyon, entered by rappelling down a side stream to the main “Old” Canyon. Johan negotiated land access with the owner of a dairy farm and we were off on cow pathways lined with electric fences.
We quickly arrived at the farm’s outer reaches and descended into the jungle. Canyon approaches in Costa Rica seem to all involve the negotiation of steep, sloppy slopes. Luckily there is no shortage of vegetation for handholds when things get dicey. Upon gearing up we hit the first rappel within a matter of meters. The vast majority of anchors previously rigged by the Toros Canyoning Group had us rappelling immediately adjacent to waterfalls, but the funneling geometry of the rock on this 25-meter rappel gave us no choice but to go right down the middle. My relative inexperience in class C canyons led to quite the pummeling at the bottom of this.
A short distance downstream had us at another waterfall, this one a beautiful 35-meter cascade.
This rappel brought us down into Rio La Vieja proper, which was the highlight of the canyon. The unfolding corridor was gorgeous. It started with streaked walls reminiscent of Escalante, but with mossy walls, hanging ferns, and a raging creek.
Stream travel was not easy and I found myself facedown in the water more than once, despite overabundant caution. We floated when we could but the current was forceful and sometimes took you unsafe directions. Dave graciously planted himself in the middle of many stream crossings, making travel much safer for the group.
More beauty unfolded around every corner – a pillar bisected the river, magnificent holes in the rock appeared above our heads, bright plant life lined the canyon walls.
And then the exit. We swapped out of our wetsuits and headed up the “trail” as Johan called it. It was like the MIA trail, but more vertical, and with ball bearing mini dirt clods instead of sand. My first attempt to leave the canyon floor resulted in a swift and dramatic slide back to my starting point. I hadn’t been put in my place like that in some time (okay maybe only since faceplanting in the stream a half hour prior). I got mad at that slope, let my stubbornness set in, and tried again. I also grabbed a stout stick as in improvised dagger for some semblance of traction for at least one limb and restarted the ascent. Uffda! I was happy to reach the top of that slope, cross another cow field, and find our vehicle! A canyon certainly worth the exit though!
The Big Event – Gata Fiera
The next day brought what we’d all been waiting for – Gata Fiera Canyon! We’d all seen Johan’s photos of this amazing place – the aqua marine waters, the enormous waterfalls, the confluence of five (FIVE!!) waterfalls at the last rappel. The canyon lies on the side of Volcan Poas, an enormous active volcano. The barren soils above make it prone to flash flooding and the various chemicals being emitted from the caldera lead to amazing colors – those turquoise acidic waters. A significant eruption one year prior to our visit pushed a sulfuric acid rich flow down at least one canyon, producing the bright orange sulfur-coated rocks we’d see on our exit. It also led to sore throats later for nearly everyone in the group. Johan’s account of Toros Canyoning Group’s numerous attempts at a first descent and the logistics involved makes for a fascinating read (https://canyonmag.net/explore/costa-rica-part-i-gata-fiera-canyon/).
The night before our descent, Johan showed us an unpublished 12-minute video from the Toros Canyoning Group, largely composed of drone footage, of the canyon so we knew what to expect. While Johan wanted to be sure we weren’t going to be in over our heads, I think everyone in the group came away excited for what we were about to do. We started the day early. A quick Pine Creek-style drop under the bridge had us in the watercourse just meters from the road, and placed us immediately in those beautiful blue waters.
A bit of slippery river walking brought us to the first rappel, a nice drop over a waterfall into a Caribbean-like pool.
Gata Fiera 2
After an inordinate number of pictures we were off cautiously bouncing down the watercourse again. There were numerous fun slides and swims.
Gata Fiera 4
(Photo by Johan Aguilar Vargas)
It was great to have this fun, waterpark section before the Big Event, 800 feet of descent broken into 5 rappels. Ours would be the second descent of this section.
The next rappel was a free hanging 60 meters down a waterfall into a punchbowl-type hole in the side of the volcano. It was one of the most magnificent raps of the trip. I had to pause several times on the way down just to look around and absorb it. The Toros Canyoning Group’s drone footage played in my head and the aerial perspective enhanced the realization of just how incredibly unique this environment is.
Gata Fiera 5
After two fun downclimbs and flying leap into a pool, we arrived at a massive series of four rappels. But we had a problem. A landslide had covered our first anchor in a thick layer of cemented mud and rock and was nowhere to be found. Tom scouted perilously close to the edge and notified us the next set of bolts was over the edge, but would require a rappel to reach. The team assembled all the rocks we could, none larger than 20 pounds, while Danielle led the construction of a cairn anchor. The Costa Rican had never witnessed these Death Valley canyoneering techniques! The initial 5-meter rap brought us to a 15-meter rappel, which brought us to a 7-meter rappel. At last we arrived at the penultimate 90-meter rappel, of course, next to a waterfall.
This brought us to incredible platform with waterfalls above and below us, a lake, and an additional canyon joining the area from above (with a rumored 210 meter (almost 700 foot!) waterfall…). We had made great time through the canyon and it was only noon so took a bit of time to explore. And for the last rappel, a 50 meter, through the water onto the sulfur-coated rocks. Absolutely spectacular.
Gata Fiera 7 Mid-rappel rainbow
Scott from the Toros Canyoning Group met us at the bottom. Thirty minutes of hiking and scrambling had us out to a restricted access road adjacent to the world’s most beautifully located powerplant.
Gata Fiera 10
Not pictured was the angry powerplant employee, waiting for us with arms crossed. It turns out some important dam maintenance upstream had been delayed due to our descent. The gates on a dam above Gata Fiera required repairs, and therefore the canyon needed to be flooded to lower the reservoir levels. Members of our group had contacted the water company to let them know we would be there, and left messages, but we failed to actually get anyone on the phone. Apparently the phone numbers had changed recently so no one received the message. Had Scott’s car not been parked at the gate, alerting the company to our presence in the canyon, the water company very likely would have flooded the canyon that day, with potentially disastrous results for us. A very, very close call and a mistake which won’t be repeated. We hiked up the steep road to Scott’s SUV and miraculously, after much planning, tying of gear to the roof, and piling on top of one another, we managed to fit 10 stinky, sweaty canyoneers, plus Scott, plus his friend, for a total of 12 people in the car! When we exited clown car-style later some locals filmed us and laughed at us. Quite the day!!!
Our final canyon in Costa Rica was Gata Media, upstream of Gata Fiera. Johan and Scott negotiated a parking fee with a local farmer and we headed out on a muddy road comprising the longest approach of the trip – 45 minutes! The same azure waters seen the day before prevailed throughout Gata Media Canyon.
Gata Media 1
After a nice theme park-esque slide section, we rappelled down a lovely 15-meter waterfall.
Gata Media 2
This was followed by an additional 35-meter waterfall farther downstream. At the end of the second rappel we were shocked to discover a second waterfall from an adjoining canyon!
Gata Media 4
As we ate lunch the clouds grew ominous and rainfall quickly started. With the barren volcanic slopes high above us and being in a large drainage basin, flash flooding quickly moved to the forefront of our minds. Off we went as fast as the slippery stream allowed. At the next waterfall we opted to simul rap to speed the descent for our group of 10.
Gata Media 5
After some additional jumps and slides, swimming and stream walking brought us to a metal ladder rising perhaps 40 meters vertically up the slope. Wetsuits off and up we went in the pouring rain. The ladder yielded to a steep slope slathered in slippery mud, requiring careful footwork and all fours at times. We emerged from the jungle like swamp monsters and waited for our shuttle vehicle in the rain. Costa Rican canyoneering!
We all had an amazing time exploring these rarely visited canyons in Costa Rica. The greenery and waterfalls were stunning and completely unlike the desert environment most of the members of this group reside in. A huge thank you to Johan Aguilar Vargas for guiding us and for opening up these canyons, and to the Toros Canyoning Group. They are all spectacular finds and we feel lucky to have experienced them.