Laying It All on the Zip Line in Costa Rica

04/01/2015 07:37 am ET | Updated May 31, 2015

I'm dangling above a tree stand in Costa Rica about to zip line 500 feet above the lush forest floor at 40mph, one gloved hand on my karabiner and another on what I've been assured is a brake. I've been rambling on to my Tico instructor for some time now about snow banks in North Conway, New Hampshire. I mean to tell him that I'm the kind of person that can't bring myself to jump off of a 3-foot snow bank for certain fear of paralysis, but I confuse nueve with nieve like any good gringo, and so I dangle.

I should explain how I got here. I'm visiting Guanacaste, Costa Rica, a coastal province bound by a stretch of volcanic mountains so green you're a better person just for breathing here. Guanacaste, I learn, experiences little rainfall between the months of November and April, which makes its lushness even more extraordinary than it first appears from my descent into Liberia's international airport.

I had wanted an adventure, to look out from the top of a mountain and marvel at the virtue of travel itself, knowing that just yesterday I had sat for eight consecutive hours in a windowless office. I wanted mountain peaks, sulfuric hot springs and the cool grit of volcanic clay on my skin. My friends agreed that we likely wouldn't experience these kinds of thrills in Florida, unless we wanted to hold out for the special grit that is Daytona Bike Week, and so we landed in Costa Rica by consensus.

I'm not disappointed. The day after we arrive in Guanacaste we book an excursion in the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano mountain range, where we'll ride horses uphill, past waterfalls and wildlife, until we get to the canopy zip line. I hand over the fee to our booking agent, Marvin, who kisses me on the forehead when I tell him I have never jumped from a swing, never mind a tree stand hundreds of feet in the air. "Respeto!" he yells, followed closely by the Costa Rican mantra, "Pura Vida!"

The next morning, we pile into a van and drive the two hours to Rincón de la Vieja through winding, pot marked roads and brooks that don't babble, but balk at our crossing. The rough ride doesn't bother me, but a couple of my friends fall silent and close their eyes trying to ignore their carsickness. I'm grateful to feel well because the scene outside of our car window is incredible; bright birds and tropical flowers burst from the mountainside, hinting at the uncultivated wild that lies within.

I haven't seen a street sign since we left our hotel, and so I don't realize we've arrived at the stable until the van pulls up parallel to a water trough. Guanacaste is known for its sabanero culture, which stems from generations of cattle ranching. You don't need to feel their calloused hands to know that these cowboys are tough. They're thoughtful, though, introverted from spending all of their time in nature. The rugged men that run the stable at Rincón de la Vieja are no exception to this rule.

Before I've even tightened my helmet, a sabanero points me to the smallest and, presumably, tamest horse. See what I mean? Intuitive. My friends and I ride over rolling green hills to the canopy zip line. It's cooler here, however many feet above sea level we've traveled now, and I notice water droplets as clear as glass on the ends of my horse's black mane. I am moving through clouds, and so I feel as if I'm dreaming.

We reach the canopy after an hour on horseback and as soon as we dismount, our horses take off down the mountain. Panicked, I ask a sabanero if we should have tied them up. "They know their way back," he says calmly, tipping his straw hat over his eyes to signal an end to my questioning.

Minutes later, a rusted green pickup truck arrives out of nowhere carrying three tanned and harnessed Ticos in its bed. They don't bother letting down the trunk latch, choosing to hurtle over the side instead in one fluid movement. Enter: our zip line instructors.

Standing in assembly line fashion, we are fastened to our gear. A Tico named Eduardo helps me into a harness one leg at a time. He points to my right hand and asks, "Es fuerte?" I say yes, though no part of me feels particularly strong at the moment. He slips my hand into a hard, fingerless glove and shows me how to squeeze the cable when it comes time to brake. My small hand swims in what Eduardo insists is one-size fits all, and I worry that I won't be able to control my speed.

"At least I only have to do this once," I say, and jump up so that he can connect me to the trolley.

Half laughing, he says, "Chica, you zip line twelve times down mountain." Right, of course Marvin didn't have the heart to tell me.

After insisting on hearing the brake instructions one last time, I ask about the length of the lines. Eduardo tells me that the first two are short practice rounds. Each line after this is much longer and the cables are wired for speed.

"Listo?" he asks. I hear my friends cheering from the next landing.

Of course not, but I give him a small nod anyway. He releases his hold on my gear and, just like that, I'm flying. Breathless, expecting the cable to snap any second, I look straight ahead at the landing and wait for the next instructor's signal telling me to brake.

I almost think I can do this until I get to the third line, the mother of all lines, which is suspended 500 feet above the forest floor. This is when I remember my trip to New Hampshire and the 3-foot snow bank I was too afraid to jump from. Of all the times I've backed away from something in fear, it's this memory that resurfaces if only to offer a lesson through extremes; the difference between 3 and 500 feet, a soft and a hard landing. Looking down from where I hang, I can almost make out that pale, snow-shoed version of myself shouting, "WHAT THE F*&^ DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?"

"Listo?" my instructor asks again. He jangles my harness a bit, pretending to let go before I can answer yes or no.

"Yes!" And just like that, I am flying.

I'm moving at over 35mph, the sound of my trolley getting louder as it picks up speed across the cable, but I'm only aware of my own breathing and a light, cool mist coating my skin. To my left is a streaming waterfall so tall and majestic that I still can't make out its origin from 500 feet in the air. To my right, over treetops and canyons, is the Pacific coastline. From here it looks like sand art, bright blue and white over iridescent greens.

If only everyone could experience this in flipbook fashion as I am from my zip line. Part of me wants to brake early, if only so that I can steal a few more seconds with this view. I imagine stopping completely and just hanging there. The trees, the sea, and me.

But I remember myself and land, hands shaking and legs unsteady from the sudden release of tension. I'm shocked by the sound of my own laughter and dare to look down through happy, manic tears. Somewhere between the second and third line, suspended five hundred feet in the air, I lost my fear.

Back in the van, 12 zip lines stronger, I look up the coordinates so that I can remember where I was when I let it go. 10.83° N, 85.32° W.