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I Was Afraid of Heights Until I Rappelled Into a Rainforest Cave in Puerto Rico

“I thought I was prepared to overcome my fears until I found myself on a precipice, 120 feet over churning water. Carpe diem is sometimes easier said than done.”

Part of being a successful traveler is recognizing your travel persona and approaching your trips accordingly. I’m a planner—cautious and sometimes anxious. I also have a fear of heights.

When I recently found myself required to rappel down a cliff inside a rainforest cave, I was forced to admit that I’m still not the fearless adventure traveler I someday hope to be.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for seizing rare travel opportunities. But when that attitude made me fear for my life, I began to second-guess the whole carpe diem philosophy.

It happened on a Tanama River excursion in Puerto Rico with Explora PR, where I’d decided to overcome my fear of heights the old-fashioned way.

The five-hour trip included a hike into the steep Tanama River valley and body rafting down the river rapids. I was up for the adventure and thought I was prepared to overcome my fear at the journey’s beginning—until I found myself shaking on a precipice 120 feet over churning water. Our fearless, five-foot-tall guide was holding my harness when she saw my alarmingly stony expression and calmly urged: “Trust me, lean back.”

Carpe diem is sometimes easier said than done.

After some coaxing, I did eventually stop picturing myself plummeting to my death, and pushed off the rock face to give into the adrenaline-rush of the free-fall that preceded my rappel. It wasn’t the most graceful, but I escaped with only some bruises and scratches after hitting some rock face on my way down. Still, I can’t wait to try it again one day.

Going from panic to exhilaration would have been easier if I’d followed these simple rules from the start.

Don’t Look Down

I’ve learned the hard way (many times) that fear can produce a very physical reaction. Because I was attempting to overcome my fear of heights on this trip, I opted to go first out of the six people in my Explora group. When I looked down into the base of the open cave, however, my stomach did a back flip and all of my muscles locked up. Some people with a fear of heights can get vertigo, which includes disorienting dizziness, and could be extremely dangerous mid-climb. I was fortunate enough not to let my fear get to that point by focusing, but wish I had focused more on the sights around and above me, and the instructions I had been given. I was able to see how high the drop is from the bottom, and concentrating on it from the top didn’t do me any favors.


The best way to counter fear is simply to breathe. Focusing on your air intake is a great way to meditate in a stressful situation, which will slow your heart rate and calm your nerves. When I felt my heart begin to race uncontrollably after I looked down the cliff, I began counting my breaths—in through the nose for three counts, out through the mouth for another three. The ritual will take your focus off of the danger. For me, the counts also coincided with the rate at which I was releasing slack to lower myself into the cave, and made the majority of the descent a lot more graceful than it began.

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Appoint a Travel-Buddy Confidant

The thought that most dominated my mind during my panicked descent was that I wished I had someone alongside me. I knew what to do after our group briefing, but going first and alone meant I couldn’t know exactly how to to do it. This is where a travel buddy could come in handy—they can encourage you throughout the experience if they know you’re nervous, and you can ask the guide if it’s possible for the two of you to go together. That way you’ll learn from each other as you go.

If you’re traveling solo, as I was, it’s still a good idea to ask around and see if anyone else is similarly stressed. I volunteered to go first because the other participants seemed even more nervous than I, but I should have let the guide know that I had a fear of heights and asked if two of us could lead.

No Matter What, Don’t Bail

Don’t be that person. The reward of accomplishing the drop will be well worth that initial fear, so don’t let your stress be the reason to tap out. Think about how bummed you’ll be if you quit—watching others finish what you abandoned will make you wonder what you missed out on.

Once you finish, you’ll want to try it all over again.

More from SmarterTravel:

Associate Editor Shannon McMahon went spelunking and body rafting at the Tanama River with Puerto Rico Tourism Company. Follow more of her adventures on Twitter @shanmcmahon_.

(Photo: Explora PR)

By Shannon McMahon

Editor Shannon McMahon is always planning her next trip and often writing in her travel journal. Follow her on Twitter @shanmcmahon_ and on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

Shannon joined SmarterTravel in 2015. A former news reporter, she's lived in the south of Spain, spotted elephants in Sri Lanka, gone spelunking in the Caribbean, hiked Jordan's Petra Basin, interviewed Sao Paulo's Michelin-Star chefs, and explored China via bullet train. Travel trends, news oddities, and her visits to up-and-coming destinations are some of her favorite things to write about.

Her stories have also appeared online on USA Today, The Sun, Huffington Post, Business Insider,,, and more. Her educational background is in journalism, art history, gender studies, Spanish, and film. She's been quoted as an expert travel source by CNBC,, MarketWatch, The Washington Post, USA Today, and more.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "Plenty of extra thick hair elastics. They tame my frizzy curls and come in handy in a surprising number of packing and hotel dilemmas."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Climbing (yes, climbing, it's steep!) the Great Wall of China before it's gone."

Travel Motto: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." - Mark Twain

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Window, of course."

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