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. So when I recently found myself rappelling 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 the moment. 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: by free-fall rappelling into a cave.

The five-hour trip also included hiking into a steep river valley and body rafting down the river rapids. I thought I was prepared to overcome my fears—until I found myself on a precipice 120 feet over churning water. The five-foot-tall guide holding my harness 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 push off the rock face and give into the adrenaline-rush of the free-fall. I escaped with only some bruises and scratches after hitting some of the rock face on my way down, and can’t wait to try it again one day. But 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 (several 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 more severe fear of heights can get vertigo, which includes disorienting dizziness, and could be extremely dangerous mid-climb. Focus instead on the sights around you and the instructions you’ve been given. You’ll be able to see how high the drop is from the bottom, too.


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 heartrate 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.

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Read the original story: I Was Afraid of Heights Until I Rappelled Into a Rainforest Cave in Puerto Rico by Shannon McMahon, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.