Five Bucket-List Experiences and Why You Should Try Them
Adrenaline sports seem like something humanity made up once we became advanced enough that we didn’t have to worry about being killed by predators. Maybe we started missing that sense of fear in our lives and so we began creating experiences to replicate the rush of thrill and fear you get when you survive a near-death experience.
Or maybe I’m just making all this up since humans have been participating in perilous sports for thousands of years.
My point is, we seem to have a strong desire to feel alive by means of putting ourselves in pointlessly dangerous situations and crossing our fingers that we survive. And I love taking those risks. But sometimes I think to myself… If animals are watching us they are probably extremely confused how we evolved so far. “There goes another human jumping out of a plane. They do know they don’t have wings right?”
Whatever the reason we seek out these extreme activities (being off our rocker probably high on the list), we do, and there is just nothing else quite like it.
Here are the “Wow, I must be crazy” bucket list items I’ve checked off with rankings and tips for if you decide to have your own adventure.
1 - Skydiving in Hawaii
I still remember the feeling of sitting in this tiny plane with my tandem instructor strapped to me. I was in a cold sweat with my heart pounding and studiously trying not to think about anything.
As we rose to elevation and it felt like my stomach had robbed every butterfly aviary in the world of its inhabitants, my instructor asked me a simple question, “Can I spin you like a top or would you get sick?” He stated it like a challenge and I felt compelled to accept it, “I don’t get motion sickness, do your worst.” Then he spent the duration of our flight telling me about a guy he’d spun who had blacked out and wouldn’t wake up so he had to land on him and shatter the unconscious man’s legs.
This should’ve given me pause, but hey, if jumping out of a perfectly good airplane seems like a good idea to you, you’re probably too far gone for reason to kick in. So I was just like, “Challenge accepted, I won’t be tapping out and I won’t be blacking out. Let’s do this.”
As we scooted toward the door and I looked down at the 14,000-foot drop (4300m), I thought, ‘He’s not going to have to make me sick, my stomach is already doing backflips.” Then a moment later we were plummeting and spinning faster than the Tea-Cup ride at Disney could go with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s arms powering the wheel.
It was thrilling.
I leaned into the spin and we went even faster. My mouth was off the side of my face with the force of the rotation and wind and I was probably drooling everywhere. It’d been so much fun that when we had to stop to pull the parachute cord, I realized I hadn’t even been thinking about the free fall and everything that could go wrong.
Once my chute was open, the rest of the ride was just a sight-seeing tour at high elevation. I drifted down while making large circles and the instructor pointed out landmarks. Then when it was time to land, I had another moment of fear that I’d somehow break my legs as I hit the ground. Then I ran as I landed and it was all over. I survived.
Adrenaline Rush: 9/10
Enjoyment Level: 9/10
Value for Money: 6/10
Recommendation: Skydiving is something I’d recommend anyone without a crippling fear of heights do at least once in their life. Make sure you pick an incredibly scenic place to jump from—I’d recommend a coastline or near the mountains. Check the height options and choose the highest available for beginners if you’re up for it.
Before booking, check to see if they allow you to have your own camera. If not, see if it’s extra for the photos they take or if they’re included. You’ll want proof you did it and you don’t want them to surprise you with a hidden photo fee that is nearly as much as what you paid for the jump (speaking from experience here).
2 - Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua
First, why is sliding down an active volcano on a sled even a thing? Second, why did the inventor of the sport first try it with objects like refrigerators? I’m going to return to my theory of “humans are crazy” to answer both of the above.
When I signed up for volcano boarding I didn’t think much of it. It’d just be a fun afternoon outing with my hostel mates. Maybe with a side of adrenaline.
Then the pre-hike pep talk started and went something like:
“If you lean a bit to the left, you could wipe out and be seriously maimed. If you try to stop yourself you’ll break your leg horribly but you’ll still have to continue down the mountain. If you blink, you may miss it because you’ll be going so fast that any crash could potentially kill you.”
I’m not really sure why I was expecting the pre-battle speech of Braveheart, but I was, and this was not it. The hour hike up the active volcano that was overdue for an eruption didn’t do much to calm the nerves. The wind was so strong that getting blown off the mountain was a real concern.
At the top, we wandered around exploring the craters of Cerro Negro before getting a demonstration on the best ways to not die while surfing down. Of course, he also had to reinforce all the ways that would result in any number of debilitating injuries.
We split into two lines and I ended up by two friends at the very back. This meant we got to watch everyone else go for an hour and see them wipe out and lay there on the slope below clutching their heads. We also got to see the people who made it look easy. The odds seemed about 50/50 for crashing.
Other than the anticipation and feeding on the shared dread with the people beside you in line, I think the worst part was there was a slight cliff in the middle of the slide down and you couldn’t see what was on the other side of it. People would disappear over the edge and it was anyone’s guess what happened to them after that.
When my turn finally arrived, I could feel my heart racing. The loser with the slowest time had a punishment waiting for them at the bottom. My competitiveness warred with my survival instinct. To play it safe and go slowly or to go balls out and fear be damned?
As soon as I pushed off from the top, I had my answer. I needed to go faster! I leaned back and forgot the safe methods—bubbling to the top of my brain all the ways the instructor said we could increase our speed. Nothing I did seemed to make me go any faster and I felt borderline bored. I was going down an active volcano at 20mph and one major slip up would, at best, ruin the rest of my holiday. I couldn’t bring myself to care and urged the sled to go faster, nearly crashing when I went over a hole at the bottom.
I walked to where the rest of the group was already changing out of their orange jumpers and were abuzz with excitement at surviving the challenge. Some, like me, had found it too easy and a bit disappointing. Then there was the guy who’d nearly ripped off his ear when he crashed and had blood gushing everywhere.
Once the final stage of anticipation was over—waiting to confirm that I hadn’t been the slowest one down the mountain—I fully relaxed and just enjoyed the brilliant sunset over the volcanoes in the distance. Happy to be alive, unmaimed, and among good friends bonded by shared terror.
Adrenaline Rush: 9/10
Enjoyment Level: 8/10
Value for Money: 9/10
Recommendation: If you find yourself in Nicaragua, do it. Go to Leon, stay at Big Foot Hostel and Volcano Boarding, and book the excursion. Most of the hostel will be there with you as long as you don’t go on a Sunday (they’re all at a beach party that day). It’s a great way to make friends, relatively safe for the high-level adrenaline rush you get, and you get a free night at the hostel.
3 - Paragliding in Colombia
This is by far the tamest activity on my list. I kept waiting for the fear to kick in on the drive to the jump site. Then once we were there and I was put into the last group, I thought, by the time it’s my turn, surely I’ll be terrified. Then as I was being strapped into my harness I quested out toward the part of my mind that should be sending fear signals all through my body but found it unresponsive.
The paraglider was in the air and soaring over the canyon seconds after I was strapped in. There was no moment of falling or having to make the choice to jump. Just an easy lift off the ground followed by 30 minutes of soaring around like a bird with panoramic views of Chicamocha Canyon.
I thought it’d be 30 minutes of worrying that we’d lose wind and start falling or of dreading the landing but it was just a pleasant scenic tour of the national park. When it came time to land, I expected my heart rate to increase but I just lifted my legs and landed on the airbag under my butt and it was over.
Adrenaline Rush: 1/10
Enjoyment Level: 7/10
Value for Money: 7/10
Recommendation: If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush to make you feel alive like never before, then do something else. If you want a bird’s-eye view of stunning scenery, sign up. It could also be a great way to work yourself up to skydiving since it has the same concept without the brutal moments of anticipation and free falling.
Be aware that a lot of people do get motion sick during the flight since you’re constantly doing circles and landing can be a bit rough.
When booking, choose a very visually stunning destination and check to see how long the estimated flight time is. I paid around $58 for a 30-minute flight in Colombia and I’d not be willing to pay more than that for the experience unless it was somewhere utterly brilliant.
4 - Scuba Diving in Belize
I’ve always wanted to have my Open Water Dive Certification but the cost of the course, how expensive diving is afterward and needing a buddy were deterrents. But when my backpacking trip led me to Caye Caulker in Belize, I decided to rip the bandaid off and go for it.
First off, I genuinely think that the course work for the certification is the scariest part of diving. It’s like the volcano boarding pep talk, “If you do this, your lungs may explode. If you do that, your ears may rupture. If you don’t do this, you’re truly screwed.”
There is also a surprising amount of math and science involved that my vacation brain had trouble digesting. Using charts to track how long you can stay under at what depth if you’re diving two times in a day and how long you have to stay on the surface to let your nitrogen levels lower between dives had me scratching my head. My first-timer instructor wasn’t much better at calculating it than I was and that didn’t feel me with confidence that she was in charge of my dive computer.
So, what was it like to dive for the first time? Surreal and yeah, a bit exhilarating. Falling off a boat backward with a super heavy suit you’re not accustomed to is daunting in and of itself. Then when you submerge, your body is screaming, “DO NOT BREATHE UNDER HERE! You’re not a fish! I repeat, NOT A FISH.” But then you remember the part in the book where it says, “Never hold your breath or your lungs might explode” and you take your first wheezing gasp of oxygen.
After a glance around to confirm Darth Vader hasn’t crept up on you and it’s just you making that haunting noise, you continue breathing. At first, it’s labored, deep breaths. It tastes different than breathing surface air, it feels bizarre, and oh, was that a rainbow fish swimming by?! Just like that, the distraction of the ocean has your mind off breathing and focused on the whole new world you’re about to explore. Or, at least, that’s how it was for me.
Once the two days of doing lessons while freezing our butts off due to a cold front passing through Belize was over, we went for our first real dive. The reward of swimming alongside sea turtles, watching dolphins skip in the water above me, and kicking along the bottom of the ocean while feeling totally weightless was worth every moment in class and google-clearing exercise.
Adrenaline Rush: 6/10
Enjoyment Level: 9/10
Value for Money: 6/10
Recommendation: I think diving is a polarizing experience and with the barrier to entry being quite costly, I’d recommend doing a beginner’s dive to get a feel for whether you like it or not before investing around $400 in an Open Water Certification.
Location wise, the best places to get certified are in Thailand and Honduras. They are cheaper than anywhere else and you don’t have to do any swimming pool dives—instead you start in the ocean on day one (Belize is like this as well). Lodging is also included in your fee with some of the companies. Plus, the obvious, they’re both gorgeous dive sites to explore. If you’re worried about the language barrier, don’t be, 95% of the course is below water with universal hand signals.
5 - Growing Up as a Swamp Rat in Wewahitchka, Florida
I couldn’t decide what should be the fifth adventure on this list. I’ve bungee jumped 470 feet (143 meters), white-water rafted in Class V rapids, superman-style zip lined, Tarzan bungee jumped, swam with sharks and sting rays, and cliff jumped in Hawaii. But, while all of those gave me pause and some made my stomach jump out of my throat, none of them compare to the adventures I had growing up as a swamp rat in Wewa.
I have this memory of going to look for stray feral kittens after school one day and ending up in a neighbor’s junkyard. Instead of catching a new kitten, we turned over old appliances and couches and tried to catch whatever snake came scurrying out first. I wound up with a couple of baby water moccasins for my fish tank.
Another time, I was canoeing through the swamp at night with my dad and best friend and we were catching giant bullfrogs with our hands by leaning out on the bow of the canoe and grabbing their slippery bodies just before they jumped into the slough. One particularly enormous frog was too far away to reach with the boat so I had to get out in the water and wade over to him—through the mud, in water also occupied by the occasional 12-foot alligator. Just as I went to reach for him, I saw a huge snake coiled with his eyes on the same prize. I backed away slowly and hopped back into the canoe with a frog-like agility that I only possess when scared stupid.
Then there is the annual Survival Trip where we were taken by boat to the river shore and dropped off with our “provisions” (a candy bar and a coke) and had to make our way through miles of swamp back to the house with no map or cellphone. Each group competed for the muddiest, fastest, and ones who found the most of the items on the scavenger hunt list. I’d “lose” my shoes about five minutes in and traipse through the woods barefoot, jumping in every mud hole I could find, picking the occasional banana spider out of my hair when I’d walk through a web. it was the best day of the year. The inevitable poison ivy and all.
Adrenaline Rush: 10/10
Enjoyment Level: 10/10
Value for Money: Priceless
Recommendation: I know that parents reading this are probably thinking, “I’d never let my child do any of those things” and that’s fair enough. But, I am so thankful for my parents raising me to be an adventurous little swamp monster because I guarantee I wouldn’t be brave enough to do half the crazy things I do now without them trusting me to not get myself killed. I wasn’t on a leash as a kid and I survived childhood and am a stronger adult for it. So thanks, Mom and Dad for letting me scare you nearly to death constantly but never trying to hold me back.
Maybe thrill seeking means something is missing in your life or, more likely, in your brain, but there is nothing on earth quite like it. We rarely feel more alive than when we think there is a chance we might die. Each time I check an item off my bucket list, I become a braver individual and my list seems to expand instead of shrink. I think, “If I jumped out of a plane, surely I can manage biking the Death Road in Bolivia or sleeping in the jaguar-filled jungle alone.” Pushing our limits is the only way we know what we’re capable of and the thrill of that discovery is more intense than any I’ve ever felt in the pursuit of any singular adventure.
What’s on your bucket list? Have you tried anything I should add to mine? I’d love to hear your ideas!