Verzasca Express: adventurous river diving in Ticino, Switzerland

In Europe, we are lucky to have dive sites where we can see basking sharks, seals or eagle rays. But we are also lucky to have dive sites, where there is little to see but a lot to experience. Silfra in Iceland blew my mind with its pure water and sharp rock canyon between two tectonic plates. I often refer it as one of my favourite dives ever. But it couldn’t be the only place where I could experience this type of geological diving in crystal-clear water. When I found out about the Verzasca River, I knew I had to go. The only problem was to understand how to do it, and it took me a while.

Ticino is the single Italian speaking region of Switzerland (called Tessin in French and German), in the very south of Switzerland sharing a border with the Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy. The village of Lavertezzo, in the Verzasaca Valley, is only 30 minutes away from the town of Locarno, famous for its film festival and its alpine palm trees.

There is no diving centre in the Verzasca Valley. In the beginning, I tried to contact a few Swiss scuba diving clubs, but they would go there only once a year, and it wasn’t when I could go. After extensive research, with the help of my two dive buddies Raphael and Clement, we decided to do it by ourselves. This is how we went on a crazy 4-day road trip from Paris, the car full of scuba diving gear, including tanks and weights, for 3 scuba divers. To make the trip more enjoyable, more affordable and less tiring, we stopped on each way at Raphael’s father home in the beautiful region of Franche-Comté, just next to the Swiss border. It was a perfect stopover, at an equal driving time from Paris and to Lavertezzo, while taking the time to discover the area and taste most of its delicious cheeses.


Verzasca Valley: bucket list diving in Europe

Lavertezzo village Verzasca Valley Ticino Switzerland

There are 3 main dive sites along the Verzasca River: Pozzo dei Salti, Pozzo delle Posse and Pozzo delle Misura. Some scuba divers also extend their trip with some dives in the nearby Maggia River. In our case, we had only 24 hours in Lavertezzo, so taking into account the time to check the dive sites and bring the gear to the shore, we could only do the 2 most famous dive sites of Verzasca Valley: Pozzo dei Salti and Pozzo delle Posse.

Dive sites map Verzasca River

Map from Verzasca.com

Pozzo delle Posse

We arrived in Lavertezzo around 1.30 pm.  The village was packed, and it was almost impossible to park the car. The only solution we found was to take a coffee at Osteria Vittoria as they have a small parking space for customers. We took the opportunity to relax from the journey, and I found out that the view from their terrace might be the best over Lavertezzo village, so it wasn’t too bad. After an hour, we could finally park the car a bit further after the Ponte dei Salti, the famous Roman bridge. We decided to go and check the area, how it would work to unload the gear and where we could start the dive. The area around the bridge was so crowded that we decided to give up on diving there that day. Anyway, the car was too far and stopping in the middle of the narrow road with traffic to unload gear wasn’t an option. Still, it was important to do the location scouting for the next morning.

It was already 3 pm when we decided to head to the lower site of Pozzo delle Posse. Parking space was a bit easier to found, but the access to the shore was much more challenging. You need to walk down between big rocks, and there is a ladder at the end. After checking where we would put our gear and the diving area, we finally got everything out of the car. Posso delle Posse was a bit “quieter”, but we had to deal with a filming crew and a group of people enjoying their beer while listing to loud music. The weather was sunny that day, and the temperature was easily above 30°C. Putting my drysuit between rocks, with the heat and the loud music, wasn’t the easiest thing, so finally getting into the cold water of the Verzasca River felt like a relief.

Finally, we were underwater, far from the crowd and the noise. Unfortunately, we also realised the level of the water was low. While we were expecting a maximum depth of between 12 and 15 m, the maximum depth we had in Posso delle Posse was 5,7 m! Water temperature was surprisingly at 15°C, so 2 degrees warmer than expected. The low level had the consequence to limit the diveable area, so our dive was really short only 16 minutes. By the time we started our dive, at 4.20 pm, as the mountains surrounding Verzasca Valley are above 2,000 m, sunshine had unfortunately disappeared even if there were still plenty of daylight.

Anyway, diving Pozzo delle Posse was a good introduction to what to expect diving in the Verzasca River. The river has carved the rock with soft and rounded edges. The best view is to lay on the sand and look into the canyon below the bridge towards the surface. We started our dive against the current of the river, it was ok but I had to use my best frog kick technique to make it efficient. On the other side of the bridge, we were rapidly stopped by the force of the current as some big rocks were creating restrictions and hence accelerating the speed of the water. We turned around and started the drift dive part. We also didn’t need to use our fins, we were gliding in the current. The last important point to finish the dive safely is to keep near the bottom and the side of your exit, not to be taken away by the currents, down in the rapids of the river.

It might have been a super short dive for all the efforts we made that day, but we learnt so many invaluable things by taking the time to check each location correctly. We made the decision to wake up with the sunrise the next day and use our knowledge to enjoy a longer and more enjoyable dive this time.

Pozzo dei Salti

6.15 am. This is the time I put on the alarm clock of my phone. At 7 am, we were the first ones to arrive at Pozzo dei Salti. We took the time to unload our gear, choose our favourite spot, take a few pictures and eat a few slices of the delicious cake Raphael’s father kindly prepared for the trip. Carrying gear to the shore of the river is much easier at Pozzo dei Salti than Pozzo delle Posse. You just need to cross the Roman bridge and go down a few steps. Once on the rocks, you still need to take your time to avoid falling with heavy gear on your back.

We took our time to gear up while waiting for more light as the mountains were still hiding the sun. Unfortunately by 8.30 am, some people were starting to arrive at the bridge, so we finally decided to go without the ideal light to avoid the crowds of the previous day. Luckily in the middle of the dive, around 9 am, we saw the light changing and sun shining from below the surface! It was actually magical to see during the dive, the site coming to life!

The water was colder than the day before, at 13°C, I was pleased I had my drysuit, even if it’s doable with a 7mm wetsuit. We went for a beautiful 30-minute dive on each side of the Roman bridge. The level of the water was low there too, our maximum depth was 5,9 m, but the diveable area was bigger than in Pozzo delle Posse.

Not only, the site is the most iconic thanks to the Roman bridge, but underwater the rock formations were also the most interesting. When the sunshine finally came out after 9 am, we could enjoy Verzasca River at its best: crystal clear water with an emerald colour. Once again, we started our dive against the current and finished the dive drift diving. When we made our way back to the shore, we saw a group of four scuba divers. It was the sign the area was getting crowded, and it was time for us to go!

Watch my video “Scuba diving in Pozzo dei Salti” to get the feel of how magical it is to dive in the Verzasca River

 

The logistics of diving in the Verzasca River

Important: please do not attempt to go diving there by yourself if you are not an experienced diver in dive planning and diving in currents. I know it looks easy on the pictures and the video, but I can tell you the experience was demanding and I was so grateful to count on my two experienced buddies all the way.

Here is a checklist of important things to include in your dive planning to go diving in the Verzasca River:

  • Form a team of minimum three scuba divers: one person should stay on shore to be able to help in case someone gets caught in the current of the river.
  • Check the conditions: a single rainfall and the flow rate of the river can become too dangerous to dive in the Verzasca River. Check this website before going www.hydrodaten.admin.ch/en/2605.html
  • Check the altitude of your return itinerary: The southern itinerary we took to go to Ticino goes through Simplon Pass above 2,000 m of altitude, it wasn’t an option to take that itinerary on our way back. My computer gave me 8 hours of no flight time after my last dive, so we took the northern itinerary that is mostly using tunnels through the mountains.
  • Set your dive computer for altitude diving
  • Scuba diving gear for cold water: a dry suit is recommended, but don’t put a too buoyant undersuit as you need to stay slightly negative during the dive to avoid to get caught in the current (In my case I used my Fusion dry suit with my sharkskin suit below). You also need to avoid putting air in your drysuit.
  • Bring enough weights for everyone: same idea, you need to be slightly negative during the dive, so bring a bit more than usual.
  • Bring a 50m rope: This is for security if a diver gets caught in current, to be used by the diver who will stay onshore.
  • Get a scuba diving bag with backpack system: many people were bringing their gear in boxes, but I found my scuba diving bag with its backpack system to be the ideal solution, especially in Pozzo delle Posse which is hard to get access to.
  • Wake up early: Verzasca Valley was to my surprise a very touristic place; to get the dive site for yourself and a parking space near the site, there is no better solution than waking up with the sunrise.
  • Refill your tanks at the Pizzeria Posse: ask inside the restaurant, the pizzaiolo will come to open the garage next to the restaurant where the compressor is. Price 10 CHF each tank, this is almost 10€ per tank! It’s the most expensive refill I ever paid for! Someone once said that only the air is free in Switzerland, I now know that this is not even true.

 

How to go to Verzasca valley in Switzerland?

The closest airport to Verzasca Valley is Milan in Italy. However, you need to remember that you need to bring all your gear and your own tanks. I haven’t seen any place on our way where you could rent tanks. If you know a place, please let me know in the comments!

This is why we took our car from Paris all the way to Ticino with all our equipment. We made a stopover in Pontarlier, just before the Swiss border. On the map below you can see the itinerary we took. The southern itinerary is going in altitude so we could only take it on our way to Ticino. It is a bit longer to go this way, but I have no regrets since it was the most scenic of both itineraries. We made our way back to France using the 17 km tunnel of Gottardo and making a stop in the lovely town of Interlaken for an ice cream and shopping delicious chocolate.

 

On this video you can see why going on a road trip crossing half of Switzerland wasn’t a bad idea after all…

 

Tips and tricks to make your trip to Switzerland more affordable

A family holidaying in Ticino we met while refilling our tanks after our first dive told us ” We love Ticino, it is beautiful, but it’s like Italy with the prices of Switzerland!” I found it to be a very accurate description! Here are a few ideas to make your trip to Ticino a bit less expensive:

  • Pack a picnic lunch and snacks for the road: restaurants are costly in Switzerland. Just to eat a pizza you can spend between 15 and 25CHF. In our case, as, anyway, we had two long drives on both days, we saved a lot of time by eating our home-made goodies on the few stops we made.
  • Fill your tanks a bit above 200 bars before: As you can see above, the price of filling one tank is ridiculous. Dives in Verzasca River being relatively short, between 15 and 30 minutes, if you have a decent air consumption, you can use your tank twice
  • Buy a parking daily pass: Each hour of parking costs 2 CHF, so if you’re planning the park the car the entire day near the dive sites get the daily pass for 10 CHF. Parking hours are from 8 am to 7 pm.The pass can be used in all parking areas.
  • Spend only one night in Switzerland: Only 20 minutes away, up in the mountain in Frasco, we stayed at the Albergo Familienhotel. It was such a perfect place to stay for the night for our scuba diving team of three as we could share one of their family rooms (3 adults or 2 adults+ 2 kids). We paid 188 CHF for the three of us, breakfast and hotel tax included, in high season, so it was about 55€ per person for the night. The rooms are minimalistic, entirely made of pine wood, but convenient and the bed were comfortable. The nice Italian restaurant on the first floor with its beautiful view and its delicious pizzas from 13 to 17 CHF made our evening. Highly recommended!

 

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