It took over three hours to go the 75 kilometers from San Jose to Arenal Volcano. It wasn’t that the roads were bad (though the last 10 kilometers were on a bumpy but fairly well maintained dirt road). It was that every five minutes our GPS unit would loudly DING and announce that we were approaching a “dangerous bridge.” The bridges weren’t necessarily dangerous but they did necessitate that we slow down, they were often one-lane bridges, and there were a lot of them to slow us down. That and the constant curves and winding roads that led us up from the valley to the tropical mountains. We arrived in the dark and couldn’t see anything – but the sounds coming from the animals and insects in the rainforest surrounding us was pretty deafening. When we woke, the sounds were still there but we couldn’t see the famous Arenal Volcano – clouds obscured it and the rain was pretty intense. We squinted to see if we could see lava or a hint of steam from the volcano but we could not see even an outline of the mountain. We later learned that the pool of lava that seeped from the top of Arenal for years had stopped flowing three years ago or so and that it would probably be another three hundred years before tourists could see red lava spilling down its slopes.
We’re from Seattle, so we’re not afraid of any rain. Out into the rain we went, covered with our cheap $5 parkas purchased from the Arenal Observatory Lodge where we were staying. The volcano was sooooo close to us but we couldn’t’ see it so why not go into the forest to see what was lurking in there. Hanging bridges, heliconias, and strange beetles with headlights on their heads that looked like glowing LED lights. And, aside from these things, the rainforests here looked remarkably like the rainforests up here in the Pacific Northwest – wet, very green, tightly compacted. The hike was wet but not too bad – though we heard some fellow hikers at dinner say their hike up to Cerro Chato was horribly chilly, wet, and “tortuous.”
The next day, the clouds parted and the volcano showed herself. It was stunning – I had no idea that the volcano was lurking THAT close to us behind the clouds – it was amazing. The story behind the lodge where we were staying is that, because of a valley hidden in the depths of the rainforest it was determined that the lodge was a safe place to observe the goings-on of the volcano – even though we were super close to the mountain. This was where Smithsonian researchers stayed to watch over the mountain and monitor its seismic activity – close enough to have an amazing viewpoint but safe from the lava flow and spewing rocks.
It was not sunny by any means but we opted to go for a horseback tour to La Fortuna waterfall. Our guides, Joel and Harrison (though they insisted their names were actually Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas), didn’t make too much fun of me since I was a novice and pretty petrified of my horse, Miel. Miel was a little feisty and not really that interested in letting me have a slow and easy ride. It’s not that she was running or anything, but in my nervous state of mind, her little gallops grew in my mind to be out of control stampeding or something. There were lots of steep climbs down into creeks and streams and Miel would speed up the opposite bank to a fast trot that made my heart race a little bit. After about an hour or so, we arrived at the top of La Fortuna waterfall – and it was a steep 500+ steps down. The sun was peeking in and out of the clouds and swimming at the base of the falls was amazing…the water was cool, the current not too fast where I was a bit downstream from the falls themselves, everything felt so clean and cool after a humid horse ride and steep trek down to the falls. Getting back up to the top, of course, was another story – heart pumping fast up the steep and slippery steps.
The next day, we explored a little down in the town of La Fortuna. I had spotted this abandoned water park next to a steak house. I was intrigued of course and went into the steak house, greeted by a smiling woman. I asked about getting into the water park – she responded yes of course and opened a chain link fence for me, and let me in. It was quiet and the perfect place for a horror movie to be set. I swear I heard a shower running in the empty bathrooms. As I was leaving, I was talking with the woman in my broken Spanish and her in her broken English. I think we may have misunderstood one another, but I swear she said to come back later as the park was going to be open that night at 6.
Then, it was back down those treacherous roads – this time, in addition to the dangerous bridges and curving roads, we ended up behind a rickety truck hauling a giant cow in the back, the truck listing from side to side threatening to capsize at any moment. Finally, they pulled over to the side of the road, the driver getting out to chat to someone on his cell phone. I was hoping he was calling for a bigger truck. We would never know – we were on to the wilds of the Osa Peninsula.