THINGS WE LEARNED: The 9:30 am bus leaves at 11:45 am.
INTERESTING FACT: When Arenal Volcano violently erupted on the morning of July 29, 1968, it spewed ash, rocks and gas for 3 consecutive days. When the smoke cleared, the villages of Tabacon, Pueblo Nuevo, and San Luis were buried under debris. 87 people had lost their lives. Out of this catastrophic tragedy, La Fortuna (The Fortune) was born as the town center and village for the Arenal Volcano area as it was the only town fortunate enough to still be standing.
We went to this area with Doug and Val in 2000 when there were 40 hotels and it cost $4 US to go soak in the hot springs. The 2009 update is that there are 250+ hotels and it costs $25 US to soak in the hot springs. Wow.
THIS IS HOW CHEAP WE ARE: We walked 7km from town to the start of a volcano hike instead of getting a cab there...and then 7km back home again after the grueling climb.
TYPICAL IN THIS REGION: Gallo Pinto, high prices, amazing rainforest, poisonous snakes.
So we set off from our million dollar palace at Playa Flamingo and headed towards the bus station, knowing full well what lay ahead, the 9:30 am bus wouldn't be there until 12 noon at the earliest and whichever side of the bus we sat on would be the one with the sun. That being said we were anxious and ready for the next leg of our Costa Rican travels. Our goal for the day was to reach Volcano Arenal in La Fortuna via a series of four buses. This was an ambitious goal given Costa Rican buses and our late start didn't help. However, we were able to get to a town called Nuevo Arenal which was only about two hours from La Fortuna.
On route we noticed a little bit of drizzle on the windshield as the forest swept by, and we thought 'wow, how refreshing to have some nice cool showers in the rain forest after the scorching heat at Playa Flamingo'. But that night the heavens opened and the rain was coming down in waves! It would not soon stop.
Upon arriving the next morning in La Fortuna, and as per our new plan Steph stayed with the bags at a "soda" where we had eaten a cheap traditional breakfast and Chad ventured out to scour the town for the best hostel. Two hours later he had walked every street in La Fortuna and decided on one hotel that was almost double what we had been paying. According to Chad, there were no alternatives. Steph silently worried that Chad was getting a little fancy on her however, when he produced the glossy brochure advertising cable TV, Air conditioning, pool and towels shaped like swans on the bed. The room was quite nice and had a 'view' of Volcano Arenal, so we were able to tough it out. However, as the rain continued to pound down, we realized a room with a view just meant that we could see the rain up close.
We realized we had to make the best of the situation.
The next day we decided on a tour involving an evening hike in the forest next to the Volcano Arenal followed by a soak in the hot springs. The rain intensified further during our hike, but we were ready for it and it actually made the forest appear even more lush than usual. We saw some howler monkeys, a couple of tarantulas, and interesting flora that North Americans pay a pretty penny for back home (Birds of Paradise). Our guide was very knowledgeable and unlike our guide in Nicaragua, he didn't end every story about seeing animals with "...then we ate it" or "...then we killed it and ate it."
He also dispelled some facts about nature that we had had skewed by our Nicaraguan friend. Upon starting our hike, our guide was able to find a tarantula, about the size of the inside of a donut, and proceeded to tell us that they are the only spider that doesn't spin a web. When his explanation ended, we politely pulled him aside and described the web we had seen on our Guatemalan hike that our guide there told us it contained a tarantula. He looked at us sympathetically and smiled, and kindly explained the kind of spider that spins the web we described and that we hadn't seen a tarantula at all. Strike 3 for the Nicaragua hike.
After our hike, we were all very cold and wet, which made the next part of our tour to the hot springs all the better! We stopped on our way to the hot springs to get a view of the lava pouring out of Arenal, as it has active lava flows daily. However, due to rain and clouds, visability was reduced to about 2 feet. While we were stopped we told our guide about our hike in Guatemala to the actual lava flows. We told him we were close enough to put a stick in the molten rock and he just about had a heart attack. He could not believe that they would ever allow people to be so close to an unpredictable volcano. It was entertaining to see his face. At Arenal, no one is allowed even in the valley surrounding the volcano.
At the hot springs we quickly realized why the price had risen so drastically since our last visit. There were 20+ pools of varying temperatures surrounded by lush greens and palm trees, the sounds of nature, and bars. There was a waterslide fast enough to remove bathing suits (ask Steph)! Affluent tourists were everywhere, relaxing in their little bracelets, indicating some kind of all inclusive access, drinking beers that would have been sold to us for $10 US per bottle. Obviously we weren't going to be having any beers, so we pulled out our soggy peanut butter and bread sandwiches and ate them amongst the royalty with pride.
The hot springs were magical and rejuvenated us completely.
On day two in La Fortuna, we headed off (in the rain, yes, still) to do a hike on our own. We were to start at the base of the volcano adjacent to Arenal and climb to the top where there was a huge caldera full of water. Again, in order to save some dinero in this expensive town, we decided to walk the entire thing ourselves which ended up being more than 20 kms.
During our ascent the rain stopped enough to allow us some great views of the surrounding countryside. As we climbed higher and higher, we entered the forest and the rains followed. Amidst the pouring rain and mist we clambered up the narrow paths through dense forest, keeping our eyes peeled for snakes that could have been anywhere. The climb was steep and muddy beyond belief, but we were dedicated to getting to the top come hell or high water. In our minds we could see our Nicaraguan guide telling us "...it's too muddy","... it's not worth it" "...just give me your money and we can all go home", "...look there's a tarantula's web".
We reached the top and again had an incredible view of the clouds and rain. As we were still determined to see the lake formed in the calderon, we descended 125 metres to the shores. There we saw the water and ate our peanut butter sandwiches (soggy again). We could see some 60 feet out into the water and mist, and the scene was eerily magnificent, for such a remote lake with such a violent past. We enjoyed the feel of the lake for a few minutes, regrouped, and started our descent. The descent was even more treacherous as the vast amounts of rain had turned the pathway into a small stream.
At the base of the volcano was a gorgeous waterfall. The power of the falls and the surrounding setting were amazing.
Having seen as much of La Fortuna as we could afford and stand (with the rain) we headed to the cloud forests of Monteverde next. We decided to take a break from the local buses and instead took a jeep-boat-jeep trip across Lake Arenal and through the rural countryside. The roads were steep and slick and ropes were used for more than a few vehicles to pull them up some slippery slopes.
We were ecstatic to arrive in the town and find glorious sun and a hostel for $10 per night. Again we decided what trips we could afford in the touristy town and what we could do on our own. As Chad was determined to overcome his little breakdown and subsequent loss of manhood at the top of a Tikal ruin, we decided on a zip line tour. The tour involved being strapped into a harness and strung along zip lines that were up to one kilometer long and almost 150 metres high. The views from the zip lines were awesome and at some points the howler monkeys were staring up at us from below!
Following this tour we decided to do another steep hike on our own up a local mountain that offered distant views of the elusive Volcano Arenal. We reached the top only to be foiled again by clouds. Upon our return to town we decided, since were lucky so far in avoiding snakes, to seek them out. We went to an exhibit that held all of the most lethal Costa Rican snakes and were thoroughly disgusted. They had the infamous Fer de Lances and five huge Boas.
Again, snakes serve no purpose.
On our final day we decided to hike in the world famous cloud forests. The weather again was magnificent and the forest was beautiful. We did not see many animals but a relaxed hike (without hills) was just what the doctor ordered.
Costa Rica was not quite how we had remembered it and our Spanish took a hit due to the large amount of people who spoke English but all in all Costa Rica was beautiful, expensive, but well worth it! Next stop is Buenos Aires in Argentina.