The Barcelo San Jose Palacio Hotel was simply beautiful. We had a suite that overlooked San Jose, which is surrounded by beautiful green forested mountains. As the sun started coming up, some blackbirds landed on our ledge and started singing, and one even pecked at the window as if to say “Get up, Get up!” Aine was up and about suite, looking out the windows at the beautiful new surroundings. We came down for a fantastic Costa Rican breakfast of coffee, rice and beans, fried plantains, scrambled eggs, sausages and a variety of fruits and other niceties. Our group sat outside and just enjoyed the warmth. Summer was here again and we were all grateful for finding it. After breakfast, we met our guide Allan, who spoke perfect English with such a convincing accent that I had to ask him what state he was from. Once again, our luggage was loaded onto the back of the coach, with one seat taking the spillover and we headed off to the Arenal rainforest. Along the way, the clouds settled in and a light rain came through as we drove higher into the mountains. We had a little break at a roadside cafe and souvenir shop before heading along the road again. It became more twisting and switchbacks were the norm. Costa Rica’s main roads are more like our county highway roads in that they are two lane. Much of the passing is done on whatever straightaway a vehicle can find. The steeper grades will have a passing lane, but that doesn’t mean that vehicles will choose to use it. So a bit of darting is required if your vehicle has the power. Quite a few SUV’s are on the road, as well as cattle trucks, occasional semis and tour buses like ours.
In an odd way, the terrain reminded me a bit of Ireland. The land was amazingly green, with some beautiful vistas here and there. One thing the two countries have in common is that they have both adapted using a form of hedgerows to create small pastures for grazing cattle. In Ireland, they perfected the use of the hedge that creates a standalone barrier as well as cover for drainage. In Costa Rica, they have a “fence-tree” that is literally a living fence post. The plant is placed in the same spacing as a traditional post and wire fence. As the trees grow, wire is strung between them and eventually a beautiful line of trees grows that serves as shade, fence and boundary lines. Another thing they have in common is the use of thatch. In Ireland, the thatch is usually reeds collected around lakesides and expertly woven into a thick rooftop. Palm leaves are used in Costa Rica and just as expertly woven into a roof that sheds rain as well as any other type of cover. Ireland receives around 80 inches of rain per year, while the Arenal district of Costa Rica averages around 152! So it is no wonder that both countries have come up with ways of shedding water.
We arrived in Arenal at the Montaña de Fuego hotel and checked in, had lunch and were ready to head out for a walk of the volcano. The rain was coming down rather hard now and so, we were all clad in ponchos for our walk when we arrived at the base of the volcano. The road to the Arenal National Park was rutted and potholed, and looked more like a road out to a farm field, but still it was fairly busy with SUV’s, motorcycles, and tour buses. Here, Alan was joined by a local man named Jose, who was our guide for half of our group. Allan headed off with half of our group, while the rest of us stood in the rain with Jose, who gave us a great introduction to the history of the volcano. The rainforest that surrounded the volcano was pretty much a no-man’s land until the start of the 20th century, when the government offered free land for those willing to work it. There were some takers, mainly small farmers looking for a new opportunity and some Mennonite communities from the United States moved over. The jungle was cleared and farming was the main way of life until 1968, when the volcano exploded in a Mt. St. Helens type of pyroclastic eruption. Officially more than 80 people died, however, there was no census taken of the region. Jose said that many more people did die and the land was devastated. The Arenal river, which had run cold prior to the eruption, ran hot after that and the result was the Tabacón hot springs. Gesturing to the land, Jose mentioned that the entire rainforest had regrown in less than 50 years. It was hard to imagine such thick, dense vegetation not existing when I was five years old, but here it was, looking like a scene from Jurassic Park. We came across a funny clam-shaped object that was the size of a Volkswagen Bug. Ferns were growing on it and it obviously looked man-made. Sure enough, Jose mentioned the area was a favorite for Hollywood films, and the odd-shaped creation was an dinosaur egg fragment from a Will Smith movie. The rain continued and the entire volcano was covered in cloud. Jose was clearly disappointed that we were not able to see the volcano. He said to me “Some people come here and all they want to see is the volcano and get angry when they can’t, but all around the volcano, the land is important to see, too.” I told him that for our group, his personal experience of growing up around the Arenal volcano was every bit as interesting as seeing a volcano because he was a local Costa Rican. That made him a bit happier as we walked along in the rain. Jose was full of joie de vivre. “My grandfather taught me this saying,” he said. “Today we have a good day or a very good day, nothing else.” We all had to agree.
It was now twilight and we headed to the Tabacón hot springs. The river cascaded into various rock pools with sandy bottoms. Aine was thrilled as we eased into the warm water. Because the volcano had very little sulphur, the water did not have the typical egg smell like a lot of hot springs. The jungle was crowded all around and with lighted paths and various pools, a large group of people could experience a very intimate and rejuvenating evening of relaxation. Our group all enjoyed the time, breaking off into various sub-groups as we explored one pool after another. Soon it was time to head in for a great dinner, served buffet style, with traditional Costa Rican fare. It was a long day, but it felt more like we had two separate days with the evening at the springs. We headed back to our individual cabins at the Montaña de Fuego tired, full and relaxed.
Click here to read Day 1
Click here to read Day 3