Costa Rica: a clear day in Arenal

Breakfast buffet at La Orchidea

We woke to bright sunlight and unknown bird calls. Breakfast was served “afuera” from a buffet on the edge of the patio, outside the funky “Marilyn Monroe” bar, (one look at the ceiling plastered with pictures of the star and it was obvious some previous owner had quite an obsession). This was our first encounter with the Tican staples gallo pinto (black beans and rice) and fried plantains (sprinkled heavily with cinnamon sugar), and we both found them to be delicious. Link sausage, eggs and fruit rounded out the meal, and after a few cups of coffee we were ready to hit the road. We walked around the grounds, admiring the bougainvillea, heliconias and gingers, and caged toucans and macaws.

Leslie arrived about 8:30, we loaded up the van and we were on the way. When we first started planning the trip I was interested in renting a car and doing our own driving, since our three destinations (Arenal, UGA Costa Rica in Monteverde and Manuel Antonio on the pacific coast) were all several hours apart.

There are bus lines, both modern (even air conditioned) “directivos”, and more colorful local routes, but it looked like we could spend a lot of time transferring from one route to another. Amy declared that she’d had enough of “chicken buses” during her 8 months in Jamaica, so we ruled out the bus option this time around. (I’ve heard that chickens are rarely on the passenger list these days, at least in Costa Rica.)

Eduardo had suggested via email that he could arrange a driver for us, and after reading more about the “challenging” roads of Costa Rica it sounded like a good idea. After spending time with Leslie Corrales we were very glad we made that choice.

Leslie is a father of three, speaks good english (and tolerated my halting attempts at spanish), and he was happy to talk proudly but realistically about his country. He was born and raised in Monteverde, but has traveled to the US several times, including visiting relatives in Wisconsin. We talked about everything from the politics of Costa Rica (they have an impressive social support system) to his son’s mountain bike races, his children’s schools, and the spending habits of locals and tourists. The conversation made the time pass pleasantly, and we enjoyed his company and his guidance.  As we talked about our breakfast he taught me my first “ex Rosetta” spanish: “huevos revueltos” (scrambled eggs).

The roads weren’t horrendous, but driving does present its challenges. There aren’t a lot of road signs, so I would imagine it would be easy to get lost, especially at night. Most disconcerting to me were the pedestrians of all ages on the roads, and the casual chaos of driving in towns. Leslie probably drove faster than I would, but we’d round a curve or drop down a hill into a town and there would be mothers with little kids walking right alongside the road, inches from the cars hurtling past them. We didn’t see as many dogs and chickens as we expected (and were surprised by a near complete absence of goats), but we were constantly worried that we were going to run over something or someone.

Although we don’t know the exact route we traveled, we started out in the dry hills of the central valley, planted in fields of papaya, yucca, or rows of blooming coffee bushes.  I enjoyed trying to decipher the advertising (“comida typical”, “hamburgueros”) and asking Leslie about brand names and traffic signs. I also got excited by the profusion of old Toyota Land Cruisers:  we saw plenty of FJ40s and FJ45s (gas), some diesels, and most were in good shape.  When Amy explained my obsession with them (her words) Leslie said that they’re very popular, and can be had for six to seven thousand dollars!  My cruiser radar activated, I realized we were passing lots of Toyotas, Mitsubishis, Nissans, Isuzus and other asian models, but relatively few US makes. The most common models were sedans and SUVs, with relatively few pickup trucks. (I think I read somewhere that the pickup is a US concept…)

Gradually the dry hills gave way to rocky streams and lush tropical foliage as we circled the Arenal volcano, finally passing through the town of La Fortuna to get to our destination for the next two nights, the , right at the foot of the volcano. The last few miles of road between the park entrance and the lodge was as impressive a collection of kidney crushing potholes as I’ve ever seen, and we were glad that we spent the night in Alajuela rather than try to drive that road at night. Leslie seemed to take the ruts in stride, and once we reached his stomping grounds of Monteverde I realized why (their roads are worse!)

The Lodge was originally selected by Smithsonian researchers as an observation station after the ’68 eruptions, and it’s a great site, close to the volcano, yet protected from lava flows by a deep river valley which runs between the two. It’s a cluster of several buildings on 870 acres, including over 200 acres of primary cloud forest. Leslie was excited by the view as he dropped us off, and we realized why over the next two days: the day we arrived was the only day the peak wasn’t hidden by heavy clouds and mist.

Since we reached the Lodge around lunch time it was too early to check in to our room, so we stashed our bags at the reception desk and had chicken casado for lunch in the Lodge dining room, marveling at the sombre grey cone outside. The service was great (their english meshing sufficiently with my spanish) and Amy and I agreed that tican chefs can work magic with black beans. After lunch we signed up for a guided nature walk in the Silencio nature preserve (at 3pm), and passed the time by hiking down a moderately steep trail to a waterfall on the Danta river.

On the way we spotted a colony of hanging objects about 2 feet long, which we realized were nests, presumably woven by the large birds flapping around issuing strange squonking calls. It wasn’t until we bought Garrigues and Dean’s The Birds of Costa Rica that we identified these as Montezuma Oropendolas. We saw them frequently during our stay, and grew accustomed to their weird calls and the “whomp, whomp, whomp” of their wingbeats as they flew overhead.

On the way back to the lodge office we spotted a turkey-sized bird under some trees, and later identified it as a crested guan.

The Silencio nature walk was led by Eduardo, a taciturn tican in jeans and a white polo shirt with a huge spotting scope and a tiny Toyota Tercel. The car wouldn’t have been an issue, except that we were joined by Dick and Carole, a couple from Oregon, so with the five of us it was a fairly tight squeeze, and our route was back out, over the pothole highway. Luckily Eduardo knew how to drive a low clearance vehicle over rough ground (slow and steady) and he got us to the trailhead and back without major damage to the undercarriage.

The walk itself was enjoyable, although we rushed a bit to finish before nightfall. We saw a couple of howler monkeys way up in the canopy (no decent photos), heard tinamou, chacalacas, and a currasow, and saw flocks of white fronted and red-lored parrots, and a pair of toucans nesting in a hollow tree. Toucans are comical birds, and even funnier when all you can see is their head and enormous beak peaking out of a hole.

When we got back to the car a girl of about 12 was twirling a large lasso, practicing her skill on a nearby fence post. We applauded her successes, and Dick galloped around, tempting her to rope him and getting shy giggles in response.

We were running out of steam by the time we got back to the Lodge, and slept soundly after a tasty steak in the dining room.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Costa Rica: a clear day in Arenal

  1. I believe we took the shortest (3 hr route), which is the blue line on the map http://www.arenal.net/maps/SJO-arenal-map.jpg. The grounds around the Arenal Observatory Lodge were well planted with bushes that attracted numerous birds and mammals. It was a great spot to observe nature and relax away from the crowds. It was the first time I stayed in a hotel that had a volcanic eruption evacuation plan, luckily the lodge is seldom affected by ash or fallout from eruptions due to its location; up wind and across the deep and ever-flowing Rio Agua Caliente. The R1 highest risk zone is the dashed line on this map http://www.arenal.net/maps/SJO-arenal-map.jpg.