Sleeping at the base of an active volcano would seem to be a hair- raising experience only for the foolhardy and strong of heart. After spending three days at Arenal Volcano i can safely say it is certainly one for the strong of heart. In this place only the fit survive. Every walk, even the short walk involves a steep climb or even a precipitous descent. What leads down (and most interesting paths to visit waterfalls do) must eventually lead back up. After 3 days, we certainly felt it.
And so, we came to appreciate the agua calientes or hot springs at our hotel. Behind the dining hall, previously pictured, there are a series of pools, descending from the mountain in decreasing temperature. As you climbed through a lush garden path there were semi-private pools of hit mineral water. The temperature decreases as the water exits from the hottest point on the top and descends to the next pool. The final pool is the coolest, followed by a clear water pool for swimming.
If you stop for a moment and think about the origins of the hot milky-brown water, it should give you pause. You are sitting in a thermal bath at the base of a volcano on a luxurious spa resort. Can you think of another similar place? Do you remember what happened there? Who would be stupid enough to put a luxury resort, let alone a dozen luxury resorts at the base of a volcano? Yea, now I recall. Ask the mummified residents of Pompeii, in the former Roman Republic.
And yet the danger seems so distant in this tropical paradise. Most of the time the mountain, for that is what it looks like, is shrouded in clouds. Its sides are a lush green filled with endless varieties of flora and fauna. This is a thriving resort community with choices galore for the adventurous. There are riding stables, canopy tours on zip lines, white water rafting, hanging bridges, caves and cliffs to explore and challenging hiking trails.
Turn a corner and you are swallowed in the jungle. The light is muted and dappled. The sudden rain bursts seem far away at the jungle floor. Most of the rain is absorbed by the trees and their epiphytes before the reach the jungle floor. And if you stop for a moment and look with your ears you are treated to a profusion of bird calls, frog peeps, cricket chips and numerable unidentified sounds.
After a long drive sleep comes quick. And so day one ended. The next morning we woke with the sun. The morning seems to be the time when animals call out to their mates. Since the base of Mt Arenal is interspersed with ranches, farms and resorts we were greeted with the calls of the rooster. That was only the beginning. Like a well functioning family, the morning is the noisiest time of day: wakeup, chores, breakfast, and planning for the day whether in school and work. In the jungle amo g the birds it seems no different. I could not identify the source of each sound, but the sounds surrounded me and were both quite distinctive and different. I could see hummingbirds gathering nectar from bird of paradise plants. There were hawks catching the thermals and souring above. On the top of a large tree I could see an enormous bird stretching out its wings to catch the morning sun. The wing span of this giant bird must have been close to six feet.
Breakfast came with that delicious strong Tico coffee, fresh papaya and pineapple, with guanabanana juice. This morning we were off to Alberto’s. We had looked at the packaged activities offered by our resort and then turned to the Internet. More specifically TripAdvisor.com which Rose had mastered. We found Alberto’s horse ranch which feature horseback tours at the base of the volcano. What Rose didn’t tell me was that it featured tours at a gallop; not those pansie plodding walking tours on horseback, ridden on beaten old nags. These horse broke into bumpy trots at the slightest chance. It was not until the return from a beautiful waterfall visit that I realized thereal reason for the choice of Albertos. By that time I was flying across the fields at a full gallop.
Villa Mucca – House of Cows
Once my heart stopped pounding and I caught my breath, my attention turned to food. Rose had the inside scoop, courtesy of TripAdvisor on a place called Villa Mucca, or House of Cows. No, it was not a barn, but rather a lovely outdoor cafe. First we stopped at the workshop of a local artist. With Easter Island size masks we could hardly resist. The wood sculptures carved out of single pieces of wood were out of this world. The figurines of women would make Madonna quake in envy. We skipped those photos to preserve the G-rating of this blog.
The house of cows, while empty at mid-day, was perfect. We ordered (off the menu) a casado (beef and chicken) and ceviche which is raw marinated sea bass. The ceviche was a meal in itself, served with freshly baked tortilla chips. And the cervesa, Imperial Beer was to die for. I was that thirsty and it was ice cold.
Hot Tubs in the Rain
We are not known to waste a minute. Early that day we reserved a spot at the Danaus Eco-Center in La Fortuna. This was to be a night tour starting at dusk when the nocturnal animals come out. With a few hours before dusk we decided to sample the hot springs at the hotel. Cloudy weather in the tropics didn’t phase us. Once we had immersed ourselves in the hot waters, even a full downpour didn’t even bother us. We just ducked underwater and chatted with our fell resort guests. The only thing we could not continue doing was read our books.
Frogs, and spiders and bats oh my!
Danaus was a secondary forest. 20 years ago it was a ranch; now it is a thriving ecosystem with frogs, sloths, bats and a welter of insets to feed them all. Night comes very quickly in the tropics. One minute it is dusk; the next minute it is pitch black. Most days in Arenal are overcast and so there are no stars or moon to light the night. There is some reflection of light off the clouds that accentuates the silouhettes. One can make out the path as the area of light gray against the pitch black of the jungle. Our private guide, a 19-year old boy was quite knowledgable. He knews all the spots where animals congregate, in this case, frogs. We found out later frogs congregate near pools of water where they give birth to their young, and this property (a man-made and cultivated jungle) had a number of enhanced water pools of the type liked by frogs.
These frogs were colorful and some poisonous. We learned a lot about the flora as well. There were vampire bats flying around. We also saw the “eyes” of a caiman, a mother and her children, but not their bodies. We saw crickets and their familiar cousin, the cockroach. We saw a “jesus bug”, a preying mantis with the ability to walk on water. We toured by flashlight, using super-bright LCD lights that could project deep into the forest canopy. Mostly we looking on top of leafs and ferns for bugs and peepers (aka frogs). You ”see” with your ears in the jungle, alert to all senses. Over time you can distinguish the calls. If the lights had gone out, we would have been surely lost; as we were en route to the parking lot, taking a left turn, instead of a right turn, that led us back into the jungle.
The night we picniced on our balcony. We had bought some local cheese, bread, and rum. I put together a small platter of sandwiches with fresh avocado and mayonaise with limon. Together with our Panamanian rum and coke, we enjoyed the night sounds of the jungle. It was the end of a perfect day.