Arenal Costa Rica
The drive to Arenal.
Getting a taste of Costa Rica whipped our appetite to go back. We planned a driving trip and took flight in May 2013. We landed in Liberia airport and upon clearing customs, went to get the car. We rented from Avis. I made a reservation using CIBC visa that supposedly covers insurance overseas. Well, the Avis agent turned out to be a real piece of work as he refused to acknowledge the reservation. After some back and forth arguments, I gave up trying to explain anything to this guy. Elena calmly read the terms and conditions and once the agent saw he was wrong, he finally gave us the car. We learned from our earlier mistake and this time took a jeep that can handle the Costa Rican “massage”. Our itinerary had us drive from Liberia airport to Volcano Arenal. Google maps shows a distance of 156km and a “3 hour” drive time.. Ha ha, not….. By the time we were done, it took us 9 hours to get there.
Our first stop was the greenhouse cafe that we visited 6 months ago. The food and service was spectacular. Fueled our bodies and then the car, we set sights on Lake Arenal and its majestic volcano. We set out on highway 1, the pan american highway that stretches from Alaska to Chile. In comparison to other roads, highway 1 is paved and in excellent condition. We passed the dreaded road to Palo Verde park that supposedly has crocodiles and continued towards the city of Canas. From there, it was highway 142 that hugs the huge lake Arenal and should take us straight to our hotel. That is when the trip got interesting. First, we got stuck in a traffic jam that was created due to accident or the flow of cars. The traffic jam was caused by monster semis that were carrying huge parts for some electrical or water system. (see above). These eerie trucks with their monstrous cargo resembled a nuclear weapon components. We drove behind this massiveness for almost half an hour. Based on the map, we were to continue on highway 142 until we reach the destination. I made a wrong turn and drove up to a wind power station. To feel their power, the hum from massive rotors is a feeling I long to experience once more. No people were in vicinity so asking directions was out of question. The lake was directly below us so logically the highway was somewhere below the power station. We set out hoping to run into a road or someone along the way. Lo and behold, another jeep was coming in the distance, headlights disappearing on every dip in the road. I flagged him down and it was a middle aged man, resembling an Australian national for some reason. I asked him for directions to highway 142 in my broken Spanish and he replied in equally broken Spanish to follow the road till the end. That the power station is actually a short cut and we will save some time and gas. Why it never crossed my mind to speak to him in English, I can’t say. The short cut turned to be a washed out crevice that almost had the car flipped over. We drove on barely speaking because we were lost and driving on a washed away river rather than the road. Thank God, I took a jeep! No way a sedan would survive this patch.
Darkness was descending quickly and we had to get to a road. Any road, even the “massage” road would be welcome. We drove on like that for another 15 minutes and came to a perfectly paved highway. Just like that back on the highway 142. The feeling of smoothness as you glide effortlessly on a asphalt was stupendous. We drove around the lake passing the town of Nuevo Arenal. We knew that we were on the right track and with renewed spirits drove on in darkness towards the volcano. Half an hour later, an incoming car was flashing its headlights and trying to flag me down to stop. I stopped to see what was the issue and the driver told that I have to turn around as there is no road ahead. I didn’t believe him and after thanking him, continued to drive ahead enveloped in grim thoughts. The road violently turned around the bend and we were greeted with a dozen cars stopped ahead. The people were all out of the cars gesturing towards something in the darkness. I got out of the car to investigate and made my way towards the group. I came up to a crater in the road. In fact, there was no road. No divider, no asphalt, nothing….. There was just a gaping hole full of dirt and broken trees. I found out that there was an earthquake and an ensuing landslide from the mountain that took everything in its path. There was absolutely no way a car, any car would be able to get through that. Based on the map, this was the only road that led to our hotel. We were now a mere half hour from our destination and this happened. We couldn’t stop and give up. I asked for directions to the nearest hotel and we made our way to a hotel that was covered with frogs. Toy frogs, cup holder frogs, pillow frogs. It was a frog paradise. Elena went into darkness to find a bathroom and I found a guard that graciously allowed me his cellphone to call the hotel and tell them that we are still coming, just not yet. I got directions to go back to the town of Nuevo Arenal and take highway 143 north to San Rafael de Gatuso and go around the lake and come up to Arenal from the other side. We got back into our trusty jeep and made a move towards Nuevo Arenal. We got there and there are no markings anywhere regarding highway 143. I asked for help and was directed to drive to a bus stop and take the road uphill. I was also told not to drive there at night. Well, we had no choice so off we went. We got lost again and I stopped beside a house to go seek help. A naked man came out and politely showed me the way to highway 143. By now, nothing surprised us anymore so a naked man was nothing out of ordinary at this point. I have to point out that highway 143 is not a highway. It is a dirt road that zigzags through the mountains without any kind barrier. Then the rain started to pour, then fog came. So we drove on in complete darkness, in rain and fog. I drove as slowly as possibly counting the 20km that we had to overcome. Every kilometer we let out a cheer. We opened the windows, to clear up the foggy windows,when Elena got the shock of her life, when a bull appeared out of the darkness. Then a speeding bus came out of nowhere barely missing side mirror by mere centimeters. People on motorbikes passed us completely unfazed by the conditions. I was ashamed that I made such a big deal when people drove on motorbikes and sang songs doing it. At last, San Rafael de Gatuso appeared in the distance. We saw the glimmering lights in the distance and knew that we were close. Upon reaching the city and turning to a major road, we were surrounded by screaming, music, and people on horses. They were everywhere, horsemen darting between cars, people singing songs and cars honking in tact with the music. It was as if we returned from the serenity of the monastery straight into Las Vegas. I believe we filmed the whole procession. I guess it was some sort of farmer festival going on. Mesmerized by everything that surrounded us, I missed a stop sign, driving right through barely avoiding T-boning a car. The car turned around and drove aggressively towards me meaning business. I was ready for some road rage and decided to diffuse the situation by stating we were lost. When the visibly angry occupants saw tourists asking for directions, they were shocked. They not only offered help but drove ahead to show us the way. The rest of the way we drove without any incidents. We arrived at our hotel at 10pm. We arrived 6 hours late but we made it!
The hotel had the biggest outdoor hot tub I have ever seen in the middle of the jungle and upon checking in, we made a straight line for the bar to celebrate Elena’s crazy birthday adventure and soak up in the hot tub under the stars in Volcano Arenal lodge!
The next day, this is the view we saw from our little bungalow. There is something majestic about Volcanoes and we both felt energy that reverberated from the Volcano. This became one of our favorite places in the world to visit. One day, we hope to return to this magical place and feel the energy and power of the mighty mountain.
The next day, we set our sights on Cerro Chato, a inactive volcano beside Arenal. There is a waterfalls and a moderate hike up the peak of the mountain. There is a lake in the crater and apparently it is dangerous to swim in it. We drove up to the entrance of the park and after finding out that it costs $20 to see the waterfalls, decided to walk on foot to the crater instead. The weather was not on our side as soon as we set out, pouring rain greeted us. We walked right up to the gates of the entrance and because of the rain and extremely low visibility, entered without paying. Maybe the park rangers just didn’t think anyone would go in the rain. We found an empty hotel and waited out the rain under outdoor bar. As soon as the rain stopped and steam started to rise from the ground, off we went.
The first part of the hike was not strenuous at all. There is a gravel path that is to be followed and plenty of signage to direct you in the right direction. The sun came out and so did the birds and insects. Within minutes, the foliage was moving, and singing and chirping was heard all around us. I heard croaking above and found a toucan staring at me intently from a tree. I tried to take as many pictures before he was spooked and left but the bird was confident at the distance that separated us (50-60 feet). He croaked again and picked a small berry and tossed it up in the air before it disappeared in his massive beak.
The gravel road gave way to this kind of a mess (photo above). The second part of the hike was jumping up and down into ravines and climbing over rocks. We got to a plateau at around 4km mark. This allowed us to catch our breath and take in the scenery and try to spot some wildlife. Rolling clouds were being pushed around by the strong currents coming from the sea. If you wanted to image how the world looked during Jurassic Age, this would be a good place to start. We were startled by the first humans since we sneaked into the park. It was two Ticos who looked like athletes. They actually jogged on their way up. They greeted us and were gone around the bend.
The last part of the hike was quite grueling. Legs were shaking and muscles trembling like strings on guitar. It would also intermittently rain. Everything was covered in mud and cold drops would drench you with every gust of wind. We were determined to make it to the top and plodded along, careful not to grab branches. (snakes). We made it to the top only to find out that the crater lake was another 300 meters downwards. Ohhhhh. Just when I thought it was over, another curveball. We got down to the lake and the scenery of serenity brought tears to my eyes. To see this untouched beauty, was touching. We sat down looking at this small oasis in the middle of a jungle and tried to remember it all.
Rain would sometimes interrupt this total silence. I took off my shoes and waded into the water. Water was freezing but extremely soothing on the feet. I waded deeper and all of the sudden felt a pinch. I looked into hazel water and saw nothing. There are signs around the lake warning against going into the water due to high chemical level from the volcano. So I was assured that nothing was living in the water, however a few seconds later, I felt another pinch and another. It was as if small stick touches your skin while getting carried by the water current. I came closer to shore to see what was going on and to my amazement saw literally hundreds of small fish swimming around my feet. I stopped moving and they started to bite small chunks of dead skin. I can confidently say that it was the most exhilarating foot massage. We decided to try to take a few more still water photos and then another couple came down to our landing.
They were completely clean and very invigorated, laughing and talking in very animated tones. We greeted them and got them talking. They were a British couple that was travelling across South America. I could not but inquire how did they stay so clean and they were confused by my question. I told them that we didn’t see them on the trail. This is how our conversation went:
“A trail? what trail”
“Well, the one that takes you here, isn’t that the only road up here?”
“I didn’t know there is a trail, we took a bus here….”
“There is a bus?!??!!”
Apparently, there is a bus that takes tourist to the peak from the other side of the mountain. They pay $160 and within 2 hours they are back down in their hotel. Clean and full of energy. No wonder, we didn’t see anyone…..
The way back was more extreme than going up. Dark clouds came out of nowhere and as soon as we made it back up to the peak and started to descend, a thunderstorm came down on us in all fury. It rained so hard that the path along which we climbed became a river. The force of the water took branches, dirt and rocks along its rapid descend. We tried to outrun the water and that was a mistake as we were nearly swept over. Screw the snakes! We held on to every branch on the way down and hopped down from one rock to another making mountain goats proud. The rain pounded on us unabated until we came down all the way to the nicely shaped gravel road. At this point, completely soaked, dirty and tired we just sat down and laughed at this. This was the best way to explore Arenal Volcano’s small brother the Cerro Chato! Everything that we experienced on that day will always be with us ingrained in memory. Should we ever go back, we will go back the same way. Screw the bus!