Saturday, October 01, 2005

Arenal to San José

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Hotel La Riviera, San Antonio, Costa Rica

This morning, J.P. was heading off to town as I was preparing to leave. It's his son's 13th birthday and there will be a party at the hotel later.

On the road by 10:00 a.m., skirting the shores of Lake Arenal in a clockwise direction. The road was a mixed bag: sometimes paved, sometimes gravel with washboard and potholes. Changing constantly, it was always exciting. Lake Arenal is man-made to supply water and power, so the shoreline has a tall reddish brown band of barren earth. Windmills line the ridge above the western shore. I passed "Rock Ridge Lodge", where a weathered sign also advertises windsurfing. (Is the sport dying out, as Guy Le Roux mentioned in Corpus Christi?)

Everywhere around the lake, there are properties for sale, people looking to cash in on the boom. The omnipresent "Century 21" has a strong foothold here. For a number of miles, I followed signs toward a German bakery, the anticipation building! To my great disappointment though, they're closed for a month-long holiday.

Instead I went to "La Sabrosa" in Arenal for a breakfast of black beans, rice and stewed chicken. It was excellent, and, with juice, two large cookies and the tip included, the cost was 1,900 Colones, about $4.

Not far beyond the town, a Swiss chalet hotel is set into the landscape, just as if these were the Alps, the grounds and gardens meticulously maintained. "Okay, this is going a bit far!"

Approaching Arenal volcano, the summit was obscured by cloud; only the slopes being visible. Leaving the highway on a gravel road, the National Park entrance is a couple miles in. A $6 entrance fee. I drove to an observation area at the end of the road, where, on a small hill, they've built a large covered picnic area and observation deck. Soon after I took off my helmet, there was a thunderous explosion high above, followed by the incredible sound of large cobbles tumbling.

The active south and west-facing slopes of Arenal. At the bottom edge, right of center, a geology class from the University of Costa Rica gets REALLY close to the action. On the hump in the bottom center is a little green block house, in case things get too intense.

There was an ebb and flow to the activity, but boulders hurtled from the summit constantly. I watched through my binoculars, as massive rocks skipped down the southern slope, sending up a cloud of dust whenever they touched down. The sound would follow seconds later. Occasionally, there would be another sound, like an enormous high pressure steam valve venting.

Dust clouds mark the trails of boulders skipping down Arenal's slopes

Soon, a University of Costa Rica geology class arrived, joining me in the picnic area. The instructor droned on about Arenal, her powerful voice covering the mountain's awesome racket. She didn't even stop to have everyone listen, which to me was the whole point, since you couldn't see much. I just wanted to tell her to "be quiet" for a while! But, as soon as she finished reading from a collections of papers, they boarded the bus and moved on. (Perhaps there was another place they had been to "listen"?)

When the class left, a family took over, and they talked constantly. Again, I just wanted to shout "shut up and listen!" I waited for them to move on. Then another family, this one American: Jason Rowells, with his wife and daughter. He's a video game designer for THQ and a surfer. The surf was off today, so they were doing some sightseeing. He said he'll be going to Brazil soon to film architecture, to aid in designing their newest game.

The summit of Arenal made a brief appearance, a tower of steam rising from its caldera into the clouds above.

Another class arrived. This one left the bus and they set off toward the mountain, climbing over a gate that said "Danger - Do not pass." The bus driver and I watched as they slowly made their way toward Arenal, finally becoming tiny specs on the lower slopes, far too close to the tumbling rock. The driver called them "valiant" and said there was even a pregnant woman climbing the slopes.

After a few hours, I had to move on. On the eastern side of Arenal is the town of La Fortuna. It's touristy and interesting and has some nice hotels with great views of the volcano's densely-forested eastern slope.

From San Isidro to San Ramón, the road, which looked like a pretty straight shot on the map, turned out to be one of the "curviest", kind of like California's Route 1, only narrower and without the warning signs. I was constantly caught off guard by turns that were tighter than they looked. The road climbed in and out of river canyons, beneath dense forest canopies in the lowlands to wind-swept mountain tops and cloud forest at higher elevations.

The last hour or so of driving, I was accompanied by my friend, the rain. It was odd, after so many days in the heat and humidity, to actually be cold. But I was relieved to reach a major (and relatively straight) highway.

This hotel, recommended by Manrique at Villa Acacia, provides an opportunity to dry out my clothes. I have everything scattered about the room. Keeping dry is a real challenge, and soon clothes are smelling sour or musty.

The hotel is $53 for tonight, but the manager, Zaphir says I can pay $45 in cash tomorrow. The adjacent restaurant is elegantly-decorated. I went for some dinner (and Costa Rican brew.) A chicken dish was excellent. Too quiet though, with only a few other diners!

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