It was with a great deal of mixed emotions that we arrived at the final country of our around-the-world trip; Cost Rica.
We knew we were once again in the tropics when I felt the warm humid air on the gangway leading from the plane into the San Jose airport. Since San Jose was not on our places-to-explore list, I found a hotel near the airport where we could rest from our flight and leave directly for Arenal volcano in the morning. It just so happened that the hotel is called The Trapp Family Inn because the owner is a cousin to the famous Von Trapp family of “Sound of Music” fame.
Getting out of San Jose proved more difficult than we expected. First we discovered that rental car insurance is a government monopoly in Costa Rica, and the price for insurance was more that the daily rental fee. Ouch! Then Les asked where we could buy a SIM card for our phones so we could have communications and GPS maps. The rental agent pulled out a map and said, “You should go to Wal-Mart. Oh, this map is almost right”. Then he drew in a couple extra lines on the map. None of the roads on the map had names, but we found out later that names on a map don’t matter because there are no street signs on the streets. Les had flashbacks to our driving adventure on Naxos. Needless to say, the directions were a bit confusing and I quickly navigated us to the wrong road, heading out-of-town. We were caught in a vicious circle, we needed a GPS to find the store to get the GPS working. Bummer! After a few minutes I suggested that we turn around now because it would only be 10 minutes back. On the return route I met a few very nice people who did their best to direct us, but the language barrier and lack of street signs created much chaos for us. Well……one hour and two stops for directions later, we made it to Wal-Mart where we bought SIM cards and were once again equipped with GPS and maps. After we enabled the GPS, the streets still didn’t have signs, but when we got lost we just wandered around a little and watched the GPS until we figured out what street we were probably on, then used dead-reckoning to navigate to our destination.
Walking through Wal-Mart was nice because it felt so familiar, but it seemed out-of-place in Costa Rica. Two notable differences from a Wal-Mart back home were the parking lot and the cafeteria. The parking lot is secured by two manned security gates, a parking pass is issued when you drive in and you need to give it to the guard in order to get out. The lot itself was constantly patrolled by security walking among the parked cars. I suspect that auto theft may be an issue here. In the cafeteria, for just a few dollars, they offered a whole buffet of local dishes that were fresh and homemade. An older local woman who spoke excellent English helped us order, and told us that she eats there regularly because the food is fresh, good, and inexpensive. She was right.
Arenal looks like a volcano should look. The mountain is almost symmetrical with steam escaping from the caldera on top. The sides of the mountain show the scars of many lava flows and landslides over the years. Clouds constantly form, disperse, and reform around the peak, creating a dynamic and dramatic scenery. We stayed at the Arenal Volcano Observatory Lodge, a site that was originally used by Smithsonian scientists to study the volcano when it was much more active. Pictures from that time 1968-2010 show hot lava flowing down the mountain after dark. Unfortunately (?) there wasn’t any lava flowing while we were there, just the continuous plume of steam coming from the top of the mountain, reminding everyone that the magma is not that far below the surface and the volcano is still considered active. One night a thunder and lightning storm rolled in and enveloped the mountain. The lightening lit up the sky behind the mountain, creating surreal volcano silhouettes with every flash. Then the deep boom of the thunder shook everything. We enjoyed the show from our patio – it was like 3D, surround sound, Costa Rican TV.
We enjoyed our time here very much, it was a relaxing place to stay and we kept a relaxed pace for the week. We went on a nature hike around the property and spotted many birds, monkeys, insects, tropical plants and a waterfall. One evening, Patrick and Alex went for a nature walk and saw an anteater. We learned these are difficult animals to spot and our guide mentioned that he has worked there for 5 years and has never seen one. Another day we hiked on the volcano through new and old growth rainforest and a lava flow from the 1980’s. We were probably only a quarter of the way up the volcano, but enjoyed some amazing views of the lake and surrounding area. Alex and I went horseback riding through the park one morning, very relaxing and beautiful views of the volcano. We chose not to do the more adventurous activities offered in the area, like zip-lining through the jungle because Les’s sister and her family would be joining us in Quepos in a few days and we want to save those fun activities to do with our cousins. We were sad to leave such an amazing place, but excited to meet our family at the airport back in San Jose.