La Fortuna, Costa Rica
San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica. Almost half the Tico’s in the country live there. But for the tourist, outside of a bunch of museums, there’s evidently not a lot else to see. Well, we certainly couldn’t be overly convinced; and like most Central American cities, there’s a burgeoning crime problem. It’s a weird experience, going to a country and not experiencing the capital. I’m sure you’re probably missing a significant aspect of the culture of the country but we’re going to have to make similar choices in the future given the reputation of cities in countries like Honduras and Guatemala. We had other things to see anyway, like volcanoes; and we’d again arranged a cozy little shuttle to take us the 5 or so hours to La Fortuna, up in the hills a bit, and tucked at the foot of the active volcano Arenal; who last spewed forth it’s fiery broth in 1968, killing some 87 people and destroying 3 villages. What better reason to go to it’s base and have a good look around.
Our shuttle was some 15 minutes early as we lazily wandered back from a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs at the bakery. Poor old Belinda who had gone back slightly earlier was hauling all our luggage into the back of the van. In the hustle of getting on board I left two deliciously ripe pieces of banana bread on the shelf in the room and jumped on board. Secretly I hated myself for the 5 hours I spent craving those delicious slices, and wondered who might have discovered them, and what they might have done with them. Thrown them out? Travesty! Enjoyed them? Less so, but still a horrible thought. Regardless, I apologised to the waiting couple in the van, received zero response, and took we all took our seats.
Costa Rica really does have this whole extra layer of vegetation that is unseen except in the remotest, most deepest jungle areas on the planet. It’s amazing. It’s an overwhelming almost neon green explosion right into the back of your eyes the whole time. And as we flew through small, dodgy looking towns and into the hillside, it just got better, interwoven by cloud forest, and peppered along the way by subtle properties; coffee shops, workshops or artesan vendors.
La Fortuna is a tourist town, make no mistake. There’s degree’s of traditional Tico life in amongst the over-development and hoards of tour touts; but unless you take a walk along one of two of the roads outside town you’d need to look hard to find it. We settled into our hostel and were assigned a ridiculously over-sized room, even for the three of us. You could fit another two stories in there; easily. It was like either being in a cathedral or convention center. Jokingly I asked the owner ‘no.. no look we’re gonna need a higher roof’ .. I loved it, laughed to myself, but got absolutely nothing back. Fine. Prick. Even the girls we’re a little slow to react.
Anyway, the owner had organised a Halloween party for the hostel for that night. There was to be a BBQ, karaoke and free drinks. As it turned it out, as it always turns out, the karaoke mic that night was hogged my a mid-western American with a terrible taste in music. How many times do you ‘don’t want the world to see’ you.. or ‘cry sometimes when I’m lying in bed’.. ? The upside of the evening was that the adorable, and slightly gnomish cook took a fancy to me and despite the 1 plate of food allocation, she secretly garnished out portions of BBQ chicken and salad onto my plate. I got thirds when upon clearing the table she mistook my offering of a dirty plate ‘uno mas’ to be a request for one more plate of food.
Once delivered she took the mic, loaded up a Tico classic on YouTube and belted her heart out. What a pack of dynamite.
The big thing to do in town was to tour the base of the volcano, where, according to our hostel host, you could see lava flow from the western side at dusk. ‘Great!’ we thought! ‘Let’s do that’ .. and booked a tour to the base of the volcano including a visit to one of the nearby hot-springs, the next day.
So the next day we got up and wandered into town. Typically like a lot of volcano towns before; the prime attraction, the star of the city, was bathed in clouds. As we gazed up the winding road to the eastern side of the volcano, we could make out a vague incline up into the grayness, but that was it. Villarica and Osorno in Chile had done the same thing, as had Mount Fuji in Japan. We took in some of the local surrounds, enjoyed a cup or two of Costa Rican coffee, and set off to wander the paths around town. And it didn’t didn’t take long before the pavement became roadside.
We wandered around a bit, taking in local farms, moo-ing at Brahmin cows, enjoying a sense of the rural. From one of the road bridges you can take a path down to the river, where on sunnier days there’s a tarzan swing in the swiftly flowing river. We opted to instead wander the paths and farmland around the river, with the aim to follow the flow until we got to a converging river that would lead us back to the road. We wandered around for a bit, got our shoes wet in the soggy grass, and got into forest and wetlands that in the end became impassable. So, content with our slight venture out of tourist central, we wandered back and got a coffee.
The next day we decided to take in a tour to the base of Arenal. The local government had decreed that a 1.6 kilometer perimeter be established given several prolific accidents in recent history resulting in the deaths of some hikers. ‘Oooh, exciting’ we thought, as we jumped into a mini-van full of Americans. The only one whose name I remember was an asian guy ‘KEVIN!!’ because he screamed it so enthusiastically and put up two victory fingers as he did.
‘So .. guys.. ‘ our tour guide says. ‘You do realise that the volcano hasn’t been ejecting lava for the past 2 years right..?’
‘Errrm.. sure..’ I said, accompanied by a few paltry ‘mmhmms’ from the US portion of the cavalry. ‘Bathed in clouds, no lava, and it’s soon to be raining’ I thought to myself. ‘How much did we pay for this?’.. Our guide ‘Edgar’ was great with the puns, innuendo and borderline racism as we entered the park and made a poignant stop for those needing the bano. Biology aside we ventured along a sandy black path enclosed by what looked like sugar cane. Given the eruption of ’68, all fauna in the area had been obliterated so all plants along this path were no older than say 40 odd years. Edgar explained that many a bird or bee was responsible for the replantation of many of species we see in the area. Some of which are certainly not local, but delivered by birds and the bees are flourishing despite the conditions but continue to face problems with shallow roots and the effects of high winds.
Along the way, Edgar did his best to point out the interesting, but the cloud cover thickened as the rain started. $2 ponchos in those wild colours came out whatever wildlife might have been along the trail (as advertised) became recluse. Including a yellow viper that we spent a good 10 minutes looking for in the shallow scrub. ‘Is it venomous?’ I ask.
The last part of the hike is up and along volcanic boulders formed after the eruption, and it gets you through scrubby bushes to a platform of sorts, I suppose, but most of us in the group were kind of teetering on a few rocks to keep our balance. One woman was re-assured by her partner that ‘there’s no shame in using your hands’ if she happened to become unbalanced. The view from the platform was clouds, just clouds, a vague hint at an incline but nothing more, and to add to the misery the rain became big and heavy and everyones intention was summed up by the handless rock lady when she said
‘Yep. I’m about done.’ Poor Edgar would be challenged to get tips today. Soaked, and back in a mini-van pumping AC we were bumbled along, asked to complete a satisfaction survey as we did. Timing is everything.
But all our sorrows were abated by the time we got to Baldi hot springs. By daytime I reckon this place would be awful. It’s like a Disneyland, fun-park style hot-springs. Excessive with it’s usage of obviously bountiful supplies of thermal water; you can ride a speed-slide or two other water-slides into one of the 7 or so public pools. Thankfully we were there at night. The foyer and restaurant were typical 5 star hotel arrangements, breezy and open-aired with over-attentive staff. As part of our ticket we had dinner included which was a buffet, including a charming gent with a brilliant chefs hat cooking up fresh pasta on request. It might have just been the volume of food we ate but I actually suspect places like this sprinkle a bloating power over portions of the bain-marie, to ensure minimal consumption. Once we’d changed into our togs, we spent the next 3 hours wandering from pool to pool and soaking away under the thematic lighting, waterfalls and the evenings rain. The only injury received was a power-wedgie from the speed-slide (still in recovery).
The other thing you can do in town is hike to the La Fortuna waterfall which is about a 7 kilometer walk out of town, along a town road, mostly uphill. We got about halfway before the rain joined us and it became a battle. The beautiful rolling hills and cloud forest spurned us on past local farms, (many of them for sale) craft stores and more Brahmin cows; that just stared lazily, stupidly, while their slackened jaws chewed grass.
The rain was torrential enough to penetrate our waterproof shoes so we had a few moments of drying our before paying the $10 entrance fee. The fall itself was beautiful and it’s hard to measure waterfalls now since we’ve seen Iguazu; but in it’s own little way it’s 65 meters of fall and thunderous plunge into the river below was both powerful and charming. Plus, the hike down and back up the mountain was a real leg shaker, which was a nice change after so much time letting our muscles dissolve on the beaches.
With little more to do, and not a lot of dry clothing left we decided to give our next destination ‘Monteverde’ a miss. It was another mountain town full of waterfalls, white-water rafting and wildlife hikes. We instead opted for the beach town of Montezuma. One of the first places on the Costa Rican tourist map, and our first stop on the Pacific Coast, where we start to head north to Nicaragua.