costa rican days, part six…

On Monday, we got up early (ish) and hopped in the car to head out to Arenal, an active volcano in the center of Costa Rica.

The drive out was positively gorgeous — as we first approached the Arenal Valley (which includes a man-made lake where they generate about 30% of the power used in Costa Rica), the view was amazing:

One of my favorite parts of the whole trip was here:

This is a soda, the equivalent of a Costa Rican diner. The menu at places like these is not robust: one gets the comida tipical, which generally involves some type of meat, beans, rice, tortillas, cabbage & tomatoes, and drinks. Ours also had some pan fried plantains and local cheese. This was, hands-down, our favorite meal of the whole trip (we stopped again on our way home). Not only was the food awesome, the price was the best — the equivalent of 8 bucks apiece!

As we continued along the Arenal Valley, we encountered a troop of coatimundi:

These critters are fairly bold, and will come right up to your car, begging for noms (and even being a little pushy about it):

When I say that Arenal is an active volcano, I mean that it is actively spewing lava and Volkswagen-bus-sized rocks. ┬áMy hopes were to be able to get a shot like these. However, the shots here are the *only* time during our entire stay when Arenal wasn’t fully shrouded in cloud cover — seriously, at times, if you didn’t know there was a huge volcano there, you wouldn’t know it was there at all.

We stayed at Campo Verde, on the north side of the volcano, in a cute little cabin with a great bay window view — of the cloud-covered peak. The first night there, we drove down to the south side, along a ~7km dirt road that led to a trailhead. Neither of us were particularly prepared for a long hike, so we gather intel and then headed off to La Fortuna for a couple of sundries.

We got up at the ass-crack of dawn (actually, two hours before the ass-crack of dawn) to head down to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, a preserve managed by Quakers that defected from the US in the mid-50’s.

This trip turned out to be profoundly stupid. We had to backtrack all the way around Arenal Valley (~120 kilometers) and then traverse the south side of the lake, along a 30-kilometer dirt road that almost shook us to death. When we arrived at Santa Elena (the town closest to the preserve), we were tired and grumpy and not at all prepared for the cold of the elevation. Still, we got lucky, hooked up with one of the last guided tours of the day, and got some awesome pictures:

Roy (our guide) took this shot for us:

So of course I had to try and get a nice milky shot of the falls:

This last blown-out and blurry shot is of a quetzal, one of the most prized birdwatching finds in the reserve. Back in the days of the Mayans and Costa Rican indigenes, the tailfeathers of the quetzal were reserved for royalty — if a commoner was found in possession of a feather, their whole family would be killed. Today, there are people who come to the reserve specifically to see these birds, and spend two weeks and never see one. My luck, of course, is to see one and not be able to get a clear shot of it (because I’m shooting up into the sky with tree and leaves waving into the frame). Still, I got enough of it to make it worthwhile:

After our guided tour wrapped up, Sunshine and I proceeded to hike around the preserve. Here, she’s standing (tentatively) on a 100-meter long suspended bridge that hung over 120 meters above the forest floor:

And a final parting shot from the cloudforest, this looks east out over the lowlands of Costa Rica. You can see the forest in the foreground, the cloud cover hemming in the shot from the top in the middle distance, and the lowlands way out in the center of the shot:

After finishing up at the cloudforest, we barreled ass back to Arenal — I was hoping that the skies would clear and I might get a lava shot or two, but it was not to be (the little red dot in the center is the closest we got to lava):

To get the above shot, we had to hike out a trail about 45 minutes (and 500 meters in elevation) through really dense jungle. What we didn’t anticipate was the return trip, in the dark. We were enchanted by the fireflies, which glowed green and yellow, and the steady glow of the beetles. But my LED flashlight, with its wide beam, caught a whole lot more: there were little green reflections all over the jungle floor, and it wasn’t until several minutes into our return hike that I realized that the green reflections were off of the eyes of spiders — HUNDREDS of them. This fully wigged me out, but we made it down without panicking (Sunshine had her own internal nightmares, seeing snakes everywhere). Still, even though we didn’t get the lava shot, we can say that we hiked, at night, through a dense jungle at the foot of a live volcano. How many of you can say that?

One more night in our cabin at Campo Verde, and then we woke and headed back to Playa Hermosa, stopping one more time at our favorite little soda for some comida — seriously, where can you get this much yummy food for $16 bucks? Costa Rica, baby! Pura vida!