It was about 7:30 in the morning when Volcán Arenal’s alarm clock went off on Monday July 29, 1968, blanketing a region of 15 square kilometers in volcanic rock, lava and ash. A whopping 232 square kilometers were damaged in some respect, including crops and surrounding forests. 82 people in Arenal’s path lost their lives that day as rocks spewed as far as a mile away. These rocks reportedly hit speeds of 600 meters per second — a geological fastball more terrifying than most of what Mother Nature can cook up.
In the aftermath, the villages of Tabacon, Pueblo Nuevo and San Luis were gone. La Fortuna, appropriately named given the circumstances, survived to become the center of the region. Tourism has since flourished in the region as the volcano has since simmered down, notwithstanding a handful of smaller explosions through the start of the 21st Century. Today it remains closely monitored as one of the most active volcanos in the world as tourists continue to flock in record numbers to Arenal, or as the local indigenous populations once knew it, the God of Fire.
“Casado Con Hugh Jackman”
The rain was constant as soon as Melanie, myself, and my visiting Aunt Barb arrived in La Fortuna. We were grateful to have made it in one piece, having made the mistake of hiring Rafael to drive us the two to three hours up to La Fortuna. During a particularly foggy and windy portion of the route, we all noticed he was starting to nod off behind the wheel. There’s not much leeway for error on the narrow roads in Costa Rican mountains, so it was a particularly terrifying experience. And driving is one of those things in life where you’re never allowed to comment on a person’s performance no matter how warranted a “slow down” or “WAKE UP, YOU MANIAC!” might be. It’s like sex to people. Everyone thinks they’re the best and couldn’t possibly have room for improvement.
Then as we made it into town, there was the issue of actually getting to our hotel. It was another AirBnB and the host left us what turned out to be very vague directions. Bus would have actually been our preferred method of transport, but he insisted there was no way to arrive by bus. I found that highly unlikely as Costa Rica was very well connected by bus, but thanks to the privatized bus system, there’s no centralized station or website and it can be difficult to find schedules.
Eventually we had to call in and we discovered that the directions were confusing because he gave us directions to his travel business and we were looking for a hotel. Luckily La Fortuna is a small town and was easy to navigate once we were given some points of interest to look for, like the fire station. In any event, it didn’t leave a great early impression of our host.
“At least let us get our bags in the damn door before you give us the sales pitch,” we all agreed.
We compromised on his dropping by later to talk about what tours he could offer in the area.
Well into the Central Valley dry season, we had become accustomed to the comfort afforded to travelers who only need to be prepared for a certain kind of weather. In other words, we idiotically left our umbrellas at home.
After setting down our bags, we made our way to the nearest establishment serving any kind of food. Fortunately for us our first find was Soda El Rio. It was not unlike that obligatory scene in romantic comedy films where the woman declares she gives up on men and will sleep with the next guy who walks in and it’s either Danny DeVito or Hugh Jackman. Soda El Rio was our Casado con Hugh Jackman.
The rain kept us relatively hunkered in for the rest of the day, which came as a blessing in disguise to allow us enough time to plan whatever outdoor activities we’d take on during our time in La Fortuna. Cerro Chato immediately caught our eye as the most difficult hiking option in the area. However Alan, the hotel owner, cautioned against taking it on due to nonstop rain over the past three weeks. Evidently he had heard of people having to give up due to muddy trails that were simply impassable and impossible to climb. This was a hands and knees hike, after all.
While initially disappointing, this saved us from what probably would have been an awful and/or embarrassing venture. Yet our pride remained intact, because we really had every intention of doing it had we been told otherwise.
To finalize our plans, Alan stopped over to our room. Within a moment of walking into the door, his jacket was off and his arms in full display from his gym tank top. Just as quickly, he made it known that he had just come from the gym. It felt like he really wanted us to know that he goes to the gym.
Alan spoke like he just had three cups of coffee. Very energetic and excited about everything, like a puppy left in a room made of chewable treats and rag toys. He delivered the same sales pitch he had given us online and over the phone about wanting to make sure guests are left with a great experience of the area and Costa Rica. A transplant from Canada, he had fully embraced the tourism side of “Pura Vida.” In fact, he had the phrase tattooed on his arm and I wasn’t the least bit surprised to find it there.
“Has a Tico ever tattooed ‘Pura Vida’ onto their body?” I wondered.
While selling us on a combination of an easy hike around the Arenal Observatory Lodge and the intermediate hike up the lava fields of Volcán Arenal, Alan dove right into his observations of Costa Rica over the past 14 years of his time abroad. The gist was essentially that Costa Ricans used to work for themselves on their farms and were happy simpletons, but now work for other people as their pura vida culture gets exported.
“These people are losing their culture everyday and they don’t even know it,” he said.
It was astonishingly patronizing stuff, like every adult Tico is really a kid trapped in an oddly sized body. Tom Hanks in Big, if you will.
He continued, describing how so many have come from abroad to take advantage of the Ticos. Not him, of course. Why, to the contrary! He was there to save the Ticos.
“That’s where I come in,” he said without a hint of irony. The man was shimmering with the glow of white savior’s complex. Pura vida was in jeopardy, and random Canada-man was here to save the day.
But that’s Costa Rica for you, a country full of foreigners on opposite ends of the spectrum. One side being those who either question how Ticos generally live or have outright racist opinions, like the French hotelier in Orosi who now refuses to hire Costa Ricans for demanding, gasp, health insurance, or the Canadian couple from the week before who had been screening Tico customers. The other is where Alan lives, having completely bought into the tourism version of pura vida, armed with good intentions that ultimately reek of a savior’s complex. I imagined the Indiana Jones theme song playing on endless loop in his head.
Despite being, in layman’s terms, an apparent douchebag, Alan was helpful in getting us a good deal on the next day’s hike while recommending Las Termalitas as a nice option for spending a raining day in La Fortuna. Most tourists, he said, are sent to Baldi for a hefty price of about $40 while Termalitas costs a mere $8. Plus on a Monday afternoon, the joint was practically empty save one other family and a couple of German travelers.
The concept behind Termalitas was completely foreign to me. Apparently you can pipe water out from underground that’s warm due to the volcano, and spill it into man-made pools. They say the water is supposed to be especially good for the skin with its minerals and whatnot, but that part felt like a piece of the sales pitch. Regardless, it was a nice way to kill an afternoon, hopping between a couple of hot pools of volcano-heated water underneath another rainy day.
Back in town, we stopped for a coffee at the creatively-named My Coffee as the rain finally took a break. We used the opportunity to take a jaunt around the town square, easily the most beautiful of town squares in Costa Rica. Tall bushes, lilies, palm trees, and monkey grass (yes, that’s a thing) surrounded an impressive fountain right in line with the town church. Small towns across the globe could learn from Costa Rica’s town squares, most of all from La Fortuna.
Peeking into the church, we were reminded of all the churches we had seen throughout our Central American travels. Not merely the construction, but the use of a Christ model lying in a see-through casket. Or as I like to call him, Creepy Christ — vastly different from, “Wink and Gun Jesus.” Now that’s a Jesus I can hang out with.
Our visit to one of Costa Rica’s
most popular national parks came with the ironic tragic timing of Álvaro Ugalde’s passing from a heart attack in his Heredia home just a day before his 69th birthday. Mr. Ugalde is credited as a founding father of Costa Rica’s world renowned national parks system along with Mario Boza. Despite being in retirement, Ugalde continued to work tirelessly throughout his final days to ensure the long-term integrity of the nation’s 26 national parks and 166 public and private protected areas.
Ugalde first gained traction with his and Boza’s idea to preserve pockets of Costa Rica as national parks in the 1970s. The dream inched closer to reality when President Daniel Oduber and Karen Olsen, former First Lady during José “Pepe” Figueres’ three terms, supported Ugalde’s vision. With that, Poás Volcano became Costa Rica’s first national park in 1970 and remains the country’s most trafficked to this day.
Of course political declarations and legislation meant little to those who couldn’t fathom the benefit of a national parks system, thus exploitation continued at the hands of business interests. By the 80s, Ugalde warned that the parks were in danger due to surrounding deforestation, saying they would be lucky to be left with islands surrounded by barren lands — not exactly the stuff of modern day Costa Rican postcards. Thankfully the gloomy fate of the parks system changed with the election of President Óscar Arias, who saw value in the national parks for attracting tourists. Any visitor today can see the parks system has more than paid off with the likes of Poás, Manuel Antonio, and of course, Arenal resembling a melting pot of international tourists specifically visiting to see firsthand these preserved natural beauties.
Unsurprisingly Ugalde continued to see encroaching threats, such as the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE) and their desires to exploit geothermal energy from Rincón de la Vieja and a combination of gold miners and developers tarnishing Corcovado in the Osa Peninsula — Ugalde’s favorite national park. The fight will assuredly rage on, but the millions of annual park tourists and Costa Ricans themselves largely have Ugalde to thank for leaving something worth fighting for.
“Will Smith Was Super Nice”
Tuesday morning, the clouds had finally parted. We could see the volcano clear as day right outside our living room window. Apparently it had been there the whole time.
We started off with a bumpy drive over to the Arenal Observatory Lodge and lava fields. Our driver Alex seemed excited to have passengers he could actually communicate with, albeit my Spanish brain admittedly had a difficult time keeping up. We got enough to know that everyone in the town thought Will Smith was very nice during his time in La Fortuna filming After Earth.
“That movie was very bad,” he said shaking his head. “But Will Smith was super nice, always waving to people.”
The hiking around the observatory was a mixture of what felt like remote trail and easy walking around impressive gardens with panoramic views of the volcano. We left my Aunt Barb at the lodge while we continued onward to the more strenuous lava fields.
This ended up being our favorite hike at the time in Costa Rica, tied with our venture through the Orosi Valley. There was a mixture of primitive trail that felt like it hadn’t been maintained recently due to the longer than usual winter rains. This eventually led to the lava fields, which sat over a dry river. The trail here was less confined and more about going up however you could. We paused for a moment at one point to watch a small pack of spider monkeys swinging from tree to tree. Our guide admitted to spotting them only because he noticed a little monkey poo underneath a tree in our path. Without dwelling too long on it, it was indeed quite strange looking, even by poo standards.
The fields eventually widened before narrowing once again to a line of rocks and dirt trail. Much of the latter portion of the hike was spent minding our footing, avoiding holes in between the rocks where snakes were allegedly sleeping. I only ended up having to catch myself once, which at the time felt like an impressive athletic feat that in reality probably looked clumsy to a third party.
There’s no definitive end point on this hike. Our guide, who blew our mind when he said he does this hike sometimes twice a day, informed us during the return that they take you up as high as the weather will allow and however fit they think you are. We, evidently, were awarded the highest viewpoint of this hike. Though maybe he just wanted to let us think that.
After collecting my aunt, we continued back down the park for a brief stop at a warm river heated by the volcano. This was interesting for about 10 minutes, but was ultimately a nice add-on. We waded around a bit in the two-foot deep river, wondering if it was really a good idea to be floating around in warm water where, at least I thought, bacteria could flourish. After getting pulled over a rapid by a strong current (my fault, I was an idiot) and scraping up the side of my chest, we called it quits.
People, tourists and locals alike, come here with coolers and drinks to make a day out of it. There was also a story of a private resort taking advantage of the area before there were stricter environmental laws. The resort is gone now and entrance to the river is free. I, however, was ready to throw my face into a another casado.
Our final morning was spent hiking over to Catarata La Fortuna, an approximately 75-meter waterfall drop fed by the Tenorio River. Besides the volcano, this is the natural highlight that inevitably shows up in any Google (or Bing!) search of the region.
Most drive here as it’s perfectly accessible by road, but we wanted to feel like we earned the view. So Melanie and I worked up a sweat over the five-plus kilometer hike from town to the entrance of the waterfall, paid our eleven bucks, and proceeded down a winding staircase of about a half-mile in length to the bottom of the waterfall. This was one of those natural attractions you’re glad you made the effort to visit, but are ready to leave after about 20 minutes.
We enjoyed various views of the waterfall, took pictures for ourselves and others (a Colombian group chanted “gracias!” after taking several photos with several devices, making me feel as if I really did accomplish something phenomenal), let the pounding water spray on us a bit, and declined hopping in for a swim as the water was ice cold. I wasn’t mentally prepared for the discomfort that the initial leap does to certain nether regions of the body.
Like other natural wonders of Costa Rica, Poás comes to mind, I imagined what it would have been like hiking here before the development. Much more rewarding, I suppose, but still worth the visit in any event. I left wondering what Ugalde would’ve thought about the development. Was it wise to make it more accessible for various travelers or should they have left it all alone?
I mean, at least it wasn’t a mini-amusement park with trapped animals like the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. The only animals who could be trapped at these waterfalls were some of the more portly demographics visiting. Descriptions of the walkway down to the falls and back up depict it as some kind of athletic feat, budgeting something like 45 minutes to make the trek. It took us just 10 or 15 minutes. (I know, I know… “Look at me, Mom!”)
Either way, I think we can all agree that La Fortuna doesn’t need to see any more development for the purposes of tourism. It already appeared to be on the brink of going too far. What I loved about Ciudad Colón was how easy it was to blend in. It’s not a tourist town, so nobody treated me as such. But in La Fortuna, the representatives of various tour companies would shout at us as we passed by, insisting we sign up for x, y, and then z for a discount. A number of restaurants also seemed especially catered tour the tourist crowd, but you also have to remember that tourists are more likely to go out to eat on a random weekday night than locals, so it ultimately shouldn’t have been too surprising to see tourists outnumber Ticos at the various eateries in the heart of town.
I’m sure our hero from Canada would have plenty opinions on the topic, but I won’t bother asking because he lied about the damn bus. There was indeed a station just a few blocks away from the hotel that we used to get back rather than put ourselves (and Rafael, for that matter, with his Mr. Magoo glasses) through another drive.