Sunday, June 6th: Costa Rica, At Last
We wandered around San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, for a few hours, but there was no escaping the bitter reality; it won't make anybody's top-ten list for anything.
Crossing the border into Costa Rica went smoothly. Insurance, not even mentioned in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras or Nicaragua, is required and sold at the border. Suddenly, the economy looks brighter. The first city we encountered, Liberia, has a prosperous feel to it, with doctors and dentists offices along the main street. Guards, standing in front of every merchant's door with a shot-gun, are gone.
Monday, June 7th
Picked up a week's worth of e-mail, 345 messages, at an Internet cafe on the way out of town. After deleting 340 pieces of spam, I was left with 5 "real" messages. My ex-wife wrote a such an endearing missive, I feel obligated to share it: Your Trip: "I have never seen such a bunch of crap in all my life. Apparently you never grew up. You have abandoned your daughter and your entire family is laughing at you, thinking you are pathetic and a loser. So spare us all this display of immaturity. We have all written you off as lost." I always get a chuckle when I hear from her; she's such a kidder.
Beaches at Playa Coco and Playa Hermosa are clean, but the volcanic sand is rather dark and the water looks muddy due to a month-long algae bloom or "Red Tide." There is LOTS of real-estate for sale and condos are springing up everywhere.
We stopped at Villa del Sueno, where Claude, the owner, took one look at Elsa and asked if she was mad about something. He spent an hour giving us the scoop on local real-estate ventures. It's no surprise that his hotel is listed among the Small, Distinguished Hotels of Costa Rica; the design and execution were superb. Lunch is his restaurant was equally good.
Our guide-book mentioned a thermal-spring resort located in the Parque Nacional Rincon de la Viejo, so we started up a 20 km road to find it. I didn't need to use our Jeep's 4-wheel drive, but the thought crossed my mind several times as the road narrowed, buses crowded us and a gentle rain became more persistent. Each deteriorating stretch made us yearn for the previous one, which we hadn't been too happy to see when it arrived. Slipping into the small stream forming in the ditch would have resulted in a week-long wait for a tow-truck. Upward into the clouds we went, making 10 miles-per-hour at best, dodging pot-holes and sharp rocks. After 45 minutes of grinding along, an amazing vista opened before us. A plume of steam, rising from a fumarole in a lush, green valley was surrounded with small, elegant cabins. Very upscale, Hotel Borinquen gave us our own golf-cart to use to get to the spa and the restaurant.
The central feature of the resort was the boiling pools. A sauna was built over one; the bubbling was easy to hear a few feet below the floor boards. Another was the source for a grey volcanic mud and hot water, fed into the bathing pools at over 140 degrees F, requiring that cold water from the adjacent mountain stream be mixed in.
Tuesday, June 8th
The spa had volcanic mud ready for us when we arrived at the sauna at 7:30 AM. Hot when applied, it quickly cooled and dried. We looked like creatures from outer space, covered from head to toe. Rested and relaxed, we hit the road again. Or, more literally, it hit us. 20 km back to the main road took one hour. That's 12 miles per hour, as fast as we could go without destroying the Jeep.
Tamarindo, on the Pacific Coast, is Surf City, Costa Rica. The brochures describe beach-side resorts with swimming pools, elegant restaurants with monkeys swinging through the trees above. They exist, as described, but the roads to them are dirt, with ruts filled with rain-water, so deep the Jeep had to slow to a crawl. The hotels owners agree that getting there is more than half the battle, but feel the taxes they pay are more then enough to solve the problem. Bad roads continue to be the nemesis of Costa Rica.
Wednesday, June 9th
More bad roads to on the route to Lake Arenal, via Canas and Tileran. It took all day, 6.5 hours of driving, to travel 150 km. The Volcano Lodge offers a perfect location from which to view Volcan Arenal, Costa Rica's most active volcano. It erupted in 1968, killing 78 people and two more in the year 2000. This isn't Disneyland! In the rainy season, daily glimpses of activity are dependent on the good mood of passing clouds.
Thursday, June 10th
Drove over 5 km of ruts, rocks and bumps to the Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal, nothing more than a parking lot with a view of the volcano. Don't make this mistake yourself. Lunch at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, a delightful hotel, deserving of it's listing with Costa Rica's Small and Distinguished Hotel chain, was worth the pain of another 4 km beating. Not only are the roads bad, approaching drivers may find your side of the road preferable to theirs, so there they are, right in your face. What fun this might be at night, in the rain, with a foggy windshield, can only be imagined.
The gateway to the Arenal area, the little city of La Fortuna, provided laundry, banking and postal services. It was a pleasant spot, just big enough to have one of everything you might need, but not more.
Friday, June 11th: Canopy Tour
The desire to go on a "canopy tour" finally became overwhelming. I signed us up for an 8 AM tour of the tree-tops, which started with a 45 minute horse-back ride into the jungle. The Arenal Canopy Tour consists of sitting in a harness attached to a pulley which runs along a half-inch steel cable strung from one treetop to the next. You glide along 7 different lines for a total of 1000 meters, using a leather pad to provide braking if you approach the top of the next tree too fast. If you approach too slowly, the arc of the cable carries you backward, away from the station, making it your job to pull yourself in, hand over hand. We saw a few Howler monkeys, but the rest of the birds and animals were smart enough to stay out of the way. The horses, corralled for the duration, got us back to the base camp by noon.
Our decision to go for a swim and take a nap instead of pressing on to Limon was rewarded just after sunset. The Arenal Volcano, invisible in the darkness, began spewing red-hot lava down the north side, facing our room in the hotel. Frequent lightning flashes illuminated the mountain and the cloud of smoke rising from it. An hour later it was gone, covered by a torrential rain storm.
Saturday, June 12th: Limon is a Lemon
For the first time, the road cooperated and we made twice the progress we expected. We didn't need to stop halfway to Puerto Limon, we made the whole trip in an easy day. It wasn't worth it. Limon, at first glance, is an old, dirty port city. Our hotel, the finest in town, looks out over some power-lines and a construction site at the Caribbean.