Monday, January 24, 2011

Costa Rica 2010 - Arenal

San Jose to Arenal
We arrived in San Jose after traveling by plane for 6 hours with a 1-hour stop over in El Salvador. By the time we arrived it was 4 pm so we loaded our luggage into a 4x4 and headed off to Arenal volcano, completely unaware of the trip that was in-store for us.

Due to its location and relative proximity to the equator, Costa Rica receives a consistent 12 1/2 hours of daylight with the sun rising at 5:00am and promptly setting at 5:30pm. When the sun sets, it's as though God turns off the light. There is nothing but pitch black darkness with maybe the moon to guide you if you're lucky.

To make things more interesting, once we left the city the roads we took were no longer paved, allowing us to enjoy (as the locals called it) jungle massages. Constant rainfall left potholes that could swallow up a small car and exposed rocks that shook the 4x4 around like a monkey shaking a maraca.

As we started to ascend into the mountains we noticed a thick fog beginning to envelope our car. This might not have been a problem if not for the fact that at any given time one side of us was exposed to an open cliff while the other the eeriely dark jungle. For 4 hours we traveled up and then down, skidding around corners that probably shouldn't have been taken as fast as they were, especially when the field of vision was limited to 5 feet in front of you.

The only thing comforting me was the fact that the driver was calmly and confidently handling his vehicle as if this was just another day at the office. After all, he drove this route all the time, these conditions were normal, no?


It was until we finally reached were we were staying that I realized how uncommon our little adventure had been.

When we stopped, the driver took a deep breath and let out sign of relief like he just cheated death (which I'm almost convinced he did).

"THAT WAS...!!!" *lets out a loud sigh of relief while wiping his forehead*

WHAT!? You had me fooled! Maybe driving 60km/h up and down a mountain side, around cliffs, on a dirt road, in the fog, in pitch black while monkeys and God-knows-what-else screamed at our passing car was not the best way to have approached that drive!

But we made it.

As he drove off back into the night after dropping us off, I briefly wondered if he had to do that drive all over again, in reverse...

After settling up paperwork we were hungry and were looking forward to meeting up with the rest of the group and going into town to grab something to eat...only to find that we'd arrived so late they were forced to go ahead without us. We ate in the open air of the hotel restaurant completely oblivious to the fact that if weren't as dark as it was, lay directly in front of us was a clear view of the volcano...

The next morning (still foggy), the view we missed at dinner

As we neared the end of our meal, a van pulled up and out came the rest of our group. We waved to them and as they approached we regaled them with stories of our near death experience getting there. We finished dinner and headed back to the rooms to view the pictures and listened as they shared the stories of the mangroves and turtle sanctuary they had seen.

That night, I fell into one of the deepest sleeps I think I've ever had.

Proyecto Asis Animal Rescue Shelter

The next day half of the group woke up to head to a local animal refuge to see the work being done rehabilitating wild animals that were either domesticated by humans, injured, or confiscated from poachers.

Wild animal and exotic pet trade are a huge (and very illegal) business in Costa Rica in part due to the wide biodiversity of the country. Many locals trying to earn extra money simply head into the jungles t capture birds, reptiles, and mammal to sell to the dealers. In addition to this, many people still hunt local animals for bush-meat to supplement their diets and this has a profound impact on the ecosystem.

Part of this is the lack of proper education regarding managing resources and conservation, and the refuge acts as both a rehabilitation centre for animals as well as an education centre for people in the area.

This Peccary no longer has the skills required to survive in the wild
As visitors we were given a tour of the facility and educated about the animals natural environment, how the centre went about trying to replicate it and the criteria they used to decide if an animal could be eventually re-released or not. We were also given descriptions of various plants and ferns, the most interesting to me being those which we used by indigenous people as food sources and medicinal remedies.

At one point during the walk through the jungle, the guide stopped and asked who would be interesting in sampling "jungle carrot". Naturally my curiosity took over and I volunteered myself. He walked behind a cacao tree and there at the base was a termites nest feeding on the tree. He stuck a twig in and fished out 40-50 termites and encouraged me to try some, which I did.

Tasted like parsley, with legs

Aside from them crawling around the inside of my mouth (an..."interesting" sensation) they tasted alright, though it reminded me more of parsley than carrot. Apparently a trait they have only when they feed off of a cacao tree.

Thinking about this later, I didn't inquire as to whether there was an upper limit to how much an adult human could eat, and if poisoning due to the formic acid they contained was a concern. This seemed like a perfectly viable "survival" food otherwise.

At the end of the tour we were encouraged to ask more questions and learn about the work they did. The centre hosts a program which sponsors foreigners to come volunteer for a few months.

Volcano Hike

When we regrouped with the others in the afternoon we headed out for another hike into the jungle. This hike coincided with the sunset, as the goal was to hike up through the jungle to a vantage point on the opposite side of the volcano at dusk in order to see the lava flows tricking down the side.

We started our hike and pushed on through light rain and heavy misting. Along the way we stopped to view a a group of howler monkeys in a tree picking and eating fruits. As we ascended the trails became sloppy with mud but not so much that they couldn't be navigated with care. As we hiked through the jungle we passed through the primary forest into the secondary forest and it was explained to us that when the volcano erupted 50 years ago the lava flows engulfed the area and burned down part of the old forest. We emerged from the jungle into a hillside where you could see shard of igneous rock peeking out from areas where it was now covered over with growth.

When we reached the summit we were slightly disappointed that we were met with a fog so thick we could barely see the outline of Arenal, and unfortunately we saw no glowing red magma. We were however met with a bottle of Guaro (clear liquor made from sugar cane) which went a long way towards warming our spirits. For our sore muscles and aching joints that would be the job of the...

Baldi Hot Springs
We headed to the hot spring directly from the hike and quickly changed to go swimming.

The hot springs spouts geothermally heated water from the very top which collects in pools on the way down before flowing all the way down. As a result, the hottest water is found at the very top and we headed to what we thought was the highest pool.

In this pool we were met with a large pool of warm water, with waterfalls cascading over areas where you could feel the full brunt of their force. There were also three water slides one of which had the nasty reputation of sending people to the hospital due to concussions and dislocated shoulders. A quick Google search reveals how common this occurrence actually is. Naturally we had to go on this one.

As we rounded the hill to walk to the top of the slide, we noticed a helicopter sitting off to the side on a landing pad, and quickly deduced its purpose was to airlift people to the hospital.

I'd love to be able to describe what the slide was like, but all I remember was entering a tube at the top, some flashing lights as I accelerated by under them and then being launched out of the other end. The whole ride was a straight drop followed by a curve up at the very end, taking only a few seconds to experience. Unless you kept your head up, you'd easily slam the back of your neck against the slide at the bottom. I could see how people injured themselves...and rode it 2 more times.

Not satisfied with the temperature of the water we inquired about higher pools, and discovered there were two more pools that were slightly hidden higher up the mountain. Soaking in the pools at the top was a much more enjoyable experience with hot waterfalls bathing a curtain of 160F water over as well as cold water taps provided to allow for contrast showers. If time permitted, this would have definitely been a place we would have re-visted.

Volcano Canoyneering / Rappelling

Easily the more unconventional Christmas Day I've ever spent, we headed into the jungle through mountainous areas to wade waist deep through water, climb over rocks, and rappel over waterfalls.

This was probably my favorite activity the entire trip, which speaks volumes as anyone who knows me well knows I have a fear of heights. Rather than waste works, I'll let the photos speak for me:

Arenal To Monteverde

The next day we packed our bags and headed in 4x4s to cross a lake by boat, and then through mountains.

Up next: Monteverde, and the Cloud Forest

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