Saturday, October 16, 2010

A volcano and a cloud forest

Red-eyed tree frog. So beautiful I almost cried.
Costa Rica! Pura vida! San Jose is nothing to write home about so I won't.
The bus ride to La Fortuna was beautiful, winding through the mountains with coffee plantations and tropical fruit orchards abounding. We got to La Fortuna in the early evening and we were picked up by Kelly, the manager of Essence Arenal, the hostel we would be staying at. Essence turned out to be as far out of town as you could get, up in the hills of the little town of El Castillo on the other side of the volcano. Volcan Arenal is an acive volcano that dominates the landscape and has birthed an active tourist trade around it's many side affects - hot pools, great views, and lots of volcanic activity.

Sunset at Essence
But back to Essence. When finally we arrived (the roads are terrible which keeps the less adventurous tourists away thank goodness) we were greeted by dusk and the resident trail dog, an Alsatian called Abu. Our room afforded us a peeking view of the volcano and the back yard had a pool and looked down onto Lake Arenal. As night fell the fireflies came out and we knew we were in a special place. What makes Essence a cut above the rest is the concept of "demo cuisine". Dinner is a participatory affair with guests invited to help in a part of the making of the meal, which is always vegetarian, always with a theme. Our first night it was Morrocan and we helped make stuffed naan. The next night we rolled sushi, the next we made falafel. Exqusite!
On our first full day we woke with the birds (Essence sits on 100 acres, mostly secondary forest) and after a hearty omelette we set off with a couple of other guests, Gabriella and Victor from Nosara, to climb Cerro Chato, the mountain next to Arenal that has a crater lake at the top. We sauntered beside pine plantations which reminded us fiercely of Canada and eucalyptus plantings and began the climb up. It is fair to say that Darren and I have graduated to a whole other class of hiking, that which a lot of people call "difficult". It was steep the whole 2 hours up but, man, it was worth it.

 The cloud forest revealed itself and birds began to sing. At one point we stopped to catch our breath and the song of the Three Wattled Bellbird started up. It was out of this world, sometimes like a creaky gate opening, sometimes like the purest two toned flute. At the top, Victor and Darren made the kinda precipitous trek down to the crater lake whilst myself and Gabriella (both leery of steep descents) stayed at the top and ate roadside collected guavas. It was a faster trip down and once at the bottom we took the waterfall route back to the car. The waterfall was gorgeous and Darren could not resist the siren call of the water and so he stripped off and jumped right in. Then we saw a coati! Fauna!

Back at Essence we all jumped in the pool and drank in the view. At dusk, Darren, myself, and Abu took a walk on the circuit around the property. We came across green parrots, Montezuma's oropendola's, and horses. We had heard howler monkeys at the top and Darren started imitating them. No shit, they called right back and we swear they were right on top of us. Couldn´t see 'em though.
The next day was decreed a lazy day and we lounged in the hammocks all morning. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision as it gave us our first view of volcanic activity from Volcan Arenal. We watched as an ash plume mushroomed out of the top, over and over. It was awesome!

 Once we managed to rip our eyes away from our binoculars we strolled down the hill to the Serpentatrium. Brave of Darren as snakes give him the creeps big time.

And I was like, yeah, whatever.

Not leery of a bloody great spider though

The guide was so informative and I was stoked to cuddle a couple of spaghetti snakes and Kelly's rainbow constrictor Anastasia. I balked at holding the tarantula but Darren was a champ.

Back at Essence we decided to hit up the free hot pools with a lovely couple from England, Tim and Jill. So half an hour around the volcano, directly across from a resort where you pay $60 to sit in an artificial environment we were frolicing in the natural hot river. Bliss. Pura vida indeed!
The next day we were up early to take the jeep-boat-jeep across Lake Arenal to get to Santa Elena, the town that services Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. One thing that the guide books don't tell you is that it's crazy windy up there! On our first day we hit up the Monteverde Cheese Factory where predictably Darren was in paradise. A bunch of Quakers who were dodging compulsory conscription decided to move to Costa Rica (they passed on Canada as being too cold. Preach!) and decided that making cheese would be a good way of making a living. I don't know too much about Quakers but I dig their passive resistance ways though one thing nagged at me - the guide enthused in her telling of  the history of the factory that "Quakers are all about equal rights" yet all 8 of the founders of the cheese factory are listed as men but the photos are full of women as well...? Anyway, they make good cheese.
The next morning we got up early (though Darren and I are getting up at 6am these days regularly) to catch the bus up to the Monteverde cloud forest.

 Living up to it's name the clouds were low and misty and rolling across the forest. The flora was diverse and colourful, some trees dripping with vines, epiphytes and flowers, the air smelt fresh and rich with abundance. The trails were really well maintained and we managed to hike most of  the trails spending about 5 hours in total there. We even got to straddle the continental divide at one point. Fauna was heard more than seen, though I did see a monkey's arse, a snake as it lept with fright in the wake of Darren's footsteps and a coati ambling through the parking lot. This was not a big deal especially in light of t he special treat we unexpectedly came across after our hike. There is a free hummingbird gallery outside the reserve where we were expecting some pretty specimens in an aviary. As we walked up the path we could hear the vibrant hum of wings beating and came into a courtyard with feeders hung all over the place. At this point we were engulfed into a cloud of hummingbirds as they flew from feeder to feeder fighting for prime positions. Literally hundreds, of all kinds, all colours. We spent an hour there in awe.

On our last day we decided to do some zip lines through the forest. Now in general I think this is an obnoxious thing to do in such a pristine setting but we were at a loose end and the town wasn't interesting enough to distract us for a day (though I would have been happy with the Butterfly Farm and Orchid Garden!). I had vetoed the hanging bridges canopy tour thinking that as we'd be in a harness I would feel more safe. What a joke. Needless to say, Darren had a great time and I did too for the middle 7 lines once I had gotten used to it. The combination of being high up and spinning around on a fast speeding piece of metal was fear sensory overload!

Don't believe the smile. I am terrified.
 The last and 13th line was ONE KILOMETRE LONG. Darren and I got to do that one together and my eyes stayed tightly squeezed shut admist Darren's whoops of joy. I was shaking once we got off. The Tarzan swing at the end was optional so I exercised my right to decline, especially as we had to cross two hanging bloody bridges to get to it. Darren went for it and watching him I was happy with my decision - it looked like upright bungee jumping. After all that Darren is now indebted to me for the rest of the trip. No more mad adventurey, adrenaline junkie business. Time to chill-ax. Perfect timing really as our next destination is the Caribbean coast with Megan and Darren. Beachy time!

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