Just got back from an exhilarating, exhausting week in Costa Rica. A lifetime is not enough to experience its many wondrous ecosystems — covering a mere 0.25% of the planet and yet home to an impressive 5% of the world’s flora and fauna in a country with one of the highest percentages of state-protected land — but we tried to make tiny inroads into a few, including the tropical rainforests surrounding the Volcán Arenal (one of Costa Rica’s several active volcanoes) and the beaches and tropical dry forests of Guanacaste in the west. The lush rainforests are so dense with moisture and life that, as C. described it, for miles all you can see are “plants growing on plants growing on plants.” (And apparently algae growing on tree sloths, which, sadly, we couldn’t see up close since the lazy critters were all passed out way above our heads.)
Since we wanted to take in the landscape at a slower pace, we sidestepped the ziplines and tram tours and decided to hike around as much as we could. One of our first tourist stops was the Arenal Hanging Bridges, which took us over the tops of the rainforest canopy and gave us our first unobstructed view of the volcano itself — a miracle in the rainy winter season, when the volcano is typically clouded over for much of the day.
At the base of the volcano is the beautiful, mysterious, and (surprisingly) man-made Lake Arenal, shrouded in mist and surrounded by forests, farmland, hot spring resorts, sodas (food stalls), and the occasional fishing pier.
When we stopped for lunch at a soda, the waiter pointed out a family of monkeys swinging in the trees over the kitchen. Along with the stray chihuahua who had claimed this as her spot, as well as the tiny bird that had made her nest inside the TV speaker (bad idea, mama bird — especially during the fútbol game), the monkeys had joined the club of wildlife that had figured out a symbiotic way of living with the folks at Restaurante Cascajos.
Later in the afternoon, C. and I hiked up closer to the volcano to check out the lava fields from the massive explosion of 1968 that wiped out three villages and decimated crops, livestock, and people’s lives and livelihoods. Today, of course, the livelihoods of people around here center on the countless tourists that the volcano itself now draws in.
The signs everywhere were ominous, and we were constantly ordered to park our cars facing outward for a quick getaway at the first sign of a rumbling. All I can say is, my respect for volcanoes — and the brave, foolhardy (?) townsfolk, animals, and plants that thrive around them — knows no bounds after our encounter with the silently smoking Arenal.
Day 3 (or was it 4?): waking up to Arenal outside our cabin; rescuing a stick bug from the clutches of an over-excited boy; following horseback riders to La Fortuna waterfall, where we climbed down some hefty steps to get to the base and splash around for a while.
We stopped for lunch at Toad Hall, whose relentless road-side advertising was no doubt inspired by the likes of Wall Drug. To my slight dismay, the kitschy restaurant/B&B/store/art gallery had nothing whatsoever to do with Wind in the Willows. It did, however, have great views of Lake Arenal, as well as a tiny, whacked out orphan baby toucan named (what else?) Sam. We did feel a little sorry for Sam, though. He just looked so damn lonely.
We then got in the car and followed this horse, who was blandly chewing on his hay during the long, bumpy ride. Eventually we ended up on the west coast, where we stayed for a few days on Playa Arenilla in the Gulf of Papagayo.
Everywhere — from the beaches to the forests, the town markets to Zoo Ave — was awash in color.
Everywhere there was flair, from the fauna (iguanas, macaws, alligators, emus)…
…to the flora (jungles and forests bursting with croton, heliconia, and maracas that looked like Tequila Sunrises)…
…to the fruit stands packed with bananas, pineapples, mangoes, jocotes, guayabas, and maracuyás.
Of course, not everything on our trip was so vivid and colorful. Not depicted here: C. driving in torrential downpours around white-knuckle cliffs with zero visibility, turned back at a key junction by a large tree uprooted by floods that was threatening to fall across the one bridge through town, adding three more hours to the journey. Maneuvering around unmarked one-lane roads and claustrophobic central plazas where everybody — babies, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, bus drivers, skateboarders, chickens, dogs, and goats — had the right of way, all the time. Monkeys, tropical birds, and iguanas hanging precariously in the branches over our heads, constantly threatening — in one case, successfully — to hurl poop on us. Second-degree sunburns. Burned feet from black sand. Feet sliced open on the rocky bay. Fifteen hundred mosquito bites. One theft. And the saddest street festival in the world. (Santo Domingo, Saturday afternoon.)
Most of all, though, not depicted here is the kindness of strangers who were patient with our Spanish, helped dig our sod-trapped car, invited us to their homes, and went out of their way to help us out when we were miserably lost. And the constant refrain of “pura vida” — literally, “pure life,” but also hello, goodbye, thank you, what’s going on, you’re welcome, fantastic, everything’s great, and may you have a wonderful life.
. . .
(More pictures here.)