As a traveler, I find myself schizophrenic. I’m unbearably optimistic in the planning stage, and utterly certain the night before departure I shouldn’t be going and of course have forgotten to plan and/or pack something utterly essential to the success of the trip. My wife is a meticulous and organized packer, who actually uses detailed checklists to ensure we have everything we might possibly need, without over-packing. She used this same method when planning all of our European adventures, complete with minor and major “to see/to do” lists per city visited. She’s assuming I’m as organized and has left all the Central and South America travel details up to me, which silently causes me angst. Our most recent expedition to the Pacific Rim of Fire in Costa Rica, with its seven active volcanoes, was no exception.
We had expected an Indiana Jones-type airplane ride shared with chickens and sweaty natives, but were happily disappointed. Getting there from Washington’s Dulles airport took only 5 hours, including an hour layover in Ft. Lauderdale.
The airport in San Jose, Costa Rica, was well air-conditioned and efficiently staffed. After a few minutes of confusion, with the help of some accommodating locals we located our rental car “host” Dean. Once introduced to our tiny Geo Tracker with 150,000 miles under its belt, we understood why the rental fee had been more than reasonable. Regardless, we set off on a 4-hour ride to our destination, Arenal Observatory Lodge; guide book and map in hand.
We stopped mid-way at a roadside restaurant/canopy adventure stop in San Lorenzo for a typical “Tico” lunch of chicken, beans, veggies and rice, and watched adventuresome people above the jungle canopy attached to zip-lines. This had sounded like a fun thing to do when I described it to my wife while back in the states, but she was having second thoughts now. Thankfully, this well-laid plan of activity did not go by the wayside, and we later returned to San Lorenzo for some highly recommended canopy zipping fun!
The last 45 minutes of our road trip were reminiscent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. As we left the poorly paved main roadway and headed up the mountain to Arenal Observatory Lodge over one gigantic dirt and rock washboard, the road turned more treacherous by the rains. One loosely constructed bridge at a switchback gave us pause, but was crossed successfully, no “fiord-ing” necessary. Reaching the lodge, with its beautiful flowering “campus” (home to more than 300 species of birds), and its splendid view of the lake, jungle and volcano, it was more than worth the kidney-shaking road trip.
Costa Rica's most active volcano looms over the area like an ancient king on his throne. During the day, eruptions occur so frequently that there’s always a massive trail of smoke floating across the sky, and ribbons of dust trailing rocks belched out as they cascade down the sides of the volcano. Nighttime, however, is the best time to see it in action. On a clear evening you can see the amazing spectacle of molten rocks and lava spewing skyward, then falling to decorate the top third of the volcano like raspberry sauce drizzled heavily over a sundae.
Due to the volcano's volatile activity and the capricious weather, the top of the cone is often shrouded in clouds. It is highly possible to spend several days in the area and never catch a glimpse of the volcano. We kept our fingers crossed and late on day two were amply rewarded. We were awoken shortly before 11:00 pm by what we thought was thunder, until we saw the absolutely breathtaking action out of our wall-to-wall window at the foot of our bed. It was so spectacular-we wondered whether it was actually safe to be so close. However, the lushness of our surroundings helped assure us it had been many years since the last full-fledged eruption.