Thursday, November 27, 2008

Arenal

Sunday morning we (my parents, Jacob and I) left on an overnight trip to Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Ever since its 1968 eruption it has been spewing smaller amounts of lava on a daily basis with every now and then a bigger eruption thrown in. When the weather is good, you can see the lava flows glow orange at night. If you are very lucky, you can actually see the eruptions.

Unfortunately, we experienced neither good weather, nor luck and the most we got to see of the volcano was about 1/3 of the way up by day. We did see the gray lava flows, but by the time the sun set, clouds had come down further down the volcano and we could not even see one single meter up the mountain.

But, it did not matter much, because we had a wonderful time anyway. On the drive over, it was really interesting to see the ecosystem change from the tropical dry forest of Guanacaste to the lush rain forest at Arenal. On the drive either to or from the canopy tour we encountered a flock (!) of toucans, a family of coati (the southern, long nosed, totally adorable cousin of the raccoon) and a howler monkey.

In the afternoon when we arrived we decided to do a canopy tour. Canopy tours in Costa Rica are like riding a bicycle in Holland, eating goulash in Hungary or climbing the Eiffel tower in Paris - only way more fun. Basically, you fly on zip lines tied between platforms in the tree tops trying really hard to keep your mind from visualizing, in great detail, what would happen if the harness you are in would disintegrate, the zip line broke or the carabiner was attached wrong.

We did a canopy tour when we were here five years ago with Jacob's parents and Christine. I remember having several small panic attacks (the most severe when the tour guide suggested flying across with just being attached to his harness, not holding onto anything - arms out like a bird) but also loving the thrill of it. The zip lines went only as high as the trees and we could always see the ground.

At Arenal, according to our guide and driver, Bernal, the zip lines were the mother of all canopy tours. These ones went over great distances (one line was 2300 feet long) and at great heights (300 or so meters (900 feet!), overlooking the beautiful rain forest and Lake Arenal.

After gearing up, we got to ride in a ski-lift gondola type thing all the way to the top of the hill. It was pouring rain, but it fortunately cleared up considerably once we reached the platform. The first two lines were short and low - for practice - but right after those there were two long and high ones. I was happy to discover that the feeling of butterflies in your stomach, the kind you get on carnival rides, was not present. I started screaming from the excitement and joy of actually being able to enjoy the ride, but then noticed that the grease that was flying off the pulley and the line because of the rain, was now spraying right in my open mouth. After the first long zip line we all looked like coal miners - our faces entirely blackened by the streams of grease. This should have been a put-down, but I think we all experienced it as a badge of courage.

I'm very proud of both my parents, but especially my mom, for being up for the activity and not peeing in their pants or breaking down and crying. Because at 60 and 65 years old, I'm not so sure if I would be up for the adventure, let alone be able to complete it without a major melt-down.

After the canopy tour we found a hotel, enjoyed the volcanic hot springs pool, which was surprisingly luke-warm, ate at the over-priced but enjoyable restaurant and went to bed under our musty-smelling sheets.

We got up early the next morning and enjoyed a nice breakfast before taking off for a walk through the rain forest. It had been raining non-stop pretty much all night. But thinking that rain just puts the rain in rain forest, we decided to go ahead with the hike anyway and I'm really glad we did. I think the rain even added a special dimension to it. We saw lots of pretty birds and some small tropical squirrels, but the best part was looking at all the lush vegetation and beautiful view points. Although, as enjoyable as it was, I think we all were quite done with hanging out in the rain.

We had lunch in la Fortuna town, then started the 4 hour drive back to Playa Hermosa.

We stopped at the animal refuge center that Jacob and I visited 5 years ago. It was nice to see that it had changed quite a bit. More animals had bigger cages and along with charging an entry fee now, they provided the visitors with stories of some of the animals; how they ended up at the shelter, what challenges their species are facing, etc. It was very nicely done.

The biggest and most impressive animals at the refuge are a pair of jaguars in separate cages. They were pacing up and down and somehow seemed really interested in our presence (we were the only visitors there at the time). One of the jaguars, Tiggy, kept following us along the fence, purring, growling and drooling. First we thought he was starved for some company, but then it became clear that he was just awaiting his dinner. We had come right at feeding time and were able to witness the jaguars munch down some big chunks of meat. The crunching of the bones was an eerie reminder that we were thankful we did not encounter any hungry jaguars along our hikes.

We've been back here for a few days and my parents left this morning. There is more to write about, but it is Thanksgiving today and I promised to whip up an order of butter rum sweet potatoes, so the writing will have to wait for a bit again. Also, the little guy just woke up..

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