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This last week, in the early morning hours, I’ve awoken to an amazingly intense light in the eastern sky. The first time was about 3:30 a.m., a couple of days after our return from the Puntarenas hospital when we brought Wolf home. My eyes were teased open by this light piercing the darkness like a streetlight outside my window. Rising slowly over the black silhouette of the tree line into what was left of the night sky, the light shone so brightly I had to get up out of bed to figure out what it was.
Wolf’s son, Antonio, on night duty keeping watch over his father, was sitting in the darkened house. I went to him and asked, “Tonio, what is that light out there?” He answered, “It’s Venus. I’ve been watching her rising over the last couple of nights.” We both watched her in silence for a few minutes in the stillness of the sleeping house.
Satisfied, I returned to my room which was lit up by her brilliance, thinking I’d crawl back into bed to escape the chill that had settled around us. I watched as fleeting clouds, backlit like hovering white angels, passed over the planet of love. Sleep was now impossible.
In this house, nestled amongst the trees, surrounded by cow pastures, capped with clouds, and tickled by rainbows, love has been on the rise all week, just like her matriarchal planet, Venus. The Guindons have come home.
It’s been seventeen years since Wolf and Lucky had all eight of their children together at the same time. The last picture of the family, taken in 1994, is featured in Walking with Wolf, next to a picture from the late sixties of the kids as children, lined up in Von Trapp family style. Fortunately, we’ve had many opportunities in the last week to take family pictures.
The love of family and the comfort of home has been the best medicine for Wolf. The views from the house over the treetops to the Gulf of Nicoya have brought joy to him daily. Along with the family members who live close by – Benito, Melody, Ricky and Alberto – I’ve been helping take care of Wolf with those who have come home from the US, Tomas, Helena, Carlos and Tonio. Friends from near and far have come to visit, often with food in hand. Wolf’s spirits have risen daily, following Venus on her path to the heavens.
From his first night back home, Wolf began sleeping sounder than he ever did in the hospital. Bit by bit, he started imbibing a variety of liquids – Beni’s kefir, fresh fruit juices, homemade soup broths, and Monteverde’s pure sweet water – which have made him stronger. He’s now advanced to soft foods, taken in small amounts, enough to keep his physical strength up just like his spirit.
Wolf never lost his sense of humor, but for awhile there we couldn’t understand him at all. People who know Wolf are aware that he mumbles and talks in circles, but those of us with experience can usually follow him, though keeping up to him could be as hard as keeping up to him on the trail. In the last couple of months, his mind has wandered and it’s been harder to stay on his path. This is probably from Lithium poisoning, a result of twenty-five years of taking Lithium for manic depression, as well as confusion caused by dehydration and the infections that have plagued him.
In those last two weeks in the hospital, he had a feeding tube. Along with too much time spent lying in bed with too little activity, he collected water on his lungs. The problem grew each day – Wolf coughed and tried to expel what seemed like phlegm in his throat – and with each passing day we understood less of what he was trying to say. He became more frustrated as we tried, with less and less success, to understand him. The problem grew to the point that he appeared to be a man drowning, fighting for whatever little breath he could get.
A respirologist came in the last night in the hospital and finally suctioned out what was blocking his breathing. Melody, Tomas and I held him for the few seconds it took that seemed like an eternity. It was a frightful moment for him and for us, but one that ended in instant relief and immediate understanding when he said, “Is it over?”
And I would say that was the beginning of his return to the land of the living.
This week in Monteverde has been filled with special moments and wonderful surprises. Last Sunday, with Wolf still very weak and his future not at all certain, the family decided to hold Sunday meeting in the house (Quaker silent meeting as it is held on Sunday mornings at the Friends house here in Monteverde). After an hour of silence, each of us took turns expressing our thoughts, our thanks, and our hopes. I thanked this wonderful family for allowing me to be part of what is a very special yet difficult time for them.
The rest of the day was a big feast of food and affection, followed by singing Christmas carols, and visits from friends. Wolf went to sleep that night exhausted but happy and secure in the care of his family.
Two days later, we joined together to go walking with Wolf on his trail that he has cut and maintained around the Guindon farm. His great friends and hiking buddies, Frank Joyce, Eladio Cruz and Jim Richards joined his children and grandchildren on an amazing trek to the mirador, the lookout across the valley towards the forested ridges of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
We planned on doing this on Monday, a very windy, rainy, chilly day, but we had to wait for a visit from a nurse that delayed us until we had to give up the idea for that day. Wolf didn’t care that the weather was miserable. “Vamanos,” he said, as he would have said all his life. The worse the conditions, the keener Wolf would be. The rest of us may have thought it wasn’t a great day for the hike, but Wolf just said, “We have raincoats!”
As fate would have it, the delay brought us a gorgeous Monteverde day – brilliant blue sky, warm sunshine kept fresh by mountain winds. Antonio designed a Cacique-throne that Wolf could be carried in by attaching two long strong sticks to the base of a leather rocking chair, the kind famously made in the artisans’ town of Sarchi, Costa Rica.
Wolf was strapped securely in the chair. We all bundled up and headed up the trail. The men – his sons, son-in-law, and friends – took turns carrying Wolf, one in front, one behind (I took a very short turn, just for the honor of it, enough for a little gender quality, but without pushing it till someone got hurt!) The trail winds through the forest away from the house, up towards the famous Bullpen, and past the big oak trees to the cliff edge. Every few minutes, we stopped for a rest, to see the views, to look at birds, to adjust the position of the Cacique, and to change the sherpas.
When we reached the mirador, we were greeted by the clearest view possible, a gift seldom given in the cloud forest. We could see the shadowy layers of ridges, the individual trees across the valley, and even people standing on the platform at La Ventana, about two kilometers away as the toucan flies, the destination of many hikers in the Monteverde Reserve. There is no doubt that Wolf suffered a little in the chair – he has a catheter that can get very uncomfortable – but for Wolf, and the rest of us, it was a couple hours of sheer Monteverde splendor and a magical morning spent following the leader of the pack.
After this successful expedition, with Wolf seeming stronger each day, the family asked him what his “bucket list” was. Perhaps a desire to go to South America may not be met (tho’ never say never), his wish for strawberry ice cream was very doable. However, his wish to return to the base of Arenal Volcano was something that the family saw as a challenge, but one that could be met.
Wolf and Lucky’s children had promised them a couple of nights in the stunning Arenal Observatory Lodge for their 60th Anniversary that they celebrated this October. At that time, Wolf was recovering from his eye cataract surgery and Lucky was weak from the bronchitis. They had to make do with a lovely evening out at a local restaurant. It was questionable if they would ever get to fulfill the bigger dream.
The Observatory Lodge helped make this a very special event. When Benito contacted them, they said that they would provide the beautiful White Hawk House for the whole family – compliments of the Lodge! So with all eight Guindon children, Tomas’ wife Gretchen and his children Julian and Olivia (who flew down from California for a few days), Melody’s daughter Naomi, and your intrepid reporter-PAPArazzi-personal assistant-to-the-Guindon clan, Kay – we took a twenty-four hour trip to Arenal.
There is a very convenient “jeep-boat-jeep” trip that tourists take advantage of between Monteverde and Arenal Volcano. It is actually van-boat-van, but the other sounds more rugged I guess. The bunch of us piled into the vans on Thursday morning, bumped our ways along the backroads to Rio Chiquito, where we got into the flat-bottomed tour boat that was commissioned privately for the trip. Wolf traveled in a lounge chair provided by Phebe and Jim Richards, something that proved invaluable for easing transferring and Wolf’s comfort.
Don Miguel Hernandez, who owns the boats and lives over in La Fortuna, personally met us on the other side of the lake to drive us that last bit to the Lodge. Wolf has met up with Miguel many times over the years and they were joking and telling stories together. Wolf is well known near and far for his adventures and his friendly, funny manner. Everywhere you travel with Wolf, you realize how many people know him and have great affection and respect for him.
We were received by Henry, the manager of the Arenal Observatory Lodge and a former employee at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. From the moment of arrival, Wolf was treated as the king he is in these parts, and we were all treated royally.
We spent a wonderful night at the base of the volcano, but it remained shrouded as the clouds never totally lifted to reveal her complete glory. Fortunately all of us have seen the volcano before, except Tomas’ young children.
It didn’t matter. There were beautiful birds – the crimson-collared tanager and the green honeycreepers – a collared anteater, and a beautiful margay, romping around like a domestic cat with wild tendencies.
Our friend Zulay Martinez and her husband Keith Maves brought a homemade dinner so we could stay together at the house. Once again, Wolf enjoyed it all, even though he started having problems with his catheter again, not a surprise after the jostling he took on the way there. Each member of the family basked in the joy of being together, soaking up the spectacular views, birding off the balcony, playing their family-favorite double solitaire at night, drinking coffee and laughing at every possible moment.
Now we are back home. Carlos and Antonio have already left , Tomas and Gretchen are soon on their way. The house is getting quieter, but the memories created in this special week are still ringing as loud as the bells of Christmas that are taking over the season.
Love is a powerful drug, a restorative tonic, a magical medicine. Thanks from everyone here, to all who have come and continue to be here in spirit. The Guindons are truly an amazing clan. The light of Venus continues to shine down on the Guindon farm and Monteverde and love continues to rise and swirl in the Monteverde mist.
One of the most constant, fascinating and sometimes frightening realities of life in Costa Rica is the presence of bugs – and I immediately must clarify that I mean the general word used for insects rather than the specific classification of the true bug – the Hemiptera - which is, of course, equally well represented here. I have had many friends visit from the north country who swear that they’ll never be able to deal with the spiders or scorpions or army ants, but they tend to get caught up in the exotic extremeness of it all and before you know it, they are drawn into bug-watching.
Having been a bush-living Canadian, I’m used to our own serious bug situation – as in a season that comes on strong in May with annoying mosquitoes, followed soon by clouds of black flies, with localized deer and horsefly outbreaks throughout the summer (personally I think we should be calling the largest of them the “moose fly”.) Then there are the big green horned worms on the tomatoes, the nasty little earwigs that get everywhere, and other garden-variety (and -centric) insects who fill out the non-frozen season. We don’t need to think so much about these things between September and April except for a few indoor creatures like spiders and cockroaches.
Then there is Costa Rica. The little isthmus with the mostest for biologists of all kinds, it particularly feeds the needs of the entomologists. At the University of Guelph in Ontario Canada, where I studied horticulture, the most enthusiastic prof I had, bar none, who drew us all in with his love of the subject, was he who taught us about the fascinating world of insects and the huge role that they play in our lives. Except for a general awareness of the fleeting beauty of the monarchs, the gentle crawl of the daddy-long-legs, and the constant chorus of the crickets, I just wasn’t paying that much attention to the insect world. But since having my eyes and mind opened by this bug freak (I’m sorry, the name escapes me – Second Year Entomology, U of Guelph, 1982 – great guy), I have a much greater respect for the winged and wingless, 4- or 100-legged, often camouflaged, and always outrageously designed phenomena known as bugs.
Monteverde draws in many biologists because of its great biodiversity and welcoming atmosphere for researchers. It is hard not to get caught up in the interest and knowledge that abounds out of these maniacs, I mean scientists. A social gathering here starts with guests walking in the door barely able to control their excitement, shouting, “Hey, you’ll never believe what creature we saw on the way here”, and at some inevitable point in the evening, everyone gathers at the window, identifying the hundreds of flying insects drawn by the interior lights. Costa Rica is one big cocktail party of creepy crawlies.
I’ve been waiting for 19 years to be struck by a scorpion in Monteverde. I’ve lived in houses here notorious for these hidden, hot-tailed alacrans, have seen many, even taken a mother with her brood of babies on her back home with me to Canada (by mistake) one year, but despite my expectations have yet to be strung by a scorpion. I’ve watched an assassin bug drag a tarantula across the road, drank tea with a woman friend as regiments of army ants marched their way across our ceiling, and been bitten by something hidden in a bag that made my finger throb for hours. I’ve also been bitten by many ants, fleas, bush lice, no-see-ums and sand flies, the thing that gave me papalomoya. Of course there are the mosquitoes which I find much less ferocious here than in the north (laid back like the people) though they can carry a powerful punch of malaria or dengue. And then there was the squeezing of the botfly larva out of my boyfriend’s butt (see Kukulas of Cahuita and…)…I’ve had my share of bug-related moments.
A year ago I wrote about being at Wolf and Lucky Guindon’s house when the termites erupted and for several days the house was filled with gossamer wings. A couple of weeks ago, Roberto and I returned to Cahuita, arriving in the late afternoon. We were nervous about what we would find – perhaps someone would have come and robbed the place or some natural disaster would have left trouble behind. Fortunately, all was in order and we could just sit down and relax, make coffee, do a little dancing in the fading daylight to the calypso music on the radio. We started to notice a few flying critters in the air and soon it was hard to ignore them. In short order there were clouds of termites, that they call ‘duck ants’ on the Caribbean, encircling us, darting into our eyes, getting tangled in Roberto’s dreads, making serious pests of themselves. The clouds were thickest right around the casita as the termites were probably erupting out of the old wood that was used in the structure and for firewood. We moved our dancing down the path a ways but they quickly followed, drawn by our movement and body heat I guess.
Now seriously annoyed, we decided to go lay on the bed where we would be safe under the mosquito net, but no, they were too attracted to us. Somehow their not-so-small bodies were able to stick through the fine netting and in no time they were crawling on the bed, through the sheets, over and under our bodies, dropping their wings, not biting but menacing nonetheless. We finally gave up, changed our clothes from those littered with discarded wings and tiny black bodies, and went to town. When we returned hours later there were no more flying critters in the dark, but the mosquito net was dark with their little carcasses and shorn wings. Fortunately that has been the only night that the termites came to town.
I’ve grown used to shaking out my shoes and clothes in case of intruders, and that just becomes habit as many stories I’ve heard from people being stung by scorpions were attacked from within their clothes. At Roberto’s I am now paying closer attention to everywhere I put my body. Besides the fact that a snake could have moved under the bed at any time, there is also the impressive and somewhat unsettling variety of spiders – large, colorful and quick. It could get ugly if you put your foot right on them as they crawl across the end of the outdoor daybed.
On our way to Cahuita from Monteverde, we passed through San Carlos, near Arenal Volcano, and stayed a few days at my friend Zulay’s. The area is on the Atlantic side of the Continental Divide and though many miles inland, the vegetation is very similar to the Caribbean.
I stopped to visit Gerardo, a friend from my first year here in Costa Rica. He was always a talented musician as well as an artist with wood. A couple years ago he opened a Wood Art Gallery on the road to La Fortuna’s waterfall where he displays his own sculptures, done out of fallen wood, as well as the work of other artists.
This stunning collection of wooden creations is displayed with the majestic volcano as a backdrop. The big beast has been belching a lot lately – they had to vacate the National Park once again because of activity. For forty years, Arenal has been an active volcano and that gives it the record for the longest-running active volcano in the world. And she doesn’t disappoint! Unless, of course, she is shrouded in clouds. Zulay and I brought home a variety of heliconia plants from Gerardo’s ever-expanding garden. By the time Roberto and I left Zulay’s for Cahuita, we had a bag full of cuttings, roots, seeds and branches which we planted following the full moon that was upon us.
The yard around the casita is becoming more and more diverse with our combined enthusiasm for gardening – Roberto mostly concerned about food crops, me adding a few flowers and colorful leaf varieties like the crotons. Since we recently left again for about a month (back up here in Monteverde), we no doubt will head home in August wondering if not only the house is okay but if all these plantings have survived in our absence.
I’m appreciative that, while we are out gallivanting about, there are bats, flycatchers and kingfishers on guard back there, doing their part to keep the insect masses in check.
That alone the lizards, salamanders and geckos, when they aren’t busy eating each other.
We aren’t that concerned about the new plantings getting water as July is a rainy month on the Caribbean and we have already seen great regular downpours. I’ve been digging trenches trying to direct the water away from our living space, but the paths fill quickly. It is something to watch the little benign Quebrada Suarez rise into a heavily flowing river in a matter of an hour, especially having the knowledge that it rose so high last November that it wiped out Roberto’s former rancho and swept all his belongings closer to the sea.
We won’t start thinking about all the possible calamities awaiting us in Cahuita until we get closer to heading back. Instead we’ll enjoy our time here in Monteverde where mosquitoes are rare (we don’t have to sleep under a mosquito net) but scorpions could be lurking…anywhere…
And a quick word on the Wolf. He is doing okay, although he is now injecting insulin rather than regulating his diabetes with pills. I think that will help to get him regulated although he still has a way to go in keeping his diet under control. He is presently in San José being equipped with a 24-hour monitor as a follow up to tests that were done a month ago. He told me on the phone (where he sounded strong and fine) that he has still had episodes – I’m prone to think that the combination of medications that he is taking, and the inevitable changing of them, is what is messing with him. Wolf will be turning 79 on August 17 – age is no doubt a factor, but don’t we know that drugs, and the unknowns involved when you combine them, can mess with your mind and body…Wolf just walked in to Cafe Cabure where I am working and said that except for low blood pressure that he experienced, there are still no answers. But he looks very alive to me – and is asking for coffee, so all is normal.
The green mountain is truly verdant right now. The rains started in May and now everything is vibrant, alive with water coursing through its veins. Since being back in Monteverde for a little more than a week, Roberto and I have managed to stay mostly dry in the house, though sometimes you just have to go out in the world while the rain is pouring down. Even with ponchos, umbrellas and boots, when the rain is serious you are going to get seriously wet. Many of the downpours are accompanied by rolling waves of thunder which make their way down the mountainside like a freight train rumbling through town. I remember my first year here, in 1990, when I was living in a house higher up the mountain. You could feel the thunder coming down the mountain like an avalanche. In those days we heard the roar from Volcano Arenal’s many daily eruptions, something that we don’t hear much over here any more. The rolling thunder, the grumbling volcano and the heavy rain pelting down on the zinc roof were all new sounds to me – together they filled every sound space in my head until all I could do was join in and shout along.
I had a close call with my laptop in an electrical storm the other day. I was at the local grocery store with Wolf and Lucky when, in a flash, the light bulbs in the metal ceiling popped loudly, then came a crash of thunder that made us all jump, followed shortly after by another crack of lightning that took out the electronic cash register and the rest of the lights and left us all shaking. Just like that, no warning, a few loud jolts and bolts during what had just been a heavy downpour that didn’t hint at any electrical activity. All I could think about was my laptop at home, still plugged in though not connected to the phone line. Lucky and I went on to the Friday afternoon Scrabble game where everyone was sharing their list of the damages that those two minutes of thunder and lightning had caused. Although I knew that Roberto was at home, I didn’t imagine that he would think to unplug my laptop (not having electricity nor computers himself, it wouldn’t be on his mind) and besides, it happened so quickly that I doubt I could have done anything if at home myself. So I played Scrabble with this low grade worry in my mind, concerned that my cyber-life may have just been cancelled for awhile.
Fortunately, when I finally made it home, the only damage done was to the handheld telephone – notorious for their sensitivity to electrical hits – but my laptop was fine. Huge sigh of relief. The house has another non-electrical phone which keeps us connected but there will be no more sitting outside in the hammock and chatting until Veronica brings back another portable phone.
Wolf came up the mountain the same day that we did, over a week ago. He was a little worn from the two weeks in a hospital bed, the several tests they did on him, and the lack of an appetite for institutional food. So he lost a little weight and was a bit on the weak side. The tests hadn’t really proven anything except for the probability that his medications were conflicting with each other and he wasn’t taking in enough water (except in the form of coffee.) Lucky has noticed that his short term memory was a little slow, although has improved, and I know from talking to him that his long term memory is just fine. I joke that if Wolf ever does have a stroke, the side effect for him will be sudden clear speech, unlike most folks whose speech becomes garbled under the circumstances.
After bugging him for a couple of years to let me drive his jeep when we head out to do book business in town, and always receiving the same response – “I don’t believe in women drivers” – Wolf finally relented and passed me the keys. This is the one thing that his family is trying to get a grip on as his driving is getting precarious, especially in the busy hub of Santa Elena. Unfortunately few of the other Guindons have their licenses and so Wolf continues to feel responsible for picking up groceries and animal feed in town (and the need to go also satisfies his restless soul.) I’m a very experienced and comfortable driver yet I still felt the pressure of his critical eye, but I think I passed the test. The next time I ran into him, leaving the dairy plant parking lot, he just passed me the keys willingly and had me do the driving. Lucky thinks he likes the idea of having a “chauffeur.” Whatever his thinking, it is good that he is getting used to the idea of letting others drive.
So except for some tiredness, and as yet not being back up to walking much, and perhaps his spirit being a little deflated by the trials and tribulations of old age, Wolf is doing fine. Everywhere he goes people are so glad to see him (“Wolf’s more well-known than poverty,” Roberto will say) and he can’t help but ham it up which makes him appear even stronger than he is. Certainly the warmth and concern of people toward him is surely helping to restore his spirit.
This last week in Monteverde saw a lot of people leaving the mountain. The Friends School closed for the season. It’s on the same schedule as North American schools in contrast to Costa Rican public schools whose big break is December to February, based on the tradition of releasing the kids to help with the coffee harvest. There was a special Wednesday Friends meeting held in the beautiful Bullpen, my own spiritual center in Monteverde (which I’ve written about several times.)
I got to the gathering a little early, but not earlier than the Guindon clan who live adjacent to the Bullpen. It was a misty kind of day with some warmth from the sun shining through the clouds from time to time. We each found a place, sitting on our ponchos on some spot on the damp ground, backs leaning against the tree trunks, more people arriving from various points out of the surrounding woods. It was like watching a gathering of the gnomes in a magical medieval forest.
The director of the Friends School for the last two years, Annika, and her partner Heather and their two boys were leaving the next day, a new director arriving soon. I met these women last year at the time that we presented Walking with Wolf to the community. The next time I saw Heather, at a potluck at her house, she told me that as she read the book, she was amused to see that I knew of Temagami, Ontario, the beautiful lake and community that I worked and played at for years. She told me that they were avid paddlers and had taken canoe trips along several northern rivers – with names like Missinaibi and Bloodvein that only people who live in the north or have taken a trip on would know. She also mentioned that on two different trips she had run into a man from Temagami, a writer and artist – who turned out to be my old co-activist and bush friend Hap Wilson. Such a small world it always proves to be. And to have bumped into this same man on two separate trips in two totally different areas of the north is mind-boggling.
I haven’t been in touch with Hap in several years but had to contact him after that to let him know that his northern ears should be burning. I will be seeing him this September when we all gather on beautiful Lake Wakimika near Temagami for the twentieth anniversary of the Red Squirrel Road blockade that was a mighty political event in our lives (and which I write about in the book.)
So Heather and I bonded over these tales of the glorious north country and now she and her family are headed back to Minnesota and the rocks and lakes and non-tropical forests which have their own special beauty. The meeting and potluck lunch in the Bullpen was their send-off party. The mists swirling in through the trees cloaked them once more with the magic that is Monteverde. As always with potlucks, the combination of contributed foods was divine. Friends and neighbors visited and eventually we all packed up and people headed out to their next activity. The first drops of rain fell just as people started on their way.
In the next pasture over, just a hundred meters through the forest, was a new colt born just three days before. As I went to say goodbye to Helena Guindon, who was also leaving for the US the next day, she said that they were going to see the new colt so why didn’t I join them. I said I’d catch up in a minute. There was a little soft rain falling at this point and I put up my umbrella and started down the path through the forest to the Campbell’s pasture. I bumped into Sue and John Trostle, on their way out to their car. In the few minutes it took us to walk through the forest that light swirling mist turned to a heavy fog. By the time we emerged out in the pasture, we were shrouded in thick cloud, so that we almost lost sight of each other. The Trostles went one way and I the other, still hoping to bump into Helena and also to see the colt. I could hear voices in the distance but could barely see ten feet in front of me.
I knew which direction to head in, although the fog caused some confusion, and that if I just kept going downhill I would eventually run into the fence running along the road. It was mystical, wandering through the pasture grasses, trees appearing out of the darkness, the voices not that far away but impossible to reach. I guess I could have shouted to them, but being left alone in the mist was too enticing.
I was just getting to feeling disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see the young colt, when out of the thick white wall of fog came the pinto mother and colt, galloping as if to lose someone behind. They almost ran right into me but turned and stopped not far from me, the colt taking the opportunity to feed. We shared a lovely silent moment of peace in the pasture together, I took a couple of pictures and then left them.
Shortly after I bumped into the Trostles again, still making their slow way along the fence line, trying to find the opening that would let them out to where their car was parked. At about that same moment, the rain started down in sheets and after we found the way to their car, I was happy to take a ride with them.
Roberto and I passed a relaxing week here in this great house that Veronica is renting, here on the edge of the forest, very private, quiet except for the bonking of the bellbirds and the occasional barking of the dogs. We are with our little doggy friends, Wilkens, Betsy and Cutie Pie (now called Salchichona for her plump little sausage body.)
The dogs are a part of all food preparations here, they are relentless, but I have to say that they have all improved since I spent a month with them back in January – particularly Betsy the little spotted cow who no longer jumps up and scratches my legs and probably listens better than the other two.
We brought some coconuts and a coconut grater up from Cahuita for a friend here and Roberto has been grating coconuts and making rice and beans and fish in coconut milk. He is an enthusiastic cook and happy to feed me, which makes me happy, but I fear that if I eat too much of this rich, delicious Caribbean food, they’ll be calling me Salchichona soon enough.
Tomorrow we leave for San Carlos and my friend Zulay’s, before returning in a few days to Cahuita. But I’ll be back up here in Monteverde in not too long, having work to do here, and houses to take care of. A nice balance – the hot colorful Caribbean coast and the green misty Pacific side of the Continental Divide here in Monteverde. A lovely life.
I am back in the wind, but it is a warm sleepy breeze here in Cahuita rather than the wild winds of Monteverde. The air and the water are both balmy. There’s no wireless connection in this town so I’ve become a little less connected with the bigger world this past week. That’s fine with me. My existence here is basic but rich, slow but always winding my way toward the horizon where the sky and sea meet.
Costa Rica’s beaches cover almost every imaginable variation. A week ago I was in Manuel Antonio on the central Pacific coast – one of the first beaches to be developed for tourism and definitely one of the busiest. Now I’m in Cahuita on the Caribbean and its charm for me lays in the fact that it hasn’t changed all that much since I first came in 1990. I tend to gravitate to less populated places with a high relax factor and so I fit in well here.
On the other hand, and coast, Manuel Antonio sits at the end of an action-packed seven kilometer road that starts in Quepos, once a fishing village now a busy town handling the commercial side of the tourism trade. The road crawls up and over the rocky cliffs to the beach of Manuel Antonio and its National Park and is filled with hotels and restaurants that can be seen gracing the pages of Architectural Digest or Conde Naste magazines. I’ve managed to stay at a couple of these places over the years just because someone I know knew someone who could get us a great deal, but otherwise I could never afford any of them. The best I can do, as I did with my friends on Valentine’s Day, is walk the road and stop in for a drink in different establishments just to get the feel of their atmosphere and design.
Manuel Antonio’s beaches are beautiful – the large white sand beach that fronts the little town, where people can swim but there is also enough wave action for surfers – and the smaller beaches that you must enter the National Park to access. Even though there are a lot of tourists around, you can walk the paths and arrive at the more secluded beaches – passing silent sloths, raucous white-faced monkeys and the rare little squirrel monkeys playing in the trees – the forest that you walk through is alive and diverse.
The majority of the tourists seem to like to gather with all the others on the main beach where umbrellas and lounge chairs can be rented. The last time I was in MA it wasn’t like this. But then I never was one to be here often and several years have passed and if there is one thing I know in Costa Rica, it is that change comes fast and furious. Everyone in the area steps up to try to make a living off the tourists – working in restaurants, hotels or tour and souvenir shops or selling their wares illegally on the sidewalks and beach stalls (the vendors all scatter when word spreads that the police are on the way to check their permits.)
Pretty young girls learn how to carry pots and plates on their heads at very early ages and walk the beach selling fruit and snacks until they are beautiful young women doing a good business. And the guys with the great personalities become the great bartenders.
Although tourists coming to Costa Rica are warned about being robbed – definitely a caution not to take lightly – this has actually only happened to me twice in the nineteen years of coming here. And both situations were identical – I left shoes outside at night and someone picked them up. The first time was at a different beach many years ago, outside of a tent I was sleeping in when the thief left my brand new $100 Birkenstocks but took my friend’s used but nice running shoes. This year I left my sarong and sandals outside of the condo I was staying in and next morning they were gone. Lesson learned (again) – fortunately I was quickly distracted from my loss by a pair of pygmy owls nesting in the tree next to our room – and was able to cheaply replace both the shoes and the sarong.
Soak-in-the-sea-days, great food, and nights spent dancing – thus went the days at Manuel Antonio. I spent this little beach vacation with my pals Jeff the crooner (if you throw him a line he’ll have to sing you a verse…)
and Randy One-Flop from Hamilton,
and Special KKKK-Kevin from New Brunswick. Wonderful men are they all and we had fun. Kevin stayed on in steamy Quepos while Jeff and Randy and I went up to the cool climate of Monteverde.
We spent a beautiful sunny day in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve walking with Wolf. When the sun shines in the cloud forest, you can’t help but feel blessed. Wolf was in good form, taking a new painkiller which makes his walking easier. He’s been suffering from worn out knees (including a new one) for years.
The day started a little drizzly but turned into a blue sky glimpsed behind the sparkle of the sun on the wet leaves of the forest canopy. We met up with a couple of guys from the United States and ended up selling a couple of books – I tell ya, I’m always working. After Wolf went home for lunch, Randy, Jeff and I continued wandering the trails through the Reserve, glimpsed a quetzal, went out to the red swinging bridge named in honor of Wolf, and onward to the ventana or window with spectacular views east over the Peñas Blancas valley and west over the Nicoya Peninsula.
We finally walked home along the Nuboso trail built with wooden “cookies” and block steps through the elfin forest and back to the entrance on the newly-made accessible part. A perfect day spent in the Cloud Forest Reserve.
That night I finally met up with Leila Trickey – the daughter of my friend Jean who I have written about in earlier blogs (K-Stock and Not So Scary After All). We’ve been playing email tag but finally ended up in the same physical place – Santa Elena. I’ve known Leila since she was about a year old and it has been great spending time with her down here. She is at the start of a long solo trip through Central America but being a new traveler was glad to touch base with “a local”.
Leila is afraid of heights (and I have to say I enjoyed traveling down the mountain in the bus with her more than anyone I’ve journeyed with before – she could barely look out the window at the steep hillsides we were descending without squealing and jumping back in her seat but fought her fear and kept on taking pictures.) Nor did her fear stop her from going out and doing the canopy tour – specifically at Selvatur, your one-stop eco-experience-shopping-mall on the far side of Santa Elena (with one of the best bug collections in the world.) Randy and Jeff headed out in the morning to do the ziplines as well, Randy also prepared to face his fear of height. They all loved it though (that facing-your-fear-and-surviving thing is empowering) and would have gone again if they had the time.
We took a taxi a few kilometers further (you can always work a good deal with the taxi drivers around here) just to see the view over Arenal volcano and lake from El Mirador de San Gerardo. This is one of the most stunning scenes in Costa Rica I think. Yet few people make it out this way to see it or even know about it (or are too busy with all the other Monteverde activities or the weather isn’t conducive to seeing anything but clouds and fog). To have a perfectly clear sunny day to witness this beauty was another gift. Stephen Spielberg, eat your heart out.
We then took a wine and cheese picnic out to the bullpen (a magical pasture that I’ve written about before.) We stayed on until the shadows lengthened and then headed to one of the best sunset spots in Monteverde, the Fonda Vela Hotel. They have a great outdoor balcony that looks out to the horizon. There have been many concerts at the Fonda Vela over the years and when planned well, the musical intermission would be right when the sun was setting. The second half of the concert would be by candlelight in the high ceilinged dining room.
Now there is a pool table out on the balcony to play on while watching the sun go down. Just adds to an already great place. (Ms Costa Rica, Leila, in one of her brother Ethan’s designed shirts – check out www.miolacooperative.com)
We finished our tour of Monteverde tasting a bit of nightlife at Chancho’s Bar in Santa Elena – Randy and I happy to do the dancing, Leila and Jeff soaking up the local culture – the perfect day turned to perfect night by the outdoor fire outside Chancho’s funky little bar. Monteverde shone like a star for us over these days.
Leila wanted to see the Caribbean so I left my Pacific pals behind and brought her to Cahuita. And here I stay. Always working. Uh-huh. Until next time…
I somehow find myself in my last week in Costa Rica. No matter how long I’m here, whether two months or six months, the time flies by. I never get to everything I want to, I don’t see everyone I want to, but I always seem to manage to experience a new part of the country and see some old friends who I missed the last time around. This year has been no exception – what has been exceptional has been the addition of Walking with Wolf in my life and now it is in the community and the country.
A book has a long life and so what I have missed in promoting it this time I will get to the next time. Wolf and I are still waiting for the interview that we did with Alex Leff of the English paper the Tico Times to appear. A month has passed and it hasn’t shown up, yet it was a great interview we thought. When I contacted Alex a couple of weeks ago about the state of the article, he admitted to me that he was still working on it but was having a problem interpreting Wolf from the taped conversation that we had. He said, ”I have a renewed appreciation of just what was involved for you in writing this book”. As in, how did I understand Wolf? Let’s just call it a sixth sense, luck and determination. So there is now only one Friday left, the publication day for Tico Times, before I leave. Who knows if the story will be there. I will start it all up again when I return next winter so am not worried.
The negotiations for the Spanish translation have also been stalled as we awaited word from Wolf’s son, Carlos, who lives and works in the northeastern USA. I just got word from him that he can’t come up with a price but does want to do the work. So before I leave, perhaps we’ll have a chance for one serious conversation with the Tropical Science Center who is interested in financing it, otherwise thank goodness for the internet and cheap long distance phone plans. This too will happen when it should.
The book is in many bookstores and selling. And those who have read it seem to really like it and appreciate the history it relates. For this, I am most grateful.
I have returned to San Carlos, to the base of Arenal Volcano, to be with my friends, the Martinez family, for a few days before I go. The last week I experienced a number of strange health issues. I had a twenty-four hour virus in Monteverde that felt like I had been hit by a truck, every bone and muscle, particularly my neck, very painful. It passed, but the sore neck part of it returned the day I got here and I’ve been receiving nightly neck massages which have helped. The virus didn’t affect my stomach or give me a headache, so I think that it isn’t dengue. One never knows around the tropics.
The other problem is the continuing saga of a bug bite that I got while on the Caribbean, that the folks here are quite sure is a nasty little number called papalamoya. Most Ticos I know, especially the ones who have lived part of their lives in the country, have big scars (usually round patches of rippled skin) from this bug that gets into their blood and takes forever to cure. The treatment usually involves injections of something nastier than the bug venum. In my eighteen years coming to Costa Rica, I’ve been waiting on two things – a scorpion bite and papalamoya. So far, I’ve evaded the scorpion bite, but I may finally have been caught by the bug that causes the other. I’m not really sure if it is a botfly or a sand fly or what it is (I’ve heard many versions) but I know the scar. So I am now using a country treatment – I’m using a cow drug called sulphatiasol ground up with fresh nutmeg and some of my own saliva which I plaster on the bite. Slowly but surely the big wound is shrinking in size and doesn’t look as nasty, but the new tough skin that the treatment forms must be softened and washed off a couple times a day and more guck put on and, well, it’s a process. The good news is that it hasn’t erupted anywhere else in my body, meaning that the venom hasn’t traveled in my bloodstream – she says hopefully. If I end up with a small scar on the back of my leg from this, well, it only makes me more Tica, something I am already in my heart and soul. In which case I will wear it like a badge of honor.
The final piece of bad news before I get to some good, is that last night, after we arrived back from our day spent on the beautiful Rio Celeste, we received the horrible news that Zulay’s nephew, Victor, who was just here with us up until a couple of days ago, had been shot by robbers trying to steal his motorcycle in the city of Alajuela. Unfortunately this is a more common occurrence here now. In fact, people say that they, los ladrones, will shoot you for a cell phone. I refuse to be overrun with fear and I’m not convinced that Costa Rica has become more crime-riddled than anywhere else, but I do know that the difference of rich and poor in this country has grown and the influx of serious drug-related activity has increased and this all means that it feels at times like there is a general air of lawlessness. My great sadness for the whole country is the amount of fear that people live with here. If they watch the news in the evening, they go to bed with these images of robberies and assaults on the streets in their heads. It reminds me of when I was young, living in the very safe suburban city of Burlington in southern Ontario, but we watched the Buffalo, New York, TV stations. It became very obvious over the years that some of these stations started their newscasts with all the street crime and police reports and so we were assaulted nightly with images of killings and armed robberies – as a kid I got very nervous, but sooner or later we realized that this was affecting us and we stopped watching those stations. And the news wasn’t even about our locality, where this stuff seldom happened, but it made us feel unsafe as well.
Now here in Costa Rica, people are living with this fear everywhere, in some places much more justified than in others. And when crime hits a family personally, as it just has this family, then it only reinforces the terrible possibilities. Victor, who is only 19 years old, as well as two of his brothers, has been assaulted before (while being robbed), and the story right now about last night is that he refused to give the motorcycle to the guys, who shot him in the lung, and then fled – well, my dear Victor, hand over the bike, please. But who knows what passes in the mind at a moment such as that? Anyway, I believe he is going to be okay, even if he loses his lung (and as this is published, he is past the danger). At least he is alive. And he kept his motorcycle. But a very troubling day for this family.
Before this tragedy yesterday, ten of us piled into two cars and drove fifty kilometers north of here to the town of Guatuso. Another fifteen kilometers or so, down a rough rocky road, took us to the entrance to Tenorio National Park and the magical Rio Celeste. I only started hearing about this place about two years ago, when it captured my attention and imagination, and find that it now shows up more and more in articles in tourist guides and newspapers. I know that as word gets out, people will go there, and am always happy to be there before the crowds, although there were several Ticos visiting, being the end of a 2 week school holiday. What a beautiful place.
The deep turquoise color of the river is caused by the convergence of two rivers which carry certain minerals – you can smell the sulphur – on which studies are being done to determine just what chemical reaction is occurring. We entered the area from the ”backside”. There is another entrance into Tenorio National Park from a place called Bijagua, from which I think the hike is longer. From our entrance, we hiked on very beautifully maintained wide muddy trails (remember, I know what rough trails in these mountains are).
You can walk to the teñidoras, the convergence of the two rivers where you see a grey-green river mixing with a yellowish river and very distinctly, at a line, becoming this brilliant blue. We walked in pure jungle, with twittering birds and a large variety of tropical plants and trees hanging over us, along with the occasional roar of Arenal Volcano but more often the loud cracking of thunder. Somehow we didn’t receive more than a drop of water on us, even though the thunder around us was ominous.
The trail was only maybe four kilometers long to get to everything – the convergence, the waterfall, the hot springs as well as a lookout and blue lagoon – unfortunately we didn’t make it to the last two because of time and that increasing threat of a big storm. The waterfall was out of the movies, the shady path along the cascading blue and white water was inviting, the meandering turquoise like a liquid jewel, and the hot springs were super hot. As in, you couldn’t put your hand into the water in places, it was boiling hot. In other places the cool mountain water flushed the hot water and created very comfortable pools to sit in, but if you happened to move out of the cool current and touch the hot mineral water, it scalded. Incredible.
We spent about four hours hiking and playing in the waters until the threatening storm sent us back to the car – and sure enough, we were just back on the road when the downpour came. Driving back from Guatuso we were facing Arenal Volcano which went in and out of clouds all the way, and lightning appeared and disappeared in various parts of the sky all the way home providing a light show of special effects. It is places like this and days like this that make Costa Rica the phenomenally intriguing place that it is – sadly, the spell is broken when you return home to bad news, but the splendour of the day isn’t negated, only temporarily replaced by life’s reality checks.
It is morning – you can tell by the chorus of birdcalls and the chanting of the howler monkey. I think it is going to rain for, according to Wolf, the monkeys sing out at dawn and dusk but also to complain that the rains are coming. It is so hot and humid here in San Carlos, and the clouds are sitting so low, that I’d say the howler is probably correct. I think it is going to pour.
Last week while I was still in Monteverde, I was soundly asleep when all of a sudden there was a huge roar right outside my window. A congo (howler) was in the tree not ten feet from my window, about twenty feet from my bed. He was so close that I could hear the roar gurgling up in his throat, like coffee rising in the stem of the percolator getting ready to boil. I’ve heard these roars a hundred times, from a tent in the forest, and from a tree at the side of a trail. But nothing prepared me for the force that came out of that monkey that morning at 5 a.m. I woke with a start at the sound of it, looked at the clock, realized I had no intention of staying awake and once my heart beat slowed, I thought about falling back to sleep. However, every time I was just about back in dreamland, the guy started roaring again. I ended up lying in bed just listening to that roar in his throat building in force until he released his monkey-like cockadoodledo. Later in the day I ran into a neighbor who asked me if I had heard that monkey – how could I have missed him? She also couldn’t get back to sleep – a second monkey in a different troop was close to her house and these two guys seemed intent on keeping us awake that morning.
I can hear one outside now but he is probably half a mile away, which is an acceptable distance, so his roar is no louder than the rumble from the volcano. I’m up already anyway, getting ready to pack and leave for Alajuela and a family fiesta with Zulay before heading into San José for the big interview with the Tico Times tomorrow. The other thing that is telling me it is morning is the aroma coming from the kitchen – fresh Costa Rican coffee and gallo pinto (rice and beans) made with Lizano, the Costa Rican condiment of choice.
Last night we had Nectaly, Zulay’s cousin, over so we made a big pot of olla de carne – that is, a meat and vegetable soup/stew. I love this dish as it gives you a little of the redder-than-usual beef that is pasture fed along with a wide selection of the root crops, squashes and other veggies which are common here but more difficult to find imported in Canada – yucca, yampi, tekiske, elote, ayote, chayote, camote…bueno, there are many.
Nectaly waiting for Zulay to serve up the olla de carne
The last few days here we have been feasting on tamales which in Costa Rica are made with a milled and cooked corn mash, rolled with some vegies and chicken or pork inside leaves from the banana family and steamed; pejibayes, served with mayonnaise, which is the fruit of a specific palm tree and a food that sustained the natives for centuries and my absolutely favorite food here; breadfruit, a ball of dense vegetable that grows on the most beautiful large-leafed tree I know; and the nuts of the castaña, the false breadfruit tree.
I’ve been lucky in my life here in Costa Rica to have been introduced by my Tico friends to a wide variety of exotic fruits and vegetables, animals and even insects. I’ve spent hours pulling snails, sea cockroaches and other small critters out of tidal pools and off the rocks, then painstakingly cleaning the sand and refuse out of them to make a seafood and rice gastronomic delight. I’ve tried a bit of everything including iguana, armadillo (both with chickeny or rabbity-like meat), tepizcuentle (a small rodent-type animal that is known to be the best meat around and is now farmed – and truly tasty), and my first year here I ate turtle. I know that it was completely not right but I was staying with locals at the time on the Caribbean and they were still killing turtles for food then. And as I ate the tender pieces of juicy meat served in a spicy salsa, I have to say I understood immediately why people would eat these now endangered creatures – they are the filet mignon of the sea, a little bit fine steak, a little bit lobster. I also very politically-incorrectly sucked a turtle egg one night, but I won’t get into that….the event just about wiped out my reputation as having a social-conscience and all I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Most people when they come to Costa Rica eat rice and beans in some form or other, as well as rice with chicken or shrimp, or casada – the daily meal named after what wives serve up for their husbands, combining a mixture of the more inexpensive foods that can be served up on anyone’s table (rice, beans, cabbage salad, ripe plantain and a protein such as egg, cheese, or meat), fresh fish at the beach, chicken or pork when inland. But if you get outside of the restaurants, and are willing to try new foods, there is no end to the variety here. Papaya, mango, pineapple, avocado and banana are common and can be bought anywhere – when in season, they are of course much sweeter and tastier here than you would ever experience with imported ones in the northern world. But there is also caimito, mamones chinos, guanabanas, guayabas, well the list goes on. And each one has its own flavor and texture. I’ve learned that mamones (a variety of lychee nut) are great for traveling as you crack open the colorful spikey skin and get a grape-like juicy treat from inside with a minimum of fuss and mess; that green mangos with salt and lime are very satisfying to curb your hunger; that there are a whole bunch of different fruits that involve sucking sweet white flesh from around large seeds inside pods, such as guavas or anona or cacao; that there are several varieties of citrus, including lemons and limes as we know them, but also sweet or sour, orange or green limones and oranges; that there is a tree that grows little fruit that taste like cookies and I never remember what they are really called so I just call it the cookie tree and love the little fruit whenever I find them; and that nanci, a small yellow fruit the size of a small crabapple, can be soaked in guaro, the national cane liquor, making what I call an authentic Tico martini.
A sampling of Tico food – a partially-used breadfruit (which became the centerpiece above); the nuts of its cousin, the castaña; pejiballes; papaya; creamy avocado and the leftovers of a tamale.
Of course in many parts of the country the influence of foreigners has brought new kinds of cooking, new spices, new flavors. When I first came in 1990, I couldn’t find a satisfying piece of pizza if my life depended on it (and sometimes I felt like it did) but now I’d say that the pizza you can get here, often in Italian-owned restaurants, is better than what I find in Canada (or you can go to Pizza Hut if you are so inclined). The variety of fish – red snapper, tilapia, seabass, calamari, shrimp – often cooked with a generous dose of garlic, keeps my seal-like tendencies very satisfied. I wouldn’t say that in general Costa Rica is known for its fine cuisine, but the freshness of its food often balances out the simplicity of its preparation. The jar of hot chili peppers, onions and vinegar that is often sitting waiting on the table as a condiment adds some spicy flavor. And the large presence of other cultures here means that you can find fusion-foods to die for in communities all over the country.
Then there is the question of red beans verses black beans – there is a whole discussion here about the intelligence, virility and general sex appeal of those who indulge in one type or the other (and we are talking daily), depending on which community you are in, but I’ve never really formed an opinion on that so will stay out of the controversy. But I will give you a small cooking tip – when preparing black bean dip to serve with nachos, a little leftover strong coffee and a touch of sugar adds great flavor. Mmmmmm, coffee, time to get the day started.
Beautiful Marilyn, Zulay’s niece – raised on red or black???
You have to love a country where you can go from cool cloud forest to hot tropical beach to the base of an active volcano in a matter of hours. The San Carlos region of Costa Rica, north of the central valley where the capital city San José lies, has always been one of my favorite places to be. A big part of that is the family I’ve known since I first came here in 1990: Zulay Martinez and her sister Vilma, Vilma´s husband Horacio and their four children, Marilyn, Jason, Andrey and Keíla Horiana. Andrey is in Walking with Wolf as he was one of the participants on the hike that makes up the last chapter, Across the Wrinkled Ridges.
I came over to volunteer in the small pueblo of San José de La Tigra in my third month in Costa Rica, when I spoke basically no Spanish, and lived for a month with a poor campesino family, the Morales. Zulay and her ex-husband Vicente, along with Vilma, Horacio, Marilyn and Jason, who was just a baby, lived down in the village, while the Morales lived in a small farmhouse straight up the mountain 800 metres. I was getting very weak from the yet-undiagnosed cancer, and that hike up the mountain just about killed me. So I started staying at Zulay’s, as Vicente was so often away and she liked the company. She became one of my first Spanish teachers. In her patient manner, she pronounciated words as we discussed ideas, she taught me how to cook Tica-style, and we discovered that we were sisters of a soul-sort. When she split with Vicente, who has since died from cancer, she went to work in Canada for the Bair family, friends who I’d met in Monteverde. She met Keith Maves in Pembroke, Ontario and married him about eleven years ago. They returned to San Carlos, bought a beautiful piece of property which they have been planting with every type of tree, bush, flower and fruit that you can imagine. Down here, you can push a dead stick into the ground and as often as not, it will be a bush within a year. Even here many things take much more care and time than that, but the rate of growth in the tropics is shocking to a Canadian like myself, who has coddled along shrubs and perennials for years before they finally set well enough to really take off.
Their property has a small pond where I would swim up until the fish stock got too hardy and the pair of ducks moved in – it isn’t as welcoming anymore. Now there’s a series of cement fish ponds where they are raising bass, an open air rancho where groups of visitors can be fed and entertained, a greenhouse to grow vegetables that don’t stand up to the harsh sun or strong rains without some protection, and a swimming pool is being cemented in as I type. Next time I come I’ll be swimming again here at the beautiful Jardin Botanico Las Delicias. San Carlos is much hotter than Monteverde but not as sunny as the beach, receiving a significant amount of year-round rain - and it is a territory with more plant and bird species than you can imagine. Since the summer has ended and the steady rains have begun, the flowers and fruits are at their peak – there is no end to the vibrant colors that jump out of the green landscape and the twittering sounds that rise from the bushes.
As a backdrop to all this is that amazing volcano, Arenal. Back in 1990, you could access the base of it and get close enough to feel the heat in the ground. The congestion now of hotels, parks, hot springs and private lands has meant that it is hard to get too close without paying money to somebody, but just standing back from any vantage point and gazing on its conical shape against the bright blue sky, waiting for a puff of smoke to escape, is magical. The first time I came to La Fortuna, the town at the base of the volcano, and stayed with cousins of Zulay, you could go to the now famous and frightfully expensive Tabacon Hot Springs and bathe all day for 100 colones (about a dollar at the time). I believe it now costs about $45 for any period of the day you want to spend there. I know that the gardens are beautiful and the resort is well-designed, but I prefer going upstream to where you can wander into the forest and sit in the warm sulphur waters for free, or if I’m with civilized folks, going to one of the half dozen other hotels that offer the same water at a much more reasonable price.
My first visit to Tabacon was on a rainy evening and at times it was a hard deluge falling on us as we floated about in the naturally-heated pool. It had been nighttime dark for awhile, as well as completely overcast, and I had basically forgotten that a huge volcano was looming in the background, only kilometers from where we were soaking. At one point, the rains let up for a few minutes, the dense cloud cover broke into pockets of fluff, and suddenly a loud rumble started from the belly of the earth until it boomed somewhere up above. From my watery lounge-chair, I turned in time to see the orange, yellow and red fireworks escape the volcano in a pyro-technical explosion, the red lava then dropping down the sides of the cone until the perfect shape of the pyramid was defined. I probably would have drowned awestruck if the water had been deeper. As quickly as it appeared, the clouds moved back in and wiped out any mention of the eruption. I will never forget the power, intensity and sheer drama of those few moments spent bathing in the shadow of the volcano.
Arenal is quite active but one must have luck to see it as much of the time the clouds sit low and you have no idea that a volcano is hovering nearby. The dammed Arenal River, now Arenal Lake, is at its base and that is, in itself, a beauty to behold. This area of Costa Rica is as unique as any other, perhaps more so, and has become a prime tourist destination, for where else can you go and get all these landscapes at once, along with the possibility of witnessing a volcanic eruption. However, many people come here for one or two days or more, and never see anything beyond the dense grey clouds and the dark green forest at the bottom of the cone – I guess they go home and watch videos to get a better idea of what they missed. Others who have luck, as I did on that first night, get the full floor show without even thinking about it. Life is sometimes like that.
Today Zulay, Vilma and I head up to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, on the southwest side of the cone, which is where Wolf’s Tapir Trail arrives after twisting its way from Monteverde along the forested ridgebacks heading northeast to Arenal. I’m distributing books (this is a business trip after all) and waiting for the light cloud cover to clear so that I can hopefully see smokey puffs escaping, the sign of a small eruption - it’s a “be careful what you wish for” scenario, as one should never wish for a grand eruption. Zulay and Vilma remember being young teenagers when the big eruption on July 29, 1968 sent rocks, ash, cinders and gases throughout the area and killed over eighty people. They told me that about a week before there had been an earthquake at 8 in the morning and their mother thought it could have been caused by the volcano. Through the week there were several smaller eruptions, including one that killed some people close to the volcano, poisoned by the toxic gases. The morning of July 29 dawned very clear and perfectly beautiful, like the last moment of life before death, the calm before the storm. It then got very dark as when a horrible disturbance is coming. Around 2 in the afternoon, while the kids were in school, the volcano erupted in a grand manner, sending a huge cloud of rock and hot ash over the countryside, including where the Martinez family was, perhaps thirty kilometers away. As the cloud of certain death blew over them, they all ran for shelter, as far and as fast as they could go. If you went in the wrong direction, as a neighbor’s horse did, you could be hit by a flying hot rock. Zulay watched the horse go down, shot by nature’s artillery. The people who died were mostly close to the volcano, killed by the gases or directly hit by rocks or burned and smothered by hot ash. As Vilma told me, not knowing where to run and how to escape left her quaking with fear in her bed for weeks. It remains a very scary experience for her and even living this close, now about twenty kilometers away from the base, is close enough to Arenal’s regal beauty for her. Recently the volcano has been very active, spewing rocks so much that last week they closed the National Park that sits at its base. Better safe than sorry. The most recent deaths that have occurred on this volcano have come from explorers venturing too close – a plane crashed a few years ago while taking sightseers on a fatal tour, and another man died on the side of the volcano, hit by hot lava rocks, a volcanic bowling fiasco.
We stopped by the farmers’ market held in la Fortuna yesterday, and I ran into Gerardo and Jimmy Morales, the people I had originally stayed with up the mountain in San José de La Tigra eighteen years ago. They sell their produce there. It was a great reunion, poor Gerardo being thrown off by my sudden appearance. Jimmy’s wife Carmen, who is usually there selling tamales, is at home with their three children who, along with a half dozen other neighbors, have dengue. Not a good scenario. Somehow the nasty mosquitos responsible have made their way inland to this little town in the mountains only 10 kilometers from here. I guess we won’t be visiting anybody there too soon. Instead I will stay on the farm until I have to go to San José on Sunday.