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.