Riding buses and walking on lava

Trip Start Jan 18, 2012
Trip End Apr 30, 2012

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Flag of Costa Rica  , Province of Alajuela,
Monday, February 6, 2012

It was time to drag Keith away from the beach for a while and explore Costa Rica’s interior.  We planned to catch the 9.00 am bus on Monday morning to San Jose, the country’s capital.  The bus was full though when we arrived.  We hadn’t realised that it was necessary to buy tickets in advance.  We could wait for the next direct bus at 11.00 am or get the local bus up the coast to Puerto Limon and connect with a bus to San Jose from there.  We chose the latter option. 

It was a stopping bus and so the journey was slow but scenic as we travelled through beautiful lush vegetation, sometimes passing through small villages and occasionally following the shoreline.  Unfortunately there was no provision for storing our luggage under the bus and so we had to sit rather uncomfortably trying to keep our big bags out of the way of the other passengers.

It is from Puerto Limon that Costa Rica’s bananas are exported to the rest of the world and it is a gritty port city.  It was exceedingly hot and we were dripping with sweat as we boarded another larger bus for the next leg of our journey to San Jose.  Once we were under way, with all the windows open, it felt cooler.  We drove past innumerable container depots where banana shipments were stacked ready for loading onto ships.  We stopped for a break after a couple of hours and then began the climb up to the central valley and highlands.  The mountains were heavily forested and the road twisted and turned, occasionally crossing vertiginous ravines.

As we dropped into the central valley things changed dramatically.  This is the most heavily populated area of Costa Rica and suddenly we were on busy motorways in a built up area.  We soon reached the country’s capital, San Jose and as we approached the bus terminal, in one of the city’s dodgiest districts, we saw some of the city’s slums.  There were people sleeping (or passed out) on the pavements and at the traffic lights prostitutes were touting for business amongst the waiting drivers.  We had initially thought of breaking our journey and staying overnight at San Jose but after reading about the serious security issues in the city we had adjusted our plans and were going to continue to the nearby, but much more relaxed, city of Alajuela.  We still had to change buses in San Jose and this involved getting from one bus terminal to another.  As soon as we got off our bus from Puerto Limon we were approached by a very persistent “taxi driver” who wanted to take care of us.  We didn’t trust him one little bit but couldn’t get rid of him.  Luckily a security guard recognised our plight and came to our rescue, steering us towards the regular metered taxis.  We were then delivered safely to the right bus terminal.  The drive through the city only served to convince us that we were doing the right thing in giving it a miss.

It only took 30 minutes to reach Alajuela and the rather nice Hotel 1915.  This was a historic building that had been very tastefully converted into a hotel with lovely colonial style tiles, courtyards, and antique furniture throughout.  We found a little bistro bar just opposite the hotel and, unfortunately only after ordering our usual Imperial beers, found that they sold craft beers.  We vowed to return later to sample one.  Alajuela is Costa Rica’s second largest city.  It is a busy metropolis and seems to be over endowed with fast food outlets but the atmosphere is laid back and we liked it. There were a number of small restaurants near the hotel for us to choose from and after eating we headed back to the bistro bar to sample their craft ales.  Catastrophe!!  We had left it too late and they had closed.  Will we ever come across these beers again?  There was another bar still open and lively near the main square however where we finished the evening with a few standard beers.

We had a good breakfast in a sunny courtyard on Tuesday morning.  I had the “tipico” local breakfast which consisted of rice and beans, scrambled egg, cheese and plantains.  Then we took a taxi to the bus station to continue our journey to Arenal Volcano.  We had just missed the direct bus (it was going to be one of those days) and so had to wait an hour and a quarter for the next slower bus.  All the buses stopping at this terminal started in San Jose and as the time approached for our bus to arrive there seemed to be a huge number of people waiting.  If the bus was already half full of passengers who had boarded in San Jose, there seemed little chance of us all getting on.  We inched closer to the kerb, with our bags at the ready, preparing to do some serious elbowing.  Then a couple of other buses heading for other destinations pulled up and some of those waiting boarded these.  When ours arrived we were relieved to find that there was plenty of room.  We have found Costa Rican buses to be larger and older than the Panamanian buses.  They don’t have aircon (or don’t use it), but are cool enough with all the windows open once the bus is moving.  One good thing is that they don’t seem to favour playing loud Latin music.

Once we left behind the heavily populated areas it was a pleasant journey travelling through undulating mountain terrain, regularly stopping at bustling hill towns.  We climbed and climbed and then began the long descent to the plains where we had to change buses at Ciudad Quesada.  Once again we had just missed the bus we wanted and looking at the various timetables of the different bus companies it seemed as if we were in for another long wait.  We went for a coffee and a snack and then heard shouts of “La Fortuna, La Fortuna”.  This was where we wanted to go and so we bolted down the rest of our coffee and jumped onto the waiting bus.  An hour later we reached the tourist town of La Fortuna, beneath Arenal Volcano.

We had booked a room at Las Colinas Hotel which we found without too much difficulty.  We checked out the view of the volcano from the terrace - it was almost completely obscured by cloud - and then went for a wander around the town.  There were all sorts of tours on offer for visitors, most of them far too adrenalin packed for us.  We settled for a tour which took us on a short hike through the Volcano National Park the next morning.

We had a rather good meal on Tuesday night.  I had a tuna steak with a soy, honey and ginger sauce and Keith had chicken breast with a spicy peanut and wine sauce.  Both were excellent and surprisingly reasonably priced.  What’s more we were served very speedily.  We had suspected that we might have a long wait as the restaurant was practically full and several large groups of tourists had arrived just ahead of us.

We were woken several times during the night by the sound of heavy rain.  It was still very wet when we got up and our hearts sank at the prospect of hiking in the rain.  We wondered if the tour might be cancelled.  For breakfast we ordered scrambled eggs which were served in the shape of a volcano.  We were beginning to think that that was actually the closest we would come to seeing Arenal Volcano.

Our young guide Sylvia was waiting for us at 7.30 am.  There was a brief respite in the rain and no suggestion that the trip be cancelled and so we set off to drive the 16 kms to the National Park.  We ended up having an excellent morning.  There was no one else on the trip and Sylvia was a brilliant guide.  She spoke almost perfect English, was very good company, chatted about all aspects of life in Costa Rica and was very knowledgeable when it came to explaining the geology and history of the volcano as well as all the flora and fauna of the surrounding rainforest

There was a major eruption in 1968 which took more than 80 lives when three small villages were buried.  Most of the victims were women and children, as the men were out working in the fields.  Amazingly it was not known until then that Arenal was a volcano as it had lain dormant for at least 400 years.  Since 1968 it has been Costa Rica’s most active volcano with almost daily eruptions.  For 12 months now though there has been no activity.  No one is sure if it has gone into another dormant phase or if, as seems more likely, it is blocked but building up to something big.  The fear is that this time it might break through the old crust of the volcano and affect the town of La Fortuna (so named as it has until now been lucky enough to escape damage). 

We walked through the area damaged in 1968, now cloaked in vegetation again and emerged onto the lava flow produced by an eruption in 1990.  As we climbed higher we had a hazy view of Arenal Lake but the volcano itself remained hidden in clouds.  Today it is prohibited to approach within one mile of the volcano.  In 2000, before this restriction, an American woman with her young daughter and a local guide were caught in a gully during an eruption and badly burned.  Only the woman survived and she now has major respiratory and trauma problems.

We had frequent cloudbursts on the walk but it was warm and we were constantly stopping to put on or take off the waterproofs.  The return trail took us through the rainforest where the canopy afforded a degree of shelter from the rain.  Sylvia pointed out many interesting plants and insects, quite a few of which were toxic in some way.  We saw some vicious looking spiders as well as the sizeable insect that transmits Chagas disease.  The highlight was probably the enormous kapok tree hidden deep in the forest.  It was more than 500 years old.  Its enormous root system dwarfed us.  There were several other large groups trudging along the same trail and we felt privileged to have our own private guide.  In fact on overhearing another of the guides pointing out a creature in a tree and calling it a chameleon Sylvia, as soon as we were out of earshot, made it clear to us that this guide was showing his ignorance as there are no native chameleons in Costa Rica.

We had a lazy afternoon.  There was no sign of any improvement in the weather.  We spent some time on the internet, had a long walk around the town and then sat on the hotel roof terrace watching the swirling black clouds and hoping that maybe, just maybe they might clear for us to have a glimpse of the volcano.  It was not to be and so we cheered ourselves up with another good meal at the Rancho Restaurant.

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