Tag Archives: national park

Rincon de la Vieja National Park

Rincon - Cangreja Waterfall 1

L: I wonder what it means.

D: Rincon de la Vieja? “The Old Lady’s Cranny”.

L: The Old Lady’s WHAT?

D: Sigh. I said Cranny. Cranny as in nook and cranny, or corner.

L: Thank goodness for that. I thought you said….

D: I know what you thought. I didn’t. Obviously.

L: No. Right. Anyway, it should be called “Rincon de las Rainbows.” They’re everywhere!

They drive slowly along empty tarmac lanes skirting the foot of the wooded hillside, under a bright blue sky. Way above, where grey clouds are obscuring the volcano’s peak, it is raining, and the buffeting wind carries a mist of sparkling water droplets. Shimmering rainbows, large and small, spring from the road, from gullies, from valleys, and arch over their heads.

The Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja is surprisingly wild. Although less than an hour’s drive from Costa Rica’s second city of Liberia, the roads leading to it are mostly unpaved, and the landscape in between is dry, dusty and empty. There is no town to host visitors when they arrive, just a few isolated hotels and lodges, hidden away in the forest.   There is a feeling of unpredictability about the place – of uncontrolled energy. The perpetually strong winds feed an extensive windfarm on the barren uplands between two volcanic peaks, and the land within the park bubbles with hot springs, boiling mud and sulphurous gases. A number of geothermal plants have been established to capture some of this unharnessed power.

The park is divided into two sectors, each with their own ranger’s station, 10km or so apart. The main one is Pailas, on the north-west edge. They arrive at a building site, crammed with parked cars and buses. A huge white visitor’s centre is half-finished – workmen with bandana-wrapped faces turning their backs to the wind to keep swirling clouds of dust from mouths and eyes. A ranger is manning a tiny wooden hut in the middle of a field.

Ranger: Buenas dias – welcome! Here’s a map. I’m afraid some of the trails are closed for construction. There are two you can do – here and here, both out and back. No, the volcano summit trail has been closed for four years – it’s very active. Every day.

D: Excellent! I like my volcanoes a bit lively.Rincon - hot mud pot

They choose Las Pailas, a 1½ hour walk through thick woodland, over a rickety chain-link bridge, and out into the open. A maze of half-built concrete paths criss-cross the trail, broken plastic ribbons of “Don’t Cross” tape snapping in the wind. There are whiffs of rotten egg, and a number of muddy pools. The whitish-grey mud is dry in some places, or steaming gently from yellow-crusted fumaroles, but in others is bubbling thickly, gurgling and spitting like an enormous pan of sauce on an over-hot stove. Las Pailas means “Cauldrons”.Rincon - boiling mud

D: (happily) Look – read the sign. We could be scalded and gassed at any moment.

He waits eagerly for a catastrophe, but remains unscathed.

At the far end of the trail, they reach a pretty stream, crossed on a wide log. They pause. L bends to wet her hands.

L: Weird! Feel this – the water’s warm.

 

Their second walk is longer – 2 hours each way – to reach the Cangreja Waterfall.   They check with the ranger that the water will be flowing, despite the dry season, and set off, through deeply shaded woods.

D: I think I’m being bitten by something.

L: Here – put on insect repellent. It’s called “Deep Woods”. It should be perfect.

They stand in the twilight of the forest floor, listening to the wind sweeping through the canopy above, and to the isolated call of an unseen bird. The path ahead is wide and flat, criss-crossed with innumerable tree roots.

D: It should be known as the “Forest of the Stranglers.”

L: Err…why? Are there murderers?

D: No. Well, actually, yes, in a way.

L: Seriously? Have people been strangled in these woods?Rincon - strangler fig

D: Not people. But look. A lot of these trees are strangler figs. They grow in dark forests like this, where they need to reach the light fast to survive. It’s clever evolution.   Their saplings sprout half way up trees, from seeds left by bird droppings.

L: That’d give them a good head start on anything growing up from the forest floor.

D: Exactly. The saplings shoot quickly upwards to get their heads into the light, and downwards to get their feet into the ground.

L: Which explains all these damn roots I’ve been tripping over.Rincon - fig roots

D: But all that frantic growing tends to strangle and kill the original tree.

L: Poor tree. That’s a bit evil. Is that why some of the trunks are hollow?

D: Yes, the cavity’s the space left by the dead tree. And see – sometimes the figs grow these great buttress roots, so that when the original tree dies, they don’t just fall over. Ouch. I think I’ve been bitten by something.

L: You can’t have been. You’re covered in bug-spray. It’s psychosomatic.

Rincon - path to waterfallThey walk on, and emerge into open grassland, the path now sloping gently downhill, giving far-reaching views down towards the coast. The strong breeze ensures that even in the midday sun they are not too hot. Occasionally they are “spritzed” with a mist of water blown down from the hilltop.

L: It’s a long way for a waterfall. It’d better be worth it.

D: We’re nearly there. I can hear it.

L: I bet there’s 300 people and no room for us to sit.

D: I can see it. There aren’t 300 people. There are……seven.

A final rocky descent through woodland leads them to a large clear pool fed by a white curtain of water cascading from 40 metres above.

L: It’s absolutely beautiful! Definitely worth the walk.Rincon - Cangreja Waterfall

D wades in. The water is refreshing, but not painfully cold. He swims lazily across, climbs out and stands happily under the fall, which pummels and needles the top of his head. The water is colder here. However, on the other side, in a little corner, a small stream trickles down a boulder and into the pool. The water from this stream is as hot as a bath.

The following morning…

L: Sorry. Not my best choice. But at least we had a bed.

D: Which was too small. You pushed me out.

L: And a bathroom.

D: With no hot water. And bare wires poking out of the shower head. It’s a miracle I wasn’t electrocuted. And dinner was horrid.

L: What are you saying? The pudding was tremendous!

D: There’s nothing tremendous about rice pudding. Unless you’re a very small child.

This morning they are driving to the other Ranger’s Station, at the south-west corner of the park, known as Casona Santa Maria. The 3km track is barely passable in places and they weave their way around boulders and in and out of deep ruts as though on a 4WD obstacle course. Eventually they arrive at a flat manicured grass clearing surrounded by forest. To one side is a dilapidated barn, which is empty apart from a small desk and a filing cabinet in one corner, on top of which are several decomposing snakes in glass jars. A cheerful ranger appears, shakes hands with them, and signs them in.

Ranger: There’s one trail – 3km out, the same back. No, not steep, but it can be a bit slippery in places. Have fun amigos!

They set off along a broad path in the woods. Their first stop is at a waterfall.Rincon - waterfall

L: Gosh – I don’t think we’ll be swimming here!

They admire a torrent of angry white water crashing over a 10 metre drop and into a swirling, frothing pool below.

L: I read somewhere that 32 rivers have their sources in the park. It’s a really important water catchment area for the region, because most of Guanacaste’s so dry.

D: Oh. Fascinating. Can I have the insect repellent? I’m being bitten.

He sprays himself carefully and thoroughly.

Further on, they encounter a large family group, arguing noisily in French.

Teenage boy: We’ve had to turn back. There’s a river to cross and no bridge and our parents wouldn’t let us wade it. You could do it, but you’ll get wet!

On they go.

L: That doesn’t sound right. The ranger would have mentioned it, surely. He just said things might get a bit slippery. They must have taken the wrong path.

D: Umm….Oh.

The broad track stops at a wide, fast flowing river. There is no bridge. Downstream it drops steeply over boulders.Rincon - wading river

L: I expect this qualifies as “a bit slippery”.

D: It’s not so deep.

L: Let’s wade it then.

In the middle, the current tugs at them, the water swirling around their thighs. They stagger across and out, slipping on wet rocks, and carry on, feet squelching. After a while they stop to wring out their socks and air-dry their feet. Then continue.

D: Oh.

L: Another stream. This one’s smaller though.

She wades straight in and across.

L: Shall we squeeze out our socks again?

D: Yes, but hurry up. If I stand still I get bitten.

L: That’s impossible. You’ve sprayed. You’re imagining it.

Further on, they descend to a wide shallow river bed giving off a strong smell of rotten eggs. Rocks have been arranged to form a cluster of knee-deep hot-tub-sized pools. The water flows in clear and peaty-brown, and out white and silty. They wade across the first pool.Rincon - hot springs

D: Cold.

And into the second.

L: Freaky! It’s properly hot, like a bath. And seriously eggy. Where’s the heat coming from?

They sit in it for a bit, trying to work it out. The third and fourth pools are tepid, fed from the hot pool flowing into them and then cooling. However this pool must be being heated from the ground.

D: Well, we’re sitting on volcanic magma – molten rock.

L: Are we? That doesn’t sound awfully safe.

D: Cold water seeps into the ground, and when it reaches the magma, it’s heated up and pushed upwards and back out. Either as hot water, like here, or as steam like in the fumaroles we saw yesterday.

L: What about mud pots?

D: That just happens when the hot water gets mixed up with mud or clay underground and so breaks through the surface as bubbling hot mud.

L: Have you been reading about volcanoes again?

D: Yes. I like them.

When they get out their skins and swimwear smell of eggs.

On the way back, they detour, following a small meandering path through the forest, promising “cold water pots.” Rincon - cold water potsAt a deserted clearing edged with dead trees, is a wide muddy area with water trickling through it. The stream is cold, and yet vigorously bubbling away. Here the fumes are heady, nauseating, almost overpowering. They explore, in places finding holes within which the water is boiling fiercely as though from a jacuzzi on full power.

L: I don’t understand. How can the water be bubbling and cold?

D: It looks like a spring – I reckon cold water is emerging from the ground here, but there are volcanic gases escaping too, through the water, making it bubble.Rincon - cold water pot

L: What sort of gases? Poisonous ones?

D: Umm… carbon dioxide, and the stink is hydrogen sulphide I think. Which is very bad for you.

L: Oh.

D: We’d probably better go – I think my eyes are melting.

L: I thought you liked your volcanoes a bit lively.

D: I do. But now I’m feeling queasy. And I’m sure I’ve been bitten.

L: Do you think you’ve got a neurological disorder? Maybe your imaginary itches are a form of Tourette’s or OCD. I’ll book you an appointment.

They reach the car.

L: Ah.

D: What?

L: I think I might have been bitten.

D: Ha!

Despite all the insect repellent, they are both covered in swollen red bites.

Rincon - Cangreja Waterfall 2

Volcan Arenal National Park

Arenal - volcano 1

D: I refuse.

L: (patiently) You refuse to go to Arenal National Park. Why?

D: Because everybody else goes there.

L: There might be a reason for that. Maybe it’s really worthwhile.

D: So, what is there to do?

L: There’s the volcano.

D: But the volcano’s broken.

L: Umm….yes. Yes it is.

D: It sounded excellent in our old guidebook. You could see it exploding and glowing red every night, and my brother Tom said it spewed so much ash and cinders all over them while they were on a walk, that their guide got really worried. I want all of that.

L: Well, I’m afraid it’s stopped. Hardly a puff or a grumble since 2010. It could start again at any moment though. Today even. It was perfectly calm for nearly 500 years until suddenly in 1968, it woke up, and produced several huge explosions and a gigantic lava flow which wiped out two villages, killing 80 people and 45,000 cows.

D: Blimey. How awful. I don’t want all of that.

L: No. You certainly don’t.

D: But if it’s now dormant again, why hasn’t that stopped the tourism? Why do people still go there?

L: Well….firstly, the volcano itself is an enormous perfect cone rising out of a gorgeous landscape, so it looks really iconic. Secondly, there’s lots to do. We could go for a walk at the foot of the volcano, or on some hanging bridges through the forest canopy, or wallow in some hot springs, or go to a waterfall, or ride a horse or an ATV. And thirdly, the Laguna de Arenal is the biggest lake in Costa Rica, and is one of the best places in the world for windsurfing.

D: I hate horses – they bite. I’m rubbish at windsurfing. And there are hanging bridges at Monteverde.

L: (tactfully) Gosh, is it that time already? I had no idea it was so late. Let’s have a big drink. And some peanuts.

D drinks a glass of beer, and urgently eats peanuts, in intense silence, for a few minutes, and then grins.

D: Thank you. Better now. It seems I was a bit thirsty. And hungry. What were we talking about?

L: Your enthusiasm for Arenal.

D: That’s right. It all sounds splendid. When shall we go?

Three days later….

They drive to Arenal. The journey takes four hours. Although at only a couple of hundred metres above sea-level, and therefore hot, the surrounding landscape is green and lush, with crops and rich pasture land sprinkled with cattle ranches. They are now on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica’s central mountain ridge, which gets plenty of rain. Ahead of them, a rugged range of lowish mountains rises from the plain, with Arenal standing impressively at one end.

L: Lovely. I didn’t realise that the volcano was part of a range of hills. It always looks as though it’s on its own in the photos. Pity that the top is in the cloud.

D: Not to worry – it’ll clear in a bit.

L: Rather than stay in town, I’ve booked the most basic room in a posh hotel near the lake. It won’t have a volcano view. We’ll probably have a view of a wall. Or the bins. But there’s a pool, and nice gardens. And it’s close to the things we might want to do.

They drive through the little town of La Fortuna and out the other side, towards the volcano. And on past other hotels. And on past the National Park entrance. And on, until they begin to worry that they are leaving the area altogether.

L: There! On the right. There’s a sign. And a barrier. And a man with a clipboard.

They are scrutinised with some suspicion. L wishes that the back seats weren’t draped with drying underwear. The security guard shakes his head, but then reluctantly lifts the barrier and they are through.

D: Crikey – this is one of the worst roads I’ve ever come across!

He changes into 4WD and carefully picks his way up the impossibly steep drive, paved and yet riven with potholes and erosion channels and loose rocks. Two kilometres further on, they are greeted by a cheerful hand painted sign: “You’ve Made It!”

They park, brush biscuit crumbs off their fronts, and walk into reception, where they are greeted effusively.

Reception guy: Welcome! Long journey? First time here? You are from where? England! I just love the English accent! It’s so fancy.

D: (seriously) Ah yes. The way I speak certainly is rather fancy.

L snorts.

Reception guy: One night? Let me just check. Oh. Oh dear. I’m so sorry. Your room isn’t ready yet.

L: Never mind. Maybe we could just leave our luggage and come back later?

Reception guy: Hold on. Just a moment. Let me speak to my manager. Yes? OK. Follow me please. We do have a different room, which just might be suitable. It’s an upgrade. Come and see if you would find it acceptable.

He leads them past a sign saying “Matrimonial Suite” onto a private terrace, and through a door into a wood-panelled sitting room. Beyond is a king-size bed next to a huge picture window looking directly across the gardens to the volcano, which is still wearing a little hat of cloud. To the other side, a door leads to a cavernous bathroom and dressing room.Arenal - room with a view

Reception guy: What do you think? Will it do?

L: Really? Can we really have this one? Are you sure? There’s no mistake? Oh, yes please!

D: (holding L back) No, you don’t need to kiss him. He’s just doing his job. Really well.

Having emptied the car, they head out again reluctantly, as though if they take their eyes off the room it will disappear. They negotiate the drive once more, which is even more adventurous downhill.

L: Stop, stop!

D: What? Rock? Pothole?Arenal - coati

L: There’s a fluffy bottom on the bank with a really long tail.

The bottom turns and a pointy nose and pair of beady eyes assess the car curiously.   The coati decides that they are no threat, and potters on along the bank, paralleling the drive, in full view. Car and coati continue on companionably side by side for a while, until he spots something interesting in the undergrowth and scampers off.

They cross the dam at the foot of Lake Arenal, which sparkles enticingly in the sun. Small boats are tied up to a quay.

D: (knowledgeably) Rainbow trout.

L: What?

D: (spotting a fishing trips sign saying exactly that) The boats take people out fishing for rainbow trout.

L: (surprised, thinking D knows nothing whatsoever about fish) If you catch one, d’you get to keep it?

D: No idea. I know nothing whatsoever about fish.

They follow a dusty, pot-holed dirt road until they arrive at the Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal.

The walk they have chosen takes them along a sandy path through tall groves of sugar cane and then low growing dry forest.

L: What’s that rustling?

D: Quite a big animal, I think. Hang on, I can see it. It’s a sort of giant pheasant.

L: Where? Gosh, it looks like two different birds stuck together. Its body is a lovely chestnut brown, but its long tail feathers and fabulous head crest have black and white stripes. How curious!

(They later identify her as a female Great Curassow.)

On they go.

D: Stand still – you’re about to do it again.

L: What?

D: Stand on a snake.Arenal - snake

L: Yikes! Oh, he’s pretty.

They take a step back to admire a small brown and cream snake, beautifully striped.

(Note – we have failed to identify it. Does anyone know what it is?)

On they go, passing an elderly tour group watching a family of capuchin monkeys feeding in the canopy.

L: Here we are. At the foot of the volcano. Standing on volcanic rock.

They look up. The summit is still in the cloud.Arenal - volcano danger zone

D waits for a few minutes, hopefully, on the wrong side of a wooden sign promising “Danger – Area of High Volcanic Activity”, but nothing happens.

D: Now what?

L: To the end. I think there’s a viewpoint just along here.

They climb a flight of wooden steps to re-meet the tour group, who are resting, perched on rocks thrown down by the volcano. From here, there are spectacular views across the Laguna de Arenal, ringed by blue hills.

L: Imagine, there are a couple of little towns under there. They were flooded when the dam was built, in the 70s. I can’t see anyone windsurfing.

D: I think it all happens at the other end, where it’s windier.

American lady: Would you like us to take your picture?

D: No, that’s OK. Oh, well, yes, alright.

He climbs onto a volcanic boulder, and pulls L up to stand beside him.

American lady: Oh my – will you look at you nimble young things!

D overbalances, staggers backwards off the rock, and falls into a bush.

L: Congratulations. Neatly done.

D: Thank you.

The Americans are all watching politely. Nobody laughs. Except L.

D climbs back onto the rock.

American lady: Ready? There you go. Say “rice and beans!”

They thank her, and reclaim the camera. They check the photo. They both look like chumps.

On the return walk, L suggests they seek out some thermal springs.

D: Why would I want to pay to sit in a thermal spring with a bunch of strangers when our hotel has an outdoor hot tub? And piña coladas.

They head on back. The hot tub is on and has views straight across to the volcano. Which is still in cloud.

L: Do you think we’ve come all this way, to not quite see the iconic Volcan Arenal after all?

D: It’ll be clear in the morning.

The following morning….

L opens one eye.

L: How was your run? Yuck, you’re impressively sweaty – you are actually dripping onto the floor.

D: It’s raining.

L: (shooting up in bed and turning to look out of the window) It’s what?

Beyond the garden there is nothing. Just grey sky. Not a hint of a volcano.

L: That’s that then.

D: We’ve still got a beautiful drive along the lake shore this morning.Arenal - Lake

Two hours later…

L: D’you think it’s going to pour all day?

D: It’ll clear up in a minute.

L: Funny how much it looks exactly like England. We could be in the Lake District.

Arenal - Laguna

 

 

Volcan Poas & La Paz Waterfall

P1020141-small

Lush green meadows below Volcan Poas

 

D: We need to get there as early as possible, before the cloud rolls in, or we won’t be able to see into the crater.

L: Nearly there – look – “Volcan Poas 12km”.

D: It’s so lovely and green up here. And meadowy. It looks just like Wales.

L: It must rain a lot. Uh oh. All the cows are lying down.

D: The air’s so fresh. We’re at about 2500m I think. That’ll be why.

L:   The cloud’s building. Drive a bit faster.

D: It’ll be fine.

L: We’re in the cloud.

D: It’ll blow though and clear in a minute.

L: We’re still in the cloud.

D: OK, we’ll try again later. Shall we go and find La Paz Waterfall instead?

 

Half an hour later, at the Waterfall Gardens entrance…

L: HOW MUCH?

D: Stop shouting.

L: Sorry. It’s the shock. FORTY dollars? Per PERSON?

D: You’re shouting again.

L: Sorry. But FORTY dollars?

D: Still shouting.

L: Sorry.

Ticket office woman: Here’s a map. You can walk down through the gardens, visit the hummingbird enclosure, the butterfly enclosure, the snake enclosure, the frog enclosure, and view the waterfalls. The circuit takes about 2 hours.

L: But, FOR…….

D: (Interrupting and steering L out of the door) Thank you very much. We’ll just go away and think about it.

L: That’s more than the Cotswold Wildlife Park. Which takes all day to see around. They’ve got a RHINOCEROS for chrissakes!

D: The guidebook says the La Paz Waterfall is really close to the road. Let’s just carry on down the hill a bit further and see what we can see.

L: OK.

D: Good. In you get. I’ll drive.

L: (muttering) Forty dollars…..!

D: Sigh.

The road winds steeply downhill for a few hundred metres, and then hugs the near vertical walls of the hillside as it crosses the head of a gully on a clattering steel bridge. And there, right there in front of them, a fierce cascade of water tumbles 120 feet down the cliff from above, to a rocky pool, and then under the bridge and away.

L: Wow.

D: Cool.

L: (indignantly)   You wouldn’t even have been able to see it from the Gardens.

D: Yes you would. I can see a sort of viewing platform right up at the top. Anyway, let’s go and look.P1020129-small

They walk down to the pool at the foot of the falls. The slippery rocks are hazed in a great mist of spray being thrown up by the force of the water. They make their way back up to the car, where two other vehicles have also pulled off the road.

D: But the book says you can walk right behind the waterfall.

They look around.

L: Well, any path there was has clearly disappeared. There was a really bad earthquake here in 2009. People died. The path must have fallen. No-one else is expecting a path – they’re just taking photos from the bridge. Wherever are you going?P1020140-small

D leaps nimbly across a muddy ditch by the road, and sets off along an almost invisible and very narrow ledge half way up the cliff.   Water trickles down the face of the rock wall and the tiny path is crumbly underfoot, and slippery with spray.

L: What are you doing? Come back! It’s too dangerous!   You’re going to fall! I can’t watch! Oh, hang on, stay there, let me take a photo. Go right a bit.

The path widens and D finds that he can walk easily to a spot right under the falls, watching the immense angry curtain of water cascade over his head and down into the pool 60 feet below him. He beckons to L who disappears, re-emerges, and makes her way cautiously along to him.

D: See, it’s not so bad. The first bit’s the trickiest. What on earth happened to you? You’re covered in mud.

L: (grinning). This is fantastic! Oh, I fell in the ditch.

 

Later that day….

D: I think we’ll be OK. The cloud’s much higher than this morning.

L: Nearly there. “Volcan Poas 3km”. We need to get a move on – the Park closes in half an hour.

D: We’ll be fine.

L: The cloud’s coming down.

D: It’s not. If anything, it’s lifting. We’ll be fine.

They reach the entrance to the Volcan Poas National Park. The gates are still open. The woman at the ticket booth is eating a sticky bun. They wait politely for her to finish. She smiles gratefully and licks her fingers.

Woman: Do you want to go in?

D: Is there still time?

Woman: Yes, but you won’t see anything. The crater is full of cloud.

D: Oh.

Woman: It’s better in the mornings.

D: Except this morning.

Woman: Yes, except this morning.

D: We’ll try again tomorrow morning.

Woman: We open at 8.

 

The following morning….

D: Look, it’s a beautiful morning.

L: Yes, but for how long? Hurry UP! This is our third and final chance to see the volcano. Run!

D: There is no point whatsoever in running to breakfast. It doesn’t start until 7.30.

They pack the car, check out, and are at the breakfast room door at 7.25.

L: The door’s locked.

D: It’s not 7.30 yet.

The door opens and they rush in and sit down.

L: OK, eat fast. We need to be out of here at 7.40.

The proprietor turns on the coffee machine and begins to cut up fruit, very slowly. At 7.35, cutlery arrives, followed by glasses of fresh strawberry juice.

L: I cannot believe that this is happening so slowly.

D: The strawberry juice is very good. They grow them up here.

Fruit arrives. They eat it. And wait.

L: Shall we go?

D: What about my scrambled eggs? They’re included.

L: Am I the only one who understands that this is an emergency?

The eggs arrive. And toast. D munches happily. L fidgets.

L: There’s a puma in the garden.

D: It’s a goat.

L: Oh. Have you finished yet? The cloud’s building.

D: There are no clouds. D’you need any more of that jam?

Eventually they leave, drive up the now familiar road to the Volcan Poas park gates. They arrive at 8.20.

D: Told you. Still no clouds.

L: Well. They could be hiding just around the corner.

They walk along a broad track towards a look-out point over the edge of the crater.P1020150-small

L: Holy moly.

D: Very cool.

They lean over the wooden railing and gaze across a mile wide crater below them, complete with a milky turquoise lake at the centre, from which steam is gently wafting. It looks huge, and beautiful, and dangerous.

L: Did you notice the evacuation instructions on the board back there?

D: Yes. This is one of the world’s largest and most active volcanoes. Every so often it gets a bit lively and they have to close the park.

L: How d’you know?

D: I’ve done my research. If I wasn’t a translator, I think I’d be a vulcanologist.

L: Since when?

D: Since yesterday. Ask me anything.

L: Does it spit fire?

D: No – sulphuric acid. It makes acid rain and acid fog – you can see over to the left, which must be downwind, how bare the hillside is, and how brown and stunted any vegetation is. Apparently every now and then it damages the nearby coffee and strawberry crops.

L: It looks pretty calm today. Can we go down into the crater? Are there any paths?

D: No – no-one’s allowed down there. Too much acid in the air. It’d burn your lungs. And your eyes. It might look calm, but it could shoot a massive geyser of hot sulphuric steam miles into the air at any moment.

L: Miles?

D: Well, maybe not miles. A couple of hundred metres. But we should be OK up here – the crater’s 300 metres deep.

L: Alright then. Go and stand by the edge, and I’ll take a photo. And another one. Hold me while I stand on the railing. Just one more. Oh, and one from over there.

D: Get on with it. D’you want to go and see the other crater?

L: Definitely. Is it like this one?

D: No. The other one isn’t active – hasn’t been for 7,500 years. It’s got a good lake though. Here’s the sign – Laguna Botos. Follow me.

They follow a paved path winding uphill, for about a mile. Overhead, dwarf cloud-forest vegetation closes over their heads, creating a twilight tunnel. They overtake an elderly American couple in matching sunhats, holding hands, stopping to breathe. A little further up, they suddenly emerge into dazzling sunshine, and in front of them is a deep blue crater lake surrounded by lush green forest and flowering shrubs.

L: It’s so beautiful!

L shades her eyes from the glare of the mid-morning sun reflecting off the clear, cold water. The American couple reach them and sink gratefully onto a bench.

Man: I’ll sell you my hat if you like. A hundred dollars.

L laughs. He grins, holding out his floppy sunhat. His wife pats his knee fondly.

 

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Laguna Botos- Volcan Poas

Climbing Cerro Chirripo – Costa Rica’s Highest Summit

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The two of them stand alone at the trail head, adjusting their walking poles.

L: What time is it?

D: Err…6am.

L: Where’s everyone else? There were a dozen people queuing for permits with us yesterday, just during the hour that we were there, and presumably lots of others we didn’t see. I think they let 50 people a day climb the mountain.

D: They must all be starting later than us. Or earlier.

L: So this sign says we’re at 1520 metres. What time d’you reckon we’ll get to the refuge? Normally a 16km walk would take us about 5 hours, but we’ve also got to gain almost 2000 metres of altitude. That is a LOT of climbing. What if we don’t make it before dark? We could be trampled to death by tapirs. They’re nocturnal. And enormous.

D: It’ll be fine. We’ve got 11 hours of daylight. And torches. And tapirs are really shy.

L: Alright then.

D: It’s the jaguars we should be worried about.

They start walking steeply uphill on a clearly-defined path, past acutely sloping meadows carpeted in blue flowers, and a well-tended coffee plantation. The views are of forested hillsides and the scattered tin roofs of the village on the valley floor.

D: It’s a great path.

L: (panting) A lot less muddy than Devon.

L: (pausing) A lot less rocky than Italy.

L: (setting off again) Quite steep though.

D: Look, we’re coming up into the cloud forest.

L: (panting) Lovely mosses trailing off the branches.

L: (pausing) Gorgeous ferns.

L: (setting off again) Fabulous bamboo.

D: Stop. What’s that?

L: Yikes. Am I about to step on a snake?

D: No. Look – monkeys, way up there. Lots of them. With babies. I think they’re capuchins.

L: (craning her neck back uncomfortably) Wow, seriously tall trees! Apparently the biggest ones are oaks, which can get up to 50 metres tall. They poke out above the rest of the canopy.

She stretches her neck and looks at the ground.

L: Why is the path littered with leeks?

D: They’re not leeks. They’re bromeliads. Epiphytes. The monkeys must be throwing them down.

They continue.

L: (panting) D’you think we’ll see a quetzal?

L: (pausing) D’you think we’ll see an ocelot?

L: (setting off again) Do you think there’ll be a café just ahead?

D: Don’t be ridiculous. We’re now 7km from the nearest driveable track. Stop. What’s that?

L: Yikes. Snake?

D: No. I see a café just ahead.

L: Don’t be mean. That’s just mean. I need a fizzy drink.

Astonishingly, there is indeed a café – a small wooden hut, with decked terrace, four tables and a large list of available drinks.   D orders coffee, in a big white china mug and L enjoys a fizzy orange sugar-rush.

L: This is the best sort of mountain. All the blog accounts I’ve read just talk about the struggle and the steepness. None of them mention how beautiful the forest is. None of them mention the CAFÉ!

On they go.

Ahead, they hear shouts and laughter, and are passed suddenly by four heavily laden pack horses thundering down the track, followed by their keepers, descending the mountain at a comfortable jog.

L: What were they carrying?

D: It looked like laundry. And maybe rubbish. From the refuge. That would explain how the café gets stocked – probably by the horses on their way back up.

L: (panting) We must keep a look out for a bird called the buffy tufted-cheek.

D: Good name. What does it look like?

L: No idea.

L: (pausing) Do you hear that? Maybe that’s him. It sounds like a violinist tuning up.

L: (setting off again) Or a squeaky hinge blowing in the wind. He’s excellent.

(Days later, L identifies the bird as a black-faced solitaire. She types “squeaky hinge bird” into Google and he pops up immediately.)

On they go.

At the 11km mark, they find themselves at 3200 metres, having done the majority of the climbing.   The cloud forest has thinned at this altitude, and there is evidence of an old but widespread bush-fire, with great columns of bare tree trunks thrusting skywards. For the next 3km the path undulates, with lower shrubby plant growth to either side, pink cystus and wild lupin in flower. The views open up to reveal forested ridges devoid of any evidence of man, for as far as the eye can see. They stop for lunch.

L: D’you know that this is one of Costa Rica’s largest National Parks?

D: I didn’t.

L: Other than Cerro Chirripo, which of course is the highest peak in the country, the park has two other mountains over 3800m.

D: Excellent. Shall we climb them all?

L: I think one might be enough.

Then the clouds roll in and envelop them.

L: I think it’s raining.

D: It’s not rain. It’s cloud.

L: It’s rain. Can we stop and get out our waterproofs? I might have to sleep in these clothes. I don’t want them to get wet.

D: It might be drizzling. It’ll stop in a minute. Our waterproofs aren’t waterproof anyway.

L: It hasn’t stopped. It’s getting worse. I’ve got some excellent duct tape on mine. They are as good as new.

The heavens open.

D: OK, it’s raining.

They stop in the shelter of a tree to pull on their jackets and waterproof trousers. And then continue. For the last hour, they walk in a steady downpour.

L: It’s nice and cool walking in the rain. If it were sunny we’d be miserable. And hot. And thirsty. This bit is seriously steep.

D: I’m glad we haven’t needed the 4 litres of water I’ve been carrying. Not heavy at all.

L: I read that Chirripo means “Land of Eternal Waters.” They get up to 7 metres of rainfall a year.

D: Are you sure that’s right? We’ll be lucky not to drown.

L: (changing the subject) Look how fit we are – overtaking those people.

D: They’re in their sixties.

L: Oh. Still. We won’t get there last. Uh oh.

D: What?

L: Catastrophic duct tape failure. My coat is leaking like a sieve.

The path eventually levels out and ahead they see a cluster of breezeblock buildings with tin roofs, in a rough grassy cleft between two jagged ridges.

D: That is the Crestones refuge. I think we’ve made it. What time is it?

L: Half past two. I don’t think we got here very fast. But at least it’s not dark.

They enter through the dining room, which is crowded with around 40 hikers of a dozen nationalities. An efficient woman ticks them off a list and then leads them along a long concrete corridor and up a steep flight of stairs to a line of dorms. Their room contains two pairs of bunk beds. The other pair has been claimed. The mattresses consist of a wooden board covered with an inch of foam and a layer of vinyl. Innumerable blogs mention how uncomfortable they are.

Woman: Here you are. You have a pillow and sleeping bag on each bed. There are lockers for your stuff. The bathrooms are at the end of the hall. There are showers but no hot water. Dinner is 6-7pm and lights out at 8pm.

D: Lights out?

Woman: We turn off the generator. After eight, there is no electricity in the building. Do you have torches?

D: Umm….yes.

They thank her and she leaves.

L: This is actually much nicer than I feared. And spotlessly clean. That last flight of stairs nearly killed me though. I’m really puffed and I’ve got a headache.

D: Not surprising. We are at 3400 metres.

L: So I’ve got altitude sickness. Am I going to die?

D: Probably not. Take a painkiller and have a kip.

They drape dripping rucksacks, coats, trousers, socks and other clothes around the frame of their bunk bed, where it fails to dry in the chilly little room. L dons extra dry clothes and has a rest. D, as though not having taken quite enough exercise yet, goes for a walk.

At sun down, the temperature drops like a stone. After a mountain of spaghetti Bolognese, there is nothing for it but to go to bed before being plunged into darkness. They wriggle into their sleeping bags. D has kept his T-shirt on.

D: Are you going to be warm enough?

L: (happily) Oh yes, I’m wearing everything I brought. Two pairs of socks, two pairs of leggings, four tops including my thermal jumper and my fleece. And a woolly hat. And gloves. I’m toasty.

They set their alarms for 2.40am, and the lights go out.

3am

They creep along the refuge corridor by the light of their torches and let themselves out. To their surprise, almost no-one else is around and they can hear snoring from nearby rooms.

L: I thought everyone got up at this time so as to be on the summit for sunrise.

D: Maybe they all walk faster than us and so don’t need to get up quite as early.

L: Well I must say, it’s very efficient sleeping in all one’s clothes. I got straight out of bed and was ready to go. Just needed to clean my teeth. I might do that more often.

D: There’s a temperature gauge on that pole. What does it say?

L: Three degrees. Balmy. The coldest ever temperature recorded in Costa Rica was up here somewhere. Minus 9.

They set off. It is pitch dark. They won’t see a glimmer of dawn for at least two hours.

L: Oh my gosh, look at the stars. I had no idea there could possibly BE so many stars!

The night is cloudless and there is a total absence of light pollution. The sky is truly magnificent.

They start walking, swiftly realising that their torches should be as close to the ground as possible, held at arms’ length, mid thigh, so as to sufficiently light their way. Without them on, they cannot see their hands in front of their faces. The path is flat, but crossed by numerous ditches and drainage channels. After a while, a crescent moon rises, on its back, from behind a silhouetted peak. They can just about make out that they are crossing a huge plain, encircled by mountains. They are above the treeline – up here the vegetation is mostly coarse grass and clumps of dwarf bamboo.   Several times the path leads them to wide expanses of limestone bedrock, where it is necessary for D to scout around to find the onward route. In the distance, way ahead of them, they glimpse a cluster of four tiny torch lights, and another group of two. A long way behind, a few more torches have appeared but get no nearer.

An clearing of short rabbit-grazed grass shimmers at their feet. There is the barest sprinkling of frost.

They begin to climb, picking their way slowly up the rock-strewn path, step by step.   All focus is on the ground and the careful placing of feet, but every time they pause, they are again entranced by the great dome of night sky above them.

L: (for the twentieth time) Just look at those stars.

The path gets steeper, and rockier, and eventually the sky begins to lighten through a pass between two peaks.

L: Is that the one we are going up?

She points at the taller of the two peaks.

D: No, it’s deceptive, it must be nearer to us. The one we need to climb is over there.

L: Oh yes, I see the torches now, heading vertically up the side. Hell that looks steep.

They reach the pass as the horizon begins to glow a vivid orange, blackening the wisps of cloud above in sharp contrast.

The last half hour is a vertical scramble and a race against time.

D: Pass me your sticks. Turn off your torch. You’ll be better off without them. Use your hands.

They reach the summit, breathless, before the sunrise, and greet a dozen others who have also made it – half of them Ticos, but also a sprinking of Europeans: German, Austrian, Norwegian. Some sit silently, almost meditatively, others chat, delve into their packs for snacks, or take photos. There is a brisk, chill breeze snapping at a proudly flying Costa Rican flag, and a large wooden board proclaiming: Cerro Chirripo – Altitude 3820 metres.

L: Take a photo of me. By the flag. By the sign – can you read what it says?     I know I’m wearing 20 layers, but make sure I look thin.

The sky lightens – the blackened wisps of cloud flare orange and the landscape around them is revealed. Layer upon layer of wooded and grassy peaks stretch away in every direction, and below them, at the pass beneath the summit, is the glimmer of several small lakes.

And then the moment that they have all been waiting for. The sun rises and immediately paints the landscape golden. A moment savoured, and shared, is then over, and the climbers start to pick their way back down.

The return to the refuge is easier, but shocking.

L: I can’t believe we did this in the dark, without breaking all our legs.

She skids on loose rocks and catches herself.

D: Look how beautiful it is. The peaks, the cliffs, this great big grassy bowl. Paramo, they call this landscape – above the treeline. There’s even a proper mountain stream. With a pool. Right, I’m swimming.

In an instant D has shed all his clothes and is standing naked on the bank.

L: Blimey – at least get in the water. Everyone can see you!

D: What everyone, there’s no-one around. It’s perfect. And anyway, the water is going to be unbelievably cold, so I’m not getting in until you’ve got the camera out to capture the moment. Are you ready?

L: I’m ready.

He leaps into the pool with a bellow.

D: Bloody hell that’s freezing! Quick, take it, stop messing around, damn you, take the picture, so I can get out!

Back at the refuge, they are too late for breakfast, but the kitchen staff produces tea and buttered toast.

L: What are you doing?

D: Sprinkling sugar on my toast. You should try it.

L: That’s delicious. I think we were fed this when we were children. More sugar please.

D: We’d better get a move on.

L: I’ve done some sums. Today, including where we’ve already been this morning, we will walk 27km, up 420m and down 2300m. That is one giant day.

D: But the sun is shining and the birds are singing. It’ll be great.

So down they go.

D: Stop, what’s that?

L: Yikes! Snake?

D: No, orchid. I need to take a photo.

And…

D: Stop, what’s that?

L: Yikes! Snake?

D: No, a blue and green lizard.   I need to take a photo.

And…

D: Stop. Stand still.

L: Now what do you need to photograph, for pity’s sake?

D: Nothing. Just walk gently back towards me. You are about to step on a snake.

In front of L’s shoe, a metre of black snake slithers casually across the path and regards them from the safety of the bank.

L: (weakly) Thank you for saving me. Please can I have a biscuit?

And…

L: It’s a long way down. My feet hurt. And my knees.

D: You walk much too slowly – you’re prolonging the agony. Let’s whizz-path.

L: Let’s what?

D: Whizz-path. It’s what we did when we were kids. You run downhill letting the momentum carry you. I still find it much the easiest way to lose altitude.

So they whizz-path. And it works. For a time.

L: Stop, stop. My brain isn’t talking to my feet any more. I’m going to fall over and break everything.

D: OK. We’re nearly down. Only 3km to go.

And….

D: Only 2km to go. How are your feet?

L: Comedy.

D: What do you mean, comedy?

L: You know when someone in a cartoon hits their hand with a hammer and their hand turns bright red and starts throbbing? That’s my feet. Comedy feet.

And…

D: Only 1km to go. Don’t sit down now.

L: Go on without me. Just leave me here to die.

D: Don’t they have an outdoor hot-tub at our hotel? Next to the pool?

L: Do they? I don’t know. Maybe. I didn’t notice. I don’t care.

And finally….

L: Oh my goodness – this is complete bliss. It’s as hot as a bath. Put your feet against the jets – it’s a perfect foot massage. I’m in absolute heaven.

D: (wallowing happily up to his neck in bubbles) Well, of course it’s difficult to compete with my morning dip, but it’s not a bad way to end the walk. Not bad at all.

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Manuel Antonio National Park

The stunningly beaP1010221-smallutiful Manuel Antonio National Park, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, is not a rambling wilderness. It is tiny – almost municipal in size, with some 9km of well-maintained concrete paths, thoughtfully placed benches, litter bins and WCs, a ticket office and guides touting for business. And volumes of people to match. From the park gates, a chain of accommodation, ranging from scruffy hostels to B&BP1010217-smalls to boutique hotels with sea views, stretches unbroken for 7km along a winding hilly coast road which follows a wooded ridge northwards to the harbour village of Quepos.

Surprisingly, within the park, none of this spoils the tranquillity to be found in the deep shade of the dense jungle, the beauty and variety of the ancient forest, the icing-sugar softness of the clean white sands, the shimmering blueness of the gentle Pacific Ocean, calm within the arms of several horseshoe coves, and the astonishing number of animals to be seen.P1010204-small

Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves) flock to the park’s beaches on holidays and weekends, paying just a tiny fraction of the tourist fee to enter, and are joined by groups of elderly Americans, walking or being shuttled along the broad 1km drive between the entrance gate and the ocean, but venturing no further. Here picnics are laid out, games are played and the sea beckons. From this spot, with a bit ofP1010246-small luck, revellers and tourists alike are entertained by raccoons or tiny white faced capuchin monkeys hoping to snatch a banana skin or an unguarded empanada.

Only a few of the park’s many visitors explore further, where trails loop into the forest and around the headland. Those doing so are quiet and respectful – they are there to discover, and to appreciate.

 

 

L: Right – find me a jungle creature.

D: We’ve only just walked through the gate. Be patient. And quiet. Look, there’s an enormous butterfly of the bluest blue you ever saw. I think he’s a morpho.

They tiptoe on, silently, only to be overtaken by several noisy Tico families clearly looking forward to a day at the seaside. Today is New Year’s Eve.

L: Oh no! They’ve ruined everything. All the animals will run a mile.

D: Hold on – over there, just by the path, there’s a little white-tailed deer.

L: Is it real?

D: Of course it’s real.

L: Why isn’t it moving?

D: It’s having a drink.

And…

L: What’s that rustling noise?

D: I don’t know, I’m looking.

L: It sounds enormous. Shall we run away?

D: Probably not. Look – there it is.

L: Oh, it’s a sweet little…..well it looks as though a deer and a rat had a baby.

D: (checking guide book) I think it’s an agouti. And there’s another.

And….

L: Can we sidle over to the group over there and see what their guide is pointing at? It must be exciting – they’re taking photos. What’s going on? I think they’re speaking French. Oh my word, whatever is that?

D: (eavesdropping in French) It’s a sloth. A big one. Apparently the Spanish translation is “lazy bear”.

The animal is firmly wedged in the V between two branches, high up in the canopy. It turns its head slowly to observe its audience.

D: Yes, it’s definitely a 3-toed sloth.

L: (very impressed) Wow, can you count its toes all the way up there?

D: Err, no. I’ve just overheard the guide explain that 3-toed sloths have the white mask face that this fellow has, whereas the 2-toed ones don’t.

L: What’s he saying now?

D: (listens some more) That sloths aren’t very good at moving around on the ground and so they only come down out of the trees once a week, to defecate.

L: That seems unnecessarily considerate of them, then. If I wasn’t too nimble on the ground, I’d just crap out of the tree.

D: Charming. Nice image. Thanks for that.

And….

D: (floating on his back) Ahh, that’s better. Nice to be able to cool off in the sea.

L: Stop thief! On the beach! Quick, D, after him – that raccoon’s trying to get into our rucksack!

During that day, those walking the trails also spot spider monkeys leaping from tree top to tree top high above their heads, flocks of brown pelicans flying by in perfect V formation and an enormous iguana posing proudly on a sun warmed rock for his eager paparazzi.

And later…..

That evening, on the tarmac seafront promenade in Quepos, Ticos gather to watch the sunset. Old and young stroll by or sit on benches and low walls, facing the sea, toddlers rumble past on bicycles, kids on rollerskates and one dude practicing his skateboard jumps.

L: Isn’t this lovely?

D: What? Blimey that’s loud. Whatever’s going on?

L: Oops! We’re sitting with our backs to a mobile disco van. They must be setting up for a street party this evening. Look how many locals have come out to watch the sunset. I said, isn’t this nice?

D: I suppose so, though you have to squint a bit to ignore all the litter.

L: You are so unromantic. I think it’s perfect to watch the sun sink into the sea at the end of the last day of the year. Amazing colours. Take a picture so that we remember it.

D: You do it. I can’t. I’m injured.

L: What’s wrong with you?

D: Tortilla chip stabbing. In the roof of my mouth. I think it’s serious.

L: Sigh. We saw a lot today. For such a small park.

D: Maybe we saw a lot because the park is small.

L: Maybe. Anyway, a good day.

D: Yes, a good day. And now we’d better get started on our big night!

The following morning over a leisurely breakfast in a B&B 5km from the park….

L: Did you see that black squirrel? He’s just dashed up that tree in the garden.

D: Which tree?

L: The one with all the pretty Christmas decorations.

B&B owner: More coffee? We have lots of animals here. You don’t even need to go to the Park. See now – the two iguanas over there on top of the garage? They fight all the time – only one can be king of the roof.

D: (leaping up and spilling coffee) Damn. Sorry. But there’s something really big up there.

The three of them study the upper branches of a tree overhanging the pool.

B&B owner: Oh yes, that’s a lazy bear. Like you, he’s having his breakfast.

L: (squeaking with excitement) A sloth! In the garden!

B&B owner: (pointing behind them) And have you seen your neighbours?

A pair of squirrel monkeys walk casually along a power line crossing an open expanse of lawn.

D makes a grab for the camera and spills more coffee.

L: So, are you a bit clumsy this morning? Did you enjoy your New Year’s Eve?

D: Hell yes – two for one on piña coladas!

L: What time did we get to bed in the end?

D: About 8pm I think.