Tag Archives: walking

Exploring Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

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The guidebook describes Chiang Mai as “a country retreat”, “blissfully calm and laid-back”, “a place to relax after the chaos of Bangkok”, and a “sleepy country town”. D & L are therefore startled to   find the historic centre bustling with tourists and tourist restaurants and tourist services and cars and taxis and motorbikes. It is busier, noisier and scruffier than the languid idyll they had imagined.

As they settle in for a few days, so does a wet weather front. They buy umbrellas and hear that they are better off where they are in the north, while southern Thailand is beset by floods. They explore using a map of the town, its idiosyncratic lack of detail and scale keeping them guessing, paddling down quiet alleys they might otherwise have ignored.

***

In the evening it is raining so they don’t go far. On the first corner they find an empty table at Henry’s Restaurant. It’s not mentioned on any recommended restaurant lists they’ve seen. It has half a dozen tables and is artfully decorated with Buddhas and driftwood and sequined cushions. The table bases have ancient sewing machine pedals. They are approached by a woman in a floor length leopard-print dress. She is possibly 4 months pregnant. She looks crossly at them. From their table they squint at the menu board which is out on the street.p1040902-henry

L: Umm… hello. Pad Thai please.

Woman: No.

L: Oh.

Woman: Kao Soi. I recommend.

L: OK, thanks. And two small beers.

Woman: No.

L: Oh.

Woman: Only large.

She gestures at the next table, where two women are drinking out of enormous plastic beakers.

L: Right. One large beer, then, and two glasses.

Woman: No.

L: Oh.

Woman: Only large glasses.

They are soon each drinking an enormous plastic beaker of beer. The Kao Soi arrives in an earthenware pot – fragrant Thai chicken curry soup, gently spicy, and crunchy with fried noodles and beansprouts. It is delicious.

D: I object.

L: (slurping) To what?

D: To my cutlery. I don’t want a spoon and a fork.  I want proper chopsticks. I want to eat like a local.

L: You want to eat like a local? Take the spoon in your right hand and the fork in your left. They don’t use chopsticks in Thailand.

D: Oh. How come we had them in Bangkok?

L: We were in Chinatown.

D: Oh. Are you sure?

L: Look around you.

D: Oh. In that case, I withdraw my objection.

L: Good.

D: Good.

Later they walk home.

L: D’you think Henry’s her husband?

D: What are you talking about?

L: Henry’s Restaurant. Where we’ve just been. The lady in the leopard-print dress – d’you think Henry’s her husband?

D: I’m pretty sure that WAS Henry.

L: What are YOU talking about? She was pregnant!

D: She might have had a bit of a beer belly.

L: No.

D: Yes.

L: Really?

D: Yes.

L: Anyway, she was splendidly grumpy and her Kao Soi was heavenly. Can we go back?

***

L: Oh, dear, d’you know Chiang Mai has over 300 temples?

D: Holy crap! And how many hills?

L: Err…one.

D: I vote for the hill.

L: But it’s got two temples on it.

D: Can’t be helped. It’s high time we went for a walk.

It’s drizzling, but that’s not going to stop them heading for Doi Suthep, the highest bit of ground around, even if it is swallowed in cloud.   They hop into the back of a songtaew, the red shared taxi trucks that ply the streets of Chiang Mai. On the western edge of town, beyond the University, is the start of a pilgrimage path, but they’ve failed to explain properly where they want to go, and the taxi driver heads the wrong way. D slides along the bench seat and knocks on the glass partition but communication is impossible. He jumps out at each red traffic light to discuss the route through the driver’s window. Eventually he gets into the cab beside the driver and map-reads. They reach the edge of town, where the forest takes over, and hop out.

The path winds up through the trees, dripping with rain, past overgrown viewpoints and trickling cascades. Every so often, strips of orange cloth, resembling monks’ robes, are tied around trees to line the way.   Thick in the cloud and deep in the forest, they arrive at Wat Pha Lat. A cluster of temples loom out of the mist, linked by stairways lined with enormous serpents and other fantastical guardians. Orange-robed stone monks meditate beside a stream which pools and then trickles its way down the limestone face of the hillside. Buddhist chanting can be heard from within a candlelit wat. It’s wonderfully atmospheric and almost deserted.p1040585

L: The snakes on the stairs are called nagas. They’re based on cobras and sometimes they have seven heads.

D: What are they doing?

L: Protecting the Buddha and the temples.

D: It’s a great place for a picnic, isn’t it?

It’s now properly raining. L looks sceptical.

L: Maybe not today.

D: No. Come on then.

p1040596They pick up the path again, which is now smaller and much steeper, slick with mud. They climb slowly upwards through the forest, panting. The ground glitters with flakes of quartz washed clean by the rain, and they find a steep flight of mud-carved stairs. The world is silent save for their breathing and the patter of water on leaves.

An hour or so later, they meet the road, and have no option but to follow it. It is busy with traffic, wheels hissing on the wet surface. Two corners on and the road widens, suddenly teeming with cars and minibuses struggling to park, roadside stalls selling food and souvenirs, hundreds of sightseers in bright plastic capes, and lines of taxis waiting to take them back to town. It’s an unromantic climax to the walk. A long flight of naga-lined stairs leads the sodden crowds up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. At the top, as a reward for the climb, are broad shady terraces from which to admire the views, but today there is nothing to be seen.  p1040598

D: This is one of the country’s most sacred temples. A bit of the Buddha’s shoulder bone is buried here.

L: Who’s the white elephant?

D: He’s very important. A monk brought the fragment of Buddha’s shoulder all the way from Sukhothai in the 14th century, but somewhere on the journey the bone broke into two bits. One half was put onto the elephant who wandered around the forests until it died.

L: Right here?

D: Yes. So this is where they built the temple and buried the shoulder bone.

Back at the foot of the steps they are lured towards a queue of shared songtaew taxis.

Driver: Chiangmai-Chiangmai-Chiangmai! Chiang Mai?

D: Yes.

They get into the back and join 6 other people. There’s not too much space, but it’s fine. They wait.

Driver: Chiangmai-Chiangmai-Chiangmai! Chiang Mai?

Two more people get in. They all budge up. Two more get in. Everybody squeezes along. Three more are encouraged to join them. Everyone does their best, but one has no option but to stand outside on the rear step and hang on. Which he does as the taxi hurtles its way back down the mountain’s seven miles of roller-coaster curves and dips. The road is still wet but at least it’s stopped raining.

***

They can’t put it off any longer. Today is temples day.

D: This one’s my favourite, even though it’s the smallest.

L: That’s not fair – I wasn’t even allowed in!

In a tiny chapel in the extensive grounds of Wat Chedi Luang, is the city pillar supposedly raised during the founding of Chiang Mai in 1296.

L: So? What took you so long?

D: I couldn’t actually find the pillar.

L: Oh. So what did you find?

D: In the middle there was a sort of wedding cake affair with a standing Buddha on top.

L: OK…..

D: And very cool stuff going on, on the walls.p1040547

L: What cool stuff?

D: I have no idea, but it looked very exciting.

D’s photos show a burst of floor-to-ceiling technicolour. There are cutlass-wielding demons tearing through a forest, people paying homage to a prince, hunting scenes, processions and crowds praying to the Buddha, all with the Wat faithfully reproduced in the background.

D: I could have stayed in there for longer. But I suddenly remembered you were standing out here. In the rain.

L: Thanks for that.

On they go. Just next door.

L: Well, this one’s my favourite.

p1040530They have reached Wat Phan Tao, which is built entirely of teak. Inside, the dark wood ceiling is supported by huge wooden pillars, and on the altar a huge golden Buddha glows in the gloom. Lines of copper alms bowls fill one aisle, making music as the devout drop their pennies.   Outside, an artificial island is decorated with prayer ribbons and lanterns, and an orange Buddha sits in meditation guarded by several of the town’s stray dogs who have taken up residence. It is a fiercely protected piece of canine real estate, and interlopers are seen off with growls and yelps.

It is time for lunch.

They find a café. Their sandwiches arrive with a side salad curiously topped with a glacé cherry, but no cutlery. L speaks to the waiter:

L: Please can I have a fork?

The waiter looks puzzled and faintly shocked.

L: I need a fork. Please can you give me a fork?

The waiter looks scandalised. D comes to the rescue.

D: Or a spoon?

Comprehension floods over the waiter’s face. He beams and returns with a spoon. And a fork.

L: What was all that about? You’d think I’d said something desperately rude.

D: I can’t think what, for fork’s sake…

It is time. For more temples. They are on a mission.

It’s dusk by the time they finally splash their way south to Wat Sri Suphan, in the city’s silversmith’s quarter.

L: (grumbling) This is absolutely the last one. And it’d better be worth it. I’m soaking.

They walk through the gates.

L: Blimey. That’s amazing!

They stand in the rain and stare. For once, there’s not a glimmer of gold to be seen. Instead, the entire temple is crafted of silver.

L: Is it actual silver, d’you reckon?

D: Mostly nickel and aluminium, I think. Or maybe zinc?

L: Still. It’s astonishing.

It is intricate and elaborate and beautiful and twiddly and prickly. There are statues and bass-reliefs and decorative panels, from ground level to the topmost spires of the roof, all in gleaming silver.

L: Not again! Says here, according to Lanna Belief, I’m not allowed in. Apparently ladies entering inside this area may deteriorate the place or otherwise the lady herself!

D: That’s probably best avoided.

L: In you go. I’ll just stand here. In the rain. Like last time.p1040885

D disappears happily into the welcoming glow of the interior. L walks around the outside. The whole temple is set on a sea of turquoise ceramic tiles, lapping at the foundations like wavelets.   On the outer walls there are panels showing ships and temples, forests and seas and animals and people. The whole of the rear of the building is one enormous silver mural. Along the sides are small panels of great sites of the world. L spots the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Colosseum, the Great Wall of China, and even Stonehenge. From the roof, great silver dragons stretch their wings as though about to take flight.

D re-emerges.   The interior too is clad floor to ceiling in silver. Except for the Buddha at the altar, which is gold. Flanking the inside of the doorway, the walls show terrifying skulls, and a demon swallowing a crowd of people. Dozens of little backlit niches display delicate filigree work.

Outdoors the silver continues, still catching the last glimmers of light as darkness descends. A great silver Buddha sits draped in silver robes, in front of the temple. Nearby is a large banner in tribute to the late King Bhumibol, set in a decorative silver frame. And surreally, to one side the Hindu elephant god Ganesha shelters under an elaborate silver umbrella accompanied by two gigantic mice – one silver, one gold.

D: This is definitely my favourite.

L: Mine too. Even without going in. But it’s time for crisps. And beer. And a bath. We are so done.

***

Before they leave Chiang-Mai, they return for dinner at Henry’s. She scowls in welcome as they sit down and obediently order Kao Soi and two enormous plastic beakers of beer. A couple with a child arrive and hover at the entrance.   They ask to see the menu and Henry explains crossly to them that the menu is the blackboard right in front of them, in the street. They try to sit at an outside table, but Henry won’t allow it and makes them sit indoors. They sit, disgruntled. They ask to see the menu. Henry has had enough and scolds them loudly.p1040905

Henry: Look, you two! I’ve told you already! The menu is on the board outside!

She has gone too far. The family get up and leave.

Henry: (muttering) Crazy. They’re crazy!

Half way through the meal, Henry decides, unprompted, that an announcement needs to be made. She goes from table to table, telling each of her diners separately.

Henry: You want toilet? No toilet! Go over the road! In the temple.

Everyone is fine. No-one needs to go.

She comes to clear their table and peers into the earthenware pot of Kao Soi. She looks at L accusingly.

Henry: You didn’t like it?

L: I loved it!

Henry: You didn’t finish it!

L: I did – look!

L pokes around nervously in the pot to show that there is no morsel of chicken or beansprout or noodle remaining. Only a centimetre of broth.

Henry looks at them in disdain, picks up the pot and stalks off.

L: I love Henry! And her Kao Soi. How can you not? She is so terrifying and excellent. Don’t you love Henry?

D: Yes, I love Henry too.

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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

 

 

Climbing Cerro Chirripo – Costa Rica’s Highest Summit

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3-P1010383 (2)

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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