Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Life is tough when you're living in a Costa Rican beach town. During the weekdays you're expected to be around to head to class or "work remotely". So after a scant day in town, we decided that it was the weekend and we had no obligations - we should head for the hills! We piled into our tiny rental car and headed to our first stop, Lake Arenal. We had a scenic lunch with a quick photo op while the wind whistled through our hair and headed to the many wind turbines on the hills above. Apparently this is the kiteboarding and windsurfing capital of Costa Rica.


We continued around the lake's edge, passing all kinds of retired hippie havens - coffee roasters, yoga classes, pottery studios et al. As the turns got sharper, the pot holes got larger and more frequent. Bailey did a valiant job dodging them, probably training for next year's Mongol Rally. We turned off the paved road into Parque Nacional Volcan Arenál where the park ranger promptly told us they were closed for the day but we could drive a bit down the road to the puente for a better view. Fortunately Mattson and I had had enough Rosetta Stone Spanish to figure out that meant the bridge - where the sun burst through the clouds which hid the top of the volcano.


We thought we could see steam rising off the volcano and figured that was a good sign, so we pushed down the dirt road towards the Volcano Observatory and Lodge to have dinner and hope the clouds would clear. With a bit of time to kill we wandered the grounds, checking out a museum about the volcano, climbing around a waterfall and having a shot of guaro - a local spirit distilled from sugar cane.


After nightfall the volcano did not disappoint. Numerous times streaks of red lava shot down the sides of the mountain. They were too unpredictable to get pictures of unfortunately. After dinner we headed to La Fortuna for the night, where we found reception at our hotel had closed, but they left us a nice note, and we still got a room for the night.


In the morning we awoke early for a canyoning trip with Puretek. Canyoning combines hiking, rappelling and a bit of water into a really fun morning. We rode a mini-bus out of town and transferred to the bed of a pickup truck (with benches) to base camp where we suited up. Attitudes ranged from "I can't believe you boys are making me do this."


To "Dangerously Over Confident"

Note: Subject not wearing rappelling harness.

Our first stop was the 165 foot parallel rappel next to a waterfall. My theory was they made the tallest drop first as both a confidence booster - If you can do this, the rest are cake! And a safety measure - If you panic and start to free fall, they have lots of time to stop you before you hit the bottom.

The little orange dot on the left is me. The little black dot on the right is Mattson. (Click the picture to be awed by the full size version)

Fortunately we all fell into the former category, and the next three waterfalls and a single dry rappel were an amazing time. Sometimes you got to go straight through the waterfall.


And other times if you were careful, you could mostly stay dry. The camera(wo)man had a tough time debating between no flash, dark blurry photos and flash photos that made all the mist in the air sparkle like diamonds.


One of the nice things about doing touristy stuff is that you meet other tourists and they can tell you which of the many things on your list are actually worth doing. We got a stellar recommendation to head towards "La Catarata de la Fortuna, a sparkling 70m ribbon of clear water pouring through a sheer canyon of dark volcanic rock arrayed in bromeliads and ferns," to quote Lonely Planet.


You approach the falls from the top of an even larger canyon, so they don't seem that large, until you try to go swimming in the huge whirlpool a their base. The spray leaping from impact reaches 20 feet high and the waves we're bobbing in are 2+ feet and impossible to swim against.


After doing some training swims - against the current just below the falls - we started to head home. We had been planning on visiting one of the many hot spring resorts around along the way. Another fellow canyon-er had mentioned that if you walk just a bit downstream from one of the resorts, under a bridge, and befriended a local, you could sit in the same water for free! Not quite sure which was the best part of the experience: 102° water rushing by and massaging away your cares, friendly locals sharing their secret spot, or the case of Bavaria Brewery's finest dunkel - a local brew no less!


Actually I'm pretty sure the best part was that the water did not smell like sulphur - unlike hot springs in Washington state and New Zealand. So we got all the benefits and none of the awkward smelling ride home!

Tired but happy, we rose Monday morning for our first day of Spanish class (humbling), first surf lesson (cautiously optimistic) and one of many spectacular happy hour sunsets in the month to come.


On Tuesday we awoke bruised around the lower ribs and quickly learned it's the second surfing lesson that's the humbling one.

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