I am met by some jolly nice people in San Jose, who take me to my hotel for two hours. Just as my head hits the pillow it’s about 5.45, the dawn comes up and some Americans are outside my window asking a waiter if they have any Hawt Chalkolate. I give up and have a shower, dextrously sidestepping the cockroach that has turned turtle on the bathroom floor. I am picked up at 7.30 to take another plane flight over the jungle to the Corcovado Parque Nacional. Once again I am co-pilot, and we bank steeply out of San Jose, which is nestled in a fertile plain surrounded by steep mountains. From 6,000 feet it looks as though a giant has rucked up its tablecloth. Then we hug the coast heading south on a perfect day for 50 minutes before touching down on a grass airstrip.
A horse and cart takes our luggage whilst we walk half an hour along a perfect Pacific beach to the tent camp. Capuchin monkeys with white faces chatter in the trees, and scarlet macaws race around. A flight of pelicans follows the breakers in formation, their wings skimming the water on the down beat. A foot-long lizard dashes past with a crab in its mouth. I am ushered to tent No.1, the only one with a double bed apparently, which I am very pleased about, because I shall certainly sleep well tonight. After a hearty lunch, it is time for a hike 3,000 feet upwards inland into the jungle. Our guide is an experienced ornithologist and botanist, and we pick our way first through secondary rain forest (which had at one time been cultivated or logged by the locals), and into primary (which never has).
The trees here reach extraordinary heights and widths. They average 200 to 300 years old, and many are only found here. There is gold here too, but the prospectors have been moved out since it was declared a national park. The wildlife includes scarlet macaw, spider monkeys, aggressive soldier ants and scores of multicoloured hummingbirds and honey dippers. At the top we are strapped into a harness and winched up to a viewing platform 120 feet up. A toucan with a large crest on his bill is kindly waiting for me at the top. It’s a great view up here, and we stay for a couple of hours until dusk falls. An older couple decide they don’t want to hold us up so they erroneously opt to head back on their own. When the guide finds out, he says “Do you mind if I go fast?” “To catch up?”. “Yes, is viper time!”. He sprints after them with a torch and I carry their bags.
It is very humid in the jungle and I just have time to dive into the Pacific before the sun sets. It has been an interesting day. By rights I should be knackered, having had only an hour or so of unsatisfactory sleep upright in an aeroplane. But I’m not. I am reflecting on a peaceful day spent flying over stunning coastline and rain forest, and then walking through it. You certainly learn a lot, so long as you are prepared to put up with a certain amount of bird-watching. I don’t mind learning about unusual stuff, but discussing the arcane plumage details of a lesser-titted warbler is a bridge too far for me. So you have to take it all with a pinch of salt and hope you run into a big snake or something. I have since discovered how our guide became so adept at legging it down through the forest – he was once chased through it by a herd of peccary (wild pig) so he had had some practice. I have also discovered the answer to how the tree platform was put up. (It’s a bit like the riddle of how the man who drives the snow plough gets to work). Apparently they used a team of guys who have climbed Everest. They stake the area and find an appropriate tree. They then spend two months designing the steel frames. Then on the appointed day they fire a pin gun at the thing, abseil up by degrees, and hoist all the gear into place. All at 120 feet. These are tough guys. I retire to my tent overlooking the beach and fall asleep to the sound of waves crashing in – as therapeutic as a waterfall and presumably reminiscent of being back in your mother’s womb.
I was woken naturally by the sun at 5am, or at least I thought I was until I spotted the white-faced capuchins hurling nuts and twigs at my tent. Mine was the last on the end and they were having their fun. I am not a great hiker for the sake of it, but being in a national park it seems churlish not to, so at 6.30 I set off up the beach to the ranger station. Although the time of day sounds ludicrous, it is cripplingly hot by 10am, so it makes good sense. Much of walking through a forest on your own is very dull, wading through streams and negotiating rocks and steep bits, but every now and then you are rewarded with an encounter. I was first greeted by a Blue Morpho butterfly. So what, I hear you say, but these guys are 6 inches across and vivid metallic blue. The locals say they bring you luck. After spiking myself on a thorny palm that left vicious needles in my skin, I came across a four-foot high Great Blue Heron fishing at the river’s edge. A couple of peccary shot off into the undergrowth. They move as fast as greased piglets. I was first out on the trail and much of it was festooned with spider webs that needed brushing aside. I crossed another river and squelched along in wet boots.
If you see a lot of leaves falling down in the jungle, it’s probably monkeys, in this case a troop of a dozen spider monkeys. They are orange like mini Orang Utang, and if they pass over you, you need to stand aside because they will literally piss all over you, or you will be shat upon from on high. The place is full of termite mounds stuck to trees (if you pull a bit off they all come out to repair it), and land crabs, which can be found up to 2 miles inland. I also chanced upon a massive Marine Toad 9 inches long and what could only be described as sound-responsive caterpillars. On the side of a tree was a 2-foot square dark patch, which turned out to consist entirely of hairy caterpillars. If you shout at them they all stand up in unison, creating the effect of a moving tree. Most odd. Maybe they all turn into butterflies that become sound engineers. After a couple of alarming close encounters with some red-tailed squirrels and more capuchins, I came across a large ground bird bigger than your average turkey. With colourful nutty brown and white feathers, it stood about 3 feet high. I discovered later this was a Great Curassow, no less.
But my biggest treat was reserved for when I was on my way back, when a troop of 30 or more white-nosed coati walked through me on the trail for ten minutes or so. These are racoon-sized mammals with pointy white snouts and a ringed tail that they keep upright when foraging on the forest floor. I had seen them 20 yards away before, but here I stumbled across them on the track. They seems unphased and, young and old, they came up to inspect this unusual new tree, gave me a sniff and pottered along. The young ones were particularly cute and they rummaged about as I got my camera out. “Lens malfunction”, it said, and failed to move. Bollocks. Ah well, I shall have to commit that one to memory. I suspect moisture may have got into the works so I dry my camera out in the sun. All in all, the hike had taken four hours and, I guess I have covered about 10 to 15 miles. I am home by 10.30 for a well-earned early beer. It is then my pleasure to laze away the remainder of the day in this coastal paradise. I write songs, read, listen to music and wander along the beach. The tide is out during the day, so the swimming is delightful. Later on the Pacific becomes very powerful so you have to watch for the undertow. You can’t really fault it down here – the weather is great, the environment is outstanding and the people are charming. Tomorrow I shall head north in search of randomly exploding volcanoes.
In the morning I treat myself to a lie in and get up at 6.45. It is so light at 5.30 that it feels like that. On checking out I fill in the satisfaction questionnaire and give them 10 out of 10 for everything. Amazingly, the manager tells me that she does get guests complaining. A bunch of Canadians the week before had stormed in, complaining that it was raining. Indeed, you’re in a rainforest you pillock. Then they demanded a television and use of a ‘phone and internet, none of which exist in a national park in a rainforest. These twats should go to the local Novotel and be done with it. You can spot them a mile off with their shirts tucked into shorts with belts on, and city socks poking out of loafers. Without a guide they wouldn’t last 15 minutes in a field, let alone a jungle. I take the ½ hour stroll down the beach to the airstrip on my own, watching the pelicans dive-bombing fish as I go. The obligatory pair of scarlet macaws wishes me a raucous goodbye, as do a couple of hawks swooping out of the woods.
The flight to San Jose in the tiny plane is fine up the coast but it is very windy and cloudy for 20 minutes on the approach to San Jose, and we are buffeted up and down like a ping-pong ball. The girl from Tooting Bec in the back throws up, and I pass tissues back to her partner as the smell of vomit fills the plane. Lovely. I am met at the airfield and driven north for 3 hours by Gerardo, who speak no English. It’s almost like going to a different country. We travel through Alajuela, San Ramon and Santa Clara. I look to my right to spot volcano Poas but it’s all cloud. We cross a massive river, the Rio San Carlos, and climb heavily until we reach Los Angeles. Certain views are alpine now, and many of the woods could be European, except then you come across fields of papaya, cassava or bananas. There are regular signs to Luigi’s Casino, and then the huge Arenal volcano hoves into view. On dark days, they are traditionally described as “brooding”. At 5,000 feet, that seems reasonable. We go through Fortuna, the town at its base, and they’ll certainly need some if this monster ever fully blows. I am heading for the northern side where there is also a large lake now that they have built a dam and flooded the area. Everywhere there are guesthouses and restaurants with dramatic names such as Montana de Fuego and Los Erupciones.
The driveway to the Arenal Lodge is about 3 miles long and extremely steep. I am assigned to a chalet that could sleep five, brilliantly located even further up the hill, with a 20-foot square observation window looking straight at the volcano. It’s still cloudy, so I can’t tell whether it is pouring lava today or not. The barman says that it is, so I’m hoping it will clear. It is actually easier to see the hot lava at night, so it’s worth checking frequently in case the cloud has moved on. My room is functional and clean, and the water is hot which is a bonus after beach life. This is my first opportunity to spread out for ages, so I unpack the whole lot and sort out all my gear, airing stuff and sorting the laundry. It feels good. They also have internet and a reasonable gift shop, so I choose presents for my girls and send messages home. My business inbox confirms that my clients don’t do a great deal in December (it is now the 20th), probably because their clients don’t either. If you factor in August as well, we really should consider operating a ten-month year. Of course, that’s what we had before, Julius and Augustus Caesar slotted theirs in, but I mean we should all have two months a year off! Why not? Let’s have a world summit on that. It would be way more fun that debating a common agricultural policy or ozone reduction levels.
This whole volcano thing is most fascinating. Arenal started erupting again in the late sixties and it’s been grumbling ever since. A couple of years ago, it spat loads up into the air. And yet thousands of people happily go about their business in its shadow. Now I’m not an expert vulcanologist, but I do know enough to realise that volcanoes are a) lethal, and b) unpredictable. It seems that everyone is playing a macabre probability game, including me. My thought process goes something like this: volcanoes are incredibly interesting; we are but a speck on the graph of geological time; the experts have worked out how to pick up early warning signs of an eruption; I’ll only be here for a couple of days. That’s it. So I won’t die then. In my mind this is very different from electing to live here. If it blows, you are either dead, or you have lost everything. If it were dormant, fair enough. But it isn’t.
I am also unsure about how meticulously it is being monitored by experts. Let’s hope so. But even if it is, this does not guarantee safety because vulcanology is an imperfect science, as demonstrated by the eruption of Mt. Helena in Washington in the eighties. They measured the pressure and worked out the distance of a safe radius based on that calculation, so beyond that they set up monitoring stations. Even when one side of it bulged disproportionately they didn’t rumble what was going to happen. It didn’t erupt upwards like they do in films. It slammed out sideways, on one side only. So the “safe” observatory set up 11 miles away was obliterated, because the blast felled everything for 50 miles in that direction. So there you have it. I would not choose to live permanently next to a volcano. Conversely, it has created a fertile surrounding soil, and spawned a thriving tourist industry. My presence here is proof – volcanoes attract attention. Apart from the visual pleasure and curiosity, the element of danger makes a visit the static equivalent of parachuting or bungee-jumping.
In the morning it’s not just the volcano that’s covered in cloud – so is my room. I am 2,500 feet up with what should be a panoramic view of the volcano, but I can’t see more than 10 feet in front of my nose and it’s tipping down and howling a gale. The brochure shows great views from this very window, but it’s just not happening today. I go down to breakfast and there’s a bit of a kerfuffle going on at the window. There are three what look like otters frolicking in the garden. These are, in fact, tayra or tolumuco, indigenous to Costa Rica, and they live in forests and aren’t aquatic like otters. I chuck a piece of banana and they like it. Then I place a piece on the window sill and, sure enough, the bravest one legs it up like lightning to steal it. I repeat this a few times, trying to snatch a photograph. The first couple I miss because he is so fast. Then I decide to snap just before he pops his head round the corner, and I catch him – just. As I sit down to eat, he has shimmied up a tent-foot bird table and is eating all their breakfast too.
I head off to the Arenal Hanging Bridges, fifteen of them swung over 600 acres of primary rain forest. On a fine day this would be idyllic – some of the bridges are over 300 feet long and can be a couple of hundred feet high. Add to that a view of the volcano and it should be perfect. But it tips down solidly for three hours and the highlight is examining a yellow Eyelash Palm Pit-viper, admittedly only 9 inches long, but very poisonous. There are three colours, green ones in the leaf canopy, yellow at the middle flower level, and brown on the ground. They lie in wait on plants and eat humming birds that come to feed on them. On the way back I take a little detour to visit a butterfly house full of blue morpho, and a small park where they have peccary and agouti, a sort of brown two-foot rat. They are all snuggled up in a hollowed out log and the rain keeps coming down.
Arenal translates literally as quicksand, which is strange because there doesn’t seem to be any terrain like that around here. Who knows? Someone was telling me that at the Tabacon hot springs nearby they have arranged a 7-minute evacuation procedure in the event of an eruption, but I suppose the effectiveness of that would rather depend on what type of eruption. If lava were gently spilling down the slope, you’d be okay. But if it rocketed out sideways without warning in a lateral blast, you’d be fried anyway. By noon, the cloud is clearing a bit and the rain has stopped, so I am optimistic about the hike I have arranged up the volcano for the afternoon. I have been inside various dormant volcanoes such as Ranu Raraku on Easter Island, but the last time I climbed one was Vesuvius in the mid-seventies. It was steady enough at the time to be able to go to the top. Here you can’t go further than the vegetation line because it’s too dangerous. Mercifully, the rain stops just as I begin my hike up the volcano. In 1968 a massive eruption obliterated the whole area I am in, leaving one remaining (very lucky) house, which is still there. This caught them all by surprise because up until that point everyone thought it was dormant. But it is amazing the level of regeneration of the landscape that can happen over 35 years. I am walking across fertile agricultural fields, and through dense secondary rain forest, whose trees reach 20 to 30 feet high. So the land is very capable of rapid recovery. We stop off to observe some howler monkeys and more Great Curassow – this time in pairs, with the male displaying his head feathers in a courtship strutting display. We walk through a river and then emerge at the 1992 lava flow. There are two main types of lava emerging from a volcano, plenian (named after Pliny who witnessed and described the eruption of Vesuvius), and pyroclastic. In a pyroclastic flow the rocks have become so hot that they effectively become liquid, and they can flow as fast as a car can drive. The other type basically spits out rocks at varying speeds, in some cases quite slowly like a suitcase coming off a conveyor belt. These chunks roll down the volcano and gradually cool. The 1968 flow is one of these types, a black river of massive boulders that has smashed through the surrounding vegetation. Standing here provides a good demonstration of why the conical volcano you see is not actually the volcano itself – just the pile of lava it builds up around its exit. The light is fading but there is enough to grab a couple of shots up the slope, and in the opposite direction, where the sun is setting beautifully over Lake Arenal.
Back at the Arenal Lodge, after a quick shower, I take a cab into La Fortuna, about a 25 mile run, to meet up with a mate of mine. Through an extraordinary coincidence I had discovered the day before that he was in town, from a chance email he had sent saying he had gone to Costa Rica. So we had dinner in town with a couple of friends he had picked up on the way, and on the way back we had a spectacle from the cab. The skies had cleared completely apart from a thin halo at the top, and bright orange lava was glowing at the top. There were whoops of delight as we drove along.
Back at the hotel, my panoramic window came into its own. I stood for about half and hour watching molten blobs emerge one by one from the peak, then tumble spectacularly down to my left, lighting up intermittently on the way down. It is very difficult to calculate precisely from here, but to be visible at this distance the lava chunks must be between five and twenty feet across, and some were falling at least two thirds of the way down the mountain, which would be 1 to 2,000 feet. The barman later told me that last night’s show was more like 3,000 feet. You would be squashed like a small fly if you met one of these on their way down, which explains why this volcano is so dangerous, even though it is not noisy. These emissions continue throughout daylight, but are less easy to see, thus deceiving very silly people who occasionally believe they can climb up and peer into the crater. They usually die or are maimed.
The following morning the weather is different altogether – blue sky, sunshine and some drifting cloud. So for the first time I am able to examine the peak in daylight. It shifts in and out of view. Sometimes you have a window of about fifteen seconds, in which to snap a picture, but I am delighted because it would be a bit of a tragedy to come here and never see the top. Today I take the 3-hour return trip to San Jose as a final pit stop before moving on to Guatemala to rendezvous with my girlfriend the day after. I pause for a beer before the trip and idly thumb through the Costa Rican bird guide that is thoughtfully placed in front of the bird table. Someone has taken the trouble to classify, describe and illustrate thousands of them. I am not a twitcher but among the species I can identify here at the bird table are: Great Kiskadee, Flycatcher, Turquoise Cotinga, various Manakins, green shrike–vireo, scarlet-rumped tanagers, and blue dacnis, no less. That’s in one spot. This place certainly has bio-diversity. Actually, I apologise for that last bit. Why on earth would anyone be interested in a list of bird types? Suffice to say they are a myriad of bright blues, greens, oranges and yellows and are very pleasing on the eye.
The trip to San José takes a bit longer than it did on the way in, because one of the mountain roads has been blocked by a massive mudslide. This is in the hilly region where all the waterfalls and hairpin bends are. A digger is shovelling the muddy hill off the road and into a dumper truck, for half an hour before we can get through. This area is shrouded in thick fog. It’s dark and we need headlights to navigate our way, and to be seen by oncoming traffic, which looms out of the murk at alarming speed. Once we have descended a few thousand feet everything brightens up and we are back down in the sunny plains, just in time to encounter the San José rush hour. A traffic cop ushers us past a pile-up involving two taxis, a car and a lorry. The hotel Grano de Oro (literally “speck of gold”) is charming and to celebrate my love of this country I buy an outstanding hardback glossy book, covering all the national parks, including Arenal and Corcovado. This is one of my little traditions.
If I visit a country and think it’s excellent, I buy a socking great book for the shelf at home. It weighs the baggage down but makes for an impressive library and some great mementoes. On this trip I will be visiting six countries, so if I like all the rest I will not be able to carry them all, but at least it will signify great times. For me, Costa Rica gets ten out of ten, like Venezuela. The people are charming and the landscape and wildlife are quite stunning. I have one tiny reservation, which is by no means the fault of Costa Rica. Basically, 90% of the guests one encounters are Americans, and sadly they tend to treat the place in the same way as Brits do Ibiza. They tend to be gauche, loud, demanding and fairly dim. Their grasp of the local culture is minimal. Their understanding of the wildlife and the environment is woeful. Their dress sense leaves much to be desired, as does their grasp of basic Spanish. They want on-tap TV, internet, phone, room service and all mod cons, and if they don’t get it they bellyache and humiliate the staff. In effect, they want their home transported overseas, which rather defeats the purpose of travel. It remains the case that 80% of Americans still do not own a passport, and so have never experienced a foreign environment or culture. So that’s about 200 million people who know nothing about anyone else. That’s a very alarming statistic and reminds me of the sick joke that they only bomb other countries to find out where they are. So there you have it. It’s good that they are putting their money into Costa Rican tourism, but it would be better if a higher proportion of them got into the spirit of it, rather than trying to replicate a home from home.
Rant over for now, but I am sure I’ll have another one soon… Time now for my story-cum-joke about the howler monkey, as told to me by a local. It is little-known outside Costa Rica that the only part of the howler monkey that is white is his testicles (everything else is a muddy brown). Simply put, you can admire his balls from a considerable distance. According to local legend, the howler monkey was so impressed with his own roar that he challenged God to make more noise than him, to prove who was the louder. The monkey goes first and produces his loudest racket. God remains unphased and generates a thunderclap that is so much louder that the monkey grabs his own gonads with sheer terror, turning them white in the process. A charming anecdote to be sure, and conclusive proof that you should resist the temptation to grab what you think might be any pair of white fruits from a rainforest tree.
As I sit enjoying an impeccable dinner of fried camembert in raspberry sauce, salmon soufflé and some excellent French Cabernet Sauvignon, I spot a glimmer of hope in relation to the American cultural problem I just sounded off about (or should that be “about which I just sounded off”?) A young boy, perhaps eight years old, is quietly and diligently working his way through the bird identification charts, making notes and attempting drawings of the species he has seen. This is more like it. Instead of yelling at the top of his voice, rushing about, demanding ice cream, and bewailing the lack of Playstation facilities, he is increasing his knowledge in a thoughtful way. Good work son, carry on.
This display of thoughtful intelligence is in stark contrast to the quintessential group of eight Americans to my right. Their accents foghorn across this bijoux restaurant like an air-raid siren. They variously demand Coke Dieta, erroneously enquire about the Carno (sic) meat dishes, and request a “Spanish immersion programme”, whereupon they proceed to order all their dishes in excruciating pidgin Spanish. The waiter is trying not to piss himself. They have no idea that he is ribbing them with every comment. When the teenage boy is asked how he would like his filet mignon done, he replies “with barbecue sauce”. The scene has reached a supreme comedic level but still the group has no idea that they are a source of hilarity. No matter. They are providing top quality entertainment for the lone diner and I am extremely grateful for it. Long may they continue being brash in public, so long as they don’t cotton on to the delight they are causing and start charging for it. “This is truly aawsome! “I am so-o-o not enjoying this buffay!” “I could murder a Taco Bell right now!” You get the idea. Endless giggles for the onlooker, with the protagonists none the wiser.
After my excellent dinner I am joined by a friend who plays in my football team in London. He is in town visiting his brother, who teaches history at a school in San José. This one is not a coincidence like the previous night – we planned it a month or so ago. We banter over a few beers and compare notes about the country. Dave was here during the last earthquake. The bed moved around the room, and the pictures came off the walls, the pipes burst and, although he tried to get out of bed (it was 2am) he couldn’t because it was so strong. The pace of life here is good though, with a good climate, even if they do have eruptions and earthquakes. In the morning I stride off to the ATM machine to cash up before everything shuts for Christmas. I have three cards but none of them work. I have to regroup and review my resources. One of the pitfalls when leaving a foreign country is being stung for airport tax. I have become used to this, and have established that in Costa Rica it is $26. So I have just enough spare to take a stroll into San José and visit a museum before my flight this afternoon.
I leave the Grano de Oro and stroll up the main avenue for twenty minutes. After a few blocks it becomes a bit like Oxford Street, with scores of shoe and sports shops, and lots of traders using microphones to advertise their wares. Sixteen blocks away on the other side of town is the Museo de Oro Pre-Columbio, which is basically full of gold. It has several sections, one of which charts the history of coins and other barter systems. Throughout South America people used tobacco, coffee beans and quetzal feathers as currency before they discovered gold and silver. Then the Spaniards invaded, nicked most of it, and set up mints to produce coins. There was also a whole section on the various processes that can be used to make gold and copper artefacts. Of course you can hammer it flat and decorate it using tools. But the finer shapes of alligators, frogs, butterflies and so on are made using moulds. The most successful method goes something like this: use beeswax mixed with resin to make a model of the item you desire; when it’s dry, surround it with clay and insert vents to let the heat out, and a tube to put the gold in; let it dry for three days, then bake it so that the beeswax melts and drains away; heat the gold and pour it in very fast before it sets; when it’s all cool, crack off the clay and snip off the vent and tube parts; polish the final item to a fine finish. Simple really, and they led to some fine results.
I strolled back to the hotel for my ride to the airport. So here I am sitting in the airport bar having solved a significant mystery and feeling much better for it. I couldn’t understand why my flight to Guatemala was scheduled to take 4 hours and 40 minutes. Even if there were a 1 hour time difference, which I didn’t think was right because you fly pretty much directly north, that would leave 3 hours 40 minutes, which, at a rough guess, would get you well into the USA. When I check in the woman asks if I would like to swap to a direct flight. You bet I would. I thought this was a direct flight because there was no mention of any stopover on my itinerary. Oh yes, she said, this one stops twice and uses smaller planes. Bingo. So now my flight time is reduced to 1½ hours, which is a joy. It will also enable me to arrive 45 minutes before my girlfriend, who is flying in from London via Dallas. So if it all goes to plan I can surprise the hell out of her by being there to meet her when she thinks I’ll be 2 hours behind her. I immediately buy a phone card, call Guatemala to explain what is going on, and march to the bar for a celebratory Cerveza Pilsen. At 5.1% it’s as strong as Stella and a very passable local beer. The flight is a breeze at 1 hour 15 minutes and immigration is fast and pleasant. Sarah’s flight is delayed by an hour so I have 2½ hours to kill, reading and idly watching cheery Guatemalans welcome friends and family home for Christmas.