Costa Rica by road

An active volcano, black-sand beaches and howler monkeys are all part of the scenery

August 31, 2008|By Glenn Fawcett | Glenn Fawcett,

As we drove up, down and around Costa Rica's twisty mountain roads, edging bicyclists and pedestrians on the path to the small town of La Fortuna, I realized the sun was going to set much sooner than I had thought.

After a full day of travel, we were still miles from our destination. Driving unfamiliar terrain in a foreign country that seems to eschew street signs had put us behind in our goal of reaching our lodging near the base of an active volcano before nightfall.

We had flown into San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, but unlike many travelers who upon arrival catch a second flight to Liberia, the gateway to the popular beaches on the northern Pacific coast, we hopped into a rental SUV and hit the road, following directions like "go 10.5 kilometers and turn left at Norte Town Police and school." You get the idea.

FOR THE RECORD - A caption accompanying a photo with an article on Costa Rica in the Aug. 31 Travel section incorrectly identified the animals that tourists were feeding. The animals were coatimundis.

More than three hours and a seemingly endless maze of turns later, my fiancee, Candice, her teenage son, Leon, and I arrived in time for dinner and live music at the Arenal Volcano Inn.

Bordering the east end of Lake Arenal in the Alajuela Province of Costa Rica, Arenal Volcano was once thought to be extinct. For 400 years it lay dormant. But all that changed on July 29, 1968, when, jostled by an earthquake, it roared back to life, destroying the towns of Tabacon and Pueblo Nuevo and killing 87 people. Since then, the volcano has been continuously active, and orange lava can be seen flowing from the cone at night when the skies are clear.

Several lodges line the perimeter of the mountain, even as its cone smolders continuously. The Arenal Volcano Inn has 15 rooms with private cabanas and massive picture windows that face the volcano, providing a view of both a tropical paradise and a smoldering mountaintop.

Sunrise came early the next morning, painting soft light across the volcano as smoke drifted from the cone.

After breakfast - a free buffet with eggs cooked to order - we ventured out in the Suzuki Jimney, our underpowered but trusty rental SUV, to explore Arenal Volcano National Park. As we paid a small fee at the entrance, the attendant advised us not to stray from the hiking trails and to avoid active lava flows.

"Oh, and don't forget to cover your windshield wiper blades when you park your vehicle," she said. "The blue jays like to pull them off for their nests." She lent us some plastic shopping bags, and after securely wrapping the Jimney's wiper blades, we headed off on our hike into the forest of the volcano foothills.

We trekked through the tall, dense vegetation along the trail for several miles and then arrived at the main observation area with a view of the active side of the volcano. Though we were still about a mile away from the mountainside's slopes, we could hear fresh-baked boulders rolling downhill from the volcano's cone. Using our binoculars, we could see the boulders, the size of beach balls, as they bounced down the barren charcoal landscape.

We continued our hike around the southern portion of the trail, ending up on a massive field of volcanic boulders, left over from a major eruption in the early 1990s. With an overlook of Lake Arenal to the west and rain forests to the south, the scenery was breathtaking.

Late that night, after having dinner in the small town of La Fortuna, we decided to try our luck at spotting lava flows in the dark. This was a scary plan, but I had done my homework months before the trip, learning about the best place to see the lava flows. Soon we were back in our Jimney, rattling and humming along a gravel road. We pressed on in the darkness for more than 30 minutes, thumping along as the turns, dips and twists appeared in our headlights.

We found ourselves at a small bridge over a river flowing away from the volcano and toward Lake Arenal. Here, small groups of tourists and locals were gathered in the full-moon darkness to watch for the occasional streaks of orange and red lava flowing from the volcano's cone. On this night, as on most nights at Arenal, clouds obscured the summit, breaking only briefly to reveal the faint yellow glow of molten activity at top. Using binoculars, we could see the lava flows pulsing down the mountain.

After two nights and two days at the inn, we headed westward to the Guanacaste Province for the second half of our vacation. There, at the northwest corner of Costa Rica, the sandy beaches of the Gulf of Papagayo awaited us. But first we had to drive 4 1/2 hours on Highway 142 along the winding mountain roads and shores of Lake Arenal, past a massive windmill power station in the middle of nowhere and then south to Canas, with right turn onto Highway 1, the Inter-Americana Highway.

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