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A Little Bit of Everything Arenal

Destination: Arenal

I awoke to sun shining in my window, muscles screaming from yesterday's mega hike, and excitement for the day's activities. For the last time, I admired the view of Arenal from my hotel's grounds. After breakfast, I hopped into the Canoa Aventura van.

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On the itinerary for today: Arenal's Hanging Bridges, a hike to La Fortuna Waterfall, a hike through El Silencio Private Reserve, a stop at a lava viewpoint, and dinner and relaxation at Ecotermales hot springs. Jorge would be my guide for the next 14 hours, and after we introduced ourselves, we were on our way to the day's first destination.

Just a mile or two before reaching the Hanging Bridges, we came upon Lake Arenal. Jorge stopped the car on the side of the road, and I jumped out to get some photos. The blue water reflected the surrounding green mountains, and the clear sky was painted with perfect, puffy, white clouds. My impromptu photo op set the tone for the day -- at every chance, Jorge and I stopped for photos of wildlife, beautiful vistas and, most of all, the magnificent Arenal Volcano.

Before starting on the Hanging Bridges' nature trails, I took some time to admire the volcano from the ground's lookout point. It was a clear day, and the blue sky was the perfect backdrop to Arenal's eye-popping forest and black lava rock color. Smoke puffed out of its cone, covering the triangular apex.

We headed out onto the trails, and Jorge mentioned that we should see plenty of wildlife today. At that, I made mention of my unwavering and undeniable fear of venomous snakes. I warned that, if he should see one, it would be better to wait until I was well out of attack range before pointing it out. He smiled obligingly, and we headed onto the cinderblock trail. Less than two minutes later, he quietly grabbed my arm. A small, yellow eyelash palm pit-viper was curled up on a branch just five feet from us. (That's out of the bite range.) We started snapping photos, but when Jorge got too close, she curled up into attack position, and we power-walked away as calmly and quickly as possible.

In addition to highly venomous vipers, the trails were peppered with benign animals, including small lizards, birds and brightly colored beetles. We maneuvered over the hanging bridges, and each gave me a slight sense of vertigo. I have very little remaining fear of heights -- Costa Rica's adventure tourism industry (including the rocket launcher two days' prior) has cleared that phobia right up -- but the bridges are constructed of steel, which creates a virtually transparent walking surface. Mostly, I was too busy enjoying the view from hundreds of feet above the forest floor, and so I paid little attention to the vertigo: from my birds-eye vantage point, I could see the lake, the volcano and inspiring scenes only visible from the forest canopy.

After two hours of hiking over trails and along the private reserve's bridges, we popped back out into open ground. Without exaggeration, I was sweating buckets -- though it was not hot, the humidity was high. Jorge and I rehydrated with cold water, and then pulled out of the parking lot. If we were going to stick to the schedule, we had to move quickly.

Today, La Fortuna Waterfall is one of the area's most popular tourist attractions. However, it wasn't always so. The story goes that the Costa Rican government was giving away land to deserving citizens, mostly those looking to plant crops. This parcel was offered to not one, but two potential land owners, both of whom turned it down for its varied and hilly terrain. Finally, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute purchased the land and turned it into the popular attraction that it is today.

So about those undesirable hills... to get to the waterfall, one needs to walk down 446 steps. Of course, that means that you also have to walk back up 446 steps, which by that time seem to have magically doubled to 900. We started the steep, downhill hike at a waterfall mirador, and I drank in the sight before me. Thick jungle covered the mountains and ground for as far as the eye could see, vivisected in the center by a slice of rushing white water. Even from here, at least 1/4 mile away, it looked huge. I couldn't wait to get down there.

We set off on the stairs, taking each one slowly. They were steep, but nothing like those at Rio Celeste. With each ginger step down -- have I mentioned how clumsy I am in the forest? -- I gained a bit of confidence. Compared to many other trails and rustic steps in Costa Rica, these were well-proportioned, not slippery, and had great hand support. We made it down accident-free in just over 15 minutes, and were greeted by a 150-foot waterfall that seemed powerful enough to service the electricity needs of an entire town.

It is very dangerous to swim under or near the waterfall -- legend has it that several people have died from the pressure -- but there are several small, safe pools to bathe in below the main pool. Before venturing down though, I took a few moments to appreciate the sublime beauty of the location. For me, there is little more comforting than the sound of water, whether it be burbling over small rocks or tumbling down giant boulders. La Fortuna Waterfall, despite its size, produced a mesmerizing and gentle roar. Its pool was tinted blue, not quite like the Celeste River, but not clear either. Emerald-green moss hung from the nearby rock walls.

We walked down to the smaller pools. Here, a few brave souls were swimming and splashing around, but as soon as I tested the water with my toes, I knew my fate was not to join them. Despite the humidity and heat, the water was far too cold to swim, so I settled for cuffing my jeans, finding a rock to perch on, and dangling my feet in the fresh, mountain water.

After 15 minutes of relaxing and cooling off, I was ready to begin the ascent. Honestly, I wasn't looking forward to this part, since my legs were still aching from yesterday's exertions. Jorge assured me that we would take breaks, and so we began to huff and puff our way up. Surprisingly, the climb wasn't bad -- though I was dripping with sweat by the end, the strong handholds and manageable steps had made easier the 30-minute upward hike.

After gulping down an entire bottle of water each, Jorge and I headed straight for lunch. I was looking forward to my white fish casado, which had rice, beans, plantain, salad, string bean picadillo, a slice of fresh cheese and a guanabana (soursop) fruit drink. Still a bit hot from the hike, we took our time with the food, and by 2:00 were satiated and ready to move on.

Since the next activity would not begin for another hour, Jorge offered to drop me off at Montana de Fuego, my hotel for the next two nights, and at 2:45, I was happily ensconced in my suite. I had a living room, enormous bathroom, small kitchenette, and a bedroom with a king-sized bed that looked out onto Arenal Volcano. Since I am incapable of taking naps, I settled for drinking in the view and sipping on coffee for the next hour.

The bus that picked me up at 3:45 was larger and filled with nine other tourists. We were all excited for our rainforest hike, but even more so for the lava viewing later that night. Though I have seen many monkeys, I love watching people spot them for the first time. Tonight, it was a troop of howler monkeys, and the three other tourists in my group laughed in surprise as they began their deep-throated howling. We continued onward, glimpsing several birds and, finally, a coatimundi high in a treetop.

After refreshing with more cold water, we were ready for the lava. We drove 15 minutes, got out of the bus, and joined busloads of other tourists who gathered for the same reason. As dusk set, an excited murmur rose from the group: we were lucky that the night was clear, and we had a fantastic view of the first small red rocks tumbling down the volcano. Before the night was over, we had seen two more sets of lava rocks, each as thrilling as the last. Unfortunately, my camera couldn't pick up any of the tumbling red spots far out in the distance, but it's just as well, since this is a scene far better enjoyed in person!

Finally, it was time to relax at the Ecotermales hot springs. Jorge dropped me off at 7:15, and told me that he would return at 9:00. I scheduled dinner for 8:30, and headed into the changing rooms. When I emerged, it had started to sprinkle slightly. Though rain is not my favorite weather, it is absolutely ideal for bathing in the hotsprings -- as I soaked in the warm waters below, cool rain misted my forehead, refreshing and welcome.

Tonight, I shared the hot springs with about 20 other people, which almost made me feel that I had a slice of paradise all to myself. The pools were lowly lit, and steam wafted off the surface. I started in the second pool -- the first was too cool for my taste -- and soon wandered up to the third pool. Attached was a small hot tub-like pool, and when I dipped my toe in, I knew why it was empty: it was extremely hot! Instead of submerging myself, I sat down in the larger pool, where a waterfall from the smaller carried in steamy water. I enjoyed the hot water, massaging my shoulders and back to relieve the soreness from the last few days.

Soon, I was ready for the highest, soon to be my favorite, pool. It was small, maybe 20' x 10', and had a 5-foot waterfall at its base. A sprinkler drizzled big drops of cool water onto the surface, allowing for the incredible sensation of a hot lower and cool upper body. I enjoyed the delicious sensations before making my way over to the waterfall and diving under. I stood up in the small cascade, and let gravity do the work of massaging my shoulders.

Before I knew it, it was time to towel off, change and head back to the restaurant. Dinner was delicious: rice, pureed beans, salad, fresh tortillas and chicken breast in mango sauce was accentuated by pineapple-passion fruit juice and fresh rice pudding for dessert. Before I knew it, 9:00 had rolled around, Jorge had delivered me to the hotel, and I was curled up in bed, reliving the day's events in my dreams.

A Little Bit of Everything Arenal in Pictures

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