Day 1: Journey to La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano
I hit the road with little more than a tank full of gas, a backpack, camera and the luxury of time. Over the next two weeks, I plan to rappel 210-foot waterfalls in a rainforest canyon, gallop on powerful horses, zip through the sky high above the tree line and, hopefully, land some monster guapote (rainbow bass) fishing in Arenal Lake.
I am off to the pueblo of La Fortuna de San Carlos, locally known as La Fortuna, a small town that lies at the base of Arenal, one of the world's ten most active volcanoes. The Arenal region is situated between the Tilaran mountain range and the San Carlos Plains and offers everything from exceptional wildlife viewing to adrenaline-fueled adventure sports.
With a bit of luck, the clouds that frequently obscure Arenal's near-perfect cone will clear long enough to allow a glimpse of the red lava and billowing clouds of steam and ash that draw thousands of visitors each year.
My three-hour drive from Atenas to La Fortuna was an exercise in staying alert, skillful maneuvering, and patience. You never know what lies around the next hairpin turn in Costa Rica. In my case it was a weathered farmer, slowly chugging along with both his scruffy dog and bundles of sugar cane strapped to his ATV. While rental cars whizzed past me with suicidal abandon, I took it slowly, lulled by the undulating road and scenic countryside dotted with placid Holstein cows.
Easily distracted by cheese, I stopped at one of the many roadside stands in Los Angeles del Sur for a local specialty, queso palmito. For a mere $2.00, you can savor a ball of fresh (albeit salty) dairy goodness. It lacks the convenient packaging of beef jerky to qualify as a true road food, but is similar to mozzarella cheese, and each stringy, tart bite delivers a kick.
Along the way, I passed a hunched elderly man with a kind smile selling honey packaged in old glass bottles and a cluster of small children making mud pies on the side of the road. I drove through the farming towns of Las Tunas, La Tigra, Chachagua and crossed the Penas Blancas River on a bridge that inspired little confidence in its structural engineers. Afraid of plunging to an untimely death, I heeded the sign that dictated no more than one car at a time.
I arrived safely in La Fortuna and headed to the Catarata Eco-Lodge, located just off a hard-packed gravel road (a 4x4 is not necessary but a car with high clearance is helpful) a few kilometers outside the center of town. The lodge is set well away from the traffic of the main road and has great volcano views on clear days.
This afternoon, banks of clouds covered most of Arenal, so thick that if you didn't know there was a fiery volcano just a few minutes away, you might mistake La Fortuna for any other sleepy town. I explored the town center and, typical for Costa Rica, La Fortuna is centered around a pretty central park and Catholic church. The area has grown substantially since the mid 90's, when Arenal gained popularity as an explosive destination on the tourist trail. Internet cafes, tour operators, restaurants and hotels now line the streets.
I returned to the simple but spotlessly clean Catarata Eco-Lodge and admired its new pool and Jacuzzi. My room was one of ten recent additions and is a great mid-range option for travelers in search of a peaceful spot. The owners told me they anticipate completing a new butterfly enclosure and frog garden by August. The only sounds I heard were cicadas and the sweet song of the clay-colored robin which is the national bird of Costa Rica (unfortunately named Turdus grayi by the scientific community).
There is a certain freedom that comes with traveling solo and I reveled in it by devouring a banana split in lieu of dinner. The evening was chilly but not enough to deter a quick dip in the pool before calling it a day.