Day 2: Mountain Biking and Volcano Rumblings
I awoke to a cacophony of birds at 6 a.m. and picked out the warbling of an oro pendola and the loud squawks of green parrots, all drawn to the lush gardens surrounding my hotel. I fueled up on gallo pinto (Costa Rica's savory version of rice and beans) and fresh fruit, ready to test my endurance with Bike Arenal's mountain bike tour from the base of Arenal Volcano to the village of El Castillo.
Our Bike Arenal driver was clearly not running on Tico time (translation: notoriously late) and arrived at 8:10 am, just as planned. I was greeted by our friendly guide, Moises, and driver, Pampa, before we picked up a honeymooning couple from a nearby hotel. Outfitted with lightweight Kona and Cannondale mountain bikes, helmets and gloves, we began the 16-mile journey along a rock and gravel road to Castillo village and Rio Negro.
We passed the entrance to Arenal Volcano National Park and stopped briefly at a nearly washed-out bridge with volcano vistas. Along the way, Moises pointed out massive impact craters from the 1968 eruption that claimed 78 lives. For the first time since arriving in La Fortuna, I heard the loud rumblings of Arenal Volcano. We were less than three miles from the active giant and the booms sounded like thunder or the roar of a jet plane.
We paused to watch howler monkeys and spotted a fat red pizote (coatimundi) crossing the road. The rocky trail started off flat but gradually morphed into rolling hills, perfect for beginner or intermediate cyclists. While the ride was far from technical, I lagged behind the group and began to question the cardio benefits of my kickboxing classes. The uphill drags were the hardest, and at one point I was passed by a small girl on foot and her dog.
The scenic ride took us along the edge of Arenal Lake, past the blink-and-you'll-miss-it village of Castillo and on to the Rio Negro. I pulled up all red and sweaty and noted that neither honeymooner exhibited so much as a hint of perspiration. I soon discovered that the new bride was a marathon runner, and decided that her husband was just insanely in shape.
We back tracked a mile or so to a nice grassy spot by the lake for a picnic. Noticing my disheveled appearance, Pampa asked me if I was feeling all right. I explained that I was from the lowcountry of the Carolinas and not used to cycling such terrain (and especially not with a camera the size of a small refrigerator in my daypack).
The hour-long ride back to our original starting point went fast, the last mile almost purely downhill. Moises and I hunched over our seats, enjoying the ride. Pampa and our support van were never far behind. Our three and a half hour ride was perfect, and although Bike Arenal offers several tours, some more challenging, I knew I had chosen wisely.
That afternoon I moved to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, set high on a ridge less than two miles from the volcano. The lodge is a landmark in the area, and one that I had always wanted to visit. Its history dates back to the early 70's when ICE (the Electrical Institute) was constructing a dam to create Arenal Lake. The owners purchased 870 acres of farmland in an effort to protect the area near Arenal Volcano National Park.
At the time, the Smithsonian Institute was performing studies on the volcano from the dam site and felt that the farm was an ideal place to research Arenal. Over the years, the lodge has grown from a few cabins to a sprawling hotel with modern amenities and arguably one of the best volcano views.
My room was in one of the newer additions, set a few hundred meters from the main lodge, and had a large patio with a lake view, perfect for morning coffee. I dropped off my bags and explored the hotel grounds. After crossing a small hanging bridge, I passed the pool and Jacuzzi, and found one of the main buildings that housed a museum filled with scientific reports on Arenal along with a working seismograph that was monitoring the volcano's activity.
Since 1968, Arenal has been in a constant eruptive phase with gas emissions, lava flows and eruptions that cast lava rocks and ash into the air. Although I could hear Arenal's explosive popping and gurgling, the clouds continued to cover the cone, revealing only the base of the volcano.
I had a nice soak in the Jacuzzi and chatted with other travelers who had just arrived. We had all chosen the Arenal Observatory Lodge, not for TV, internet or air conditioning (there was none), but for the impressive views and lava flows.
The lodge has two observatory points, but guests tend to congregate around the main deck just off the dining room, which has floor to ceiling windows for prime volcano viewing (as well as easy access to cocktails). A group of us gathered to enjoy the acrobatics of a troop of howler monkeys playing in the trees and watched the sun set over the lake.
Getting There: During the rainy season (May through October) a 4x4 is definitely helpful to get to the Arenal Observatory Lodge. Take the main road out of La Fortuna toward Arenal Lake for fourteen kilometers. Follow signs to El Castillo andthe lodge and turn left on a hard-packed dirt road. Continue for nine kilometers, following signs for the Observatory Lodge. At the time of this writing, cars had to ford a small river as the bridge over the Rio Caliente was being repaired.