Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 3: Hanging Bridges, Lava Flows and Sunset Views

Destination: Arenal

Arenal hanging bridgesAlthough I would love to have joined the lodge's complimentary guided 8:30 am nature walk, I was visiting the Arenal Hanging Bridges today. I wandered up to the dining room and observatory deck where birders were out in full force, binoculars and guidebooks in hand. They chattered excitedly, but always in hushed tones as birders do, about the tanagers and cinnamon woodpeckers nesting in the trees.

More a mammal and amphibian lover, I left the birders to do what they do best, and sampled some of the lodge's fine morning buffet. I wished that I was more of a breakfast eater when I saw the platters of fresh fruit, pancakes, sausage and eggs.

In the hotel lobby I met Mauricio, the amiable general manager of the Arenal Hanging Bridges. We drove past the Arenal dam, to the private reserve set on 618 acres of primary forest. Founded by Mauricio's father, the hanging bridges were built nearly six years ago in an eco-friendly manner under the guidance of several structural engineers.

Arenal mot mot birdToday I was in for a treat. My guide, Danny, was a naturalist who had memorized each species' scientific name as well as its respective number in the guidebook. He knew what to listen for and where to find it.

Our natural history walk spanned two miles of trails and 15 different bridges, ranging from 16 to 330 feet long. The bridges were more galvanized steel than Indiana Jones, and had impressive heights and panoramic views of the volcano on clear days. We spotted a broad-billed motmot with a turquoise tail and terracotta head. Not long before, Danny had seen this species mating with the keel-billed motmot, creating a new hybrid. Danny pointed out the bird's nesting tunnels, up to eight feet long, along the sides of the path.

Arenal hanging bridges trailThe trail crossed over several springs that fed into the Arenal River. Hardwoods such as pilon and bloodwood towered above us. It seemed that every tree was covered in moss or lichen, providing nutrients to the epiphytes and bromeliads. Danny suddenly stopped and made a low, groaning sound while listening intently. He carried on a long and interesting dialogue with a great curassow hidden in the forest.

He told me of another guide who was recently chased down by a protective mother great curassow and I imagined getting tailed by an angry cousin to the wild turkey. We spotted two eggs in a warbler's nest, tucked inside a small cranny, and heard howler monkeys in the distance. Danny paused intermittently, making strange noises: clicks, hisses, low groans and high-pitched calls to attract certain birds.

He pointed out an olive-back quail dove rooting on the ground and a scale-crested pygmy tyrant in the trees. Arenal Volcano sunsetDanny snapped his fingers, inciting a male manakin to snap back by flapping its wings in an attempt to attract a mate. We had the bridges almost entirely to ourselves, although a couple of self-guided groups trotted past us screaming into the trees, wondering where all the animals were.

My guide was disappointed that we didn't see a boa constrictor or fer de lance (a deadly pit viper, named for the shape of its head), as they are common on the interpretive loop trail. He showed me photos on his camera of a small tiger-like cat called a margay and her cubs that he had taken just a few days earlier. As we crossed the Waterfall Bridge, we saw the sloth's favorite munching tree, the cecropia. It is also frequented by tree-climbing coatis, which seek out the yellow fruit. We all chuckled at the giant black phallic roots of a particular tree whose name I cannot recall.

Arenal Volcano lava flowAs the trail came to an end, we saw bamboo palms, monkey tail tree ferns and the twisting vines of the monkey ladder, part of the legume family. I would have likely missed most of the flora and fauna on our three-hour tour without Danny's expertise. The Arenal Hanging Bridges also specializes in early morning bird walks, where visitors can often see over 40 species of birds.

Upon our return to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, we overtook an Omaha Steaks delivery van. So that was the source of my tender filet the other day! I arrived just in time to see a near-perfect view of Arenal's peak from the observatory deck. My afternoon plans to hike one of the lodge's many trails were foiled by a torrential downpour.

Sunset over Lake ArenalJust before dusk, the sky cleared, allowing a clear volcano view. Folks gathered on the deck, wine and cocktails in hand, ready for a spectacular sunset and lava views. The sun cast a sienna light on Arenal, creating a picture-perfect moment before melting into the horizon. Its glow provided perfect symmetry to Tenorio Volcano in the distant Guanacaste Province. The real show began an hour later, when plumes of smoke and ash billowed out of the crater and boulders the size of houses tumbled down the slopes and created a fiery display.

I was fortunate to be on the southwest side of Arenal, where lava flows were now regular, as it changes direction every six or eight months, allowing most hotels in La Fortuna a spectacular view. We were all mesmerized by the glowing red lava and continued our stake-out well past dinner time. The volcano rumbled and roared, seemingly aware of its appreciative audience.

Day 3: Hanging Bridges, Lava Flows and Sunset Views in Pictures

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