Where do you go if you want to see monkeys and volcanoes, all in the same day? Why, Costa Rica of course. It didn’t matter that it was the end of the “wet season,” I was determined to have a fun adventure. And so I landed in San Jose, with little planned beyond spending a night in San Jose. At my hostel I met Betsy, a Southern belle who brought me to a hip restaurant in the middle of the city, surrounded by trees with draping vines. Incidentally, we were also surrounded by dashing and stylish gay men. We then went dancing at a popular club, swinging to rhythms of salsa, merengue and cumbia.
When I learned that muggings were a regular occurrence in front of my hostel, I boarded a local bus for La Fortuna, in search of Costa Rica’s most active volcano. After a brief chat in Spanish with the handsomest middle-aged bus driver I’ve ever seen, he asked me to explain to all the tourists the important of keeping backpacks in plain sight. At ALL times. We arrived safely in La Fortuna, where I ventured to Cabinas Las Tinajas, a quiet set of rooms managed by a lovely mother, Lydia. With several dogs and giggly teenagers romping about, I knew I had found a safe place.
I wish I could say the Arenal volcano was a sight to behold, or that I felt the ground trembling while circling ever closer to the crater. Instead, my German hiking buddy suggested that we wait in the rain to see if the clouds over Arenal’s summit would clear. They didn’t. We got wet. But we huddled under trees on some very cool (literally) volcanic rock, joking about selling our bananas to hungry backpackers. The return hike to the park’s entrance was more memorable, after seeing an enormous black bird whose head reached our hips. As if out for a casual stroll, it slowly sauntered away as we snapped pictures of its feathered rear.
Next stop – Manuel Antonio for some beach time and rainforest exploration. The weather may have been drab, with no blue sky in sight, but the hostel was certainly colorful. After checking in, I retired to a porch full of chilled out twenty-something’s lazing about in hammocks. Many sported ear piercings and tattoos, while others exchanged yoga stories or raved about how “sick” the waves were in Australia.
Determined to beat the tourist hordes, I was the first one through the gates of Manuel Antonio Park at 7am. And the only one to do so in the pouring rain. The muddy trail meandered through forest and along a southern-facing, deserted beach. Mammals sighted included raccoons and large, guinea pig-type animals called agoutis. When I heard branches snapping overhead, I turned to see two white-faced monkeys high up in the trees. They were tearing long leaves off of their branches, apparently trying to construct some sort of primate party house.
With my adventure soon coming to an end, I was determined to find the sunny side of Costa Rica. Alajuela was my next destination, a city just outside of San Jose, with slightly fewer thieves per capita. It’s also the hometown of Juan Santamaría, an intrepid young lad who, in 1856, allegedly set fire to the sleeping quarters of troops that threatened Costa Rica’s sovereignty. I jumped on a tour bus with Colombians, Panamanians, and Nebraska-ens and visited a lush coffee plantation.
Interestingly, the “abnormal” coffee beans boasting one instead of two seeds were those with the strongest flavor. Then we trucked up hill to the Poás Volcano, in whose crater is one of the world’s most acidic lakes. The lake was a brilliant emerald green, bubbling and devoid of aquatic life given its sulfuric state. At least, that’s what they told us it would look like. We couldn’t see it through the pelting rain.
The tour culminated with a visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a rainforest property with jungle cats, exotic birds and snakes, frogs, monkeys, and waterfalls. The grounds were meticulously cared for, and the animals healthy and resplendent. That is, with the exception of an emaciated ocelot that was panting and running in nervous circles. The highlight was standing arms length away from brilliantly plumed hummingbirds as they buzzed about. Their heart rates can soar to over 1000 beats per minute.
I did eventually find my sunshine, which brought Costa Rica’s fertile valleys to life right before my eyes. The view was fantastic through the windows of my flight back to Boston.