Arenal Volcano

by Philip Greenspun

Home : Travel : Costa Rica : One Part

Friday, January 27, 1995

It is ten miles from Monteverde to the Arenal volcano as the crow flies; you can drive it in only five hours if you are lucky. Romain, a 20-year veteran of the roads around Monteverde, picked us up at 9 am in a Japanese minivan and we went bouncing over the "back road" from Monteverde to Tilarán. We rose high up into mountains once covered in cloud forest; now they are all pasture and coffee fields. Every time we got out of the car we were nearly blown off our feet by the relentless wind.

When we got to Lake Arenal, the impoundment of a 1980 hydroelectric project that generates 40% of the country's hydro power, we could see why the spot is famous for windsurfing. None of the surfers were having any difficulty keeping pace with motorists driving along the lakeshore.

The Mystica Resort sits high on a hillside overlooking the lake. They weren't officially open for lunch yet, but they made us some delicious pizza anyway. The owner is a charming young Italiana from Torino. She came here two years ago, built the cabins and the pizzeria, and now runs the joint. Does she miss Italy?

"Italy is a wonderful country. I love it. But if you work in the city there, you never have time to appreciate it. I got back for two months in the low season here, sometime between June and November, and really look around. It's much better that way."

The road got progressively worse as we continued around Lake Arenal. Some sections were washed out and potholes the size of compact cars frightened me. Muddy water filled the holes and made it impossible to determine how deep they were. It was tough to believe that the standard fare for this half-day trip was only $90. The absence of roadside hulks was the only encouraging sign.

After fording a river and climbing up a hill next to the volcano, we arrived at the gates of the Arenal Observatory Lodge, just 1.5 miles from the cone of the Arenal Volcano, one of the most active in the world. Arenal is only 5300 feet high and 4000 years old and still has a lot of growing to do. It has erupted eight or nine times, with the last two in 1968 and 1525.

Before the 1968 eruption, there were ten hours of powerful localized earthquakes. Most of the people in a lakeside town on the present site of the national park visitor's center got scared and fled on foot to Santa Elena, where we had just come from. The folks who stayed behind were unlucky. The west side of the volcano blew out and emitted a cloud of gas at a temperature of 600 to 800 degrees C. This cloud destroyed 12 square kilometers. Then the caprock on the top of the volcano blew out and destroyed another 5 square kilometers. Between 60 and 80 people were killed and are buried under ash.

People come to the volcano today because there are usually at least five mini-eruptions every day, each one accompanied by loud booms and glowing hot lava spilling down the sides of the cone. The show had attracted an Industrial Light and Magic crew from the movie Congo.

"It was great here yesterday," said one of the grips, "but we were just scouting then. When the weather is like this [he pointed to the clouds sitting on the volcano cone], it compresses the volcano and it doesn't erupt as much. Yesterday we saw a huge boulder thrown 500 feet into the air and when it came down in the trees it started a little fire in the jungle."

We left them to their waiting game and hiked down to a nearby waterfall. We were walking through a forest that had only been growing since 1968, but it was already about as thick as you could imagine.

Views from the observatory lodge balcony.
Saturday, January 28, 1995

Arenal Volcano was tantalizingly visible in the morning with just a handful of clouds on top of the crater. What's more, those clouds were moving fairly rapidly so it appeared that we were minutes away from a full view of the volcano and a resumption of the hourly eruptions, which we believed were correlated with the weather although a local expert later ridiculed the notion. We waited on the terrace with the film crew and watched birds or the Coatamundi that came out of the forest to eat the bananas left out for it by the Lodge.

At 10:30 we sallied forth on horseback with Luis, a smiling local kid who spoke no English at all. My horse, Melina, was a fine example of the tourist horse breed and showed no inclination at all to trot or run. She was perfectly content to follow Luis on his horse and we even managed a stream crossing without incident. It would have been a hot day to hike and it was great to be able to look around from the horse. We rode through a pretty lush forest then abruptly came to the "New Lava Flow," which came down in 1992. The flow presents itself as a 40 foot-high wall of sharp black stone in the middle of the jungle. We climbed up on top for a fine view of the volcano and Lake Arenal. The lava is still quite hot a few inches below the surface and steam comes out of little holes in the flow.

There are three things that can make you glad to be on horseback: tropical heat, a steep climb back up to the lodge, and a snake venomous enough to kill a man. The coral snake was only about two feet long and moved in a rather spastic manner, but it still sent a chill up my spine. Melina didn't seem to mind the snake at all, not even when it slithered between her hooves over to the other side of the road.

The Observatory Lodge dining room encourages conviviality. We shared a table with David and Lois, who'd moved here from Atlanta to work for Coca Cola.

"Everything here is negotiable," Lois said. "It used to worry me that I'm not strictly legal in the country, but not any more."

"You can drive on an American license for only thirty days," added David, "and after that you're supposed to get a local Costa Rican license. Unfortunately, it takes at least three months to get the Costa Rican license so you've got a Catch-22 situation. Getting a car here is an experience all by itself. We were about to buy an old car from a dealer for $15,000. The company lawyer told me to wait until he checked it out. He came back to me and said `That car has a lien against it for $10,000 so it would ultimately cost you $25,000 if you ever wanted to register it.' After we finally bought our car, an 8-year-old Nissan Pathfinder with 60,000 miles on the clock, which has no doubt been turned back quite a bit, a guy offered us his car. It was registered to the fourth owner back because nobody wanted to pay the transfer fees and taxes. It takes a year to transfer registration if you don't want to pay $3500, which is what we did, and that comes on top of $18,000 for the car."

What was the fundamental difference between doing business here and in the U.S.?

"It is very difficult to make money in the U.S.," David said. "There is too much competition and everything costs practically nothing there. Coke is cheaper in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world because the costs are lower there. We make 80% of our profit outside the U.S. The American who tried to sell us his car summed up the fundamental difference in the way things worked by saying that `In the U.S., you have to bribe a lawyer to do something illegal; In Costa Rica, you have to bribe a lawyer to do something legal.'"

Didn't they want to invest in the country and make some money in the coming boom years?

"I'd never invest here with all the red tape and the risk," David said. "Do you want to know what our address is? It's Condominium 3, San Rafael, 400 meters West from the JS store and 200 meters North."

Is that mailing or physical address?

"Mail?" David chuckled. "You couldn't possibly get mail delivered anywhere except in downtown San Jose where the streets have names. We use a courier service in Miami and then go to a shopping center here to pick it up."

"A typical Costa Rican address is `300 meters from where the big tree used to be' or `200 meters east of where the dog lies'," added Lois, "which is OK until the dog dies and then you just have to know."

Did people manage to find their house anyway?

"Of course not!" David responded. "The cable people couldn't find the house so we didn't get it installed for another week. It is somewhat complicated by the fact that our condo is Number 3 but it is actually only the second condo. There were going to be five but they decided to build a swimming pool instead of the first one."

Isn't there a big "3" on the front of the house?

Both of them laughed.

Sunday, January 29, 1995

A dreary rain quashed our hopes of ever seeing the volcano cone.

"I've been here seven times and have never seen the top," a Canadian woman said.

We satisfied ourselves with having heard quite a few booms and hitched a ride back to San Jose with David and Lois, whose Pathfinder forded the stream with aplomb.

They entertained us with their comparisons between the U.S. and Costa Rica.

"We have a European propane tank and a bunch of little camping items that run off it," said David, "and we wanted to use it all in the U.S. where the fittings are different. So we had a little adapter machined and brought the tank into a U-Haul in Atlanta to have it filled. I had to talk to the guys there for 20 minutes and explain everything before they'd even think about filling it. After we worked out the metric to English capacity conversion, they started to fill it, watching a scale all the time to make sure that they weren't putting too much in.

Before I brought the tank to Costa Rica, I had to empty it. So when we got here we had to get it filled again. I went to a local place and just walking in the whole place smelled like gas, there were guys slamming tanks around and into the backs of trucks. They didn't give our strange tank even a second look before filling it up. They didn't weigh it or anything and they waved aside all of my attempts at explanations and worries about whether it was overfull.

When I went home, the first thing I did was put the tank on a scale and it turned out that they'd put in about the right amount."

One difference that David and Lois didn't have to point out was road construction standards. The road between Fortuna and San Ramon was so newly paved that it was still shown as gravel on maps. Most of the surface was quite smooth, but there were as many deep potholes as you'd find on the most decrepit street in Boston. Our kidneys took a good pounding.

We never saw any roadsigns, except for Villablanca, the ex-president's hotel in the middle of the Los Angeles Cloud Forest Reserve. As it was a Sunday, lots of Ticos and Ticas were out in the street. There are no sidewalks, not everyone has a car, and the off-road terrain is difficult even on foot. Hence, even on a main road we had to keep constantly on the alert for pedestrians in the middle of the road. Sunday is also the traditional day for Costa Rican drinking and more than one pedestrian was weaving as much as the pothole-dodging cars.

The most bizarre sight of the trip has to be the crowd assembled outside the international airport fence. There were literally hundreds of people assembled, charter buses, and vendors, all to watch the 727s land and take off. It looked like a special festival, but David and Lois said they'd seen it every Sunday.

By the time we got back to the Milvia, we were so worn out that we decided to take the night off.

"What could be more relaxing than going to an American movie," Chantal suggested. "Everything is in English here with Spanish subtitles so it will be just like going in Boston."

Downtown San Jose is a world away from the Milvia in spirit, but only ten minutes and $1.50 away by taxi. We wanted to experience the local bus service, though, so we waited for five minutes, paid 30 cents for two, and hopped on. Most of the local buses are veterans of the North American schoolbus trade. Costa Rican adults average about the same size as American 9th graders so they generally leave the seats as they were.

People really use public transit in Costa Rica and virtually all the buses we'd seen in the country had been nearly full. Ours was packed even on a Sunday night and we had to stand. With the low windows on a schoolbus, this meant that we couldn't see out most of the time. We asked a few riders if they knew where the Cinema Magaly was and they took care of us.

The theater was a glittering modern palace with a huge screen and up-to-date sound systems, not a bad deal for $3. Our first rude surprise was when the movie "Stargate" opened and we found that they'd remixed the sound. The music was much louder than the English dialogue so that it was tough to follow the action without reading the Spanish subtitles. About 30 minutes into the movie, all of the actors were transported to another planet where everyone spoke Ancient Egyptian. We didn't pick up as fast on this language as the archaeologist-hero so were forced to speed-read Spanish for the rest of the movie.

Continue on to Hacienda Barú

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