“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

I keep having this bad premonition that I’m going to be conked on the head by a flaming hot basketball-sized rock. This is not an irrational fear given the recurring crescendo of boulders pounding and bounding down the cinder-ash sides of Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano over our heads. We are hiking through the deep green rainforest that circumscribes the base of Arenal. A low cloud cover obscures the mountain’s peak so all we can see through the green jungle canopy is a fine white mist. But the constant burbling emanating from the volcano’s cone some 4000 feet up the slope and the crashing and rumbling of the rocks being flung from the volcano’s core are unnerving. We keep an eye cocked towards the sky, ready to scamper out of the way of any red hot missile that may come hurtling out of the mist towards us.

Actually, the chances of us being carbonized by an errant lava rock are not that great. The last hiker to actually be burned to a crisp occurred a decade ago when three hikers were caught by a particularly energetic eruption. One was fatally burned, the other two were critically injured. But the volcano seems particularly active this day, a fact confirmed by a local guide we happen across on the trail, and we are wary of flying lava. We don’t want to have our names added as a footnote to the lore of Arenal.

Arenal is like an impulsive child and the local populace never knows what to expect. The volcano goes through cycles of relatively calm dormancy, interspersed by outbreaks of active spitting and spewing. When we planned our trip to the volcano, we naturally hoped for a period of high activity with its accompanying fireworks show, but now that we’re within a stone’s throw of the hot magma, and Arenal is throwing, we are having second thoughts. While we marvel at the power that is evidenced in the clamor and spectacle of the eruptions, it does nothing to ease our fears about being incinerated. We continue our trek through the rainforest and come to a second-growth hillside that was once cattle grazing pastures but is now being slowly reclaimed by the jungle. We don’t see any of the impressively tall Ceiba trees that dominate the uncut inner jungle at lower elevations in Costa Rica. But it is obvious that the long growing seasons, abundant rainfall, and warm climate of Central America are providing conditions that are fostering nature’s rapid reclamation of the rainforest from the rancher’s hands. Palm, ficus, rosewood, chicle, and balsa trees have already appeared. The magenta jacaranda, the ochre-colored poro tree, and the almost blinding yellow corteza amarillo tree are re-staking their claim to the land. Understory plants—bright red heliconias--members of the banana family, begonias, purple orchids, thick carpets of morning glory, huge bromeliads, and the ubiquitous ferns, are everywhere. Too early for the howler monkeys and three-toed sloths to move back in, but we see plenty of toucans, aricari (a smaller but just as colorful version of the toucan), and orapendula birds with their daffodil-colored tails, and electric-blue morphos butterflies flitting in the leafy canopy. Long lines of marching leaf cutter ants go busily about their business, carrying small bits of vegetation across the jungle floor to their nests.

But our goal evades us. We still haven’t caught sight of the volcano’s active crater. And if the low cloud cover stays, we will never see the peak of Arenal, its cone spewing rocks and lava. So we continue upward, hoping that we’ll get a break. We leave the second-growth area and hike through a zone of thicker rainforest. The canopy here completely hides the sky. So now we are even more skittish. At least before we were comfortable with the pretense that we could see a hurtling rock and scramble out of the way. Since we can’t see through the jungle canopy some 80 feet overhead to watch for flaming meteors (not that it would do much good anyway, we’d probably stand awestruck while a boulder flattened us.), every rumble from above results in involuntary flinches from us.

About 2200 feet up the mountain’s steep lower slope, we break out of the thick rainforest into an open area on the western slope. This face of Arenal has been scoured clean of all vegetation by the heat of the volcano’s core and the rocks flying out of the volcano’s innards. The climbing is tough here, the slopes a combination of loose gray ash, small porous lava rocks, and irregular football-sized boulders. There is little soil to hold this aggregate together and we find our footing precarious and dicey. Our hiking becomes an ordeal of sliding and stumbling. The contrast between the open slope and the rainforest is dramatic. From the deep green rainforest vegetation with its colorful splashes of red and yellow and blue birds, butterflies, and flowers we have emerged into a dull monochromatic world of ash and smoke. Everything is gray; the ash-laden slope, the dreary gunmetal volcanic rocks, and the dull sky overhead.

The grumbling from above, no longer muffled by the isolating effects of the jungle canopy, is unnerving. Each eruption is announced with a sharp report similar to a cannon shot, followed by a growling roar that sounds like a cross between rolling thunder and Godzilla’s stomach after eating half of Tokyo. We can feel the ground rumble beneath our feet. From somewhere up the slope we hear gigantic rocks skipping and somersaulting down the gradient. We have come about five miles from the road near the village of La Fortuna, through the rainforest to this point on the naked slope. It has been a hot and hard climb through rough terrain with the ever-present threat of catapulting rocks on our minds. We have ascended beyond the recommendations of the local guides, who at this time are no longer leading clients much beyond the confines of the upper rainforest.

With the limited visibility, we know it is unsafe to proceed further. Besides, any further progress would be futile since we would practically have to reach the summit to see any volcanic activity. The day is growing short and light is fading. We decide to stop and regroup and decide on our next move. Then, as if on cue, the mist disappears, the clouds that have enveloped Arenal blow away and there it is. In its near symmetrical beauty, the conical mountain is revealed. Arenal has two peaks, the result of an ancient eruption that blew out of the side of the mountain and then formed another cone. Both summits sit before our eyes. We can see the cone flinging rocks up into the sky where they tumble back to earth and begin their cartwheeling roll down the mountain’s flanks. A puff of ash dust explodes with each impact and the rocks fracture and splay into ever smaller and more numerous bits, one trail of hot rock becoming two, then four, then twenty, fanning out over the lower slopes.

In the bright daylight, we can barely discern any color to the show. But as we watch from our slopeside vantage point and the setting sun is chased by encroaching darkness, the show becomes more intense and vibrant in the fading light. As the sun slides below the horizon, the orange glow from the mountain’s mouth replaces the sun’s glow and we are treated to a fiery display of shooting sparks, skyrocketing boulders, and streaking lava. After dark, the dull scenery transforms into a colorful palette of reds, oranges, and yellows, the lava an incandescent flow, lighting paths of fire down the smoldering black mountainside.

Arenal is one of the most active volcanoes in the Americas. Located along the mountainous central spine of Costa Rica, in the Tilarán Range, about 80 miles northwest of San Jose, the volcano is surrounded by a number of hotels, lodges, and restaurants that cater to hikers. Guides and maps are available at most of these businesses. Be aware that the many tour companies and guides serving Arenal strongly discourage independent hikes up the volcano. This is not only for selfish reasons, but also due to safety concerns. Local guides know the safe areas to enter and the unsafe areas to avoid and will discourage you from hiking to the mountain alone. Still, the available maps show various trails to take to reach points on the mountain that are well beyond where most guides are willing to take you. With a little bit of coaxing, you can squeeze hiking advice from the guides. During our hike we encountered more than one guide who strongly discouraged us from proceeding up the mountain beyond the limits of the rainforest. Despite this, hikers commonly proceed onto the lava fields. But use caution and definitely do not proceed up the slopes into the volcano’s active danger zones. Many of these are marked with signs and flags. You can get a great view of the volcano and experience the beauty of the rainforest without frying the rubber soles off your boots.

If you decide against hiking up the mountain, an attractive alternative is to hike around the edges of Lake Arenal which sits at the western foot of the volcano. On a clear day, the smooth waters of Lake Arenal reflect the image of the volcano perfectly. Don’t forget your film. The lake is especially popular with fishermen and windsurfers. The anglers are drawn there by the abundant guapote, or rainbow bass. Windsurfers gather at the western end of the lake, where strong and consistent winds make it one of Central America’s premier windsurfing spots.

Also near the foot of the volcano is Tabacon Springs, whose volcano-heated hot springs are famous for boiling tourists. There is a spa located along the highway leading past Arenal and after a tiring day of hiking the mountain, this is a great place to catch dinner and soak in the steaming springs while partaking of a cool drink from the swim-up bar in the spa’s pool.

Arenal volcano is one of the major tourist attractions in Costa Rica. As a result, a significant infrastructure of hotels has grown up in the surrounding area. Finding adequate lodging and dining is no problem. There are many fine lodging options in the area but a notable one is the Arenal Lodge, located about 10 kilometers from the volcano. Rent a junior suite at the lodge and your picture window will face Arenal. You can sit on your front porch and watch Arenal’s show all night long. The nearby tiny town of La Fortuna offers shopping and a smattering of local restaurants offering authentic Costa Rican cuisine.

Contact Arenal Lodge at 011-506-228-3189, email: info@arenallodge.com. If you prefer not to hike solo, many Costa Rican companies provide tours to the Arenal area, offering combinations of guided hiking tours, mountain biking, or horseback riding. A couple of these are Fantasy Tours, 800-272-6654, email: fantasy@sol.racsa.co.cr , and Sunset Tours, 011-506-479-9415, email: info@susset-tours.com, http://www.sunset-tours.com/.

(This article originally appeared on Great Outdoor Recreation Pages (GORP.com))

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