Since our avoidance of the swine flu in Mexico gave us a couple of unexpected days in Costa Rica, we wanted to take full advantage of them. We arrived in the early morning, saw that there were lots of rental car agencies, and decided that renting a car sounded like more fun than fighting to get anywhere on public transportation. But first we needed to talk to the airline about missing our first flight from Mexico City to Costa Rica but continuing on from there to Argentina.
The airline guys looked at us kind of funny, and it took them a half hour to figure out a weird, nasty loophole in the ticket that states if you miss the first flight in a series of flights, they are automatically all canceled, no exceptions. They told us to talk to our travel agent. So we took a bus into town, got a hotel, and started making phone calls to our travel agent.
She told us the same thing, and gave us a couple of absurd options. First, we could buy another earlier flight back to Mexico City, in order to make the original flight back to Costa Rica so our ticket wouldn`t be canceled...or we could buy a whole new ticket down to Argentina. Both of those options seemed absolutely stupid, considering we already had perfectly good tickets to Argentina, and all we wanted to do was stay out of Mexico City. The cheapest option was to buy another ticket back to Mexico City, for the day before...but during that time we were considering it, Argentina stopped allowing flights from Mexico on the chance that it could keep Swine Flu out of their country, so that was no longer a possibility.
Finally after a whole day of worrying what we were going to do, our travel agent wrote us and said that she had won the battle, that the airline had granted us a ¨waiver¨not to take that first flight from Mexico City, and instead start from Costa Rica. Whew...that of course made the most sense, since it was easy for them and free for us...but common sense doesn`t usually win many battles in this world, so we were grateful to sidestep fate.
So, we wasted our first day in the country making phone calls, and then rented a car for just two days that next morning. Which gave us just enough time to make a loop to the north to see some rainforest and a volcano.
April 30 - Arenal Volcano
Our ongoing fascination with active volcanoes made visiting another one somewhat mandatory. Volcano Arenal is supposed to be one of the most active volcanoes in the world. One can argue about just where it might fall on the Top 10 scale of scary volcanoes, but when it comes down to it...it`s active, and worth seeing. The trick to this one is that most of the time it is covered in clouds, so seeing anything is never a guarantee. Our rental vehicle was a little 4x4 jeep, necessary for the bad roads up in the mountains or so we were convinced by the rental agency. It took a couple of hours to get up to the volcano, and it was a nice drive on a paved road through some pretty deep forests and a few small villages. Sure enough, the top of the mountain was covered in clouds, but we could tell some of them were from the ash and smoke constantly rising from the crater. On a clear day, from space, you can actually see a red glow from the top of Arenal...if you are that curious to see it, go find it on Google Earth. Anyway, we spent the afternoon driving around the perfectly formed crater, and also on some lonely dirt roads along Arenal Lake with good views of the volcano. By sheer chance we found a trail manned by a lonely, talkative guide, and found our best view of the volcano yet. From a viewpoint, we could see rocks falling down from the crater, and hear them thundering down the steep slope leaving smoke puffs in their wake. His advice was to come back after dark to see the spewing rocks turn a red lava color. We drove around some more, and then were back at the viewpoint to watch the sun fall. It wasn`t a totally clear day and the top of the volcano was never visible, but as any view at all is considered lucky this time of year, we were happy to see the bottom half. Sure enough, those falling rocks, which erupted in spurts every 5 or 15 minutes, slowly became flaming, spark throwing pinwheels of color flying down the side. Our pictures don`t do it justice, lacking a tripod and timer, but the sound and color were very amazing.
May 1 - Monteverde Cloud Forest
The next morning we drove around Lake Arenal, which kind of looked like a strange version of the German countryside, and then finally let our 4x4 earn its pay. The road on the far side of the lake gave up any chance of pavement, and for a couple of hours we wound our way on bumpy, dusty, middle-of-nowhere gravel roads. Finally we ended up in Monteverde Cloud Forest, or at least near there.
It`s an odd trend in Costa Rica that almost every town has their own treetop zipline, cloudforest hike, butterfly garden, etc, etc, etc. It can make for an exciting vacation, I suppose, if you can afford to do any of it. Prices in Costa Rica are higher than anywhere we`ve seen lately, and any of the exciting offerings posted on the town billboards are likely to break a normal daily budget. Monteverde was no exception. There were so many high-adrenaline things to do in and around the area that we got lost trying to actually find the real park and not the side attractions. By the time we bumped our way up the rutted dead end road to the entrance station, there were few cars and fewer people...we concluded that most people don`t ever make it to the rainforest that they journied far to see. Their loss. So, we went for an equally overpriced hike in the park, but it was worth it for the solitude and our sightings of a quetzal and several small animals. The trails wandered for miles in a hush of a foggy, still rainforest...although in the end we still weren`t sure if the hours driving along a dusty gravel road were worth it.
To get back to civilization, we spent another couple of hours on gravel roads, and finally got back to the PanAmerican Highway. In my mind, this highway conjures images of a long stretch of good road all the way from Canada to Argentina....with a break to skip the Darien Gap in Panama. The reality wasn`t quite so nice...the PanAmerican Highway in Costa Rica is nothing more than a two-lane highway that is trying to handle all of the traffic for the entire country. As a result, we moved in a mile-long trail of slow trucks and semis, and didn`t get anywhere fast.
When the road in front of me was finally clear, I sped up for a couple of minutes, only to be pulled over by a Costa Rican Policeman for doing 38 mph in a 25 mph zone. Yup, the PanAmerican Highway has a 25 mph speed limit at times. Anyway. He started writing us a ticket, and told us that we would have to pay it at the bank in the nearby town when it opened on Monday morning. Don`t try this at home, kids. Now, this was late afternoon on a Friday, and we were due to fly out for Argentina the next morning. We flat out told him, in the politest way we could conjure up, that we were flying in 12 hours and there was no way could pay the ticket on Monday. With the locals, the policemen actually take their license until they pay their tickets, but evidently to our relief he could do no such thing to me. So we went back and forth a little bit, we asked if we could resolve it (i.e. bribe) with him immediately, and he eventually had us get back in our car, sans ticket, with the license, and drive away while his supervisor wasn`t looking. He knew that we had no way to pay it, and would have just ripped it up after leaving the country. I guess you could say we were lucky.
May 2 - Airport layover in La Paz, Peru
Yup, gotta love spending most of a day in an airport!