Finally: our "3rd time's a charm" on local excursions
Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Back in January when the plan of moving to Costa Rica was starting to take shape and as a family we spent a night curled up on the floor combing through those library travel books, charting on a spreadsheet where to go and when, of course every outing that made it to the list played out gloriously in my mind. Gloriously as in sun, blue skies, happy children frolicking through the rainforest, ample fauna (I'm not gonna lie, I prefer fauna to flora....a plant has to be pretty darn fabulous to get me excited), bubbling curiosity that would result in us, as a family, hunkering down at night to investigate a new bird species or some wild critter we came across....
It has not quite played out that way. Not at all, in fact. On top of just getting a good ol' fashioned late start on our spreadsheet thanks to (COVID) ridiculousness of quarantine, etc., we've had to rearrange the sheet (I hate rearranging a very nicely crafted plan) to accommodate changes in our US travel schedule and other details (like having to devote endless weekends to - still - working on our house).
That being said, we are still committed to carving out two times a month for exploring our new country - both near and far. Near for the purpose of growing our business and having more travel opportunities for our clients and far because this country has so much diversity and cool stuff to offer within a relatively short (albeit windy, narrow, potholey, and sometimes dicey) drive from where we live. As of now, with all the home projects, nearby visits to places we hope to take future travelers to through our business have been taking precedent over far-off destinations. These closer-to-home spots make them doable in a day from home and in particular if we want to swing them at the last minute:
Me (to Johel) on Saturday as we are both sweating and sore from plant-hauling or cement spreading or bush whacking or some other ridiculous home project: Let's go hike at the Arenal Volcano Monday.
Johel: Ok, sure.
Me: Text your family if anyone wants to join us.
Johel: Oh (pause). As in, this Monday?
Me: Of course this Monday.
Johel: (Another pause) Yeah, let's do it.
Me like-ies. This is the way to operate. We work like dogs every weekend, and have an active volcano visible on clear days from our front yard that is a 50 minute drive away. Why wouldn't we drop everything and head there on a Monday for a hike? We've done this three times since moving here and yesterday we finally had our first winning experience. Quasi-glorious in the way I had envisioned back in January when we were all thinking about what we really wanted to get out of this year abroad. The two attempts prior....not so fabulous. Here's the story:
About a month ago, I broke out the travel spreadsheet to start working our way through the schedule. Braulio Carrillo National Park was an October destination, an enormous park created in 1975 to protect regions on either side of a new highway developed from San Jose to Guapiles, in large part because it is a major watershed. This park has major elevation changes within it, a volcano, a beautiful lake, and tons of bird and other wildlife species. It has two entrances, and the one that enticed us would lead us to the volcano on a 10 kilometer round trip hike that was supposed to be - as Oliver would say - epic. We recruited two family members to join us, set out early in the morning on the two-hour drive to near San Jose, crawling up a major mountain (in a gas guzzling Honda Pilot in a place where gas is $4 a liter!) on the outskirts of town that required serious 4-wheel drive - potholes and rocks and narrows - oh my! - only to arrive to a closed gate with a little 8.5x11 sheet of paper with "cerrado" on it. What?!? We weren't the only idiots (although I'm not going to lie, there weren't many of us) who'd braved the insane climb up to the entrance to only then realize we couldn't get in. I stood at the large gate while the family waited in the car, looking for any sign that this was a mistake and I was just misinterpreting what, in fact, might be closed. I spied a ranger working on weeding outside the station and called to her to see what was up.
"We're closed because we can't accept credit card up here....no wifi."
"We can't accept cash due to COVID."
And online payment that other parks in Costa Rica require?
"This sector isn't registered yet for online payment." But she kindly suggested I drive another hour or so in the opposite direction of our house to hit up the other sector of the park what had wifi and therefore could accept the - wait for it - $2 entry fee per person.
Two dollars?!?! They wouldn't let anyone in because they weren't set up for online payment of $2? And they couldn't set up a little lock box to quarantine the cash til it was COVID-free (really? on cash?) so people could enter? Trust me, no one was going to hike up that mountain to steal the cash box. It was insane. Even more crazy: I'd been on the official National Park website the night before and there was no notification of closure. Grrrrr.
So no Braulio Carrillo. Thank God we'd invited family along, or we would have had a bunch of seriously angry children berating us during that 7-hour round trip day of driving nowhere (except to stop for a picnic at some cloudy picnic spot en route). Seven hours because on the way home, we tried to make the whole trip worthwhile by heading straight to another National Park somewhat en route back to La Flor. That park was open, but only accepting reservations and had filled for the day by the time we arrived - in a monsoon, so it was probably for the better - but still. Major bummer.
So that was local-ish outing #1, and it was a total bust. Outing #2 came two weekends ago when we headed to nearby Laguna Hule for a day of hiking. This area has a series of three deep-set lakes that you can hike to. Anyone who has been to Crater Lake in Oregon and has driven up for the first time to the crest of the hill where the Lake comes into view would know what I mean when I say the beauty takes your breath away. Laguna Hule is quite similar, only instead of being surrounded by rock, it's surrounded by rainforest. Pretty awesome.
Pretty awesome, that is, until it starts raining. Scratch that: monsooning. And you've forgotten to pack the raincoats or towels in the car or a change of clothes. And the hike is a wonderful downhill (but hellish uphill on the return) to the first lake and then a - literally - labyrinth of mud bog to the next lake. Rain + chills + mud + endless trees = unhappy children = unhappy parents. Our only quasi saving grace on this hike was that at the first lake, Yori found someone's discarded homemade fishing pole. She happily carried it to lake #2, where Johel dug her up some worms and together they fished two itty bitty fish to at least keep her happy. I also managed to fish out of the sopping wet backpack one little, lonely bag of peanut trail mix that we all split between the five of us to keep us going. Leo was chilled to the bone and therefore needed to be held most of the way to transfer body heat, and Ollie's 10 and therefore ripe and ready for complaining for just about anything. A soaking mud-fest would be a good place to start. That, coupled with the fact we found a really cool (but scarily red and enormous) rusty millipede that, when Johel got close to snap a picture as it scaled a dirt wall, loosened the soil and dropped to our feet, sent everyone over the edge. Yori was sobbing and Ollie was furious he was put in so much danger (the millipede didn't actually do anything but keep on moving through the leaves), but for the drama factor, everyone acted as if it had practically lunged itself at us.
The only saving grace on this hike was that there was a little soda (cafe) next to where we'd parked our car. We stripped Leo down in the Honda, cranked the heat, air-dried at least his undies, and I headed in praying they served at the very least hot chocolate. They did! I had the order placed within a minute and within five, we were all inside curled around our individual cups for warmth. We (as in Johel and I) got very lucky that the kids all left Laguna Hule that day doped up on sugar...it helped them to forgive us a little. As for the hike, it was surely incredible, but the weather that day left something to be desired. At the very least, we learned that you never head anywhere hiking in Costa Rica without:
Change of clothes and dry towel in the car
Water & a snack
Hiking shoes (at least we'd had these: if we'd have been in tennis shoes, things would have been even uglier!)
So that was regional-exploration attempt #2. Those were the only two that were really on our official list, but I was so desperate for something nearby and amazing (of which #1 and #2 surely are, but our timing was crappy), I settled on Arenal National Park. This place never really excited me, since it is pretty touristy, but it was...
B. Involved hiking and minimal planning
...so we decided to go. And it was outstanding! All those glorious visions I had of sun, incredible views, some unique wildlife, AMAZING trees that got even me excited, easy to digest history/science for the kids to see and experience played out here. We arrived at the park by 9:30 and spent the next five sunny hours meandering through both the Volcan and Peninsula Sector's to not only see and climb around the roots of a 400-year-old Ceiba tree with buttress roots, but we happened to spot an - unknowingly - endangered Keel-billed Motmot, got to dip our hands in Laguna Arenal, had a Watusa cross our path, and viewed the volcano completely uncovered. The kids were able to see where the volcano's craters were and where different lava flows had ended and observe changes in the vegetation based on where we were in relation to the previous lava cover. They observed different root structures of rainforest trees, identified which trees are favored by sloths, and got to check out a Pavo Silvestre (wild turkey) in the trees. And as a reward, we even found a spot where you can relax in a meandering hot spring river just outside of one of the major resorts...for free (yes, please!).
It was good. Very good. I was thrilled to discover this fabulously-close, incredibly inexpensive, truly beautiful natural wonder, and even more so that the family actually finally had a good experience exploring (trust me, they were all losing faith...) So Volcan Arenal National Park was our "third time's a charm". I'm hopeful it set the stage for many more successful adventures in the coming months as we explore all the amazing diversity this country as to offer.