Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Our First Trip to Lake Arenal

Lake Arenal is about a 2 ½ to 3 hour drive from Atenas with several typical Tico towns like Palmares and San Ramon along the way; followed by the pleasure of driving through some of Costa Rica’s many micro climates and cloud forests

This beautiful mountain terrain is wet most of the year. The mist and clouds heighten curiosity of the atmosphere with brief glimpses of breath taking farms through the fog. The climate lends itself to oversized vegetation and orchids growing wild on the road side. A massive blue morpho butterfly almost touched the windshield during our ascent and I remember thinking, wow, that was the bluest thing I have ever seen.

This was our first trip to the lake so after carefully packing our necessities, Max, age 4, Sara, age 2 and our family dog, Coffee all jumped in the back of our trusty truck at sun up. Being the wise parents, and appeasing my pregnant wife, we stopped at the local panderia in Atenas to stuff ourselves with sugar filled, tasty bread treats before embarking on our expedition. Driving through the mountains of Costa Rica can be dizzying and jaunting, even at a slow pace. Half way through the winding roads of the cloud forest, my beautiful daughter Sara began to evacuate all of her tasty treats and milk into her lap and about the vehicle. With not too many places to pull over on the 2 lane mountain roads safely, the smell began permeating the cab of the truck, and my wife, with morning sickness, was starting to turn green, not so calmly telling me, “Stop the truck!” We soon found a safe place to pull over so I alone could deal with the mess. I unbuckled the car seat from the back and removed it, Sara still buckled in, placing them on the tail gate of the truck. As I was cleaning the creamy chunky mush off my shivering 2 year old with nothing but wet wipes, thinking, this trip is OVER, out of nowhere appeared an elderly woman who pointed up the hill to a farm house.

This kind woman invited us up to her home and provided us with a hose and several cleaning products to tidy the mess. She washed the car seat cover and Sara’s clothes in her home, and quickly ended the catastrophe with her kindness. We were worried our trip had ended, but now we were back on the road within 45 minutes. This is one of many examples of a Costa Rican’s kindness and acceptance of our family to their country.

Descending out of the cloud forest we travel through the plains with more beautiful banana farms before finally seeing the volcano in the distance. La Fortuna, a tourist town, is situated at the foot of Volcan Arenal, displaying the towering volcano as its background landscape. Most of the shops along the town square are expensive and geared for tourists, but a block or two off the main path, we found a great deal on a casado plate, which we all shared along with ice cold frescas. Our dog, Coffee seems to always be welcome at the local sodas (eateries). La Fortuna Park is full of gladiolas and a water fountain for the kids.

Leaving La Fortuna the volcano begins to look as if you could grab the perfect cone shape from your car window, flip it and load a scoop of ice cream. We passed many hot spring resorts throughout the base of the volcano that seemed to be busy, even in the slow season. As we approached the Arenal Dam, we noticed many travelers stopping their vehicles to photograph the incredible views of the blue green waters and mountain range back drops of Lake Arenal. The most incredible part was the serenity of the lake. It was not filled with speed boats and jet skis like our lake in Texas. In fact, there were no boats, no people, just Pura Vida!

About 20 minutes later we arrived at the lake. We decided to stay at Toad Hall for our two day adventure because the 76 signs on the way told us to. Toad Hall is a bed and breakfast type place with good food, clean accommodations, great gift shop, good view of the lake (not the volcano), lake access, and an ok price. We quickly changed into our swim suits and embarked on the beautiful 5 minute walk down a dirt road to the lake. The lake is just gorgeous with deep blue water cut between two lush, green mountain ranges and it was like glass that day. The pier was constructed of 55 gallon drums and old wood where we took no time to lunge into the water for a swim. The shock of the cold clear water quickly washed away the warm sweat we worked up on the walk. It is easy to get accustom to the cold water, and I would have floated in that spot all day because the views from the water are better than they are on the shore. We walked back up to the hotel after our swim and surprised a boa constrictor on a bird cage.

The snake wrapped himself around a large cage of parakeets. The maintenance man quickly sent him away with a broom down the mountain. Our kids were awestruck and learned a good lesson about snakes as we discussed the day over dinner and a spectacular sunset. This was a good example of how Arenal still remains a remote jungle. The locals told us stories of seeing black panthers in the area as well. The hotel itself was a bird sanctuary, housing a toucan, several parrots and parakeets. We awoke to the flamboyant calling of parrots and jungle sounds, creating a truly wild experience for these native Texans.

Our second trip to Arenal was a day trip and a little less smelly since we were careful to feed the kids something easier on the stomach. We made certain to stop at the farmhouse and offer a homemade gift to the kind woman that saved us from the self-inflected disaster aforementioned. Her farmhouse was easy to find because the memory was still etched clearly in our mind as we drove through the cloud forest hoping for calm stomachs and clear skies. She accepted our gift with surprise and gratitude as expected and invited our kids back to play at the farm anytime. Contrary to rumors of constant heavy rains, it was again a beautiful day as we approached the lake. The sun highlighted cuts and grooves in the volcano range carved by lava from past eruptions. Crossing the dam, we noticed an access road to the lake a few kilometers after the bridge, on the left so we decided to investigate. We took a chance on a dirt road that opened up to a nice spot on the lake where cars were parked and families from Heredia had the same idea of enjoying the lake for the day.

My son immediately took off and was in the water before the rest of us could get out of the truck. We sat on the tailgate, picnicked from our cooler, swam and fished. There was a huge dead tree right on the shore were my son and daughter fished all day when they weren’t in the water. My wife, with her belly starting to show from the new baby on board, smiled all day, taking pictures. My daughter, happy eating mud, followed my son around all day. And my son learned how to cast a rod and reel that day (pretty good I might add). It was another great day at the lake. Pura vida!

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