Monday, July 2, 2012

Pura Vida: Arenal Volcano, Baldi Hot Springs

A short walk from the Tree House Hotel, Becky and I found lunch on the side of a mountain at a restaurant called Lomas del Mapache (translation?  "Raccoon Hills").

Their driveway is long, winding, and gravel, with a breathtaking view that goes on forever.  This is a good example of one of my favorite things about Costa Rica; you didn't need a building to have a restaurant.  If you had a kitchen, a bathroom, a roof, and maybe a wall or two, you were good to go.  Lomas del Mapache had no walls.

The food was too salty and waaaay too buttery (I got the feeling they were trying to appeal to American palates, or their idea of the American palate, but I've seen some positive reviews so maybe we just got the wrong cook) but the fresh juices and the atmosphere made up for it.  At the raccoon restaurant, we met another couple from the US who would be hiking Arenal Volcano with us. Our guide, Juan Carlos, picked us up after lunch, and we were off.  

Juan Carlos had a weathered face and a fit frame that belied his forty-three years.  He taught us a lot during our long hike.  Since some of his tour was anecdotal - his grandfather made mattresses out of this certain reed, this backyard fruit helped his parents kept him and his twelve siblings fed - it opened the door for a lot of questions about him.    

He used to be one of those guys by the San Carlos airport clamoring to give rides to tourists (be warned; the gypsy cabs in New York City have nothing on these vultures).  Then the economy went to hell.  There are a lot of guys looking to give rides.  One month he only had one fare.  Clearly, something had to change.

In picking up odd jobs around La Fortuna, Juan Carlos came across the Tree House Hotel.  His outgoing personality, work ethic and facility for English (which came to him late in life; he hated learning English in school; classmates made fun of his accent, so he vowed never to speak English again), made him a natural tour guide.  He claims to have spent those first few tours huffing and puffing his way up Arenal, but the only thing slowing his spry steps when we went was the four Americans he took with him.

Juan Carlos showed us a trick for testing to see if a fence was electrified; use a leaf.

Walking toward Arenal, this tremendouse volcano, fills you with a sense of adventure.  It's like walking into Middle Earth.  Our guide said he hasn't seen the volcano spew for years, and he hadn't seen red lava for seven months.  Still, we were not disappointed at all.

Happy Hiker.

Totally Tolkien.

These termites live in their own poo, homes that look like large growths on the sides of trees.  Juan Carlos compared their work with dead foliage to a doctor removing a gangrenous limb.  Their homes have a definite pooish smell, but the really odd smell came when he stuck his finger into one.  They give off a chemical that breaks down the rotten wood - and burned his skin.  It had an add smell and a sticky texture.  He said it had medicinal properties.

This picture is also a good example of how dark the rainforest is under deep cover.  It looks like a night shot, but these pictures are in order.

When Arenal erupted in 1968, this lake was created.  

Just 42 years ago, this landscape was nothing but ash and cinders.

This was our view of Juan Carlos most of the time.  When he found a weird plant that snapped when you touch it, or a forty-foot outcropping of rock that spewed from the volcano in one shot and took twenty years to cool completely, or a monkey, he'd stop and wait for us.  After explaining whatever it was he found, he'd move on.  Quickly.

He said he loved giving tours because he saw everything through our eyes, like it was the first time.

According to our guidebook, one or two people each year die when they hike beyond this point.  There's a warning sign that's pretty tough to miss, in English and Spanish, but people are stupid.  "Tell that shit to the latte-drinking, 401K crowd; I'm am outdoorsman."  But dying on a volcano in Costa Rica, while stupid, is at least unusual.   

View from the top.

This palm is largely unchanged since pre-historic times.
Which is neat and all, but check out how awesome Becky is with a camera.

After all that hiking, what could be better than a dip into some hot springs?  Baldi Hot Springs is a luxury hotel with hot water pools.  The pools are man-made, and they pump the heated, mineral-enriched water from springs beneath the earth.  The heat is very relaxing for sore muscles and the minerals are beneficial for your skin.

The buffet was decent.  Very good, if you like buffets.  But the hot springs were amazing.  Large, tiled pools with built in levels for lounging, cooler pools were you could swim up to the bar for drinks, secluded pools mostly covered by plants that seemed to invite sex, mini-waterfalls where children splashed around; there was something for everyone, and we enjoyed them all.  Well, all except for one that was too hot to enter even for a moment.  Baldi has the hottest springs in Arenal.  If that's your thing, definitely check them out.

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