After three good months in Oaxaca we’re finally off and into the great unknown. Our first stop was Arenal, Costa Rica. After flying into San Jose, we rented a car and made the 2.5 hour drive north to get there. If you’ve ever driven the south island of New Zealand then you’ll have some idea of the incredible beauty of this drive. High, rolling green hills stretching to the horizon, thick jungles, charming towns…it’s like a scene out of The Hobbit. We were also impressed by how clean everything was. In Mexico, you just take it for granted that there is refuse everywhere and there doesn’t seem to be much of a national consciousness about it. In Costa Rica, you can’t drive a mile without seeing a garbage can and there’s signs dotting the countryside reminding people not to litter. Obviously, there is a national campaign aimed at keeping it clean and it’s working! It’s great to see in general and especially when you consider the immense beauty of the place and how it could so easily be ruined.
Arriving in Arenal it is immediately clear that these people are tourism experts. If you’re looking for a quaint little town tucked away in the mountains and untouched by the modern world, this isn’t it. There are restaurants, cafes, bakeries, clothing stores, high end resorts and endless outdoor adventure businesses. Tourism is the name of the game. The area itself was made famous because of its volcano which is the centerpiece around which everything is built. And though it stopped spewing lava in 2007, it’s still stunning to behold, rising dramatically from the earth and standing in stark contrast to its surroundings.
We chose to stay at a little Eco-lodge located just outside of the main town and in the shadow of the volcano called The Arenal Oasis. I’ve never quite understood what makes an Eco-lodge, “Eco”. We’ve stayed in a few now and no one has ever mentioned what it could be and there hasn’t been any literature about it. From what I can figure it’s just that the accommodation is simple and rustic. The Arenal Oasis is that but in good way. The cabins are well spaced so you have your privacy. The interiors are utilitarian but comfortable, and the setting truly feels like you’re tucked away in the jungle even though, after driving through town, you know that you’re not.
In Arenal there are dozens of outdoor adventures available. River rafting, hikes to the volcano, rock climbing and repelling, 4 wheeler tours through the jungle and of course, zip lining. We chose zip lining as it seemed the most family friendly and easy for the kids. The price was outrageous as are most things in Arenal but it was really fun. “Go Adventure,” was the name of the outfitter. It’s a series of 10 or so stations each going further and further down from a mountaintop, deeper and deeper into the jungle canopy. At the end you can choose to repel off a cliffside and down to the river below. The kids were nervous to begin with but by the end they were fearless and excited to cruise through the jungle at speed.
The next trip we took was to go see a famous waterfall in the area called La Fortuna. It was truly stunning. But again, if you want the experience of hiking through the jungle and happening upon an amazing natural wonder, this place isn’t for you. Getting in is similar to waiting for tickets to Disneyland. A line of ticket windows, gift shops, restaurants, crowds…this place has definitely been “discovered”. It’s all worth it though as the waterfall is amazingly beautiful and the clear, cold water is super refreshing after the long hike down.
Another big draw in Arenal is its hot springs which are fed by volcano heated water that flows down into the valley below. There are probably a dozen or so different ones you can go to, each with different prices and amenities. We went to 3 different ones because first off, they are awesome. And secondly, they are the perfect place to take kids. They can wander and explore and try out the different pools for hours. Some also have water slides which the kids never seem to tire of. The first one we went to is also the least expensive and the one that is most visited by Costa Ricans instead of tourists. It’s called “Termalita”, and it was probably our favorite. There were many pools to choose from, each at a different temperature, a restaurant, a bar and a water slide. Plus, we were the only gringos there which was great. Everyone was super friendly and we got a chance to practice our Spanish with a few local families. The kids had a blast and Catherine and I got a chance to relax in peace for a few hours.
The second hot springs we went to was called Los Laureles. This was another one that was inexpensive and mainly visited by locals. However, it was far less charming than Termalita. At Termalita, there are little paths leading to the different pools that cut through amazing jungle landscape. The foliage is beautiful and it feels like you are constantly discovering new aspects of the place. Los Laureles is just a series of pools that are all out in the open and no thought has been given to its potential charm or aesthetics. Adding insult to injury, there is no bar here. I can hardly remember being so affronted and it wasn’t until several long minutes had past that Catherine was finally able to calm me. It was not our best day and we have no photos of this wretched place.
Our last day in Arenal was also Charlie’s birthday. We decided to blow the budget a little bit and go to one of the really nice hot springs in the the area. This one was set in a 5 star resort called The Springs. Walking in with our board shorts and stained T-shirts we felt a little out of place. But, nothing but smiles as they happily ran our credit card and led us to the pools. Here, the springs were in a couple of different spots. Right by the resort there were several pools surrounding a big, swim up bar serving drinks with names like, “Lava Flow,” and “Flaming Volcano”. These drinks all had colorful straws and an assortment of impossibly angled fruit…and were delicious. But no Costa Ricans here. I chatted with a dentist from Canada who bore a striking resemblance to the comedian, Carrot top. He refused to stop speaking and so I ordered another cocktail, ruefully, wishing somehow that I could control the actions of others. We also met an on air television personality from Costa Rica who had abruptly quit his job in television to start a coffee company. He was pleasant and his daughter befriended the kids. They spent several hours chasing each other around the property which was great.
A few hundred yards down from the first set of pools there was a second set. These were really beautiful and cut into the jungle. We swam, slept in lounge chairs and had lunch. There was also another water slide which kept the kids occupied for several more hours. That night we ate a horribly overpriced dinner in one of the many restaurants on site and celebrated Charlie’s birthday in style. Our son is 7 now. As I write that down I can still hardly believe it. Time…I just can’t think of what to say about time.