A fiery love affair
Not everyone followed advice on dressing appropriately for a jungle. As we sped away from Tortuguero, churning up the canal, a delightful Argentine woman, clearly comfortable in her own skin and very little else, had chosen what looked like baby-doll nightie (remember those?) and bikini ensemble.
“Spider monkeys” called out Oliver and the captain slowed the boat and turned it sideways and back, like a pointing bee, so everyone could get a view. I watched them closely, grateful for my ex-husband (a retired nature reserve warden) advising on which binoculars to buy. Binoculars, which by then were practically welded to my chest, because at any moment, who knows, I might see a tapir, or a toucan? The spider monkeys reminded me of a sticky stretchy thing the kids had when they were little that would slowly climb down the walls (leaving greasy slicks that never came out).
The drive to La Fortuna, where I could continue my love affair with volcanoes, rewarded us with glorious views of little houses painted in a pallet rarely dared in the UK. Tessa spent the journey snapping away, consequently making herself thoroughly sick. She offered me a ginger sweet and I learnt that she is best left to close her eyes and get through it without me fussing over her. We arrived at La Fortuna around lunch time, and were dropped off at Montechiari Lodges, tucked on the outskirts of town.
“Oh my God, she’s done it again,” we exclaimed “look what Paula’s found us and it’s hot. The view of the Arenal Volcano, one of the only 5 active perfectly pointy ones in the world, was framed by the lodges. We rushed to shed our stuff and take pictures – completely unaware at the time how lucky we were. Some people, we discovered, visit La Fortuna and need to be convinced there is actually a volcano there.
This was the place to go shopping our friend Amanda had said, and where I discovered we both like to shop. With gifts to buy, we quickly hung out our socks, umbrellas and shirts (on Tessa’s part who had exchanged trying to dry clothes in a soggy climate for a lighter suitcase). Our toes welcomed the relief from entrapment in walking boots into flip flops. La Fortuna is a pretty little town arranged around a square with restaurants, gift shops and upmarket chocolatier. We baulked at paying $8 for a slim bar and opted for one small coffee chocolate each. we bought real dried bananas in the health food shop, the like of which hasn’t appeared in the UK for a few years now since a hurricane. Quite unlike the crispy banana discs you find in muesli and trail mix, these were about 6 inches long, slim and gooey. A treat in my lunch boxes as a child, along with honey and ground hazelnut sandwiches, they marked me out at school in the 1950s as a totally weird vegetarian. I didn’t care, I loved them. My own children loved them too, though I suspect they were often swapped for crisps.
Encouraged by an American woman, a regular visitor to Arenal with groups of students, we had supper that night in the local pizza restaurant.
“If you like birds” she said “get up at dawn. They feed them near the restaurant, it’s amazing. Go watch.”
The pizza was, well, a pizza. Conversation was drowned out however by her students, off the leash from home and away from teach, and football on an overhead screen.
At 6am I quickly dressed and tiptoed out so as not to disturb Tessa. Taking my place, by the bird tables I waited, aware that I was not the only one: the bushes stirred. Just after 6 the bananas arrived and slowly at first, then in a rainbow flurry, the birds began to arrive led by chattering orange chinned parakeets. A mere 4 or 5 feet distant I watched as they were joined by a yellow crowned euphonia, scarlet thighed dancnis and scarlet rumped tanager. It must be what tripping is like. I shared a picture with my cat sitter back home in Gloucestershire. She returned a picture of mine with a squirrel on it.
“Look” said Tessa “that tree is covered in iguanas.” We tried to get pictures, but they were too high up for anything really satisfactory. We crossed over to the office to wait for the mini van for our next expedition, dressed in swimming costumes, shorts and skirt ready for a trip to the hot springs.
“Oh my god, look behind you, don’t move.”
Right beside the bench, keeping a close eye on us, but also not moving except for a that following eye, sat an iguana, more than a meter long head to tale, with claws you really wouldn’t want to mess with. What a poser.
We thought we were just going to the hot springs. Once again though, through lack of properly checking, we had failed to realise there was a scheduled hike up the volcano first.
“We are going to the dark side’ said Gabriel our guide, “the one where the lava flowed down, not the one you see now. The last eruption was in 1968, 120 people died, mainly women and children who were at home on the slopes; the men were out at work. It erupted from the top, keeping its perfect cone shape. Most people died from the gas, like Pompeii, slowly, hiding in their houses. Only 87 bodies were found. The rest were probably buried under huge lava bombs the size of our minivan.”
“Will we go to the top?” I asked, ever keen to see a bubbling cauldron waiting to blow.
“Too dangerous” said Gabriel “tourists not allowed.”
“Do toucans live up here?” I asked Gabriel.
“Yes, they do, I think I hear one” we scanned the trees “but maybe not see one. Toucans like cool weather. This is a bit hot for them.”
We cursed that we were in sweaty bathers, unprepared for a hike. We passed a lake covered in green algae, and watched a wattled jacana pick its way carefully over the scum with those huge blue feet. As we crunched up the solidified lava flow, now regenerated with trees and bushes, I was constantly aware of this fact, that in we were trespassing on a graveyard, that some of the bigger clods of lava were grave boulders on top of the missing. I wondered how people can live so close to volcanos? How do they sleep at night? I remembered the rumbles of Mount Merape in Java, the massive ejections of lava from the top the size of my house, every 10-15 minutes. The noise they made of cracking and banging as they cooled and solidified tumbling down the cinder slopes. We were thoughtful as we picked our way carefully down, and delighted and grateful by the sight that met us when we rejoined our driver.
“For you” he beamed.
“But for you too” we insisted.
Ecotherminales was our next surprise – quite unlike the hot springs I’d enjoyed in Thailand which were what you could call truly natural and rustic. Ecotherminales was more like a smart spa, subtly lit, with a series of very posh springs, with graded pools from comfortably bearable to ‘would you really want to do that to yourself?’
Men with Kindles held aloft lounged reading in the comfortably warm lowest pool. We lolled about and swam around for a bit, lay on our backs and watched the stars come out, swam to the waterfall and gave our shoulders a thumping massage. There was a surprise for us in the next pool, the cocktail bar pool ,filled with American students intent on getting wrecked. I indulged in a cocktail. This is the life, I was thinking…when I saw two familiar faces.
“Hi ” I said “remember us?” The Argentine woman and her husband floated past. The woman looked puzzled…but then with wet hair only she could look distinctive.
“The boat,” I said “Tortuguero?”
It went on like this for a bit and Tessa and I floated off to another corner. Then “Ah si,”pura vida” said her husband saying something to his wife in Spanish. Her face lit up.
“I’ll try my Spanish” I said to Tessa. My understanding is definitely better than speaking. I learnt that she was a belly dance and salsa teacher (of course she was, what else?).
“Tessa and I met at belly dance classes” I attempted in Spanish, already out of my depth, but gestures help a lot. Then, and I still don’t know why I said it, but maybe it was because he said he was a vet and they had 6 dogs and would understand the pain of losing a pet, I launched into what I thought was “my cat died just before we left, it was a shock.” Actually I don’t know what I said but surely morte is dead? And gatto is cat? But as I was duel learning Spanish and Italian at the beginning I may have got in a bit of a muddle. I tried again. They still looked blank.
“At least you tried” said Tessa “and you understood what they said. Well done.
We showered and dressed in the changing rooms to the accompaniment of one of the American girls kneeling on the floor of one of the loos vomiting loudly. The friend who’d been holding back her hair said “it’s time to go in to dinner, do you want any?” What was she thinking?