Saturday, June 4, 2011

Trapped in paradise

I realize it's taken me like, two months to tell you about my entire Costa Rica trip, but a trip to the Monterey Peninsula and a very worthy bake sale took a handful of my blogging time away.  I also realize you might not even really care about the remainder of it but I write this for myself just as much as I write it for all of you.  And I guess I want to write a travel journal here!  If you don't know what I'm referring to, please click here.
Our third and final stop in Costa Rica: La Fortuna (Arenal Volcano)
Arenal Volcano loomed over us everywhere we went!
So... we left the rolling green hills and small quaint towns of Monteverde and headed down the mountain back to the heat and humidity.  Our next and last stop in Costa Rica was the town of La Fortuna.  However, La Fortuna is probably less well known by name than it is known for the active volcano whose shadow shades it: Arenal.
The drive out of the mountains towards the volcano in the distance

The "Jeep-Boat-Jeep" option from Monteverde to La Fortuna did not include a Jeep, but a van...
Arenal Volcano was thought to be extinct until it unexpectedly erupted in 1968 and killed over 70 people in the villages of Tabacón, San Luís and Pueblo Nuevo.  It is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and while it should be viewed as a danger to the people living around it, it is also a fascinating draw to those who don't.  After the eruption in 1968, tourists began flocking to the area in droves, to see the steam and rocks it spits and marvel at its magnificence.
The doggies in La Fortuna know how to handle the heat and humidity

The town of La Fortuna sort of reminded me of a small California Central Valley town
Of course the small local towns and villages had to accommodate the tourist demand, but as will frequently occur, it seemed to happen hastily if not even a bit crudely.  La Fortuna shows signs of this for sure.  It's not really an attractive town, however there is no shortage of restaurants, tours operators, taxis or souvenir shops.  The area grew to accommodate the tourists as opposed to the tourists coming because it was such a lovely area.
We got fresh squeezed fruit juice smoothies everywhere we went!

The fact that we could see the top of the volcano most of the time was apparently very rare
At the other end of the spectrum are the large and luxurious resorts and hot springs which have popped up along the roads leading away from town.  They too, bank on the tourists and capitalize on the geothermal activity in the ground which produces naturally occurring hot springs.  And the people, they do come.
Our pricey prison ;)

One cannot complain that Tabacón was not gorgeous
We stayed at one of these places; perhaps the most famous, actually: Tabacón (named for the village the volcano buried 40 years ago).  I'd been told by 3 different friends that I had to stay here.  And I don't exactly regret that we did, though I have some mixed feelings about this place.  While it was gorgeous, had earned 5 stars and is considered one of the Leading Hotels of the World, I guess I am still too Chinese cheap for these accommodations.  The room was affordable in my book at under $200/night, but NOTHING else was.  No meal was less than $25 (even breakfast) and no drink was under $5 (even cans of soda).  The spa treatments cost more than some of the nicest spas in San Francisco and to "escape" to town cost $24 for a round-trip taxi.  Upon arrival we felt a bit "trapped".  But I suppose there are worse places to be trapped...
Can this be my room at home, too?

Some of the beautiful grounds at the hot springs
Tabacón is not only famous for being a luxury resort, it is famous for its prolific hot springs.  Set about a 1/4 mile from the hotel is the famous Grand Spa which we joked was like a Raging Waters for adults.  I lost count of the (supposedly all natural) hot spring pools and waterfalls that meandered through the expansive property.  They range in temperature from "holy-crap-I-think-I'm-sitting-in-lava" to "comfortable".  And fortunately for me (I get hot when the sun is out on a 65 °F day) there were also a couple man-made cooling pools.  I swear you could hear the steam sizzle off my skin as I'd drop into one of these...
Every pool you could see was open for lounging

Sitting under the waterfalls was basically equivalent to getting a massage
The one HUGE "cost savings" in staying at Tabacón is that unlimited access to the hot springs is included.  This is a pretty big deal since folks NOT staying at the resort are required to pay $60/day to access the hot springs.  And you can't pay hourly...  Not like anyone would really stay all day - I think we'd had enough after an hour or two each day.  But it still felt like a pretty good deal.
Patacones are flattened and fried plantains

We loved all these Central American Chinese sauces in the grocery store!!
We didn't do a whole lot else in La Fortuna, but that's partly because we'd already done a lot in Monteverde.  All those "typical" Costa Rican adventures (ziplining and the canopy tours) are available out of La Fortuna too.  So are white water rafting, waterfall repelling, horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, etc.  But being on the tail-end of our trip we were happy to relax and spend our energy seeking out food which was not casado...
La Choza de Laurel - our lunch stop in La Fortuna

Beautiful presentation; food still tasted the same...
We did spend one day completely away from the resort.  We headed into town before noon and had lunch at a huge outdoor restaurant called La Choza de Laurel.  Food was very pretty to photograph and while it tasted good - it was nothing new.  We were getting so jaded by this point!  After lunch we took a cab to Arenal Waterfall where it cost us about $9 each to "hike" down to the waterfall.  By "hike" I mean descend a series of very steep steps.  Not so much, hiking but I was okay with this.  Arrival to the waterfall was speedy and cool, relatively speaking, since we were covered by shade the entire time.  The best part of this experience is that once you arrive at the waterfall, sweaty and sticky - you can jump in and swim in the water!
Steps on the "hike" down to Arenal Waterfall

You can see some people next to the falls for scale
As we waited at the Liberia airport to fly through Houston and back to San Francisco, we were dumbfounded at the number of Americans piled up waiting at each gate.  I think Spanish speakers were in the minority here.  It was just a little bit shocking to us.  We'd observed this repeatedly over the course of the last 9 days, perhaps commencing with the fact that we'd found our way to a "foreign" country where we didn't even need to exchange money.  But seeing all these Americans with iPods and laptops filling the small airport really drove it home.  
Breakfast in the room one morning

Our final view of Arenal Lake on the way to the airport
Costa Rica was a beautiful getaway and a wonderfully relaxing place to vacation.  There were fun activities and mini-adventures to be had.  The people were kind and made us feel safe.  And with the same time zone as Arizona, there is basically no jet-lag!  But the food was disappointing and the authenticity questionable.  It's sad to see what I'm certain is a beautiful culture and landscape transform itself to suit its tourists.  And yet this happens repeatedly in the big cities of third world countries.  We probably won't return, but this doesn't mean others shouldn't.  Just go knowing what you're getting into.  Take plenty of US dollars and remember you don't need electrical adapters.  You'll feel right at home.