A bonus blog for you this week! No big lessons or self discoveries - just a travel report from my last few days in La Fortuna and Arenal volcano. I have a bit of extra time to post today since I'm here in La Fortuna a bit longer than expected. As per an earlier blog post, you learn to roll with it here in Costa Rica. My "daily" shuttle to Tortuguero - my next stop - in fact is not running today. So, I'll head out tomorrow and in the meantime, take advantage of my extra time - and good wifi - to give you this update.
I left Monteverde on Thursday afternoon on a shuttle to La Fortuna. There was only one other person in the van. We drove almost 2 hours on unpaved roads and were deposited on the shore of Lake Arenal and told a boat would come for us "in about 20 minutes." 20 minutes in "Tico Time" can be anywhere from an hour to tomorrow. Fortunately, this 20 minutes ended up being only about an hour and a half and then, lo and behold, a boat appeared on the horizon. We crossed the lake in the boat - another hour voyage - and then had a relatively quick 30 minute drive to La Fortuna on paved roads!
Coming into La Fortuna was like arriving in Vegas. There are a bunch of hot springs in the area and several HUGE Vegas-esque resort hotels and spas. Once we got past all those, we got to La Fortuna, which is like Monteverde's more touristy cousin. The majority of the town fits within a 2- or 3-block radius and consists almost entirely of tourist trap souvenir shops and "information centers" trying to sell guided tours. The center of the town is a very pretty park with manicured lawns and flower beds that faces the huge Catholic Church. My hotel is just a block away from the town park and has an open courtyard that looks onto the volcano. A great spot!
Day 1 in La Fortuna, I did a day hike by myself to Arenal National Park. Admittedly, I thought the park had a bit more of a trail system than it actually did, so my day hike actually ended up being a morning hike of the trails, a lunch break, and then an afternoon hike of the same trails. The difference between morning and afternoon was actually pretty interesting to see. The volcano was pretty much cloaked in a cloud the entire morning, so I didn't get to really see it until my afternoon rounds. Also, while I saw birds during the morning and afternoon walks, I saw way more lizards - cool ones! - and butterflies in the afternoon. The volcano last had a major eruption in 1968 - wiped out one town and killed about 80 people. The mountain was still sending out lava flows through 2010. Although it has been quiet since then, there is still a spot towards the top where you can see steam escaping and it's still considered highly "active."
Day 2 I signed on with a tour group for a day trip to Cano Negro wildlife refuge - about 1 1/2 hours north and practically on the Nicaragua border. (I was told to make sure I had a copy of my passport. Intrigue!) I saw all sorts of wildlife - birds, reptiles... more monkeys! The tour guide was a young guy who was great at being able to spot things to see and had all sorts of interesting info about the area and the critters.
Day 3 I did a hike by myself in the morning to the La Fortuna waterfall. I know, I know, coming from Oregon and going to see a waterfall? Really? But it was billed as one of the "must sees" here and it did not disappoint. I walked through the rural area out of the main town to get there and got to see how much agriculture is going on in this part of the country. All sorts of crops and cows. Very different than the other spots I've been so far. In the afternoon, I took another guided hike to a private reserve near the volcano. Again, my tour guide was young, and this time female (the whole group of hikers were gals!) At the end of the hike, we all had a beer and after 2 days of being really impressed with the knowledge these young guides have, I asked ours (Mariela) how she came to know everything she did. She said she went to a technical school at the high school level to get a certificate in ecotourism. It took an extra year and had more requirements than basic high school - much more English language (she was throwing around terms like "photosynthesis" and "deciduous") - and at the end she had to take an exam. The school was here in La Fortuna but she had to take the test in San Jose.
A note on the education system here. It is AWESOME. All the school kids I've seen are in uniforms and are not getting out of school until like 5 in the afternoon. Everyone I've spoken with in the hotels or stores or any tourist-oriented business has spoken at least some English. One of my tour guides said the country has a literacy rate of 93%. Costa Rica does not have an army. One of their past presidents made the decision that the country did not need an army and should instead put those funds towards schools, and look at the results! Every teeny tiny town I've driven through has had a school. I mean, on the bumpy 90-minute drive from Monteverde to the lake, we drove through one "town" that had a church, a school next door, and about 10 houses on either side. Wowza. Something to be said for that.
Almost happy hour time here. Time to head to the hotel courtyard to enjoy an Imperial and watch the sun set behind Arenal. It's a tough life. Next stop... Tortuguero (I hope).