Steve and I did not know that the first time our eyes beheld Lake Arenal that it would be a life-changing moment. But so it was. It's funny how in life, you spend all your time avoiding the proverbial "cracks in the sidewalk," but you never see the freight train coming.
In January of 2003, we took our first real vacation together by spending two weeks in Costa Rica. Our plan was to spend a few days at the Arenal Volcano and then drive out to the beach at Playa Tamarindo on the Pacific coast. We had only met the summer before, but after a whirlwind romance had gotten engaged on Steve's birthday in early October and were planning our wedding for the following June. So, although we were madly in love, we had not actually known each other all that long.
Steve had a burning passion to visit Costa Rica and I, being a Geologist, was dying to see a live volcano. Simple enough decision, right? Let's go to Costa Rica for vacation and visit a volcano. It never occurred to us that making this simple vacation plan would change the course of our lives.
We flew from our home near Charlotte, NC to San Jose which is the capital of Costa Rica. We rented a Jeep and drove up through the town of Fortuna to Arenal. At one point during the drive, we rounded a bend in the road and got our first clear look at Volcan Arenal. OMG! The volcano was absolutely HUGE, and perfectly cone-shaped like a cartoon drawing of a volcano. And there was a black, roiling Ghostbuster cloud hovering above the summit (see Photo #1).
"Oh crap! Is that really where we're going?!" (I tend to curse a lot - get over it.)
"That looks pretty scary. And surreal."
"Well, Honey, you wanted a live volcano, so I got you a live volcano."
"Oh Steve, you are the kindest of men... but I'm kinda scared!"
Big eye-roll from Steve. "C'mon Babe, back in the car or we'll never make it there by nightfall."
Well, we did make it by nightfall, but just barely. You see, Costa Rica has no road signs and no addresses. None. Seriously. You might find an occasional arrow at a crossroads that points "To Zarcero" (which may or may not be nearby), but that's it. Even in the capital, San Jose, there are no street signs. A typical address may be something like this: "300 meters north, and 60 meters east of Pedro's Market in the Belen area." It also doesn't appear to matter whether Pedro's market has changed names or burnt to the ground - that is still the address. So, as you have probably already figured out, we got pretty lost driving around Costa Rica. Thank God, that part of my Geology training in college was how to navigate in the wilderness with only a compass and how to read a topographic map. Smarty-pants little me was bright enough to special order a topographic map of the country before heading off on vacation. Ta Daa!! I am an awesome Navigator (humble, too - wink!).
We arrived at the Tabacon Thermal Resort and were shown to an absolutely amazing room with carved mahogany wood throughout and a fabulous view of the volcano. The resort is located right at the base of the volcano and you have a view straight up the flank. Arenal Volcano is one of the most active in the world and is constantly oozing lava, with more significant eruptions every once in a while. The constant oozing is what makes it safe and popular. You can almost always see lava erupting and rolling down the sides. Also, because it's not building up steam and pressure, it doesn't have massive and dangerous eruptions like Mount St. Helens for example. The only catch is that the volcano is so big that it actually makes its own weather (remember the Ghostbuster cloud?), and the top is frequently obscured by clouds. To this day, eight years later, we have only seen the red lava at night one time. We've seen lava flows oodles of times during the day. However, in the daylight the lava isn't red and glowing; it is gray and smoky, and somehow just not as satisfying.
More travelogue info - Tabacon is a MUST see entry in your life-time Travel "bucket-list."
Tabacon is quite simply and stunningly one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It is probably as close to "Heaven on Earth" as we will ever see. The Thermal Resort features acres and acres of totally wild but perfectly manicured tropical rainforest vegetation with exotic flowers everywhere. I have been there many times and it never fails to take my breath away. There are other "thermal resorts" in the area, but none rival Tabacon for sheer, raw, natural beauty. And it is SO romantic! Not only does the Thermal spa have dozens of individual soaking pools of varying temperature, but what supplies these pools is a hot river. There are several hot waterfalls along the river's path where you can sit under it and have the hot river water pound down on your shoulders (see Photo #2). It's just incredible! All of the hot thermal waters and river are heated by the hot magma under the Arenal Volcano. Seriously, it just doesn't get any cooler than that! (Or hotter!!!)
In addition to the thermal attractions, the Resort also offers the "Grand Spa" with every kind of spa service you could ever want, including massage. So, as soon as Steven and I arrived and marveled at the incredibly appointed room (with a hot tub on the balcony, just in case you didn't get enough hot water that day), we booked massages for both of us. We went over to the Spa and submitted to the ultimate luxury of having our tired and travel-weary muscles massaged into a blissful state of relaxation in an open-air gazebo tucked into the rainforest paradise. All of a sudden, we hear: "BAAARROOOOMMMM!” and the ground shakes beneath us. I totally freaked out in panic and literally levitated about six inches off that massage table. The lovely Tica masseuse says with a languid smile: "Tranquillo, tranquillo, my friend. It is only the volcano erupting." WHAT???!!! Wait a minute, I really wanted to do this?! She continued, "There is nothing to fear. The volcano erupts all the time," and gets back to work on my shoulders. Ummm, she lives here and works here, so I guess I should trust her, right? I turned my head and looked over at Steve on the next table and his eyes are wide with surprise, too. Then he smiled at me, winked, and mouthed the word "adventure."
We enjoyed a fabulous dinner that evening at the hotel restaurant. Steve and I had a general rule of thumb about restaurants that boast a magnificent view of whatever: "Good view, bad food." But that is not the case here. After supper, we lounged beside the pool nursing our cocktails, hoping for a glimpse of the red-hot lava at night (in vain). We met another couple who told us about someplace we didn't know existed: "The Arenal Observatory." They said that it is nearby, located on a hilltop opposite the volcano. It has a magnificent and close-up view of the volcanic crater at the top with the lava oozing out and down the upper cone. As a geologist, this was the most exciting thing I'd ever heard and I was literally doing the Snoopy "Happy Dance" beside the pool. I must have looked like an idiot to the remaining diners, but who cares?! Steve was excited, too.
Small history/geology lesson here about the Arenal Volcano. Prior to 1968, it was considered to be an extinct volcano, like many others in Costa Rica. Unfortunately for the people of the village of Arenal at the base of the volcano, it made its re-birth into life in a catastrophic explosion, complete with a searing ash cloud and flood of lava which completely and utterly inundated the village. Shortly thereafter, some geologists and seismologists from the Smithsonian Institute came to Costa Rica to study this newly live volcano. They built an observatory with a perfect view from which to study the volcano, its growth, and most importantly the seismic activity that occurred immediately before and during a significant eruption. The scientists rotated in and out studying Arenal for about 10 years and then became bored with it or ran out of money. Nobody is quite sure. At some point they abandoned the observatory and a clever Tico bought the place for a song (at least that's what we were told).
At the time, the observatory consisted of a small dormitory with about 8 teeny-tiny rooms and one main building. The main structure is 3 stories tall and included a kitchen/dining area, a seismology/observation room, and a recreation room at the top. The seismology room still exists and the seismograph is still in operation, monitored remotely by geologists somewhere in the world. You can see it when you visit - it's pretty interesting.
Tourism began to expand as one of Costa Rica's main industry, and the Arenal Volcano was one of the highlights. So, the new owner of the observatory started renting out the tiny dormitorio rooms and ran it as a B & B for a while. He eventually expanded, adding an entire new building of more reasonably sized rooms to the complex, in addition to a pool and the crowning glory: "The Arenal Observatory Restaurant." It is a totally awesome experience. I don't think there is anywhere else in the world where you can order a delicious meal and sip a glass of wine in comfort while watching a live volcano erupt right outside the window next to you. Visiting the Observatory and restaurant gets a raving review from this foodie/wino/geologist! It also happens to be where our "Mission from God" began.
The "God Moment" at Lake
The next morning, Steve and I got up bright and early, determined to find the Observatory and check out our newly adopted favorite volcano up close and personal. The previous night had been rather interesting, as the volcano erupted "BARROOMM" style twice more during the wee hours which caused Eve to leap from the bed in panic, shrieking "Where's the exit?" Steve thought this was very funny the first time.
We were awakened at about 5:30am by a troop of howler monkeys moving through the rainforest nearby. This was another disconcerting sound that we had never heard before, but have become quite used to eight years later. The male howler monkeys make an extremely loud "call" that sounds like a breath-y "Wooh, wooh, wooh, wooh, WOOHHHH!" And I am talking really, REALLY loud! The sound has a deep, bass timbre to it and sounds like it's coming from the lungs of a very big guy. Imagine Pavarotti in a monkey suit (mental image=priceless!). When you finally see a howler monkey, most people are surprised at how small they are in comparison to the racket they create. A mature male's body is usually about 18"-24" tall (add head and legs). The call reverberates through the forest and will often echo back, based on the terrain. The male monkeys, and in particular the dominant male "chief" of the troupe, make this call primarily to keep the troupe together as they move through the high treetops of the rainforest from one feeding ground to another. However, I have also heard a slightly more seductive version that might be a mating call and much more aggressive calls that sounded like a territorial tiff was going on between troupes.
Tabacon serves a fabulous breakfast buffet with every kind of breakfast and brunch food imaginable. It also offers free live entertainment. A troupe of wild "pizotes" usually shows up and wanders past the dining area to the back door of the kitchen, where the cook will toss them some leftover fruit. The creatures are actually part of the "coati" (pronounced: Ko-ah-tee) family and look like large raccoons with longer, pointier snouts and much longer striped tails that they hold straight up in the air like a flagpole as they walk along (see Photo #3). They are absolutely adorable and enchant the tourist diners every time. They are soooo cute!
After breakfast, Steve and I headed off to find the Arenal Observatory. We didn't have to go far, before we found the road that heads up there. I use the term "road" loosely. It is actually are horribly rutted gravel drive that defies the possibility of going faster than 10 miles an hour. We began the journey to the Observatory by driving through flat sugarcane fields with the massive, smoking volcano looming over the entire landscape. Excitement built as we forded a broad stream (no bridge) that was full of pointy-looking rocks and lava bomb boulders with about a foot of water rushing through. Then we began heading up, up, up where the rainforest started closing in on us. Nearly an hour of harrowing driving eventually brought us to the parking area at the Observatory.
Steve and I could see the summit of Arenal through the courtyard between the buildings. We grabbed our cameras and RAN to the observation porch which is a large tiled patio next to the restaurant. I was so excited about seeing a real, live volcano so close that I felt kind of high and was bouncing up and down in my Keds like a little kid at Christmas.
"Oh-mi-gosh, Steve! This is amazingly cool!! I can't believe we can see the volcano so clearly, and it is SO close!"
"Yeah! Hey check out that bunch of steaming rocks bouncing down the left flank - it must be a lava flow!”
At this point I am squealing like a manic child on a sugar-buzz. "Lava! Lava, lava, lava, LAVA!!! This is the neatest thing I have ever seen in my whole life! Look at the very top. It looks like there are actually two craters joined together."
Steve picked up the binoculars and took a good look. "You're right. And they both have smoke drifting out of them. And, ooooo - there is more lava flowing out of the one on the right. There it goes, sliding right down the cone..."
I could see it with my bare eyes, but Steve handed over the binoculars for a zoomed-in peek. "This is SO FREAKING AWESOME!"
Steve and I then proceeded to take about 150 digital photos of the volcano. The Observatory is perfectly located on an adjacent hill to Arenal at an elevation that is about 3/4 of the full height of the volcano. So, the top of the volcano and the craters are well above you, but you can still see the entire volcanic structure. The rainforest extends part of the way up the flanks, and every once in a while, a larger lava flow will make it down to the forest and burn up some of it. For a Geologist, this was like being at Mecca! On the "Cool-o-meter" this experience was a firmly pegged "10."
Then, we turned and looked to the west. At that moment, we beheld Lake Arenal for the very first time. It took our breath away. We walked slowly to the railing in awe-struck silence. Steve and I just stood there. We felt something touch our hearts... strongly, genuinely and irrefutably. This beautiful silvery lake stretched far into the distance, embraced on both sides by low mountains covered in luxuriant rainforest. Then, the clouds parted and a brilliant ray of light shone down upon the lake, turning the silver to gold. I swear I almost heard angels blowing their trumpets! It was a "God Moment."
Steve and I joined hands and continued to stare at the beautiful vision before us. We didn't know it at the time, but at that very moment, God placed a seed within both of our hearts that would later blossom into a passionate calling to be there. To be at Lake Arenal, for God.
The Veil Between Heaven &
Steve said, "Wow! I didn't even realize there was a lake here."
I knew the lake existed and was nearby from having looked at my trusty map. But I never really thought about it, and I certainly didn't expect to see such wondrous beauty. "Yes. It's Lake Arenal."
"It is really stunning. Let's ask somebody to take a picture of us with the lake in the background," Steve suggested. So, we did (see Photo #4). Admittedly, it is not a very good photograph, but it memorializes the first time we ever laid eyes on what would become our beloved Lake.
Our adventures continued next morning as we set out on our first-ever zip-lining tour through the rainforest canopy. Oh-mi-God, that was SO MUCH fun! I am scared of heights, so was pretty nervous about hiking and climbing up, up, up to get to the top platform, but they make sure it is safe. Once up on the platform, they strap you into a harness around your posterior (mighty attractive, NOT!), and then fasten you onto safety ropes via a double fail-safe set of karabiners. Then the guides string you up harness and all to the zip-line and allow gravity to work its magic as you fly through the rain forest canopy from one platform high in the trees to another, slightly lower one. EeeeeyyyyyaaaaaaaHHH!!!!! It is required that you scream like a little girl as you fly across the zip-line. Rest, regain composure & heart rate, and repeat. I think there were eight or so stations on this zip-line tour and it was A GAS! Steve, like most little boys, er, I mean men, has the firm belief that speed thrills.
"I think this is the most fun I've ever had, doing something legal!" grinned Steve (see Photo #5).
I said, "And I've never been anywhere with more raw, natural beauty. This is really stunning up here." The guides proceeded to tell us about the rainforest trees and that the entire canopy is an eco-system unto itself. It is complete with its own animals, plants and fungi that make the system function like its own little world, some 200-400 feet above the forest floor. The epiphytes and orchids were the most interesting of the plants because they live off the organic-laden moist air up there in the high reaches of the trees where there is no soil. We were also warned about not sticking your hand into one because they frequently have small poisonous snakes, insects and creepy crawlies that live in them. YIKES!
We spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening at the hot pools and river at Tabacon, enjoying the beauty and romance of the place. We experienced a couple more small eruptions. But now we were the "old hands" at this and Steve would casually tell freaked-out newly arrived tourists: "Tranquillo, my friend, it's only the volcano complaining a little bit." What a ham!
But, all good things do come to an end, especially when travelling on a schedule. We departed from our favorite volcano, Arenal, the following morning. There is only one road to get from there to the western part of Costa Rica and that is to take the Lake Road all the way around Lake Arenal, then up through Tilaran, over the ridges and down into Guanacaste where the beaches hug the coast-line. So, off we went, passing the turn-off to the Observatory and crossing the dam at the southeast end of Lake Arenal. Costa Rica is a highly environmentally conscious country and they produce about 75% of the country's energy via hydro-electric plants. At the other side of the dam, Steve and I stopped to take photos. While there, Steve spotted a truck go by emblazoned with the words "The German Bakery." Steve shouted: "Follow that truck!!!" and we jumped back in the Jeep and hit the gas.
Steve's last name is Kummert and he is of German heritage from his Grandfather Otto who came over to America from the old country, and Steve's father Werner. Steven LOVED German food and had a major sweet tooth as well. So, seeing the sign on the truck was like waving candy at a baby. All he could talk about for the next hour was how he was going to have an apple strudel and a German beer for lunch. The man could be obsessive. Sigh....
A comment about the road and the drive from Arenal: it is horrible. The Lake Road is a one-lane road in each direction and winds up and down the hills like a snake on meth. At the time we were there in 2003, there were parts of the road that were not paved yet, just a gravel covered track. There is one point about halfway between the dam and the town of Nuevo Arenal where there is no road and no bridge and you have to cross a small creek. Eight years later, most of the road has been paved but is often in major disrepair and you still have to cross that creek with your vehicle. Go figure!
One nice thing about the drive, though, is that you have the opportunity to watch and smell how the rainforest changes as you go up in elevation. The types of trees change, there is less bamboo and the colors of the foliage become more vibrant. There are more shades of green than you ever thought possible and they take on a luminance much like neon. The flowers pop with vivid hues and the experience becomes kind of kaleidoscopic in a way. When I wax poetic like this about the colors to my friends here in the States, they just nod and give me a "she ain't right in the head" kind of look. But, the people I have taken there (like my friend Emily - much later), have agreed that the colors glow and it is an experience like no other. Especially as you look out through the rainforest foliage and catch glimpses of the silvery, serene Lake Arenal beyond. There is something very spiritual there.
In a pensive mood, Steve came up with the thought that "There are some places in the world where the veil between Heaven and Earth is thin... and Lake Arenal is one of them." All who have experienced it have agreed. Lake Arenal in Costa Rica is a very, very special place...