Volcanoes, waves, and rastafarians... oh my!

La Fortuna Travel Blog

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main street, la fortuna
Costa Rica was my first big solo trip, so it will always have a sweet spot in my memories. I flew into San Jose with no real plan (as would turn out to be my standard way of traveling from that point on), just the idea that I wanted to see the volcanic interior of the country, surf the Pacific coast, and hopefully venture on over to the laid back Caribbean coast. Well, I ended up doing just that.

San Jose was where I arrived as my entry into the country, but I had little desire to spend time in a city with Costa Rica's famed natural wonders beckoning. As soon as I arrived I was ready to hightail it out of there, and I did. Not speaking much Spanish, I took a tourist bus to La Fortuna, home to Volcan Arenal - an active volcano with piping hot rock lava on regular display.
Arenal volcano
The bus itself was an adventure, as I was the only tourist on board - the only other occupant besides the driver was a local, who got off half way into the trip. For some reason we stopped on the side of the highway just outside of San Jose; the driver spoke no English, my Spanish consisted of 10 phrases - none of which could ask "Why are we stopped on the side of this highway?", and the lone other occupant spoke a smattering of English. From what I could gather, we stopped to receive a "very important package". And yes, the very important package did get delivered by some guy stopping in a truck. No idea to this day what was in this clearly valuable package, but at least I finally ended up making it to La Fortuna.

First off , the drive to La Fortuna was gorgeous; we wound our way higher into the country's interior, passing through tiny towns with dogs and old men lazily taking their time crossing the road.
costa rican waterfall up close and far away
A patchwork of green agriculture presented itself through my window, perfect little squares and rectangles of various shades of green, undulating hills dotting the landscape. La Fortuna itself was tiny, busy, and ended up being a perfect spot to start my Costa Rican adventure. The town's streets seemed to lead directly to Volcan Arenal, looming like a miniature Mt. Rainier over the town.

After checking into a room I found recommended in my Lonely Planet guide, I roamed the streets of La Fortuna. I kept passing the same girl, practically a carbon copy of myself - solo, blonde, and clutching that lonely planet bible. Eventually, I passed her sitting at an outdoor restaurant, we struck up a conversation, and pretty soon I had plans for the next day. That night I signed up for a guided hike around the base of the volcano at dusk; my co-tourists were all cool, the hike was sufficiently jungly, and the icing on the cake was the sight of that red hot rock lava bouncing it's way down the mountain in the twilight.
La fortuna pooch who made the long trek up and down the mountain
Not to mention the sound of the rocks skipping along the volcano's exterior, sounding for all the world like an amped up version of that old rice crispies commercial of snap, crackle, and pop. The night was capped off with a touristy, but jaw droppingly beautiful visit to Tabacon springs, a Fantasy Island like landscape carved out of natural hot springs warmed by the volcano.

The next day I met up with my travel twin and two of her hostel mates, also American - a girl who had just been to Israel and a guy who had just spent the last couple months crewing a sailboat around Central America. Definitely a fun and interesting bunch. We trekked the uphill road to the base of a dormant volcano near Arenal, arriving after an hour with a local dog in tow. Then the fun began. We started our hike up this mountain, quickly finding the path indistinguishable from the surrounding jungle, slipping and sliding on the muddy, near vertical trail.
la fortuna fellow travelers
After an hour or two of this, I started to feel really overheated, like I couldn't cool down no matter how much water I took in. So, not wanting to slow down my new friends, I announced that I was going to turn back. With a little persuading for them to go on without me, I soon found myself alone - in the freakin Costa Rican jungle. My mind raced, my heart pounded, as I forced myself to concentrate on what constituted a trail - trying not to think about the fact that no one knew where I was. No one. And there apparently were venomous snakes in that particular part of the country, probably populating the very trail I was navigating while grabbing onto roots and vines as I made my descent down the mountain. Fantastic.

But, obviously, I did make it down that mountain, and many hours later joined my friends on a hike down to a luscious waterfall. That night, La Fortuna was having a rodeo - a real, honest to god, Costa Rican rodeo. The whole town turned out for it, complete with a parade through the dusty streets. Apparently, they do bull fight there, but do not actually kill the bull (as they do in Spain). My friends and I kind of gawked around the bullfighting arena, and then settled down to a convivial dinner, mine consisting of the national obsession with rice and beans. We capped off the evening with a little drinking and hanging out at their hostel before calling it a night.

The next day I boarded a bus to Tamarindo on the Pacific coast of the country. We passed through the dusty Guanacaste region, sailing over potholes that were like giant's footprints. Tamarindo itself turned out to be pretty touristy, but still a relaxed place. The surf culture definitely prevailed there, and the waves I passed en route to my cabana were easily head high. For this part of the trip I splurged on my digs, staying at an enclave of little casitas (Villas Macondo) with my own room and private deck, complete with my own hammock. Heaven! My neighbors turned out to be a cool bunch - a French guy who designed jewelry for half the year and surfed the world for the other half, an American girl who had been traveling South and Central America for months working on her anthropology dissertation. After a night of ice cream, sunset watching, and a missed turtle tour, the next day I decided to abandon this americanized version of Costa Rica. Tamarindo is adorable but not terribly authentic. Before leaving I did still take the morning to surf the Pacific. I rented a board from a local surf shop, headed out to where I saw surfers with similar ability, and proceeded to spend the next few hours getting pounded by the strongest waves of my life and eventually riding in the longest, sweetest, fastest little wave ever (for me, that is!).

From Tamarindo I spent a night back in San Jose at Costa Rica Backpackers, the best hostel in the city with free internet, movies on a big screen, a pool, and restaurant/bar. I met a Swiss girl in my room and we made plans to travel together to the Caribbean coast the next day. Lucie, the swiss girl, spoke fluent Spanish (score!), so we took the local bus very cheaply on a four hour drive to the coast (5 bucks). Puerto Viejo turned out to be this funky little Rastafarian hamlet; apparently many Jamaicans had settled there during the banana heydays and it at times was truly like being in the Caribbean. Lucie and I rode bikes along the back jungle roads, making little treks on overgrown paths to various little beaches. That night we had a great dinner and watched "Cinderella Man" on an outdoor screen underneath an open tent by the beach, drinking watermelon infused libations. You really haven't experienced cinema until a huge sand crab scuttles across the sand by your feet and a beach dog decides to roll around on it's back in front of the screen, creating a canine shadowy imprint on the movie. That night I dropped myself in a hammock by the beach, listening to the crash of the waves as I sipped a cold beer. Sleep eventually found me in my tent, one of the many lodging options at Rockin J's, a suitably funky beach hostel (for 4 bucks a night).

The next day I was picked up by Exploradores Outdoors, a white water rafting outfit, for a day of rafting class IV rapids through the Costa Rican jungle. My co-rafters were fantastic - apparently Scandanavian vikings were invading the Pacuare river that day, since my fellow rafters were from Iceland, Norway, and Sweden (along with me and a lone English girl). The Ticos who guided the trip were just a great crew, funny and also amazing athletes. The rafting was crazy - moments of sheer terror, quiet beauty (gently rolling past howler monkeys and toucans), and adrenaline. I was even the only one to get tossed out of the boat - lucky for me I thought quickly to grab onto the rope around the boat! The day ended with the staff making us a great meal, along with some well deserved cervesas, and I enjoyed debating with the Icelanders about the whole Keiko rehabilitation spectacle and with the Norse guy (who, yes, was incredibly hot) about the relative merits of Christmas decorations in Norway vs. the states.

Thus, my Costa Rican adventure came to a close. But one of these days I know I'll go back... there's so much more there to see in the land of pura vida.

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main street, la fortuna
main street, la fortuna
Arenal volcano
Arenal volcano
costa rican waterfall up close and…
costa rican waterfall up close an…
La fortuna pooch who made the long…
La fortuna pooch who made the lon…
la fortuna fellow travelers
la fortuna fellow travelers
La Fortuna
photo by: jeannajumps