That’s what our trip to Volcán Arenal was almost like. Certainly it was as expensive.

PHOTO: I took this March 06 while we were driving around Lake Arenal. This is our first look at Arenal. We’d been in the area for two days but had not seen the volcano at all because of the dense cloud cover. When we came around the curve and saw this, we almost crashed the car. A massive gray rock jutting up out of the greenest landscape you ever saw..

Before relaying our trip, please see yesterday’s disclaimer. Being Criticia Voluptua Right-Right has it values. Like I will never be taken. But it also prevents me from enjoying each experience, regardless. Like my mom. She loves everything. Sucker.

The drive was pretty easy. From San Jose, you just follow the volcano signs and/or signs to La Fortuna. You’ll get there – there just aren’t that many options for ways to go. If it’s a clear day, at some point you can see the volcano and just drive towards it. There are only a couple of turns to make and they were marked with one or both signs. Coming back was a little more difficult, but we made it easily enough. Don’t forget your compass… Bear in mind that the roads twist and turn so even though you might want to be heading north, at times you’ll be heading south. Hopefully briefly.

BTW, there are volcano signs like this one on the way to each oft-visited volcano. The signs don’t indicate which volcano and you don’t always get a distance. Sometimes just an arrow. But there are so few roads, I don’t think you could end up at the wrong volcano. Famous last words. If there’s one universal thing about driving in Costa Rica, it’s this: if you leave your house, you will be lost at least half the time during your first six months here. Learn to live with it or you will lose your mind.

Because we had to spend an hour driving back to San Ramon for gas [Arenal travel tip: get gas in San Ramon], we arrived in falling darkness instead of with plenty of sun left… The sun sets here @ 6pm and dusk lasts 30 minutes max. We did not have reservations but I had a couple of ideas and knew places would not be sold out. Well, the first two places we stopped were sold out. The third place I had in mind (Arenal Observatory Lodge) was much farther down the road, I didn’t have the number. We deemed it too risky to drive all the way in the dark so stayed at the next place we came across. Which had plenty of rooms.

It was brand spanking new. Since I’m not going to say very nice things and would not stay there again – not because it wasn’t lovely but it was too expensive – I’m going to call it El Hotel [L oh-TELL, the hotel]. All wood, nice imported lighting, definitely built for the gringo tourist, perfectly landscaped, every gringo detail you could ask for @ $115/night. El_hotel_at_arenal_1
In Costa Rica, it better be nice for $115/night. My first choice, Roca Negra, was $35/night including breakfast and looked equally nice. They only had enough beds for two people, though, and there were three of us: Gayle, Mom and me. Nice and cheap, looked good. Next time, I’m making reservations there!

The tico couple that ran El Hotel told me they were the owners. About a zillion bright red flags started waving in Miss Right-Right’s tiny brain. I do NOT think the couple lied to me. I just don’t think they were the only owners. Unless they were VERY wealthy. This place cost a relative fortune to build and to maintain, even in Costa Rica. And if there’s one thing working in Key West real estate teaches you, it’s how to spot a person who can ante up and/or at least qualify for the loan. I don’t care what they are wearing or not wearing, you know who can ante up and who can’t. I could not have afforded to build this place and outfit it as nicely. Say what you like, I gotta nose for this.

IF they are the only owners, not only do they have money, they hired gringo help for design and details. Had to’ve. They didn’t speak any English… how could they have known every detail a gringo would want AND not speak any English? Doesn’t add up.

Not that I care one way or the other. But I felt like I was being presented with a package that was a bit of fantasy to make the whole place more palatable. Like Ticos-Who’ve-Done-Well-For-Themselves-Land® at the Magic Kingdom®. Don’t do that to me.

The really scary thought is that maybe gringos want to be pandered to. I mean, look at Fantasyland’s success… Maybe I’m more out of touch than I thought.

Look how far my paranoia takes me: in the restaurant, they have a very expensive menu. House salads $5. Chicken Cordon Bleu $13. Like that. Well, Chicken Cordon Bleu was spelled Chicken Gordon Blue. (And who comes to Costa Rica for Chicken Gordon Blue anyway?) Ham in Spanish is jamón [ha-MOAN]. Ham in English on this menu was spelled Jam. Cute. Mom and Gayle laughed. My suspicion antennae went up bigtime. Tons of "mis-spellings" like this… What? The gringo adviser was napping when the menu was typed up? Anyway. We all thought the food was ok, but just.

The volcano was completely shrouded in clouds… I couldn’t even tell which mountain it was. You could only see a tiny bit of mountain bottom. The proprietors promised that, if it was cloud-free at any time, we’d have a big view out our window. Cross your fingers for a cloudless moment.

We fell asleep at about 9pm. If you don’t have TV and computer propping your eyes open, you fall into a dead sleep at a reasonable hour. I woke about 4:30am, rolled over and WOW: there she was, right out my window. Volcán Arenal is absolutely amazing. Completely humbling. You can’t get it in a picture. You need to have it hover over you. Big Wow. I didn’t see any fire rocks rolling down the side. Later I discovered they are not rolling down this side at this time. But more on that in a minute.

I started snapping photos right away. Within half an hour, the cloud cover was moving in so I woke up Gayle and Mom to prove there really was an active volcano… well, at least A volcano, right outside our window. They ooed and awed appropriately, then went back to sleep.

After breakfast (very nice, great coffee, fresh fruit, dry scrambled eggs which is tipico [TEE-pee-co, typical] and gallo pinto [GAH-joe PEEN-toe] which is also), we packed up and headed to the Arenal Observatory Lodge. This was $137 including all taxes and breakfast for the three of us, but it is also right at the foot of the volcano. Plus the lava rocks are flowing down this side. You can only see them at night. Well, you CAN see them during the day but they appear as puffs of smoke popping down the mountain side. At night, they are red glowing fiery rocks. VERY cool. Tons of photos… I start snapping and can’t stop.

Arenal_observatory_lodge_66Twin peaks, I love that. Driving to Arenal, the smaller peak is on the left. At the lodge, it’s on the right. Tiny navigational tip. Should prove really helpful on a cloudless day when you are in sight of the volcano on the only road…

We took the morning walk offered free by the lodge – a wonderfully invigorating walk and very informative. In 1968, that whole area was destroyed by an eruption. Our guide told us that everyone living around there thought Arenal was just a mountain. It was covered in green just like all the other mountains. Then it erupted. Surprise. The huge trees and all the current jungle is just 40 years old. That’s amazing. Lava ash makes for fertile ground.

Oh, yes, there’s more: tomorrow, Criticia chats amiably (for the most part) about the food and the hot springs. Right now, we have to go to Hipermas and get washrags. Ooooh, yes, big day around here.

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