11.29.2010 - 11.29.2010 84 °F
This morning is misty and warm, and since we don’t have anything in particular we need to rush off for, we relax in bed until breakfast at about 7:30 a.m. (which I suppose is still pretty early, but when you are used to waking up before dawn, 7:30 is quite a luxury). After a beautiful fruit spread and hot meal, we decide to explore a hiking area near Arenal Observatory Lodge and the Hanging Bridges. It doesn’t matter that it is pouring down rain when we leave; we just don our rain jackets and boots and go on our way.
The hike takes us up near the base of the Arenal volcano, but because of the misty weather we can’t see much more than the bottom of it. The rest disappears into the clouds. However, the hike itself is both exciting and good exercise. It starts out on flat (and very muddy) paths that wind through the forest, but these paths eventually go up steep inclines, with natural “steps” made out of tree roots. The climb up to the lookout is somewhat exhausting and very hot. I end up just stuffing my rain jacket into my daypack so that the heat can escape my body.
Along the way we pass a few lava fields where the lava is swept down the mountain during hard rains. These look similar to dried creek beds, but the difference is that the roots lining the bottom of the trails are worn down from being burnt by the molten lava, and rounded bits of lava rock are scattered about.
After our strenuous hike, we are pretty tired and hungry. We were going to eat lunch with Felico, but he ends up needing to stay at Kokoro for a meeting. He does hop in his car and guide us to the old farm/house that was converted into a restaurant, La Casona, which is about half an hour outside of town. It's a good thing we can follow him because the twists and turns through farmlands and small villages would have been difficult to navigate on our own--not to mention the insanity of Costa Rican drivers. It amazes me that the locals are always in such a hurry that they speed around cars and narrowly miss oncoming traffic, even passing while going around mountain curves or over hills.
La Casona is the perfect place to relax after yet another fast, dangerous drive. It is by reservation only and is one of the only places in Costa Rica that still uses a wood stove to cook food. Matt orders pork and I order a chicken fajita-type mixture, both of which are served with rice, black beans, yucca, and a grilled banana. We also have fresh lemonade made with fresh sugar cane syrup that was extracted right on site, and for dessert we were given caramelized bananas in a sauce of cinnamon molasses and a shot of coffee moonshine (60 percent alcohol). We eat at a table overlooking a valley with a rushing stream at the bottom, with the volcano just beyond it (though the cone is still hidden). With this view, I feel like one of the old-fashioned Costa Rican privileged class. There is also a variety of tropical birds picking at a few pieces of fruit that strategically hang on a tree nearby. While we eat, a young man plays guitar for us and sings romantic songs in Spanish—a beautiful backdrop to a beautiful scenery.
Included as part of the lunch is a demonstration of the traditional method of extracting the sugar syrup from sugar cane using an ox-powered press. From just two short stalks of sugarcane, he extracts almost a full pitcher of syrup, which he pours into small glasses for us to try. He also shows us the rest of the process, from heating the sugar water to remove impurities to creating a hardened block of molasses, which can be shaved into a glass with warm sugar water and milk for a traditional Costa Rican drink.
On the way back to the hotel we stop at a wooden sculpture shop (Original Grand Gallery) located just outside La Fortuna, which has abstract wood sculptures of all shapes and sizes, from women's breasts to alligators. We relax at Kokoro for a couple hours, trying to digest our enormous meal at La Casona. At about 5:15 we visit to Eco-Termales, one of the local hot springs that is known for being the most intimate and least crowded of the three (compared with Tabacon and Baldi). Eco-Termales has about 4 main pools of different temperatures, set among beautiful rainforest gardens. Because visitors must have a reservation, the springs never become crowded or loud. We relax for about an hour and a half, either soaking our tired muscles in the water or people-watching by the pool, sipping large daiquiris (mine mango, Matt’s passion fruit).
The experience of soaking in the soothing pools, mist rising like ghosts into the night, is truly magical and serene. For what seemed like the first time since we arrived at this new latitude, we are finally able to just sit still. At 7:15 we have a large dinner on site: chicken and beef, rice, beans, vegetables, salad, fresh pineapple passion fruit juice, and rice pudding. The outdoor dining area at Eco-Termales is very charming and set back in the gardens, much like the pools. Hanging lanterns cast a soft glow over the candlelit tables and the hum of quiet conversations.
There is nothing like spending an evening at a hot springs, something I've always loved even as a child. It's especially wonderful when you've been busy from dawn until dusk for several days straight. I could go back to Eco-Termales every evening and never grow tired of it.