Monday, July 6, 2009

Arenal: One is the Lonliest Number

Upon arriving in La Fortuna, I am psyched to go on a tour of the nearby volcano. Only problem is no tour company would take one person. Me. Solo. Uno. And no one else in the entire town of La Fortuna apparently wanted a guided tour of just the base of the volcano, so I couldn't join a tour. The reception guy at Hotel La Fortuna couldn't have been more nice, but it didn't change the outcome. He called 5 tour companies and no one would do a trip for just me, even when I offered to pay a premium. "No, they want at least two people. Its just not worth taking one person." Every time he hung up the phone with a different company I felt a little more worthless - do I not have enough value to be taken on a two-hour tour around the base of the volcano? A paid tour? Really?

Finally, he found a tour company that had already booked two other participants for the "Cerro Chato" hike. As this same guy had described to me the night before, this was a quite difficult hike, and one that he would not recommend because it took all day (he stressed the all day part - like the fact that it was an strenuous climb was secondary. The more important reason not to do it was the length of time devoted to one activity). But this morning, he changed his tune, saying, "Oh, no - if you can do the base hike, you can do the Cerro Chato hike. Its quite beautiful." So why not? It´s just me. I've got all day.

The two other people on the trip were a honeymooning couple who were - get this - 21 and 22 respectively. They are every bit the kind of hippy-dippy-just-married couple who could have spent their entire honeymoon on the side of a mountain. In short, they are ridiculously annoying.

The hike started off well - We took the minibus to the Observatory Lodge Hotel at the base of the volcano, which had -- as promised -- a beautiful view of La Fortuna below. I was outfitted in my Northface pants, rolled up on account of the heat, my backpack stuffed with my camera, my journal, and my poncho - because we are going up through the cloud forest. I am nothing if not properly attired at all times.

Posing at very early point in the hike - but already so sweaty.

Into the rainforest, then clouds.

The path quickly turned into no path at all when we entered the forest. Then it became the most difficult physical thing I have ever done. Not only was there no path, there was no path on a steep incline. I had to grab on to tree roots that would tear away, forcing me to fall backward, or climb what would be the equivalent of 5 or 6 stairs at the time to get from one plane to the next. The hippy-dippy-married couple decide (without consulting me) that it would be best to be SUPER positive throughout the hike up, exclaiming mantras like "This is the best thing I have ever done," and "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else right now," and "I'm so glad we didn't go to Hawaii, you don't have volcanoes there - this is so COOL!" Then they decide to sing "Don't Worry Be Happy".

We hiked like this for 3.5 hours. Through the regular forest, into the cloud forest where it became a bit misty and I was treated to the hippy-dippy-married couple´s impromptu "Singing in the Rain." To "Cerro Chato," which, I understand, is like a second summit to the volcano and looks out on a crater with a green lagoon. I can't tell you exactly what it is, because, upon arrival, all I was greeted with was a cloud. Quite literally, a cloud. There is an overlook, and then, a massive, white barrier of fog right on the other side of the overlook fence. You couldn't see a lagoon, a crater, or the summit of Arenal. The hippy-dippy-married couple was PSYCHED about the cloud - "Oh my goodness, its like we're right next to a cloud! You can't be next to a cloud in Hawaii!"

On the way down, it started to rain. Which I was ok with because its a rainforest, and I'm not a complete American asshole who complains about rain in a rainforest. Then it started to pour. The little inroads that we had climbed up turned into streams, then rivers, with the mud giving way under our feet. The hippy-dippy-married couple finally quieted down because you needed all of your concentration to figure out where to place your feet so you didn't get swept up in the raging torrent going down the mountain. I spend most of the way down on my butt - by 1.5 hours on the way down I decide I have never been so wet or so dirty.

And then I remembered I had my camera. My nice camera AND my little Elph (because I'm an idiot). "$%"$·.

Before I could think about the $600 of digital photography equipment drowning in my bag, it starts to thunder. But because we are at such high altitude in the cloud forest, this is not the far off rumble of thunder. It is RIGHT NEXT TO US - booming, immediate, thunder. The guide informs us that, this is, in fact, thunder, not the volcano erupting - apparently sometimes they sound the same. Oh good. It didn't even occur to me to be worried about lava flows. He d is not concerned, so I decide I have a greater chance of killing myself falling down and drowning in the 10 inches of water swirling around my feet than by lava coming down the mountain. Press on.

But then, there is lightning. Large bolts RIGHT NEXT TO US. I am close enough to the guide to watch him completely lose his composure and put on a happy face for the gringos in one rapid moment. "We should move as quick as is possible please." The guide explains that he does not like lightning. It might be the only thing the hippy-dippy-married couple is not a fan of either. My fear stems from actually being hit by the large bolts of lightening emanating from the sky (which we are hiking in - so one and the same). I find out later the bigger danger is being hit by a tree that had been hit by lightning. The threat is evidenced by several newly-felled trees which added some additional cardio on the way down. So, now, in addition to finding the correct pigeon hole to place your feet, and making sure you do not completely lose yourself in the torrent, we now have to straddle large trees in the process. Awesome.

In the end, the rain slowed, but by hour six my legs and feet are rubber and refuse to cooperate. I am so tired and so nervous that I kind of wobble down the rest of the mountain. I fall, I get back up, I fall again. When we get to flat land I think I am fine, but now my legs will not follow where my brain wants them to go. This presents a challenge because I am now constantly in danger of running into the barbed wire fence keeping the vacas (cows) from the path. Lucky vacas. The guide finally decides to just take my arm and steer me.

So back at the hotel, bruised, bleeding a little bit, sooo dirty, and soooo uncomfortable - my wet clothes had been rubbing against me for the past couple hours. I took out my cameras and dried them with the hair dryer. Excited for a shower, I get in with all my clothes on. The water runs black.

After about 10 minutes, the water clears up, I wash out my clothes, I wash my hair, soap up, and get out. But its like I'm still in the shower. There's water all over the bathroom. Ok. Then I walk out to my room. There's an inch of dirty water ALL OVER MY ROOM. My suitcase, on the floor, is soaked from the underside. My backpack that I tried so hard to keep dry on the hike down - is on the floor - and is now wetter than when I arrived from Arenal. "Eat, Pray, Love" has come in handy in that it has absorbed about a third of the water judging from its new inflated size and illegibility.

EPILOGUE-I did get another room, after being told by the reception guy, the housekeeper and the hotel technician that there is mucho agua in my room. Right, that's why I asked for a different room. They imply that I put it there - like I wanted everything to be wet and now they are burdened with cleaning up my stupidity. My clothes and cameras dried out, although everything has retained a funny smell - a combination of sweat, damp, and mud. Eat, Pray, Love was not as lucky and will have to be tossed, even though I have only read the first few chapters.


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