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February 24, 2010

San Jose to Arenal

Filed under: Costa Rica 2010, Travel, Volcano tourism — anotherheader @ 5:57 pm

The view from the box seats at San Jose's Teatro National

We woke to the bright sun of a clear San Jose morning.  Painfully early, we moved out onto the streets for a short walking tour.

San Jose is not a noted tourist destination.  Gritty and work-a-day, the streets are filled with the practicalities of life squeezing in amongst the jumble of poorly planned urbanity.  With our short amount of time, we headed to Mercado Central moving past the tight pack of workers heading to their offices on San Jose’s narrow broken sidewalks.

Inside San Jose's Mercado Central

Mercado Central is San Jose’s central market.  The stalls are held together in an irregular maze of hallways under the market’s large roof.  On the outside edges, tourist shops predominate even though there seemed to be few tourists nearby save our multiple personalities.  Further in, there are stalls selling everything edible.  Fruits, vegetables, bins of the ubiquitous Costa Rican staple of beans and rice, meat, and fish, spilled out of the shops.  First thing in the morning, the fish looked particularly appealing and fresh.  Senses come alive in damp coolness of markets.  Flashes of colors, on the signs and in the fruit, vegetable, and flower stands, meet the eyes.  The nose gathers the strong smells that range from the perfume of the flower and fruit stalls to the stink of the remnants of rotting flesh that never seem leave the area around the meat and fish stalls.   Thuds and crashes from containers being tossed about and shouts and calls from the vendors reach the ears.  Markets are alive.

We missed one part of the market that I wished we had more time for.  Small diners or, to the Ticos, “sodas” speckle the dark hallways of the market.  Early in the morning, many of the ten to twenty seat sodas were just starting to roll up their louvered metal doors and start the day’s preparations.  Some sodas had already opened and customers were talking quietly in their morning voices while taking their first meal of the day.

Teatro National (HDR)

From the market we had time for one more stop—Teatro National.  San Jose’s, indeed Costa Rica’s, national theater is designed to be a showpiece.  On our tour of the theater we learned about the building’s history from our guide and how it intertwines with Costa Rica’s story.  The theater is a jewel box lined with the finest from Europe along with a uniquely Costa Rican feature—its beautiful hardwood floors made of tropical hardwoods.

Soon enough it was time to leave San Jose.  In a rental car, we headed out on the Pan-American Highway.  We turned off of the main road on to a minimally marked Highway 142 that would take us to La Fortuna and the base of Volcan Arenal.

Celing details at Teatro National

Outside of the metropolitan area, we turned the car’s radio on.  I’m sure you know that, in the US, “Mexican Radio,” as it is commonly called, can almost always be heard as you drive through the empty spaces of the West.  But did you know that, in Costa Rica, “American Radio” can be heard as you drive through the remote regions of the country?

We continued on 142 as the narrow and well paved road wound through the green, hilly farmlands of Costa Rica.  Along the way, on the top of a foggy ridge, we came to a police roadblock.  Off went the radio and its classic rock.

At the block a uniformed policeman approached our vehicle and asked if we spoke Spanish.  He looked uncomfortable when it became obvious that we only understood enough Spanish to be able to say no.  Undeterred, the officer had resolved to go through with the inspection of our gringo mobile.  At first, I was concerned that Knob’s presence in the country had finally come to the attention of the proper authorities.  Shockingly, this did not seem to be the case.  The policeman was uninterested in our slender front seat passenger with his suspiciously neat reality TV show hair.

Volcan Arenal, viewed from the Arenal Lake side

Next the officer pointed with a “V” formed by his index and middle fingers to his eyes and then turned the two fingers to point into the car.  That looked very scary, in a Three Stooges sort of way.   Then the uniformed man indicated his side arm.  Now I was concerned.

“Why is he pointing to the gun?” I thought.  “That can’t be good, can it?”

Collectively we finally figured that the officer was looking for guns in the car.

Warning sign at the Tabacon resort

Becky rolled up her sleeves.  “If he wants to see guns, Beck will show him some guns,” she said.  Fresh off of our trip down the Pacuare, Beck might have been channeling her whitewater god days when she did pack some serious guns.

The policeman seemed unimpressed by Beck’s public exposure.  Or at least he politely chose to move onto another topic.  This time he held his fingers together near his lips and pantomimed smoking.  It seems that he might have noticed Beck’s outburst, after all.  Clearly we must have some ganja, he thought.  How else could you possibly explain a middle-aged woman flexing her biceps Arnold Schwarzenegger style in the back seat?  But, though we have acted like it, we had none of the wacky weed and indicated innocence to the officer.  Thankfully, Beck even suppressed the urge to ask the policeman if he knew where we might be able to find some.

The policeman had enough of the SUV full of wacky gringos.  An empathic authoritative wave of the hand indicated that we were free to go.

Americanos locos,” the Costa Rican officer said, shaking his head and thinking his Spanish would not be understood as we rolled up the car’s windows.  We pulled away from the roadblock.

Vamos,” I said as we continued on.

Volcan Arenal viewed from inside Tabacon's hot springs area

We were back on the increasingly winding road moving again towards La Fortuna.  I was still confused about what just happened both inside and outside the car, but it didn’t matter.  We were moving again.  In the car the GPS repeatedly sounded warnings about the upcoming narrow bridges.  Not that we needed the warnings.  Almost every bridge was marked with a “Ceda el paso” sign and was the requisite 1.63 economy car widths wide.  The GPS was just effectively telling us that there was a bridge ahead.  Thanks for that.

Swim up to the bar for a fresh fruit Pina Colada

Closer to La Fortuna, the dramatically steep, symmetrically shaped cone of the Volcan Arenal came into view.  At the top of the cone, smoke emerged.  Sometimes volcanoes just look like mountains.  This is not the case with Arenal.  The active volcano looks menacing and intimidating.  In movies, virgins would be thrown into the smoking caldron at the top.  Just in case the need appeared, I checked inside the car but we had no extra virgins to spare.  Something else we forgot to pack, I guess.

After picking up some bananas in La Fortuna (the fruit is good in Costa Rica), we continued along the base of the volcano to our hotel.  This portion of the drive was surprisingly short.  Arenal rises from its base about 3,000 feet reaching 5,400 feet above sea level.  With the sides of the volcano so steep (stratovolcanos of Arenal’s type can have slopes around 35 degrees), the circumference of the volcano is relatively small.

Eventually we reached Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort, our hotel in the area.  Though the volcano is not directly visible from the hotel portion of Tabacon, the resort is very close to the base of the volcano.  Its location is considered to be geologically at risk.  In some places, it is easy to dismiss the geological risk, but at Arenal, it is harder.  Volcan Arenal erupted violently in 1968 after an earthquake ended a 400-year period of dormancy.  The resulting devastation buried three small villages, Tabacón, Pueblo Nuevo and San Luís, and killed 87 people.  Since 1968, Arenal has erupted pretty much continuously and, along with the hot springs in the area, has become one of Costa Rica’s top tourist attractions.  There’s little doubt about just how active the volcano has been when you realize that the 3,000-foot volcano is only 7,000 years old.

Nature’s Jacuzzi? Not quite, but the water at Tabacon is transcendent.

We figured that, if the volcanologists were on their game, our risk was minimal.  Besides, Tabacon is renowned for it natural hot springs.  Springs that good must be worth the risk.

After checking in, we toured the hot springs.  Tabacon’s springs are indeed spectacular.  Two streams of water move down the hill in a series of engineered waterfalls and pools that are available for visitors use.  The hot water is strongly mineral but lacks the sulfur smell typical of hot springs elsewhere.  All of this is tucked in amongst a tropical garden paradise.  Can I get this set up in my back yard?  You can leave that extra expensive and erratic volcano feature out.

Handcrafted textiles are on offer outside of the Tabacon entrance


San Jose Pictures:

Pictures from Tabacon:


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