Maui fulfilled my checklist for a volcano I thought. So Volcan Arenal would be no biggie. Oh! How wrong I was. As we entered La Fortuna, the volcano loomed in the distance and was enveloped inside a cloud. Lorenzo told us how it is always hidden within a world of its own and occasionally pops its head out of the clouds to make its presence known. So we weren’t sure we’d get to see his highness while we were there.
The Arenal Volcano, at 5,437 feet, stands ominous over the pastured green hillsides that surround its base. It is currently in a resting phase, but was the most active Costa Rican volcano for the past 43 years. Its history is intimately tied to the region and the people who live here. When it erupted last in 1968, it decimated the villages of Tabacon, Pueblo Nuevo, and San Luis. From this destruction came the town of La Fortuna. Meaning, “The Fortune.” This small, touristy village plays host to the millions of visitors who come to bathe in its hot springs, ride its rapids, and soak in the view of the volcano. The last lava flow happened in 2010. We didn’t get any of the action, but the clouds did clear up, and we got to see the volcano spewing steam and smoke. It was fascinating and chilling at the same time.
We took the kids on a volcano hike through the El Silencio Mirador. Our guide, Jose, led us through a canopy of thick green vegetation laden with reptiles, monkeys, sloths, poisonous plants, termite colonies, tarantula nests, leaf cutter ants, and so many other fascinating things. There was so darn much that we learned on this tour. I was back in my science class discussing mimos pudica (touch me not plant), cecropia, ficus, and so many other tropical topics relevant to this portion of the planet.
At the end of our walk, after being drenched in the rain and bitten by insects, Jose stopped in front of a humongous tree. He asked if anybody recognized it? Blank stare! It was the Ceiba (Sayba) tree. Remember Avatar? The tree that the creatures use as their home? He said this was it. The mythical tree of souls. Allen J. Christensen, who wrote The Sacred Tree of the Ancient Maya said, “In Mesoamerican theology, the world tree grew at the locus of creation, all things flowing out from that spot into four directions.” It stands taller than any other tree in the forest. Its canopy is wide and its roots spread out in proportion to its out-stretched arms. It is like a mirror image. Mammals use its branches to navigate. Frogs live in the tree and their tadpoles live in bromeliads growing in the tree that hold water. Bats make this tree their home. Butterflies and moths have larvae which feed on this tree. The aboriginals used this tree to bury the dead in the hope that the souls would go straight to heaven. The trunk of this tree is unbelievably straight. The tree is a symbolic axis mundi, which connects the planes of the Underworld and the sky with that of the earth. Deep stuff, right? I was absolutely floored.
After taking in the richness of the forest, we came to a halt at what seemed like a broken down barbed fence. We crossed over, and Jose treated us to some fantastic Guaro and tropicaal! Guaro is a clear liquor made from sugar cane, and tropicaal is the bottled, mixed fruit juice sold across Costa Rica like the North American colas. Sweet tasting liquor topped with sugar infused fruit juice—a definite recipe for a high. While we sipped on our cocktail, he told us stories about the eruption and the devastation that it caused; showed us where a truck stays half buried in volcanic debris half way to the volcano; pointed out a tree that looked like it was struck by lightning. It was struck by lightning. This guy was studying to be a botanist. He was a certified naturalist, and he really knew his shit. The volcano creates an atmosphere for spectacular thunderbolts and lightnings he said. We definitely got to witness some. It scared me shitless. Just as the cab door closed, the rain came crashing down. The road ahead was barely visible, but we got to our hotel intact. Later, that night, we soaked in the hot spring water, and lounged by the wet bar. A perfect ending to a perfect day.