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Into the flow zone
By: Michele Peterson
was deep in
the tropical rainforest, several steps behind Bernardo Perez, my
Costa Rican guide, when I heard a rumble like a primordial growl
behind me. Then, as though a prehistoric beast was thundering
through the brush, the ground began to shake. I did a quick
shoulder check. The coast was clear, but the volcano looming
over us seemed more menacing than it had earlier.
“What do we
do if it erupts?” I asked, hurrying to catch up.
“We run,” he
replied, lifting his binoculars to focus on a movement high in
the canopy of trees.
does it travel?” I continued, wanting to be prepared.
“Oh, about 75
miles [120 km] an hour,” he said, pointing to a quivering broad
leaf ahead of us.
one last look behind me, put my misgivings aside and followed
him deeper into the forest.
hiking Arenal Volcano, 5,436 feet (1,657 m) high and located
about 80 miles (128 km) northwest of Costa Rica’s capital city
of San José, and I had good reason to be worried. In a country
bursting with more than 100 volcanos, Arenal is not only
considered the most active, but it is also one of the world’s
than a week before my visit, a series of eruptions had rocked
the northern face of the volcano, spewing and spitting an
avalanche of stone and gas that forced the evacuation of locals
not a “lava junkie” (a volcano chaser addicted to the thrill of
danger zones), so why did I choose the more dangerous northern
side for my hike, instead of other safer slopes? The attraction
was a new 600-acre (2.4 km²) nature preserve near Lake Arenal.
Opened in 2002, it features a two-mile (3.2 km) hike through
old-growth rainforest, traversing a series of bridges, tunnels
and trails. The bridges include eight that are fixed, ranging in
length between 26 and 72 feet (8 and 22 m), and six suspension,
between 160 and 320 feet (48 and 97 m) long.
trails bring visitors close to some of the densest and most
diversified forests in the world. Over the millennia, volcanic
eruptions have contributed to the area’s dramatic beauty as well
as mineral-rich soil that supports forests and homes for myriad
species of animals and birds.
“A dart frog.
Very poisonous,” said Bernardo, pointing to a glossy red shape
on a broad leaf. “And there, over to the left. Do you hear that
noise?” I did. It was much like the sound of a creaking door.
chestnut-mandibled toucan. The largest, but not the prettiest of
the species,” he explained. I looked up and there was a large
bird, sitting like a sentinel with an enormous yellow beak.
ducked as something flew straight for my hair. A crystal
butterfly, its transparent wings outlined in blue like a cartoon
said Bernardo, pointing down. Leaf-cutting ants, in perfect
formation, each carrying brilliant green, round chomped bits of
leaf, were winding across the trail. We stepped around as they
made their way deeper into the underbrush.
full dance card of wildlife around me, it was easy to forget I
was in the shadow of a volcano. Then, through a gap in the
foliage, its cone appeared. It looked so benevolent, its wisps
of smoke drifting upward in the light breeze; it was easy to
understand how, for hundreds of years, people believed that it
was innocently dormant.
as if to remind me of its volatility, it growled — just like a
living being. I gave an involuntary jump, remembering reports of
July 29, 1968, when Arenal suddenly erupted, sending out shock
waves, hot gases and rubble. By the time it settled, it had
destroyed two villages and killed 87 people. Stories of that day
describe heavy ash fall that blackened the sky during daylight
hours and huge mudflows that carried boulders more than 50 miles
(80 km) away. The two new craters it spawned continue to belch
ash and rock to this day.
the centuries, as with all natural phenomena that man cannot
explain, volcanoes have been treated with awe and respect. Often
viewed as gods, they were both revered and feared. The Guatuso
Indians, who once lived in the Arenal area, believed the volcano
was home to the God of Fire and regularly performed rituals
intended to calm the volcano and control destiny. Today,
visitors continue to be drawn to its compelling beauty.
because the area is still considered a danger zone, several
precautions are in place to ensure visitors’ safety. The
Observatorio Vulcanologico y Sismologico de Costa Rica,
Universidad Nacional (OVSICORIUNA) operates a seismographic
network through the entire country and is prepared to issue
warnings of impending eruptions or other hazardous events.
Smithsonian Institute has a monitoring station on the south side
of the volcano where researchers from around the world come to
study its activity. Even nearby businesses clearly mark
evacuation routes for safety. Yet, sometimes these precautions
are not enough. In August of 2000, an eruption of gases, ash and
incandescent rocks tumbled down the slope, killing two people
and injuring one other.
shadow of the volcano and its dark history added some sobering
thoughts to the final leg of our hike. I paused to reflect and
admire a red shrimp flower that was being pollinated by a tiny
smell monkey poop,” said Bernardo, pointing high above us.
enough, despite the unscientific announcement, there were dark
shapes moving high in the canopy. Spider monkeys — a rare
sighting compared to the more common howler monkeys — danced
through the trees, looking like large shadowy people, their long
black arms stretching impossibly across the branches.
like a giant clearing his throat, the volcano rumbled. The
shrimp flower quivered for a brief moment.
and danger — for me, an irresistible combination.