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Costa Rica Travel - From San Jose to Arenal

By: Lair Davis

The visit of a friend to Costa Rica provided me with another opportunity to play tourist rather than "residente." (I live in Costa Rica.)

Our first week was spent making "the loop," one of the most popular journeys experienced by visitors to this beautiful country - popular for good reason!

The trip took us first from the capital city of San José to La Fortuna de San Carlos, the city nearest to the living, breathing, smoking and growling Volcán Arenal. From La Fortuna, we traveled around the shores of Laguna de Arenal to the small agricultural center of Tilarán in the agricultural Guanacaste region. Then, taking the "back roads, " we moved on to the tiny town of Santa Elena and its better known neighbor, the Monteverde region. We then returned to San José.

Rather than deal with the potholes, winding mountainous roads and manic drivers, we left the driving to
Interbus, the shuttle company whose minivans travel daily between the most popular tourist destinations in Costa Rica. This extremely wise move permitted us to sit back, relax and enjoy the views. Talk about stress-free!

My friend (who is nearing 70 years of age and was on her first adventure outside of the United States) and I (a "spring chicken" in my early, er, uh, middle 60s) were picked up at 8 o'clock in the morning at the Hampton Inn near the international airport by an air-conditioned minivan. Interbus will pick up passengers at all the major hotels in the San Jose area.

Not only did Interbus arrive on time, the driver was extremely friendly, courteous and helpful. He spoke enough English to serve our purposes. The only other folks in our eleven-passenger van that morning were a couple visiting from northern California and a couple from Madrid.

On our way west along the autopista toward San Ramón, the driver pointed out a few points of interest, several of which I, though a resident now for some months, did not know about. The van pulled over at one point and the driver jumped out and walked into a field beside the road, returning a few moments later with a handful of coffee beans for us to examine.

The van left the Panamerican Highway at San Ramón, and headed north toward La Fortuna. After about 30 minutes more of travel through picturesque mountainous terrain, we made a stop at a fairly classy souvenir joint in the middle of nowhere to stretch our legs, ease our bladders and purchase snacks. There was no pressure to buy, however, and some of us spent the break gazing at the clouds floating in the beautiful valleys below the road.

Interbus dropped us at the door of Hotel San Bosco in La Fortuna shortly before noon. This moderately priced hotel is in the center of town, close to all the amenities that urban life a la tica has to offer. The San Bosco is very clean and surprisingly quiet, considering its location, with rows of rooms in a garden setting.

There is a large swimming pool, a jacuzzi and a workout area, and best of all, a lookout balcony atop the building for viewing the volcano. Arenal Volcano is huge, after all, so there really isn't any need to have accommodations any closer than La Fortuna in order to be able to see it - on those rare occasions when it can actually be seen - more about that later....

When you are in the Volcán Arenal area, I highly recommend a visit to the Hanging Bridges.

For the price of admission you are picked up by a minivan at your hotel and transported down the road that leads past the volcano to the shores of Lake Arenal. Once there, about 20 kilometers, you drive across the bridge on top of the dam and immediately take a right turn on the other side to make a rocky ascent.

Hanging Bridges consisted of three kilometers of pathways that wander through beautiful rainforest. The trails are very well maintained and lead across seven bridges made of wire mesh and cables and suspended over canyons and through the treetops. Two seniors, who aren't in the best of shape, had little difficulty making this walk.

After many visits to the Arenal area, I finally agreed to visit Tabacón, the famous hot springs resort. On previous visits, I had visited other hot springs in the area, and particularly liked the mom-and-pop establishment across the road from Tabacón, which was about half the price and quite rustic and nice.

In the best capitalist tradition, alas, this place has now been purchased by the conglomerate that owns Tabacón and is no longer inexpensive nor without "amenities."

The Tabacón hot springs complex sits among beautifully landscaped jungle at the foot of Arenal Volcano, utilizing the hot waters of the Tabacón River as they rush down the slopes of the volcano.

The springs are actually in a danger zone, located on the very spot where a small town once stood. The town was buried, along with all its residents, when Arenal exploded violently in 1968. Guests who visit Tabacón today would have little chance of escaping should Arenal Volcan erupt in the same way once again, which it is imminently capable of doing.

Tabacón is an acquired taste. Although in a beautiful setting, the assortment of pools scattered along the hot running river were very crowded with noisy folks and kids when we visited. I suppose some might consider Tabacón romantic, particularly if your idea of romance is making out in front of hordes of people.

I'll leave Tabacón for others in the future.

A couple of restaurant recommendations in La Fortuna, the town nearest to the volcano:

Restaurante Nene, which has its entrance in an alleyway off the main drag on the east side of town, may be the best place to eat in the area. I have been a regular at this place on each of my previous visits and have never been disappointed with the food, the service or the price. Look for a sign pointing the way.

Still the best casado (or, as it was once called in the United States, the "blue plate special") in La Fortuna can be enjoyed at Soda El Río, one block south of the main street. I first visited this place in 1992, when it was very rustic indeed. Although it has been fancied up a bit (but not too much) thanks to the influx of tourist dollars, the food is still quite good and remains inexpensive.

The entire town of La Fortuna has been dressed up through the years. It is a perfect example of what tourist dollars can bring to a small town. Once a poverty stricken, depressing place, it is now a boom town. Yet La Fortuna appears to have managed to "keep its soul."

On each of my previous visits to La Fortuna, I have managed to have terrific views of Arenal Volcano in all its smouldering glory. This time, the mountain was solidly socked in by clouds, never to appear during our two days in the area.

While riding in a taxi I remarked to the driver about the luck of my previous visits and how my luck appeared to have run out with the current visit.

"What time of year did you visit?" he asked.

"Four times in October, the rainiest month, and once in September, which is also a rainy month," I answered. "Yet I always saw the volcano very clearly, particularly in the morning."
"Ah ha!" he laughed. "You have found the answer!" The ONLY time when the volcano likely is not covered with clouds is in September and October. Usually all year it is covered except at that time. We don't tell many people about this because we want the tourists to come at all times of the year, not just in September and October. But if you want to see the volcano, you must come then."

Hmmm, so now we know.