We stepped into a small motorboat, barely looking down to check our footing. Our eyes were glued to the view on the lake’s opposite shore: the mighty volcano Arenal. Its sharp cone drove steeply into the sky. What had been a tragedy for the two villages at the base of Arenal in the 1968 explosion that ended its dormancy became riches for the survivors as the cone continued to rumble and ooze. Conveniently left out of promotional literature and not updated on tourist websites is the fact that brilliant orange lava ceased to pour down the sides of the volcano two and a half years ago. But we loved it just the same.
We’d arrived a day early. We impulsively sprang from Santa Elena after a stubbornly rainy morning scuttled our hiking plans. After a bummer of a trip through San Jose, which had lingered like fog during our time in the cloud forest, we’d felt like nothing more than going home, getting out. But our last days in Costa Rica held one more wonder, a gift of perfect days that would make me wistful and sorry to leave: La Fortuna.
Our lodging was an open-air loft overlooking the town square: a bright, peach-colored Catholic church with a flowery park adjacent. That night, strains of violin and trumpet wafted into our bedroom. From the balcony, we could hear the student orchestra play the theme from Carmen, as the predominantly local audience wandered in and out of the open doors, moving about to find acoustic sweet spots and acquaintances to murmur to– a very different concert etiquette than in the United States, but no less appreciative and with a larger attendance.
We were the only guests in the six-room hospedaje, but it did not feel vacant. Our host, Peter, lived there with his good dog, Rocky, and each time we turned around, a different nice young Costa Rican woman was sitting at the table or working on a laptop on the counter. We finally figured out the cast of characters: Maria, Peter’s girlfriend, who dressed in 1980s fashion, middy tops and short shorts, with her hair in loose curls and her face open and amiable. Heidy, the receptionist, when she had finished answering the few emails that the guesthouse received each day, brought out art supplies and stretched canvas and painted images from Greco-Roman and Egyptian myths, right there by the little kitchen. And Kathi was a friend who teased Peter to stock the refrigerator with chocolates and fruit juice before her visits, during which they shared culinary wisdom; she is a sushi chef at a local restaurant. We enjoyed everyone’s company, though it was a little less exciting than imagining we had accidentally booked four nights at a house of ill repute.
Unsurprisingly, we had not made exact plans for our stay. Our host recommended a popular tour: it was ten hours long and consisted of hiking, a waterfall, a hanging bridge, lunch, a swim in a volcanic lagoon, a volcano museum and mirador (viewpoint), and a soak in the hot springs. It was exactly what we wanted to do… except not with a tour. So we borrowed the tour’s itinerary, but spread it over three days, hiking faster but more extensively, and completing the rest in more leisurely fashion, at a third of the cost. We swam in the cold, sunny waterfall, our breath swept away by the blast of air churning from its wake. We took public buses and waved down empty turismo vans. We cooked our breakfasts and dinners in the loft on the little two-burner stove, oatmeal, then beans and vegetables with tortillas. We had time to nap, lay in the hamaca and phone home, or play tunes on J.’s travel guitar. And far down a minor trail near the observatory, J. smoked a fine cigar from a certain country very slowly and with much relish, while watching an extended family of spider monkeys swing westward through the trees overhead.
One afternoon, Peter asked if we wanted to join Rocky and him at the local swimming hole. It is called El Salto: the jump. A fraying, thin-looking knotted rope hangs from a tree over a thick, black rock that juts over the largest pool in the Rio Fortuna. Peter and J. swung out and let go, dropping eight feet into the churning drink, but despite both encouragements and chicken gestures, this was not my method of entry. The best feature of the swimming hole was that it is a gratis version of the Endless Pool you may remember from such fine catalogues as SkyMall or Hammacher Schlemmer. The ground level drops just above the hole, causing the river to channel into two small waterfalls, which cause a strong, fast downstream current. No matter how hard I paddled (which is, admittedly, not very; I was always put at the shallow end during swim classes), I could not gain ground. Who needs a gym membership when you’ve got this, plus multiple volcanoes to climb? Meanwhile, kids cast fishing line, or threw sticks for Rocky to fetch. A little girl in jean shorts and a purple vest slapped her round stomach contentedly between swims. Boys showed off for curvy young girls with curves of their own: flips and dives that arched frighteningly close to sharp rocks and the pounding falls. Teenagers kissed in the shadows. This felt like the real La Fortuna, realer than the strip of tourism booths lining the main drag, realer than a pre-packaged adventure tour, realer than a hotel where you see no one who isn’t paid to be there.
The next day, Maria asked if we had yet gone to El Chuyin, the local rio termal (geothermal river). We had not. Ah, she said in Spanish, let me ask Peter if we could go together tonight. It is most beautiful at night. And so it was that at 5:30, we rode beneath a sunset that scattered the colors of tropical fruits among clouds, toward the volcano from which the hot river flows. Unmarked, just down the road from the most expensive hot springs resort in town, the same water flows free and open. We descended in the dark on uneven stone steps to an overpass under which rushed the Rio Tabacon. The only lighting was six candles balanced in crevices, and the occasional headlights of a vehicle passing on the road above. The entire river steamed, smelling slightly of sulphur, an attractive scent in places like these. It thundered off a concrete ledge back into its natural riverbed, upon the sandy bottom of which it is an abdominal workout just to remain standing. I stood under the ledge and let it envelop me. Then I lay flat upon the ledge and let it wash over, nearly covering my body, while I stared at the four stars peeking through the foliage above, the waters mirroring the starlight back toward the heavens. I had been reading Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, about the dissolution of the ego-driven soul, uniting one’s energy with that of the divine power. I felt that way: as if tight pieces of me were stripped off, disappearing downriver into darkness, leaving only impersonal, liquid motion. Then we chatted and laughed and played water games like children: Maria held her hands above the surface, to feel the soft foam rush over her fingers. Peter ducked under the ledge and shone a light through the water, then submerged himself and popped his feet out from under. J. squirted water with his hands. And I got a large quantity of sand in my swimsuit (unity with the river, right?). We finally left, just after a tour group showed up with several vanfulls of additional bathers, but it was hard to go. The night was magic. It was a Costa Rican farewell blessing.
Our last morning was spent walking sweatily to a mediocre but amusing butterfly garden. Then the bus carried us away to spend a final night near the airport, with a few minutes of layover in Ciudad Quesada to peruse chicharrones and empanadas and red delicious apples, and to pay 65 cents for admittance to the bathrooms and a length of folded toilet paper (which you do not flush, but put in the trash cans). Then it was exit fee, check-in, baggage, flight, immigrations, customs, and presto: we were back in the United States. Another salto. It happened so fast. We are back in the USA, land of gleaming floors, cable television in English, 4G, and autumn. I don’t know how I feel about it. The warm, humid air of Costa Rica is still trapped in the pockets of my luggage. I may not be ready to unpack…