August, being in the middle of the rainy season, may seem like not an ideal time to visit Costa Rica. However, with soaking wet weather comes less crowds and cheaper prices, and it would seem somehow wrong to visit the cloudforests and remain comfortably dry.
No sooner had we picked up our 4×4 than the skies opened up above us. Fifteen minutes later, it was a torrential downpour. This was only the first of our road challenges; after the rain died down, we found ourselves on a windy road through the hills of Costa Rica, with huge semis and buses careening around the blind curves. Luckily, all the roads were paved until we got to La Fortuna. As we turned onto the road to our first destination, Volcan Arenal, we got to experience our first of the rocky, pot-holed, dirt roads that surround Costa Rica’s main attractions.
Since a major eruption in 1968, Volcan Arenal has earned the distinction as one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world. We witnessed this activity first hand from our accommodations at The Arenal Observatory Lodge. From its perch less than two miles from the base of Volcan Arenal, the lodge is the only hotel on the lava flow side of the volcano. Originally a scientific research center run by the Smithsonian Institute, the lodge is now opened to the public. The rooms are large and comfortable with balconies offering fantastic views. At night, people watch the glowing lava flow from these balconies, the restaurant veranda, or the hotel hot tub. It is an amazing show.
There are a number of trails that start right on the hotel property which sits on a private nature reserve. We were eager to head out on the Old Lava Trail, which takes you to the base of Arenal to see hardened lava paths, steam vents, and other volcano phenomena. Unfortunately, we found the trail roped off with peligro tape–danger! The hotel owner explained to us that Arenal was currently very active, and lava was flowing down that trail. We asked for other suggestions on how to get closer to the volcano, but he explained that the restaurant veranda was the absolute closest anyone could go right now. So to avoid things like dying and death we explored other parts of the reserve area. We found ourselves hiking Cerro Chato, a grueling trail that takes you up the side of a dormant volcano to the lake that has formed in its crater. We also found our way to a great waterfall. Throughout the day, Arenal would rumble and puffs of smoke would rise from the bellowing monster’s peak.
After two fantastic nights at Arenal, it was time to hit the road for our next adventure: the Cloud Forests of central Costa Rica. Though less than ninety miles from Arenal in actual distance, the road to Santa Elena has been purposely left extremely rough by the eco-conscious residents, resulting in a long, arduous journey through the sleepy countryside.
Our speed wasn’t helped by the entrepreneurial endeavors of townspeople along the way. In Quebrada Grande, we passed an unmarked left turn and one minute later, there was a very helpful man standing in the middle of the road telling us we were lost, that we needed to take that left turn we passed, and that he would sell us a map. As we backtracked, we saw that a sign pointing to our destination had been knocked over. The sale of that map was very carefully orchestrated.
We finally arrived in Santa Elena after four and a half hours on the road. Our first stop was the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. Santa Elena is smaller and less celebrated than Monteverde, and combined with the fact that it was low tourist season, we had the reserve almost entirely to ourselves. We happened upon only two other hikers on the trails that meandered through the rainforest’s depths. As we hiked, rain started to fall, and just as Patrick was remarking how well the arching canopy above protected us from getting wet, the skies opened up and we got drenched. We ran the last mile back to the Reserve entrance in full appreciation of rainy season in a rain forest.
We found our way through the rain to El Sol, where owner Elisabeth, as promised, greeted us with big hugs. She set us up in one of the two cabins on the property that she and her husband Ignacio rent to visitors, and arranged for a warm dinner and bottle of wine to be delivered to our door.
When we woke up the next morning, the clouds had cleared and we were greeted with an amazing view of the valley from our cabin window. Elisabeth and her crew prepared an amazing spread for breakfast in the main building, and as we ate, she gave us and the other guests recommendations for the day and predicted good weather for the next two days.
And she was right–for the next two days we enjoyed extraordinarily sunny weather for the rainy season. We hiked through the lush Monteverde Cloud Forest where every plant is growing on another and we studied flowers and trees unlike anything we’d ever seen. We saw exotic wildlife there and especially at the nearby Ecological Sanctuary–including coatis, agoutis, Morpho butterflies, insects, and some crazy birds.
While the main attraction in Monteverde is the Cloud Forest, the main industry is the cheese factory. We didn’t have time to catch a tour amidst all our rain forest visits, but we did stop at their ice cream shop, Sabores, for some of the most delicious milkshakes we have ever had. Absolutely not to be missed!
On our last day in Monteverde, Elisabeth arranged for her friend Manuel to take us on a horseback ride through the valley. This was Patrick’s first time on a horse and we figured the trail would be pretty tame. But Manuel took us down steep, rocky paths and through waterfalls and streams. Lots of fun, but not for the faint-hearted! We broke for lunch at a large waterfall at the bottom of the valley and ate on a bed of rocks in the middle of the rushing river. We returned to El Sol several hours later dirty, sore, but with big smiles on our faces.
Shortly after our return it was time to say goodbye to El Sol. Elisabeth gave us our goodbye hugs, and Katrina a parting handicraft gift. But if you stay here, be forewarned that they accept only cash, which caused us a two hour delay as we drove back to town, dealt with stringent rules and signature scrutiny at the bank, and finally returned. Plan ahead!
Our last Costa Rican afternoon was spent on the rugged roads driving back to San Jose. We spent the night at the Adventure Inn. The entire hotel is decorated in a jungle theme–amusing if not charming. But if you are willing to bear the tackiness, it is a clean, inexpensive option very near the airport.