The morning of our tour started out interesting. Long story short, Win (who set up our tour on the ferry ride over from Phi Phi) didn’t alert the tour people that we needed a pickup and the women at the hotel (the first unfriendly people we had come across on the entire island) weren’t at all helpful. In fact, we were even yelled at for not making the reservation through them! But, eventually we were able to get a gentleman from the hotel to help us call the elephant trekking people to let them know we were scheduled for a tour that day.
We were at least a half hour late from when our tour was supposed to start, but when the pickup came for us the employees were very apologetic for having missed us. And once we arrived to the tour location, the vibe was so chilled and relaxed that you could immediately tell that even though they had tour “start times” they really didn’t pay that much attention to them!
Looking Above Cave
Trees Growing in Cave
Instead of starting with the elephant trekking, we went off on a guided hike (on foot) through the jungle to the bat cave and waterfall. We started with the bat cave and while it wasn’t that deep to walk through, the most impressive thing about it was that there were trees growing just inside the cave and the trunks of the trees had grown through the roof of the cave! Also there was a very large mushroom (magic??) growing deep inside the cave beyond the point of light reaching, which I’d never seen before either! The bats were teeny and so freaking cute!! Every now and again one would stir and fly around a bit or simply stretch its wings then curl back up for a nap.
After the cave we walked to the waterfall, which unfortunately due to lack of rain was rather lackluster. However, it was still quite pretty and due to the heat of the day felt very nice to stand under the water to cool off! The best part about the waterfall were the cleaner fish AND a cleaner shrimp!! After cooling off under the waterfall Anna and I stood around in the shallow areas of the waterfall pool and watched as the fish surrounded Anna’s feet nibbled away. None of the fish were interested in my feet until suddenly I felt a little tickle on my pinky toe and looked down to see a cleaner shrimp nibbling!! He was just adorable to watch as his little front pincers hacked away dead skin around my toe:) I could have stayed there all day getting my free shrimp pedicure, but alas it was time to head back and hop on an elephant:)
When we had first arrived to the elephant area, another couple were coming in from their elephant trek and one of the people was sitting in the “saddle” while the other was riding on the front of the elephant… I wasn’t sure if this was allowed for everyone to do, but I was going to ask anyway! I was informed that it was ok to sit on the front of the elephant, but I had to properly, meaning I had to sit as far forward as possible on the elephants neck so that the sensitive area would not be damaged or strained. We climbed the stairs to a platform and first I mounted on the head (essentially) of the elephant while Anna got on in the saddle. I asked if I was sitting forward enough to which the trainer said “more forward”. So I pushed forward. “More forward” he said again, so I moved further forward…
Me with Elephant
Me with Elephant_2
Now, I’ve been a horse back rider for over 20 years, so I do know my way around riding horses and the feeling and sensation of that, so I figured it couldn’t be THAT different to ride an elephant… I was wrong!! You literally had to sit so far forward on the neck so that you were tucked directly behind the elephants ears and all you had in front of you was the head of the elephant and then the ground. You would think that with the size of the elephant’s head, that it would give you comfort of not falling off, but seriously, once on top, it really isn’t that much space! The safe space on the neck is so far forward and so narrow that it was hard to feel 100% comfortable about not falling off. I had to keep my palms flat on the top of the elephant’s head to help with balance and her movement was so foreign that I had to hold on for dear life with my thighs too!
Me with Elephant_3
Anna Feeding Elephant_3
Posing with Elephant
About half-way through the trek Anna and I switched places (with the trainer again telling Anna several times to “move forward” before continuing on) and what I found amazing was we both had similar stories in that every time either of us felt like we were losing balance to the left or right, the elephant would flatten her ear against our leg as if she was holding us steady! Throughout the ride her ears were constantly flapping around to keep the mosquitos and flies off of her, but the minute we felt like we were losing balance in either direction, the corresponding ear would stop slapping and it would snap shut around our leg for a couple of seconds until we were back in balance, then they would resume their regular fly swatting action. Absolutely amazing!!!
That experience was one of the most amazing I’ve had. And again, while I was a bit reluctant at first to sign up for the tour because of not knowing how they treated the animals, I can say with assurance that these elephants are well taken care of and loved. The trainers were constantly loving on them in one way or another, none of the trainers had a hook prod that you often see at other elephant places, but rather they only had a thin bamboo stick, which they used as walking sticks for themselves more than anything else. They never once struck an elephant and during the trek, they walked behind the elephants simply chatting amongst themselves. If the elephants stopped to grab a bite to eat, the trainers would say something to them, give them a pat, and wait until the elephant was ready to walk on. They were all so chill, comfortable and good with the elephants that it was amazing to see.
After our trek we spent, I don’t even know how much money, buying bananas for the elephants to nibble on as a thank you. Of course a gazillion pictures were also snapped and lots of loving and praise was given to the beautiful beasts. It was an experience I won’t ever forget and feel so grateful to have been able to do. Thank you Anna!!!
Arriving at the Red Lava tour office at 2:00 (they did offer to pick me up from my hostel at no extra charge but I declined) I was quickly accompanied by 3 girls from Holland, and 2 spanish speaking gentlemen. We were told by the tour group that the last part of the tour would include a dip in natural hot springs so if we wanted to have an alcoholic beverage during that time, then we should go around the corner to the grocery store to pick some up. They provided a cooler for our purchases and within a half hour we were all in the van and on our way to the Arenal volcano.
It only took about 15 minutes (including a stop for some afar pictures of the volcano and a stop to see some toucans which promptly flew away as everyone readied their cameras) to get to our destination. Now, I really wish I could recall the name of the hotel that we were taken to, but sadly cannot. The view from the hotel was amazing! We were quite literally up close and personal with the volcano! And to boot, the hotel was quite well landscaped so the views in the near vicinity were also quite spectacular. We were given a little time to wander our new surroundings and take all the views in. The hotel had a deck on the back-end of it that looked onto the volcano and a beautiful lake below. The scenery really was breathtaking! After some time spent on the deck (and several pictures later) we returned to the parking lot to officially start our tour and spotted a family of baby raccoons playing and hanging out in the trees just feet from us!! Needless to say, the next 10 minutes or so were spent cooing over the baby raccoons and taking a gazillion pictures of their every adorable move!! It was hard to tear ourselves away from them, but we were forced to leave the parking lot area soon after that… not because of the tour, but because of the storm that erupted above us raining down buckets of water on us!
Right about now is when the sensible traveler would say “Storm? No worries, I have my poncho or umbrella or rain coat with me!” I however, was not one of the sensible travelers on this day. And even though I did contemplate bringing it with me, I didn’t because the sky looked clear and showed no signs of raining at all! Lesson learned: no matter what the sky may or may not look like at the time, always bring your poncho as at any given moment the weather can shift and go from sun to pouring buckets.
It is for this next reason as well that you don’t want to be caught without a poncho when needed: none of the other travelers had a poncho with them either (except one) and as we all stood huddled under the porch shelter of the hotel, our guide suggested that we purchase a poncho so we could still walk in the rain. Reluctantly one by one we lined up at the hotel desk and purchased a poncho for $2.40 a piece. What we received in return was the thinnest, cheapest and lightest piece of plastic. Seriously it was so darn thin that a couple of people split theirs just trying to get theirs on! Once we were finally all “ponchoed” the guide said “ok, let’s go!”… Where did the guide take us first?? To an indoor room on the second floor of the hotel for a chat about the history of the volcano! By the time we were done with that discussion, the rain had stopped and none of us had any use for the ponchos at all, therefore making the purchase of them completely unnecessary! Hysterical, right?? Or perhaps ironic…
Well, ok I really shouldn’t say that the poncho purchase was completely useless as I have used it since to wrap wet or damp clothing in prior to shoving them in my bag when traveling from one destination to another… But it was useless for the specific intention it was purchased for. But I digress.
Anyway, the chat about the volcano really was quite fascinating. Apparently long ago when people were first settling in La Fortuna, they had no idea that the volcano was indeed a volcano. They lived beside the volcano lake and swam in the waters and climbed the volcano. There never was any issue with this lifestyle until, of course, the volcano erupted and wiped out a good portion of the people there. Those who settled further (and on the ¨correct¨ side of it) from the volcano survived but the majority of the town was completely wiped out. Also, there are actually 4 volcanos all in the same area. The one that is and has been active most recently actually began at the base of the original volcano. As the lava cooled from this ¨base¨ volcano it piled higher and higher until reaching and even surpassing the height of the original cone volcano structure! You can see evidence of this when viewing the volcano from some of the angles, for there seems to be a cone peak that levels off and then it climbs higher to a higher point. The lower cone is the original one, and the higher peak is actually the volcano that is erupting from the base! Pretty cool stuff!! The guide also mentioned how several people have tried to climb up to the top of the volcano since the first eruption that wiped out the original town (1968 if I recall correctly). None were successful and one even died trying.
Once the history lesson was over (and rain) we headed off on foot to our next tour destination: a waterfall! Now it was not the La Fortuna waterfall that is in the National Park, but another smaller one not too far a hike from the hotel we were driven to. Along the way we learned about indigenous plants of Costa Rica such as the citronella (which we all plucked a fruit from and rubbed all over our bodies to naturally prevent mosquitos from dining on us), a cacao plant, banana trees and the Cecropia tree that indigenous tribes used to get high! They would wait for the leaves to fall and dry them out, then smoke them to produce a high. Interestingly enough, it is the leaves of this tree that sloths prefer the most to snack on and it is somewhat of a joke that it’s because they eat these leaves that they are so slow:) Whether the leaves actually produce a high or not, I do not know but it’s certainly interesting information! We were also pointed out a banana spider, which due to my arachnophobia I steered clearly away from and couldn’t even bring myself to take a picture of it for fear it would jump on my camera even from the 10 foot radius of space I gave it.
Finally we arrived at our waterfall destination and my, oh my what a sight!! It wasn’t spectacularly tall, but the sound of the rushing water just made your spirits lift and got me very energized!! They are such simple constructions of nature, and yet the force and power of the water rushing off the edge is still awe-inspiring! Our guide promptly upon arriving stripped down to his bathing shorts and decorated his body with mud from the edges of the river, capping his head with a dead Cecropia leaf. The other two men on the tour immediately followed suit while the rest of us (all ladies) one by one surrendered to the idea of getting wet in the chilly waterfall waters. By the end of our time there (about an hour or so) we had all taken our fill of jumping into the waterfall off of nearby logs that had fallen and that now served as great jumping boards, and of taking pictures and generally wading in the river beyond the waterfall. Dark was upon us (which by the way it is pitch dark by 6pm in Costa Rica year round) as we all packed our things up and headed back up the trail to our van. But before leaving the nature hike trail entirely, our guide had one more piece of interesting information for us…
First he asked whether any of us could guess how many spiders and insects were currently in the grassy area directly in front of us. At this question, I immediately froze… My thought was ¨wait a minute, you mean to tell me that you see spiders directly in front of us?!?!?!?! WHERE??? And which way can I go to avoid them?!?!?!?!¨. My first thought was to back up very slowly away from the grass that lay ahead of us, until I realized that there was a ton of grass behind us too so surely there must be spiders in there too!! Now I know of course that there are spiders around us everyday (statistically we are no more than 5 feet from a spider at any given moment in our lives) but I would rather just not know about it! Ignorance to me in this instance is absolutely blissful!! I once again froze and decided, well, perhaps if I knew where they were I could avoid those areas specifically. As people guessed randomly how many critters we were surrounded by, our guide showed us a little trick to find out. We all had headlights with us and we were instructed to place them on our nose and look around our areas with the lights on. This positioning of the light allowed us to look directly onto the beam of light projected from our headlamps and suddenly dozens upon dozens of multiple pairs of little shiny spots all along the grass appeared… What we were in fact seeing was the eyes (sets of 8 for spiders) of insects hidden within the shelter of the grass. It had just rained though so some of those shines were due to water droplets, but I did test out several shiny objects by moving in closer to see what they were and yes, in fact they were bugs or spiders (to my stress mainly spiders!). Quite a useful trick I thought and interesting to boot, even though I again would rather just not know about a spiders presence to begin with.
Moving along, we got back to the van and headed out at breakneck speed along the dirt and stone road from which we had traveled before back to town. Speeding and seemingly reckless driving is definitely prevalent in Costa Rica (in fact they are #1 for fatal accidents involving motor vehicles) but you get somewhat accustomed and trusting of tour guides and bus drivers whose job it is to drive tourists around. In any event, at one point on our way back our driver sharply swerved and slammed on the brakes, put the van in reverse and proceeded driving backward for a little ways. When he threw the gear back into drive mode he inched slowly along the road again finally coming to a stop in the middle of the road, just in front of something. He instructed all of us to stay in the van as he got out and looked at a creature ahead of the van lit up only by the lights of the van. After several minutes he returned and stated that there was a real fer-de-lance snake on the road.
I use the word ¨real¨ not to mean that it was alive (though it was) but to mean that it was an authentic one. Apparently there is another snake species that looks very much like the fer-de-lance except that it does not have the triangular head of the real fer-de-lance, but it mimics the authentic one by triangulating its head when it feels threatened to make its predator think it’s more dangerous than it really is. Unlike it’s imposter however, the real (authentic) fer-de-lance is considered to be the most poisonous snake in Costa Rica. As told by several guides, if bitten you have 45 minutes to get anti-venom, and sadly as most hospitals take way more than 45 minutes to get to, chances are if bitten by one it will be fatal. However, upon Google searching info on these snakes myself, I have come across varying information. All do seem to say that it is considered the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica, and that this snake bite is the leading cause of death (among snake bites) but other sources (Wikipedia) state that the fatality rate is almost 0% due to the Clodomiro Picado Research Institute that is responsible for the production of snake antiphidic serums. Hmmmm….
In any event, slowly we all crept out of the van one-by-one to see the fer-de-lance and to snap a few photos (zoom was of course used as I wasn’t going to get THAT close!). Once we all got our picts it was back in the van we went and a little further down the road we once again pulled over to see the next critter spotted by our guide.
Now perhaps is a good time to say that the tour guides have the most amazing eye sight!!! They are able to spot the tiniest of creatures from the most impressive distances!! This was no exception either as the creature we stopped to see was a pair of mating Red-Eyed leaf frogs!! Chances are you have definitely at least seen a picture of these frogs as they are the most photographed of all the Costa Rica frogs. I know of people who have been here for months and still have not seen one of these frogs in person! The aren’t poisonous at all and are absolutely adorable!! We of course spent probably more time than we needed to photographing them to death (not literally folks, calm down) until resigning back to the van and heading to our final destination: a natural hot spring!
Known only to local ticans (or tourists who are clever enough to ask the locals about whether there are any free hot springs around), the natural (and free!!) hot spring we were taken to was actually a river that prior to the 1968 eruption ran cold, but after ran nice and toasting hot! Just under a bridge where the river ran also naturally formed areas where the water pooled creating a wonderfully perfect jacuzzi! Because the bridge was nearby, you could use the concrete slabs below the bridge as a hot slip and slide dunking off the edge and into the pool at the end. Or if you chose, you could duck under the small waterfall created by the edge of the concrete and the hot pool to a space under the bridge that felt like a sauna!! It did get a little claustrophobic in there for me, so I really just spent the majority of the time lounging in the pool and slip and sliding in from the bridge. We busted out our beers and toasted a wonderful evening out, finally relaxing in the massaging waters.
One funny story here, if you recall we had brought a cooler of beers and all had purchased about 3-4 beers a piece. When we arrived at the hot spring there were two tico (i.e. local) teenage boys playing in the springs already. They hung around as we enjoyed our time there drinking our beers. At one point all of us had ducked under the bridge to the sauna area and when we emerged and decided it was time for another beer, the cooler was still there, but the remaining beer was not… And the boys were gone! Lol!! The guide immediately ran up the river and searched surrounding areas to see if he could find them to no avail and some of my companions were a bit offended, but I just thought it was funny. Typical teenage boy antics- just having some fun! They really didn’t make off with that many beers, so really I didn’t consider it to be too harmful.
In any event, we left the hot spring and were dropped off around 9pm at our relative hotels/hostels. Needless to say I slept quite well that night with my body having been treated so well by the heat and motion of the spring!! Good thing too, as the next day I would once again be departing for my Jeep-Boat-Jeep tour to take me to Monteverde.
I arrived in La Fortuna the next afternoon and headed to the hostel I found on the internet called “Sleepers Sleep Cheap”. The word ‘cheap’ of course caught my eye immediately when searching for somewhere and the reviews seemed good enough.
About 100 meters south of the bus terminal, I arrived at the hostel which was set back a little from town than most of the others. For $10 a night, I got a private room with a private bath, hot water and breakfast! I paid for 2 nights and proceeded to get settled in. Honestly I don’t have any negative words for the hostel. It was a very basic set-up and nothing fancy by any means, but it was cheap, my room was clean, the staff were very friendly and accommodating, and the breakfast area had one of the best views in my opinion… I will later divulge what that view was;)
Now, I wanted to state my opinion about the hostel before writing about this bit: interestingly enough, weeks later when I was in Bocas Town (Bocas del Toro), Panama, I met a couple who just happened to stay at the hostel at the same time that I was staying there! But they had a very different opinion of the place… Though they did agree it was cheap, they said they believed they had bed bugs and that their door wouldn’t close all the way so all sorts of critters would come in during the day and night. Their room wasn’t clean and they weren’t that thrilled with what was served for breakfast (toast, eggs, fruit and coffee). So, I guess it just goes to show you that not everyone’s experiences are the same!
In any event, after getting settled in it was about time to eat something, so I found a local soda that was recommended and that was just down the street from my hostel and had a fantastic fillet de pollo casado! I absolutely love those casados!!!
Waiting for my meal to arrive, two guys whom I had met on the bus showed up so we dined together. I spent that evening wandering the streets of La Fortuna with them, drinking beer in the central park. Since we had all arrived in the late evening, there really wasn’t much time to get our barring of the area, so at this point none of us really knew where the famed volcano was. Sitting in the park drinking, it became a little bit of a game trying to figure out where the volcano actually was. If the volcano had been active, it would have been quite obvious, but alas the volcano was dormant while I was there. And mind you, it had been dark since before dinner, so there wasn’t any way to see around us…
The next morning I rose early determined to check several things off my list. First off, I wanted to do a tour of the volcano and perhaps the hot springs and second I wanted to go to the famed La Fortuna waterfall and finally, I wanted to get a plan in place on where my next destination would be. Even though the purpose of my trip to Costa Rica was not to be a tourist, one really can’t help but do a tour or two once here! They can be pricey, that’s for sure but I did a lot of tour “office hopping” prior to settling on the final place to book at. And since it was the off-season, there were more deals available than not.
Red Lava, a tour office located at the bus terminal offered the best prices and most unique tours. Through them I booked a tour of the Arenal volcano that was 5 hours long, including a nature hike to a waterfall (not the La Fortuna waterfall but another one), a history of the Arenal volcano and finishing off with a night dip in a natural hot spring. I also booked for a Jeep-Boat-Jeep package that would get me from La Fortuna to my next destination of Monteverde via, well you guessed it: a jeep, a boat and a jeep:)
It was mid-morning by the time I got all my bookings complete and since my volcano tour wasn’t going to start until 2pm, I opted to spend my time in between by going to the famous La Fortuna waterfall. Since my motto on spending money was “the less you spend now, the more you will have later” I decided to walk to the waterfall, located inside a National Park, instead of taking a bus directly to the entrance of the National Park… I really should have just paid the darn $8 for the bus!!!!! But oh no, I decided to keep that money and hike there myself instead! Afterall, it was a paved road to the park so I figured a little exercise would do me some good! I have no idea what the temperature was outside, but the sun was shining and it was definitely humid! I had my little personal bag with me so I could bring my camera for the trip and take plenty of pictures. And I was off for my hike…
About 8 kilometers (about 3 of which were straight uphill- the end 3 of course) later I arrived to the park entrance red-faced and completely dripping in sweat. In fact I was so saturated with sweat that both my t-shirt and breathable pants were completely soaked through!! My bag, supposedly waterproof, even began to soak in some of my sweat so that the inside contents became damp! The very first thing I did when I got to the park entrance was go to the bathroom and practically bathe myself in the sink with my clothes still on! Thankfully I did have along with me my vapur water bottle and therefore was hydrated the entire way, but I still had to refill it twice before ever leaving the bathroom because of my extreme thirst!! People were looking at me like I was crazy, but all I cared about at that point was that I had made it!!
But then, I glanced at my watch… it was noon… there was NO way I was going to be able to actually get to the waterfall and back down to town by 2:00 for my volcano tour:( You see, I had made it to the park ENTRANCE but the waterfall itself was still about a kilometer deep into the park. And tack on the fact that if I wanted to even try to see the waterfall I would have had to pay the $10 entrance fee, well, it just didn’t make much sense at that point to even try for it. So I decided to simply head back down to the town, perhaps get a bite to eat and make it in time for my tour.
The walk back to town was much nicer!! All downhill with a little breeze to boot! The little breeze did wonders to dry my clothing on the walk down and by the time I made it back (about 1) I had just enough time to grab a bite to eat at the soda where I had dinner and get ready to meet my tour.
Oh and I promised I would divulge the breakfast view from my hostel… It was indeed the volcano!!! I had been staring at it all morning during the first morning while enjoying breakfast yet never realized I what I was looking at, lol!!!