La Fortuna: My parents arrive in the afternoon at San José airport, visiting us from London in a a much anticipated journey made almost impossible by the snows first in Europe and then the US east coast. Weather delays them by only a day and we head north straightaway to Costa Rica’s most active volcano, Arenal.
We arrive by nightfall – an early 5.30 pm – in the nondescript tourist town of La Fortuna, a settlement of restaurants, hotels, bars and souvenir stalls, seemingly operating entirely to serve the volcano’s visitors. After an early dinner, we drive to one of the many thermal baths that take advantage of the Earth’s piping hot interior to deliver watery decadence to travel weary folk like us. The baths we visit are created by minimal manipulations of a fast-flowing forest stream, complete with regular, massaging waterfalls, chirping frogs and vine-laden trees. More than 10 delightful little hot pools are landscaped into the cloud forest, as well as large formal swimming pools.
We soak in the pools, their edges made indistinct by the bath’s steam and the mountain fog that hang above us dissolving our torsos into the night. It’s a wonderful, if pricey, treat and we are sorry to leave when the staff close up.
Next morning, the volcano is as invisible as at night – this is rainy season and clouds cover the pointy peak. Nevertheless, we walk into the national park, skirting the mountain’s flank, hoping for a break in the clouds or a spark of activity bright enough to penetrate their cover. Arenal is one of the world’s 10 most active volcano, revealing itself as such in 1968, when, after hundreds of years of dormancy, it destroyed the nearby town of Tabacón, killing 78 people. But despite tales of its nightly firework show, the volcano remains tantalisingly shrouded in thick cloud for our visit.
The walk is through tropical forest, the likes of which we have grown more than used to during our journey. But it is a new joy to see the familiar through my parents’ eyes. The forest takes on a special sweetness: plants we know well become curiously interesting, the animals more appealing and ordinary sights like vines and creepers regain their remarkableness, like an old song used newly and in perfect context, or a partner suddenly dressed-up with a different hair cut. We find a sloth and spot toucans, climb recent (1992) lava flows for a view of the Arenal lake and then head back through jungle and elephant grass, looking for monkeys.
The rain falls from the leaden sky in a sudden heavy downpour, pooled by the canopy and funnelled into pregnant drops that burst onto us in staggered sploshes, like being pelted with water balloons. The path grows muddier and we slip and slide in our dry-weather footwear. Then, as suddenly as it began, the rain stops, and we continue on, grubbily shod, to a butterfly garden. The enterprise was created 8 years ago by a US retiree, who bought a naked cattle ranch and clothed it with native forest. Already, he has tall, established trees visited by howler monkeys and butterflies, hummingbirds and squirrels. He is breeding butterflies on-site and releasing them into the garden in the kind of aesthetic, tourist-pleasing nature attraction that the country does so well.
As the rain restarts, we return to La Fortuna for the night, in time to see the aerial play of similarly sized bats and butterflies at dusk.
We’ll turn the year on the Pacific coast at Mal Pais.