Day 1 – You Can’t Get There From Here (Or “The Road to La Fortuna”)

I have been waiting for this moment. We set off for the airport courtesy of Robert’s friend Jason, who will be house-sitting while we’re gone. It’s the uncivilized hour of 3 am – Rob has not slept at all, and I have had 3 or 4 hours of agitated sleep. Our flight is slated for Miami and then another into Costa Rica. Waiting in line to check baggage, we hear a murmer from another traveler that the 5:25 flight to Miami has been canceled. Set back number 1. However, Rob and I are both roll with the punches sort of people so we kindly chat with the airline representative about how we will manage to actually set foot in Costa Rica. She puts us on a slightly later flight into Miami and we end up with a five hour layover waiting for our final flight. We sit in an exit row which, besides the altruistic goal of agreeing to help people should the plane engage in any blackbox sort of behavior, allows us some blessed leg room on a crowded 757.

We touch down in San Jose at around 5:30 pm, except in Costa Rica, it is 3:30 pm. We drag our belongings into the lines waiting for security and customs. The customs official places the first stamp in my passport and nods positively in response to my nervous energy and excitement.

We leave the airport to find a raucous mess of tour companies all trying to find their patrons. Destination Costa Rica, the middle-middle man, who has handled most of our bookings, will shuffle us to our rental car, but not before a sly unaffiliated, slightly ratty-looking man tries to direct us into a competitor’s van. Europcar robs us blind when charging for their full-coverage insurance option. This is not entirely to be unexpected as Costa Rican driving involves a little dose of crazy and a larger one of chutzpah, and some kind of insurance is mandatory in the country. They have “upgraded” us to a Daihatsu – a little Japanese SUV whose names means “beautiful small”. Dark is already setting in due to our later arrival time and the sky is overcast – it is the rainy season after all.

Our little Diahatsu. It got progressively dirtier as the trip went on.

San Jose is a crazy, busy kind of place. There are very few lights at intersections. In the style of many busy metropolises world-wide, there are lots of motorcycles and mopeds zipping in and out of the flow of traffic. Rob takes over driving not 15 minutes after we leave the rental place as it’s obvious he’s better suited to the activity. I drove in the Boston area off and on during the few years I lived down that way, but the aggressiveness and the defensive skills needed never really entered my blood stream they way they did Robert’s.

The drive to Arenal Paraiso, the resort we are staying at outside of the Arenal Volcano is predicted at three hours. Not 20 minutes after we start our trip, the skies open up and we’re bathed in torrential sheets of rain. We are exceedingly glad to have a GPS for our trip as just like the guides say, the roads are confusing and poorly marked. The drivers here are daredevils, reckless in many cases, and will ride in two lanes, pass without notice, and pay little heed to speed limits. However, the fines for speeding here are a $600 ticket, so we are conservative. We already start to notice the steep drop offs of 2-5 ft present at the shoulder of most roads here. My guess is the usual suspect responsible for no shoulders on the roads is the massive amounts of rain the country receives during the rainy season.

After passing through some hubs of suburban activity, we reach the mountain route that will lead us to La Fortuna, the little town nestled beneath the volcano. The roads are impossibly sharp and winding here. The night is dark, the rain is intense, much of the drive brings us through patches of thick haze and fog. Combined with the many people – often wearing black – haphazardly walking home on the side of the road, the steep drop-offs, and the animals we occasionally see darting across, the drive is one of the most intense I’ve ever experienced, requiring us both to stare ahead of us with rapt attention and constant communication. There are also a multitude of bridges and our GPS chimes each time with a warning indicating “dangerous bridge ahead”. We soon figure out the yielding system as only one car can generally drive across at a time. There is one particular bridge that is bigger than the rest and although I can’t see the surrounding landscape, I get the sense of the cavernous space beneath us and in some sense am slightly grateful to be traversing at night when I can’t fully appreciate the looming space underneath.

We reach Arenal Paraiso only 10 – 20 minutes later than expected even with the intensity of the travel. We are ushered to a lovely little suite where we begin to relax. There are two rocking chairs on a little back veranda that we sit to take in our first interaction with the volcano. We hear the whirs, clicks, and biological thrum of the area and see a few haphazard lightning bugs blink off and on in the corner. It’s decidedly funny to experience this at night and feels oddly surreal, like we’ve traveled to a glorified version of the rainforest cafe, because we can only hear a soundscape, taste a foreign air. We’ve yet to actually lay eyes on most of what waits for us.

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