Day 3 – Welcome to the Jungle (Or “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat”)

Volcán Arenal - a clear view (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

This is an early day for us. The volcano is in full breathtaking view, in contrast to most of  the day before. The volcano had been shrouded with mist a good portion of the time, sometimes confusing the casual viewer into believing there really was no volcano at all.

We catch breakfast at 6:30. We are slated to go out on a “Safari Float Tour” – we have a voucher from the company we booked with, and are expecting a very tourist-centric experience which hardly turns out to be the case. Our shuttle stops at another local hotel to pick up Dustin and Emily, two newlyweds from Colorado on their honeymoon in Costa Rica. We all chat on the ride over to the  Peñas Blancas River where our experience will begin. We find out more about our guide Jamie (pronounced Hi-may). He has a family in a nearby town and has two little girls – one three-year old, and one kindergartener-aged. He has worked for various touring companies in the area (as most of the guides will allude to over the rest of our trip as well. It seems there is fidelity to an industry, but not always to a specific company), but likes this particular job as he has more opportunity to interact and chat with the people he’s guiding as compared to more intense activities like white water rafting. He often times works six days a week, and can at times be slated for a 10 hour day. Tourism is considered quite the opportunity in the region, but is only a realistic option for those that are bilingual in the country, a percentage he estimates at around 50%.

"Gallery" forest on either side of the Peñas Blancas River (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

We reach the banks of the river and pour out of the van into the early morning stickiness. Jamie and Antonio, the driver, pull a thick rubber raft from the backseat and begin inflating it. We don life jackets and push off moments after arriving. I grin at Antonio who is looking on from the shore, and the corners of his mouth respond in kind, confirming a smile is indeed a universal language. Jamie is able to control the raft with little assistance and begins to explain why the area is of interest. He points out the large trees whose root systems hold the banks of the river stable. The forest along the sides of the river are known as “gallery forests” due to the abundance of wildlife along them. The trees that meet over the river serve as biological corridors of sorts, allowing living creatures to cross from one side to the other and ensuring we have plenty to look at.

We see several birds flitting about including the scarlet-rumped tanager, a sharp-looking little bird with a iridescent red back. The strange, reptilian movements of the snake bird, or anhinga capture our attention. Sand pipers run along the river’s edge. We start to see the small specimens of crocodile that frequent the river along muddy banks. The locals still choose to swim in the river and are apparently unconcerned about their presence. Basilisks, also commonly referred to as Jesus Christ lizards apparently due to their propensity for running across the water’s surface, are spotted along branches of trees at various junctures along the river.

Jaime, who seems to know a wealth of information about most of Costa Rica’s 800 species of birds, bats, and many of its other flora and fauna, points out howler monkeys lounging in some nearby trees and seems to be communing with them as he lets out a string of sounds that sound suspiciously just like the ones coming from the monkey’s tree.

Halfway along our river journey, we stop at a local farm to snack on mild cheese, plantains, and a special sweet bread made from a starchy vegetable of some kind . Chickens and roosters run haphazardly along the length of the property, popping out in amusing and hilarious places. There is a little orange and white cat with a crooked tail looking for attention. The Costa Rican attitude towards dogs and cats are very different from our own. They find our propensity for letting our pets sleep on the bed very strange. All the farm’s inhabitants have recently been amused by a tourist who picked up the feline and started kissing it.

The first cat in our story, but certainly not the last (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

We get to meet Don Pedro, the 99 year old owner of the farm and the surrounding land. He loves to pose for photos with visitors, uttering the countdown “1,2,3 – whiskey!” before the shutter clicks. Two of his daughters care for him. They also seem intensely interested in the fact that Rob and I are twins (gemelos in Spanish), and recount additional anecdotes concerning the subject.

We continue our journey with more crocodiles slipping by the raft and some definite mis-identifications. Jamie has coined terms like “log-o-dile” and “branch-o-dile” for our blunders. We get to chatting about alcohol, technology, and politics, so it feels like we could be sitting at anyone’s kitchen table, shooting the breeze. It’s nice.

We drag ourselves out of the raft at the end and into a blessedly air-conditioned van. The tour company has one more stop for us however, at the Las Iguanas Restaurante, where piles of vegetables lie in wait for the masses of fat, lazy iguanas on the premises.

We go into town later to eat at a local soda (basically small, local Costa Rican eateries) and watch the afternoon storm come in. I failed to mention in earlier posts that we are here during the rainy season. The country gets up to a yearly average of 180 + inches of rainfall in some regions. We see the skies darken and the locals run for cover. I’ve made the mistake of ordering a hamburger in a place that does not specialize in hamburgers, and as I munch on the strangely crispy, wafer-thin version of comfort food from home,  I hear the whirr of the generator kicking on behind us.

We have another voucher that came with our booking for a night hike around the Volcano but I am exhausted once back at the hotel and can barely move. While I go off for my first massage ever, Robert decides to partake in the second adventure of the day, and comes back with a far-away picture of a toucan, more breath-taking visuals of the volcano, and a sighting of a mot mot which is a fascinating local bird. They are lovely, with two prominent tail feathers naked except for small circular tufts at the ends. Folk lore attributes the missing feathers to an origin story of the world.  The gods asked all the animals to help build the earth, but the mot mot shirked its duty and hid in a hole with his  tail feathers exposed. The other animals grew angry and pulled the feathers from his posterior. When the gods came to see the animal’s final work, the mot mot strutted about as if he had assisted. The gods, seeing his tail feathers, knew of the deceit and the mom mot was banished to live in a hole in the ground. Consequently, they do nest in depressions in the earth as we found out later in our trip.

We both lay down for a few minutes intending to drag ourselves off to a 24 hour soda in town but fast fall asleep early, which is a trend we will repeat at least a couple more times before our trek is done.

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