As we are checking out of the hotel, we chat with Victor at the front desk. He is one of the staff members here who has been impossibly cordial and very welcoming. He has explained to us that Costa Rica is the perfect place to learn Spanish as they are essentially unaccented, sort of like what we might think of as Standard American English, or broadcaster speak (I tread lightly here). He also suggests a stop in a little town called Tilarán on our way to Monteverde where we can ride horses and take in more cataratas (waterfalls). Apparently, swimming in waterfalls is just something you do here. I’d like to think it’s as commonplace as eating breakfast.
We go into town to try and acquire a SIM card for our cell phones from ICE (pronounced ee-say), the phone service company that appears to service the majority of the country. The attempt proves futile, as the line of 6 0r 7 people doesn’t visibly budge for at least an hour. We will ultimately choose to embrace “Pura Vida!” and decide we can make it on our own, technology be damned (this luckily pans out for us, we have access to the hotel phone for cheap, in-country calls). But while Rob is waiting, I wander around the lobby of the little strip mall which has the bizarre mixture of cheap goods and a gym on the upper floor. This boy at a pet supply kiosk in front watches me pet a bunny sitting in a little cage. He suddenly pulls out a plastic bag of the weirdest looking items I’ve ever seen and seems to be trying to communicate with me while emphatically pointing to the bag. Luckily, a man standing nearby steps in to translate and explains that the strange little fuzzy wares the boy is pointing at are in fact, a type of fruit. Ever the adventurer, I get Rob to haggle for some, all the while mentally recounting warnings I’ve read about eating fruit in foreign countries. I later find out they are called mamón chino, a local name for fruit from the Rambutan tree. They are typically red, but we were sold a smaller, yellow wild variety. To eat one, you need to break open the shell with your teeth and suck on the fruit inside (they have large pits) which tastes like a tangy grape. They are fantastic.
We drive away from Arenal with fondness and apprehension soaking into our brains. The wildness of the rainforest quickly turns into peak after peak and valley after valley. The green of the vegetation here is vibrant, brighter than anything I recall seeing before. the drop-offs here are steeper than anywhere else we’ve visited – with hundreds of feet of open air enveloping either side of the car at times while we work our way down mountain roads. I soon learn that the signs reading “peligroso” are warning us about road hazards, and the admonishment of “despacio” is requesting us to proceed with caution. We pass through several small Costa Rican towns with churches and schools, and the sounds of everyday rural life. We hear music pouring out of one of the schools carrying a chorus of voices with it. I manage to wrangle Rob’s camera (a beautiful digital SLR) for a few minutes and indiscriminately take pictures out of the car window, with the false hope of producing nat geo quality masterpieces. While this doesn’t happen, there are a few interesting pictures of the clay hill sides and buildings.
We find signs for Viento Fresco once we reach Tilarán. We pull in and start chatting with a man named Orlando who will soon become our tour guide. We choose to hike down to the water falls and take horses back up. Orlando is quick to smile and has a great sense of humor. As they drive us down to the start of the path in a battered truck, a skinny golden dog starts chasing after, keeping pace with us. Cue the introduction of Paloma, who may in fact be our real guide for the next few hours. A battered old dog, with clouded vision in one eye, the battle scars of past bot-fly bites, Paloma is along with us along literally every step of our way, scrambling over flowing water and barking at the capuchin monkeys with great fervor.
A toucanet, the smaller emerald hued cousin of the toucan, hops overhead while we start down towards the cataratas. Orlando points out subtle signs of living things as we walk – the bright spots of the tiger beetle, the small earthen holes of mot mot nests, a few errant porcupine quills in the earth, trails of leaf cutter ants crossing overhead vines. At one point, he shows me a miniscule, unassuming plant with small compound leaves growing along the path. He lightly brushes the tips and they instantly fold into themselves which I am delighted by. I will end up seeing the same plant, Mimosa pudica, or “the sensitive plant,” several places again before journey’s end.
The skies have been darkening overhead and when we start to change into dry clothes, it starts raining torentially. Orlando decides the ferocity of the lightning that has hitchhiked in with the rain warrants waiting a few minutes before starting back. With the horses tied up restlessly nearby, we seek cover in a little corregated tin-roofed shelter at the top of the hill. As the tormenta (spanish for storm) quietly rages on, I sit back and listen to Robert and Orlando practice the art of communicating with language barriers – hand gestures, and quizzical looks abound. We do find out however more about Orlando’s family – the fact that the waterfalls sit on his family’s farm land (across the valley, we can see the sheets of plastic tarping overlaying the rows and rows of tomatoes to protect them from the massive amount of moisture during the wet season), and that his wife is a Nicaraugan immigrant who has been living in Costa Rica since the age of four or five when her father brought her here. After a level of comfort sets in, he also sheepishly admits Victor, the desk clerk at Arenal Parasio who suggested we visit this series of cataratas, is, in fact, his son. He seems wary of casually divulging the fact lest tourists suspect the recommendation is a nepotistic one. We find it amusing, and ardently assure him we are having the time of our life.
The lightning takes some time to die down and almost 45 minutes pass before we are able to mount the little Tico ponies waiting for us (“Tico” is a casual term describing Costa Rican natives – people and horse alike). Orlando gives me the best raincoat and we set off back towards the stables and his family’s restaurant. We know nothing about riding, so Orlando follows carefully behind and keeps the ponies treading ahead with a practiced hand. The rain is still coming down, and I can barely see ahead of me. When the ponies sense they’re getting closer to home, they quicken the pace until we are trotting (or galloping? ), and my teeth feel like their being shaken out of my head. I have a long way to go before I become an adept horsewoman.
As Rob and I are changing into dry clothes, we hear Orlando and his wife having a slightly heated argument, a reminder that family life is about the same everywhere. However, things seem to abate quickly and we sit with beer and hot chocolate to have a final chat with Orlando and sign the guest book after browsing entries from all over the world.
We head out on pitch black, unpaved roads towards Monteverde. The roads have been kept in rough shape intentionally as a supposed deterrent of excessive tourism and development. We arrive at our next stop, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge where we will stay for two nights, and quickly settle in.