Caution: Illegal Content inside!
I didn’t post material about my stay in Costa Rica for a while because a) I was incredibly busy with outdoor activities and b) I had to make sure I left the country before posting this. You will see why.
The beginning of my stay in Costa Rica was not fun at all; a nasty case of diarrhea that started mid-journey to San Jose, threatened to render me incapacitated. Good grief, it was bad. My people, be careful what you eat and drink. It might make you popular with the locals, but boy will you pay for that popularity later. Even Imodium was no match for the onslaught on my stomach.
The civil war in my stomach cost me a day as I had to stay an extra night in San Jose to make sure I got the all clear before traveling out to the countryside. It wasn’t all bad though; I was able to take a leisure walk around San Jose city and ran into the actor, Romany Malco. He was nice enough to engage me in conversation even though it made the woman he was with very upset! One glaring observation to be made about Costa Rica is that it is one of the more advanced economies in Central America and while that may be good for Costa Ricans, it was horrible for me. I might as well have stayed in New York, with the high prices I was confronted with on a daily basis. Other than the gaping hole it has left in my pocket, Costa Rica presented a lot of conveniences; ATMs that distributed both Colones and Dollars, every vendor I interfaced with accepted dollars, and even though I hated it, most folks speak English, etc. Now, for someone coming from Cuba, the financial instruments available to me made me feel like I had discovered gold.
Gastronomical issues behind me, I set off to La Fortuna to enjoy what nature had in store for me. First, I made a detour to a small town to go whitewater on the Pacuare river. A 30km, roughly six hour expedition, it was easily one of my best adventures. It required some level of fitness, attentiveness (listen carefully to your instructor, especially when facing choppy waters), patience with some lazy teammates, and above all, team spirit.
The next day, I joined a group on an all day hike around two volcanoes, Arenal and Cerro Chato. While it was physically demanding and picturesque, I was disappointed to find out that the Cerro Chato volcano, which is inactive, was closed to the public due to a big disagreement between the apparent private owner of the land and the government which has pushed to make the surrounding area a national park. Long story. Anyway, I was already made aware that climbing active volcanoes was prohibited in Costa Rica, so not being able to climb an inactive one was quite disappointing. All was not lost, we enjoyed great views, swam by a waterfall, and relaxed in hot springs (warm waterfall flowing from nearby volcano).
Now that I’ve been to different coasts and corners of Costa Rica, I have observed that there is almost a civil war when it comes to what the preferred national beer is; while Imperial seems to be winning the propaganda war, there are places, especially up in the mountains, where asking for an Imperial makes you a sell out; in those places, please order a Pilsen.
After a wonderful time in Costa Rica, it was time to make my way to Panama, and of course, I chose the longer, more scenic, and more difficult route. I decided to take a bus to Puerto Viejo, beach town on the Caribbean coast and then hike through the villages and water ways to the border. During a stopover at what I thought was a sleepy border town, I decided to catch a World Cup qualifier match between arch nemesis, Costa Rica and Panama in a bar. I wasn’t sure who to root for because both countries were well represented. It was quite an intense affair; insults were hurled across the bar repeatedly. Since I was the only neutral, overtures were made on both sides to draft me to their cause. It took everything in me to resist and keep my neutral status. After the match ended in a scoreless draw, thank God, both sides put their national colours aside and had a good time. We all danced like the match never happened!
And now for the aforementioned illegal content. Remember the Arenal volcano in La Fortuna I told you about earlier? The one nobody is allowed to climb? Well, I became obsessed with it and just couldn’t let it go. So I went back to La Fortuna, from Monteverde, to complete unfinished business!
Murielle (a friend of mine) and I met up with our guide at 4am, had breakfast, went over logistics one last time, and set off at 5am sharp. The first obstacle was an electric wire fence; we threw our bags over the fence and crawled underneath it. We encountered three additional similar fences after which the only obstacles left to face were of nature; far more difficult than anything I anticipated.
Our guide decided that we will take the more difficult (see dangerous) way up because of the wonderful views and because he wanted to show us debris from a small plane crash on the north side of the volcano that occurred in August 2000. That all sounded good to our naive ears, at least until we discovered that we would be climbing up the actual path of pyroclastic flows from the not too distant past. More on this later.
About half way through our climb (3 hours), it became clear that this would be no walk in the park, in fact, it looked like I may have made the dumbest decision of my life. Since the volcano is closed to the public, there are no hiking trails; since there are no hiking trails, you are left to your own devices. The rocks we climbed on were volcanic rocks, so very unstable; the sand was volcanic, so very slippery and quicksand-like; the plant stems we used as leverage for the climb were thorny, so left marks on my palms. Basically, there were no great options for the ascent, only “less bad” ones.
By the 5th hour, we reached the spot where the small plane crashed. Apparently the plane had deviated from its original course to get a better view of the volcanic eruption that had occurred only days prior. It’s been 17 years, but still felt somber. Please note that the pictures are not to gloat, but to share what I saw. I sincerely apologize if anyone’s sensibilities are hurt. May the souls of those who perished continue to rest peacefully.
The debris was located in stage 9 of 10, according to our guide’s personal partitioning of the volcano. Tell you what, our guide was such a character. I wish I could show pictures of him, but for the sake of his freedom, I shall neither share his name nor his pictures.* Happy to do so in person though!
And then finally, after six hours of beautiful and scary views, me wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into, and the most sobering of feelings, we arrived at the summit! It felt like I had gone to war with this volcano and won (even though it was clear to me that he had let me win); I was so grateful to God that He spared my life up the climb.
After posing for pictures on the summit, we decided to test fate once more by going into the crater. If the summit was a victory, the crater was absolute madness! It was the hottest I had ever felt; we had to be extra careful which rock we sat on because of the risks of getting burnt. It was here that the guide told us that this very volcano had had some movements (minor avalanche of volcanic rocks) just FOUR days before our climb. I wasn’t sure whether to hit his face or kiss him for not telling us beforehand. If I knew this important detail, I don’t think I would have gone up with them.
If the smell of sulfur wasn’t enough to scare us, the grumblings of the volcano certainly served as a reminder that we were visitors who stayed solely at the pleasure of our guest. I had gone to pee in a corner of the crater (when you gotta go, you gotta go!), and in the silence, I could hear the volcano groan in the deepest voice ever; as a black man, I knew it was time to go!
Throughout the climb, our guide made phone calls. While I could barely hear him through the gusts of wind, I found it very odd that a) his phone worked at all, and b) that he thought it important to make calls while working.** It wasn’t until I had rejoined my group after urinating that I heard most of the latest phone conversation. He had just been told by his friends that park rangers were coming our way, and that we needed to move immediately. We needed no convincing whatsoever; jail time was not an option.
A few minutes into the descent, the unthinkable seemed to happen. A ranger plane hovered above us for what seemed like forever, and even though we laid in the bushes for cover, I was sure we had been spotted. After about five to seven minutes of lying unmoved, we decided to continue down the volcano fully expecting to be intercepted by rangers on foot. One hour later, we again had to crouch in the bush when we overhead rangers walking close by on foot. It was certainly the closest sensation to being behind enemy lines in a war zone. To say it was very unpleasant is putting it lightly.
After another hour of climbing, slipping, and falling down the jungle (a real jungle) of the Arenal, we finally reached even ground, away from the clutches of the park rangers. I let out what can only be described as a victory (see girly) scream. I was surprised that I could hit a note as high as that which I let out.
We hailed the first cab we saw and asked for the closest bar. I have no idea what the patrons thought as we walked into the bar, dirty, smelly, sweaty, and tired-looking, but honestly, we couldn’t care less what anyone thought; we had just had the experience of a lifetime; to hell with your judgement.
I wish I could use words to accurately describe the mix of emotions that coursed through my being, but alas words escape me. Suffice it to say that it was the most humbling feeling ever. You realize that you are but a smidge in a world full of natural wonders. I am certainly guilty of having short memories, as man is wont to do, but I don’t know how I could ever think myself more superior than anything or person after this. Apologies for the dramatic prose, but events insist.
Pura Vida, literal translation: Pure Life, is a greeting among Costa Ricans. It basically is like Hakuna Matata. Why worry? Life is pure. So anytime you are disappointed about something or in someone, let it go, because Pura Vida!
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*Penalty for climbing the Arenal volcano, if caught, is a $4000 fine and 2 year jail term for locals. Foreigners face immediate deportation. It was totally worth it though, LOL.
**Throughout our climb, the guide was in touch with friends of his who monitored the movement of park rangers patrolling the area looking for miscreants like us. These friends literally saved us with their warnings.
Song of the day: Fantastic Man by William Onyeabor. This was incredibly difficult to choose because so many songs describe(d) my emotions, experiences, etc in Costa Rica, but this song stood out because the views, adrenaline, fear, and bravery I experienced, all conspired to make me look and feel so fantastic. I hope you feel fantastic with me. Tell me you do.