Crossing into Costa Rica, I had turned up during a big Rodeo in Liberia. The bull was joined by a couple hundred spectators actually in the ring, tormenting him, while cowboys lasooed him and tried to drag him around and rile him up. It was outrageously cruel and made the US rodeos seem like Animal Hospital without the sex offending.
In the Liberia hostel, I managed to rope in two fellow backpackers to share the day’s car hire cost to Monteverde. Costa Rica was a lot greener than Nicaragua – and the whole country seemed more house proud. “Elevation”, my sister would call it. She loves elevation. My sister was on my mind because she had just told me that she was going to have a C-Section the next day to deliver her baby, a couple of months early.
The birth of this newest niece was a moment I was sad to miss, although my sister and Whatsapp ensured I had the same front row seats as the rest of the family. Abbie Christine Charli West was okay, thank bloody goodness. It was a day of hugs and cries with familiar strangers that I promise to return to, but only once all the plots of this story have settled into the day-to-day.
Costa Rica was the site of many of my girlfriend Ell’s holiday stories, as her brother Will lives there with his wife Maria. It attracts surfers from all around the world with its consistent surfable waves growing uninterrupted from the Pacific before breaking on the volcanic sand.
Maria had suggested I visit Volcan Arenal, an exemplar of volcanoes, symmetrical with a little cloud on the top. A 4 hour drive from Monteverde ended with roads winding round Lake Arenal. I took the opportunity to put my singing lessons on the car stereo – I must have looked like a nutter.
Having reserved at Arenal Backpackers, it looked like a five star resort, not a hostel. It had a pool bar! Unspeaking bronzed backpackers populated the communal area, their concentrating brows illuminated by their backlit displays. I normally find myself playing the back-in-my-day backpacker at times like this, lamenting the days when travellers were excited to talk to each other in hostels, instead of defaulting to the rhythmic inane swipe-and-press on a blue and white screen. But today I didn’t mind – there were videos and images of my new niece to cry over silently in the corner!
With only one day in Arenal, I signed myself up to the Two Volcanoes Tour, an “extreme 8 hour hike” up the side of an old volcano and round the side of a “new” one. It was a $55 splurge. Walking alone elsewhere had been calming, but I missed the context a guide gives you, and anyone who’s ever dived with me will know I am shocking at spotting wildlife myself.
We were ushered onto a bus with 27 other backpackers. Hmmm. The hike itself was fun, not extreme at all. I like to think three half marathons and a hike up Scarfell Pike last year prepared me well. But I think they were just trying to weed out the miserably unfit. I felt like a child running around Redhill Wood woods again, jumping over logs and running down dried up muddy trails. I resigned myself to the wildlife being scared off by 28 trudging backpackers, but we did see a toucan.
Reaching the summit, I swam in the lagoon created in this ancient volcano’s crater, resisting swimming across it in case I inexplicably started to drown.
A waterfall followed, then a view of the sunset framed by Lake Arenal and its classically symmetrical onlooking father, Volcano Arenal. The lake was man-made, cloaking the town “Arenal” under its surface, which had been devastated in an eruption in 1968. We had set off from a town on the other side, which escaped every eruption of the volcano – La Fortuna, literally meaning “The Fortunate”.
The tour ended with the bus stopping on the side of the road, where we were instructed to strip down to our swimming costumes and waddle through a cut open gap in a high security fence, and lie down in the knee high 36°C river, that was warmed by the lava of the volcano. Pitch black, I wondered if it was secretly the effluent from a sewage treatment plant. We were served rum and juice while we soaked our tired muscles for an hour. On exiting, I asked the guide whether we were trespassing on public property. “No”, he said, sounding offended of course. “The hotel up the road put this fence up because they think they own the access to the river, but they don’t, because the river and the road and 15m in between are public property. So we came down one night, bashed that wall in, and cut open this fence”. Wow, I thought. When the hotel laid claim to this land, I wonder if they expected the locals to take a fence.
I dropped the car off back in Liberia and took the bus down to San Jose to meet Will and Maria.
Of course I was nervous, I had never met them and it was important to make a good impression. But they were chilled and welcoming. At 4am Will and I woke up to drive to the beach to catch the best surfing at high tide. I didn’t surf, of course. At first my nerves dissolved my personality but that soon subsided and it was nice to have a chilled day on the beach, napping and reading a book.
I enjoyed their company so much I stayed an extra day, and went to work with Maria the next day. Maria is a drugs rep so has a ton of pharmaceuticals in her house. Scavenging her garage and leveraging her relationship with the local pharmacist, I ended up with an enormous bag of drugs to handle the most common treatable conditions one might encounter on a 15 week ocean passage.
The next day I got on my 17 hour TICA bus to Panama City, which is where I am now. Phew! I can’t promise to always be current, but it is nice to speak in the present tense.
I have bought myself the requisite supplies, including a Personal Locator Beacon that will alert search and rescue and my dad by satellite should I activate it in an emergency anywhere in the world: $418. Mum’s peace of mind: priceless. A sunhat with a built in headtorch: essential. Zinc Oxide for the nose: melano-thank-you. I’ve downloaded guitar and singing lessons, as well as got my home studio ready in case I am driven to record something. And of course I have an entire pharmacy of drugs.
I am just waiting for Geoff to email me to say I can get on board. He is currently in Colon on the otherside of the canal, organising the canal transit and having had a few issues clearing customs/immigration.
Give me miles of mountains and I’ll ask for the sea
What is coming feels like the crescendo of the trip. Thanks for sticking with me these last few blogs. I hope to blog again before we leave around the 16th March with a report on crossing the Panama Canal, AKA “I have a feeling we’re not on the Kennet & Avon anymore”.