Monday, August 4, 2008 - It's the first official ABD tour day, and my clock is still out of whack. I greet the morning Sun with a smirking "What took ya so long?". On the plus side, we easily meet the 8am deadline to have our bags packed and waiting by the door for those mysterious folk who'll collect them for us while we sip coffee elsewhere.
The sunny day starts with an ABD Welcome Breakfast in the poolside pavillion. It's a lovely buffet affair, with a few families already seated around one of the large round tables. Rather than claim an empty table for ourselves, we join a family from St. Louis who turn out to be great folks. Our Guides, Rae and Fico, do the intros and info-sharing once the whole gang is there. Each family takes turns introducing themselves - Dee does the honours for our clan. It turns out that we're not the only ABD veterans in the room but we are the only Canadians.
By 9:15am we're on the bus for our first leg of the week's journey. Dee and I sit together towards the front of the coach while our kids gravitate towards the rear with the rest of the Junior Adventurer crowd. Through some kind of telepathy or kid-sonar, Nintendo DS devices are unsheathed for group gaming. While silently a little bit jealous, I resolve to make a public display of my Awesome Powers of Parenting by reminding my kids that - for the record - Costa Rican scenery trumps Mario Kart. Other parents seem to agree - or silently opine, "The Canadian dude is a bit of a dick.".
Over the next 90 minutes we emerge from the Central Valley into the surrounding mountains where coffee is grown. As Fico narrates the geography and history of Costa Rica, we follow the narrow, winding roads higher still - beyond the coffee farms - until we reach the cloud rainforest that engulfs La Paz Waterfall and Butterfly Gardens. It has started to rain in the humid high altitude, so we make sure that we have the appropriate jackets handy. Rae and Fico hand out ponchos and umbrellas for those that need them.
The Gang splits into 2 groups. We follow Fico, first, into the Butterfly House - one of the largest in the world. Butterflies of every colour and shape are everywhere - and it's marvelous! Fico tells us everything there is to know about what we're seeing, and implores the kids to collect 'dead butterfly wings' from the floor (they'll be used for a project later in the week).
Next up is a hike through the rainforest down into the valley to find a series of waterfalls. I thank Dee for insisting we buy water shoes, as they keep us safe on the wet and slippery (and steep!) pathways. The rain is coming harder now - propelled by warm, moist trade winds climbing the mountains around us. At times, we're actually shrouded in clouds!. While the jungle canopy is shielding from most of the downpour, I silently smile. "How cool is this - to be wandering through a rainforest in the rain!", I think. I get that otherworldly feeling, just for a second, when I remember that 'home' is 2500 miles away and 50 hours in the past.
We hike by several waterfalls, all of them spectacular in an Indiana Jones kind of way. I lose track of how many pictures we take and how much video I shoot. I'm simply glad to be in the moment. I feel oddly small and content - another reminder that the world is much bigger than I am.
It's nearing lunchtime. An old school bus, painted green, is waiting for us at the bottom of the valley. It shuttles us topside where a buffet lunch is waiting for us in an open-air pavilion perched on the edge of the Cloud Rainforest. It's amazing. What's not so amazing, however, is the lack of coffee in my cup. My timing is stunningly bad in that every time I go seeking a cuppa Arabica from the beverage station someone is off refilling the decanters. Fate is definitely testing me given that I've been awake since 4:30am and have just completed a hike. Somehow, I avoid taking a life, despite the fact I never do find a cup of coffee. My table-mates, of course, are completely unaware of how precarious their lives have been over the past 45 minutes.
Lunch behind us, we have some free time to explore the La Paz complex on our own. We elect to check out the reptile house, the frog house, and the hummingbird garden. With the exception of the small birds, everything else we see is either poisonous or at least hangs out with something else that is poisonous. I become suspicious of the hummingbirds' place in the jungle hierarchy.
Soon it's time to get back on the bus for the 2-hour trek to the day's final destination, Hotel Arenal Kioro. The rain never seems to let up us we follow more twisting roads through Costa Rican farmland. For those that tire of looking out the window, a DVD movie is shown (Disney, of course).
Hotel Kioro, a fairly new complex, is perched on beautifully landscape slopes in the shadow of Arenal Volcano (one of the country's most active volcanoes). The check-in process for The Gang is super-easy. All the rooms have been pre-assigned and listed (by name) on a number of index cards setup in the lobby. With a simple signature, we are escorted by a hotel guide to our room (rooms are in a series of buildings that dot the hotel grounds). We have 2 adjoining rooms - and they are incredible - tile flooring, lovely tropic furnishings, hot tubs, and a commanding view of the volcano through floor-to-ceiling walls of glass. The kids are in their glory, of course. Not only do they have their own room, but they have a hot tub to call their own. If only I'd known they were so easy to please.....
Soon after receiving the grand tour of rooms, a knock on the door signals that our luggage has arrived. We have some time to rest and unpack before heading over to tonight's Dinner Celebration in the hotel's banquet room. Dinner is buffet style with many excellent Costa Rican dishes and a good supply of alternatives for the less adventurous. BandGeek and JediBoy make me proud by diving into the local cuisine. They may not have liked everything, but they tried it all.
As we work our way through various courses, the evening's entertainment gets underway with a trio of gentleman singing and playing Tico folk songs. These fellows - who hold day jobs as dental assistants and construction workers - are really good! They play 3 or 4 songs and bid us a good night to wild applause. Next up are a group of high-school girls who perform a number of traditional dances for The Gang. They are in a school club, it turns out. They are also good - and very spirited in their shouts and stomps across the floor. They finish up their performance by gathering 'volunteers' to learn a few steps. One young lady tries to draft JediBoy to no avail. She tries to draft Yours Truly - also to no avail (which I will later regret). But our dancer succeeds in dragging Dee up to the floor, where she will learn that she is not a natural-born Costa Rican folk dancer - even though it's a lot of fun.
Our evening ends will a stroll through winding pathways back to our rooms. The rain has stopped and the clouds have dissipated a bit. Incredibly, we look towards the cone of Arenal Volcano (some 5 miles away) and discover that it's glowing red. Something like sparks are tracing ruby spider-lines into the sky. We are seeing lava and we're smiling and pointing at our good fortune. It's been an amazing first day.