Tuesday, August 5, 2008 - No matter how tired we were the night before, we always seemed to be the first ones at breakfast. This day was no exception, and I could only conclude that we just were not getting the hang of this 'vacation thing'. On the plus side, Fico was not far behind us and, with his help, we were able to spy a pair of large toucans from the restaurant balcony. That was pretty cool.
The day's Big Event would be zip-lining - something we were really looking forward to trying. I had been dutifully tracking my weight for weeks to ensure I was nowhere close to the 220lb limit. I typically hover around the 200lb territory, so my biggest fear was getting turned away because I was - you know - a little close to the limit (safety first!).
In contemplating the day ahead, I got to wondering exactly how the idea of hurtling through the air on a tethered wire got started. I mean, what was that conversation like? Did it start with, "Hey, listen to this idea, dude!"? Or was it more in the vein of trying to crack the thorny problem of rapid transit in mountainous jungle areas? However it came about, I was sure at least one of the inventors looked and sounded like Keanu Reeve's character from that Bill and Ted movie.
By 8:45am we were on a bus headed for Sky Trek - picking our way down the bumpy dirt roads that skirt Arenal Volcano. The rain was already starting, but we would not be deterred. Our first task on arrival was to suit up - helmets, harnesses, leather gloves, and our own very own pulleys. I felt so eco-hardcore, and just a tad intrigued by the overt bondage vibe one gets from being harnessed and cinched. Next, we made our way to the SkyTram - a set of 3 gondolas that would take us on a scenic trip up the mountain or, depending on one's state of mind, deliver us to our Maker.
The view from up top was incredible - the lush jungle canopy and the massive man-made Lake Arenal below us. One of our zip-line guides, Freddy, instructed us on the finer points of flirting with danger. He explained how we would be hooked to each line, how we should hold our legs to avoid those embarrassing rope burns on our thighs, how to stop, and what to do if we don't make it all the way to the other end of a line. Sadly, Freddy did not teach us how to avoid soiling ourselves or how to dodge large bugs and monkeys along the way. I assumed these skills would come naturally.
Each of us tested ourselves on 2 training lines - short and low to the ground. From there, we would traverse 6 successive lines down the mountain, with the entire trip taking something north of 1 hour. We were also given 3 warnings of sorts: the first line is the highest - coming in at 600 feet from the rainforest floor(!), the fastest line is the final one - with speeds reaching up to 45mph, and once you do the first line you are committed - there is no other way down the mountain.
My first-born, BandGeek, was the first of our family to brave the lines. As with most kids, she actually rode tandem with another kid - both of them clipped to the same line and hanging onto each other - to ensure there was sufficient weight to make it all the way to the next platform. And made it they did! I went soon after. To describe the sensation of being Out There - high and fast - cannot be described by my own puny words. It was the closest brush with flying that I shall ever have. It was not exciting in the sense of a carnival ride - all stomach tickles and happy nausea. Rather, it was the exhilaration of hanging out in space in a place so foreign.
The Gang snaked its way down the mountain - cheering each other on at every platform. I think we could actually sense the group starting to gel, and that added a sense of occasion and anticipation to the week ahead. For myself, I could not imagine being anywhere else - with anyone else - right there, right then. As we completed the final (and fastest) line, the heavens opened. The light rain that struggled to penetrate the jungle canopy all morning turned into a downpour just as made our way into the base station to surrender our gear. It had been a good morning.
Lunch was held back at Hotel Kioro as The Gang waited out the morning's adrenaline rush. The afternoon activity would be more sedate. We would be trying our hand at hand painting gourds in the traditional Costa Rican style. Upon arrival in the 'great room' that had been set up for this event, we found long tables filled with paints, brushes, and gourds. We also had the benefit of 3 local native artisans to help us with our lack of artisitic talent. Also helpful was the fact that each gourd already had a pencil-drawing of an animal - frogs, snakes, etc. - and we need only refer to nearby pictures and paint in the right colours. This was a lot of fun and quite a relaxing way to spend a rainy afternoon in the rainforest. Eventually, most of the kids filtered out to the games room (or somewhere), leaving a number of us adults to paint in peace. For our family, we now have 4 brightly-painted masterpieces adorning our Family Room wall.
The evening was spent at Hidalgo Hot Springs - a private, family-run establishment at the base of the volcano. It must be seen to be full appreciated, and I will not do it justice here. The focal point is a set of 5 large hot springs - each will successively hotter water fed from the volcano. The setting is lush jungle, natural woods, rock, and discrete lighting. As one moves to the next pool, there is a convenient bar that serves various beverages - beer, liquor, soft drinks, even non-alcoholic tropical smoothies. This is significant on 2 counts. First, the beverages are served in plastic containers that can be taken into the pools. Second, beverages are purchased on the honour system. Since it's a tad inconvenient to carry a wallet in a bathing suit, Hidalgo asks that you keep track of what you order and then pay for it as you exit the premises. All in all, a low-key, relaxing time (even if the change rooms are a bit on the cramped side).
After a hour or so of lolling about in warm water, sipping a cold beer, and chatting with new friends, The Gang made their way to an open-air dining area where dinner had been setup. The buffet offered dishes of variousd types: chicken, beef, fish, rice, etc. The kids even had the option of hamburgers, pizza, and fries (although the majority of kids elected to stay with the adult fare). The hot springs and libations had served their purpose in generating a relaxed vibe within The Gang, and dinner was as lovely a time as I can remember. Yes, I said 'lovely' - and I don't use that word lightly.
The bus ride back to the Kioro was pleasant enough, and we all assumed that the evening was close to 'officially over'. We were wrong. Fico and Rae announced that a shuttle would run that evening to the far side the volcano to see the lava flows. The theory: the day's heavy rains should mean that the clouds would have moved along, affording a view of the volcano cone. Those of us who had an interest could partake of the excursion to (hopefully) witness lava flowing through the night sky around Arenal.
My family, of course, jumped at the chance - although some elected to stay behind (I presume they were still enjoying the sleepy afterglow of Hidalgo's libations). After a brief pit-stop at Kioro, our driver, Andreas, pointed the bus in the right direction and we slipped into the Costa Rican night once more. When we arrived at the Secret Volcano Spotting Grounds, we encountered a number of other lava-seekers who'd had the same notion. It was a slightly surreal atmosphere - all of us standing beside a lonely single-lane bridge, waiting for a sign from above, with only the occasional headlight to pierce the blackness. It brought to mind a scene from Close Encounters. While the skies were still misty, the veil did part for a moment or two - and we saw lava! All told, I'm guessing we saw tumbling boulders and flowing, glowing lava oozing from the cone for a grand total of 1 minute. But it was worth it. We cheered and pointed without really knowing why. I suspect our excitement sprang from the unconscious knowledge that most of us would never see such a sight again. Of the millions of people who have walked the Earth, only a very small percentage had ever scene the visceral beauty of an active volcano (and survived). It felt kind of cool to be in such exclusive company. The entire expedition, from Kioro to volcano to Kioro, had lasted about 90 minutes at the end of a very long day- all for 60 seconds of excitement. It was totally worth it.
The gravy: While getting ready for bed, Dee and I once more witnessed the clouds part over Arenal and the volcano's cone glowing red and sputtering cinder. Exclusive company, indeed.