On yet another cold and wet morning (appropriately enough a Monday) in this miserable British winter, Roger and Vee set the alarm for 6 am to commence their Central American tour. It took two American Airlines flights to reach the starting point in Costa Rica: one of nine and half hours from London to Dallas/Fort Worth in the USA on a Boeing 777-300 and another of three and a half hours from Dallas/Fort Worth to San Jose on a Boeing 757-200. At the airport in San Jose, we were greeted by a sign proclaiming: “Welcome to the happiest country in the world”.
We reached our first accommodation – Tryp Hotel Sabana – at 9.30 pm which was 3.30 am London time since Costa Rica is six hours behind UK time. So door to door, the journey out had taken us nearly 21 hours. Almost immediately we hit the sack … zzzzzzzzzz
At 8 am on Tuesday morning, we met our guide and our group. The guide is Edward (Edwardo) Sanchez whose pet name – apparently all Costa Ricans have one – is Plumas (Feathers) since he has a strong interest in birds. There are 11 others in the group making a total of 13, all our sort of age (although one fit guy is 80). Our coach is basic but adequate with enough room for us to spread around. The weather was one of blue skies and warn sunshine and, as the day progressed, the temperature rose to around 30C/86F (oh, joy).
Before leaving San Jose, we drove around the city a little, so that we could have a taste for the place, and Roger recognised a number of locations from his visit in 1991.
The capital San Jose – or Chepe, as it is affectionately known – has a population of 1.2 million, one in five of whom live below the poverty line. Like American cities, the centre is built on a grid pattern of avenues (east-west) and streets (north-south) with numbers rather than names. It is not known as a pretty city, being characterised by unremarkable concrete buildings, fast food outlets, clogged pavements and homicidal drivers. But, as Roger discovered 22 years ago, the city has real vibrancy and the location – in a valley overlooked by low hills – is splendid.
Leaving the city, we headed north-west to the town of Alejuela (which Roger visited in 1991) and then north to see our first volcano of the tour. The route to the volcano is by a single lane road … up … winding .. bumpy …. up … winding .. bumpy … At 9.45 am, we reached the active Volcano Poas which is named after a local plant. Situated at a height of 2,530 metres, the volcano has a crater 1.3 km wide and 300 metres deep. Almost daily, a veil of cloud envelops the mountain, but we were lucky because visibility for us was perfect.
It was incredibly atmospheric: cold at that height but very bright, pungent with the smell of hydrogen sulphide, and so variegated in colour: blue-green water in the actual crater, steam rising from vent holes, yellow sulphur around the water’s edge, red in the iron rock, and black, white and grey ash and sand, all surrounded by lush green hills and topped by azure blue sky.
After an hour and a half at the site of the volcano, we returned the way we came back descending the steep hill … down … winding .. bumpy …. down … winding .. bumpy … We made a scheduled stop and an unscheduled halt for photo opportunities. The first was a terrific panoramic view of the whole of the Central Valley with San Jose in the centre of the basin. The second was an opportune chance to see a two-fingered sloth edging its way across telephone wires strung over our road – very slow, very furry, very cute.
Our next destination was a coffee plantation called the Dokas estate which is owned by the Vargas family. First we had a hot buffet lunch – our introduction to the Costa Rican staples of rice and beans (but, in this case, supplemented by beef or fish and plantains and salad). They say that in this country, when one tires of rice and beans, one can have a change of beans and rice. Next we viewed the butterfly garden. This houses an extensive variety of variably coloured butterflies and it seemed that the mire attractive the butterfly the harder it was to photograph (the blues ones would never settle).
Finally we were given a conducted tour of parts of the plantation, illustrating the long and careful processes of growing the beans, harvesting them from the plantation, washing and grading and drying the beans, storing them for export, and roasting them for local consumption. In Cost Rica, the beans are always picked by hand, not by machine, but only 10% of the pickers are from Costa Rica itself: 80% are from Nicaragua and 10% from Panama. One of the dangers is a fungus which sounded like it was called Roger but, upon further inquiry, turned out to be named “roya”.
We left the plantation at 2.40 pm and set off north-west for our accommodation for the next two nights by the side of another volcano. It was a long journey of three and a half hours – although we did have a coffee and comfort break – so it was 6.10 pm and dark when we rolled up to the Arenal Paraiso Resort by Volcan Arenal. Here we were allocated lodges with basic but adequate facilities. The evening meal was in the resort’s restaurant accompanied by animal sounds including bull toads.