COSTA RICA
DECEMBER, 2004 & JANUARY, 2005
VOLCAN ARENAL, COSTA RICA
December 23- 24 2004

Arenal is maybe Costa Rica's most famous volcano because it is both still active, and often produces visible lava flows at night.  Unfortunately, we didn't have a ton of time, with Christmas Eve nearly upon us, but we figured it would be a good quick two day trip with Mike's grandma and grandpa. 

We took the high end bus North to Arenal, which was a beautiful drive through the mountains and several coffee plantations.  The bus also made a short stop in the town of Naranjo, which has the most amazing topiary garden in front of the town's main cathedral (more on this below), a pit stop at a tourist trap artisanīs market with wonderful, but very overpriced wood and coffee products, and a lunch stop at a typico restaurant., where we had our choice of beef, chicken or fish casados.

After the 4 hour ride - which included the aforementioned stops - we arrived at the Tabacon Spa and Hotel, which is a must if you are in Costa Rica.  The spa has 12 outdoor natural pools which are filled wuith 100-105 degree water from the volcano.  The setting is not only naturally gorgeous, and so relaxing, but the spa and hotel are seamlessly woven into the surrounding landscape with minimal man made walkways, bridges etc.  We could have stayed for a week.  It was definitely a bit of pampering on what has otherwise generally been a rustic adventure.  Grandma got herself a massage as well, while we found our way around the various pools, and then to the one man made, albeit naturally heated, pool which also had an awesome waterslide and a bar in the pool.  Dinner afterward was pretty good as well, very high end Tahitian buffet style like we had many nights on our honeymoon.  We especially liked the pineapple.

Unfortunately, our tour guide was a little, er misguided, and had screwed up hotel reservations etc., but we still landed at Erupciones Hotel, which is part of a dairy farm at the base of the volcano between La Fortuna and Tabacon.  It was rustic compared to Tabacon, but the proprietors were some of the nicest people we have met so far, and they took good care of us by helping set up our transport home the following day, after what turned out to be a great tour of several hanging suspension bridges in the rainforest.  Unfortunately, that night the cloud cover never fully dissipated, so we never got to see any flowing "hot liquid magma" coming down the sides of the volcano.  We even slept with our curtains drawn, beds facing the volcano hoping to catch a glimpse, to no avail.  Oh well, maybe next time!

Our hanging bridges and gardenstour the next day was excellent.  It was a 2 hour hike over 9 suspension bridges hanging 150 feet high over the floor of the rainforest (so you are at the tops of the trees for most of it).  Our guide was a high school kid who really knew his stuff and was pointing out obscure plant and animal life every 5 minutes.  We saw our first wild monkeys ever (Howlers), a bright yellow eyelash spitting viper sitting on an elephant ear leaf, wild turkeys in 150 foot tall trees, leaf ants, who form very cool looking "green freeways" with leaf pieces 3-5 times their size on their backs, tons of bromelias and other plants growing on and out of the trees, and strangler vines at various stages of taking over and killing their host trees.  In the end, the stranglers pretty much look like the tree, except they are hollow inside, where the host tree used to be. 
It was awesome, everything was so green, so lush and so dense, and we even made it back to Mike's soucins' house in time for Christmas Eve dinner. 
NARANJO, COSTA RICA
December 23, 2004

As briefly mentioned above, Naranjo was a small bump on the road to Arenal, but a worthwile one.  The central plaza houses the town's main cathedral, which is not only architecturally impressive when compared to Mexico's colonial churches, but had a very beautifully designed and painted interior.  In contrast to Mexican churches, which generally appear much grander, this church was much more simple, very colorful, and warm and inviting.

In front of the church is a topiary garden comprised of the standard animals such as rabbits and elephants.  It also has a very cool series of 12 foot high topiary arches which are fun to play in and are obviously great for photos.  Very Alice in Wonderland looking.  Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to stay for very long, because we had to head out to Arenal for the "hot liquid magma!" (which we never did see . . . sigh).
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