Fortuna, at the base of Arenal volcano. Named for its fortuitous location on the east side of the mountain, which spared it form annihilation when the west side exploded in (1968?) in a violent eruption half way up the volcano, wiping out the 2 villages to the west. Apparently, Arenal translates to "hill of sand", which is what the combination of ash and lava that the volcano constantly spews eventually become.
We took a guided tour of Arenal and the surrounding jungle with Eagle tours. Stopped along the road on the way to look at 3 howlers that were sitting high up in a tree. Did not manage to coax them to howl for us. Saw a toucan, somewhat far away but still breathtakingly beautiful. Our guide, Elmer, mentioned something about it having bad habits, not having a proper purpose in nature, but I missed the crucial details. He was frequently interrupted by another bird with a very unique call. He described the female's habit of making the male build her an elaborate hanging nest which takes about a week to complete. She then enters and inspects it. If she feels it is too cramped or otherwise unsatisfactory, she then proceeds to snip the fastening with her beak, dropping the nest to the ground, at which point the male resumes his labor anew. I'll let you draw your own parallels. We were shown a small plant on te ground that he referred to as a "sensitive plant". Tapping one of its leaves with your finger makes the leaves instantly curl up tightly and wilt (temporarily). This is a defense mechanism against caterpillars, of which there are more than 16000 species in Costa Rica. He also described to us how certain trees have a life cycle that is limited by epiphytes (various plants that grow on the tree) whose weight eventually topple the tree. He described one variety of tree that had an interesting survival strategy against this. Apparently, the inside of the tree is hollow, and inhabited by a certain species of ant. The tree provides them an excellent sheltered home as well as sweet nectar from its sap. In return, the ants voraciously defend the tree, marching out against any other would be symbiot like the countless epiphytes that cover everything else in sight. It is remarkable how these trees stand out, clean and unmolested among all their encrusted neighbors.
We stopped at a "bleeding tree" (named for the sap that turns red as it makes contact with oxygen) and were given the opportunity to sample one of the jungle's most popular and nutritious delicacies, termites. They are quite tasty, and when you pop them between your teeth you get a distinct carrot flavor. I also detected a hint of white mushroom.
We passed over a thick line of army ants crossing the trail, which are carnivores and hunt by swarming their prey, creating pandemonium through overwhelming numbers. They are not particularly large ants, maybe 2-3mm long on average, but can take down most insects found on the jungle floor, and even small mice. Flying insects can escape them, but the ants are usually followed by a variety of birds who know that as soon as the ants scare the fliers off the ground, they can swoop in and grab and easy snack. Further along we saw a significantly larger ant, a leaf-cutter soldier. This guy was about 2cm (3/4 inch) and apparently one of the strongest denizens of this jungle, proportionately. Elmer had him by the back, and proceeded to show us how it could hold a branch easily 100 times its size and weight in its rather large clenched mandibles. This was the type of ant the native Indians used as stitches by holding the cut closed, placing the ants mandibles across it, then squeezing off its head between their thumb and forefinger. The mandibles would clamp shut, holding the wound closed, as depicted in Apocalypto.
Unfortunately for us, there were rather low hanging clouds that were obscuring the volcano at our first viewpoint. Although it had cleared briefly during the bus ride between the first viewpoint and the second, further towards the western, active side of Arenal, they promptly returned as we arrived to the prime lava viewing area. We waited for some time in the hopes they would clear, but it was not be. We were treated with a small consolation as evening set in. Fireflies, which neither Nelly and I hadn't seen since our childhood days in Montreal.
The tour concluded with a visit to Baldi hot springs. We had been indecisive as to whether or not to go since it added $12 dollars per person to the tour cost, bringing it to $37 each. In the end we decided to check it out since the brochure seemed to indicate some stunning views of the volcano while relaxing in one of twenty hot pools of varying sizes, each with a slightly different temperature, guaranteeing that like Goldilocks, you would be sure to find one that was "just right". Needless to say, the experience fell somewhat short of our expectations, perhaps the biggest letdown being the $6.50 for a beer, which we had been craving all day, and continued to do so. We did get to see a Hercules beetle that the staff had found in the nearby bushes. Letting it crawl up my arm, I got to appreciate first hand where it gets it's name. They are remarkably strong. Luckily, they are also totally benign, and really quite relaxed considering the number of people that were crowding around, some eager to grab it.
Although these hot springs seem to be quite popular with the tourists, I much preferred our experience earlier in the day at the local swim hole. It's about a 20 minute walk from our hostel, La Posada Inn. It's under a bridge that passes over the river, and we were probably the only tourists there. We were definitely not the only people there. The place was swarming with locals, probably attributable to the fact that it's "Semana Santa", a holy week, which almost everybody has as a holiday. I'm still not clear whether you get the entire week off, but bus service is sporadic, you can't buy beer (sacrilege!), only wine (?) and stores, banks, etc. are generally closed.
The water was a perfect temperature, and the locals were quite accommodating, offering me a turn on the rope swing almost as soon as I got the courage to present myself in line. I had never tried a rope swing before, and I found this one somewhat intimidating since it seemed to be about a 12 to 15 foot drop into the water. Of course, as has been the case countless times before, my fear was completely unfounded. After my first shaky swing and splash, I couldn't wait to run back up and go at it again. Nelly seemed like she was going to try it, but her fear of heights, as well as fear of bathing suit tops sliding up and off seemed to win out, and she was content to take in the scenery.