A small lake converted into a reservoir in 1979, Lake Arenal is located a few miles away from the foot of Mount Arenal, a jungle-encrusted volcano rising over the North Central Plains of Costa Rica. Today the lake forms a long, thin sliver of water dotted with boutique hotels, self-sustaining eco-resorts, and some of the best vistas in the country.
Around noon I rented a car in La Fortuna, a small town on the south side of Mount Arenal, serving as the area’s hub, and drove north. The road, well paved and easy to drive, is a bit on the twisty side. It takes longer to get to Nuevo Arenal than I anticipate, due to a wicked case of rubbernecking-cum-photo-taking but I do manage to arrive in time for lunch.
The sign squeaking back and forth in the breeze says “Bar Tipico Arenal.” The soil out along the shore of the lake is a thin red stripe between the ash-blue waters and the verdant, forested hills. Hawks glide on hidden thermals. I open the car door and step out.
“We haven’t had a chance to hang the signs yet,” says Janette, the Arizona transplant and mother of the store’s owner. “We used to be on the main drag, but decided on a lake view,” she told me. “As soon as we get the grocery store open, we’ll hang the signs. We’ll have all kinds of imported cheeses, sausage, and other goodies from back home. It’s hard to get good food out here,” she continued. “It’s a four hour drive to San Jose.”
“The Country Store” is the kind of place where the fireplace is in disuse and you’re likely to overhear two climacteric American expats discussing the mental health of their dogs.
I dig into the antipasto with cheddar, Colby, Gorgonzola, fresh radishes, pickled carrots, fresh red bell peppers, and warm garlic bread. The waters of Lake Arenal ripple in the distance; a garden filled with the sweet smell of red, orange, crimson, and pink flowers blows in on the gentle breeze. The Gorgonzola tickles my taste buds. The cold ‘Imperial’ beer goes down smooth. I’m not sure what I like more, the food or the view.
It’s a terrible dilemma, I know. So I make what I consider a Solomonic decision: I will drive down the road and eat dessert.
Ten miles down the road I stop at the Hotel Los Heroes, named for a bunch of Swiss heroes I know nothing about. Yes, Swiss. The hotel is an incongruous collection of chalet-style buildings deep in the jungle complete with Alpine cows and a miniature red train that holds ten people and leads up to a volcano observatory and restaurant. I suppose everyone hankers for a taste of home while away. Even the Swiss.
I order a piece of apple strudel and fresh coffee. Both are divine. Especially the homemade whip cream, right from the Swiss cows down the hill. A nervous green- and ruby-throated hummingbird flitters between two azalea bushes. A large bumblebee careens about, while a harmless, if annoying, little black wasp buzzes in and out of my ears.
“I am rapidly losing my Buddha nature,” I tell it. “Please leave,” I ask, resisting the urge to swat it out of existence. “All things great and small,” I intone. He takes the hint and buzzes off.
A pair of garrulous Magpie Jays bounce among the thin leaves of a Tamarindo tree. The wind dies down and the sun comes out. It’s partly cloudy with large splotches of cerulean sky. The upland tropical cool quickly gives way to sultry heat. I pay the tab and drive off.
Twenty miles down the road I stop at the Puentes Colgantes del Arenal. I putter up to the booth and plop down $22. “Ouch,” I tell the cashier. “This better be good.”
She smiles and hands me a map of the hanging bridges and sends me on my way. It’s a three-kilometer walk. The first half is pretty boring. It’s so green in the jungle I feel my eyes might bleed Galway green. I hear all sorts of animals crashing and hooting, chirping and singing in the canopy but I can’t see a damn thing. “What a rip-off,” I mumble.
And then, flitting around in the branches of some unnamable jungle bush is the most beautiful bird I’ve ever seen. He’s got a rufous hood, green breast, bright blue tail, and these little hanging medallions painfully iridescent. “Damn,” I yelp. “I’ve always wanted to see a Motmot!” (Even amateur birders keep Bucket Lists.) I walk out of the forest to see Mount Arenal lording over the jungle at dusk, smoking like a cigar-wielding Wall Street plutocrat, hop in to the car, and drive off to the hot springs.
Now, I’m just a poor travel writer so visiting the frou-frou Tabacon Resort is out of my budget. Instead I ask a local, “Where can I enjoy the hot springs for free?”
“You seek el Chodin, es Tabacon para los pobres!” He growls all Yoda-like.
“Where is it?”
“Just below Tabacon para los ricos, Señor,” he smiles. “You can’t miss it. It’s where all the locals go.”
“Is it free?” (I feel guilty being so cheap.)
“Si, Señor. You will like.”
Ten minutes down the road I see the Tabacon Resort, a ghastly intrusion, like a jungle version of the Ritz Carlton. I park and walk down the hill, clamber into the cloying greenery, and emerge along the banks of a steaming creek. I rip my shoes off and ease into the 108-degree waters.
As the steam rises above me, I ponder the Costa Rican tourist slogan, “Pura vida.”
At any other time saying something as kitschy and bureaucratically inspired as ‘pura vida’ feels, well, kitschy.
But not now.
Pure life, indeed.