San José

20. – 24. November
The last five days of my three weeks in Costa Rica became a mellow, sort of homely time. Celine booked all four of us into a hostel she had stayed in earlier, and it was the loveliest hostel (it was called Hostel Urbano los Yoses). The house was beautiful with white walls and open, light spaces. The beds were soft, and every morning we were given pancakes and a cup of mixed fruits. The staff was friendly and funny and helpful. Outside it rained, and inside people cuddled up under blankets in front of a TV with Netflix. We cooked dinners in the kitchen, which was clean and bright and encouraged enthusiasm for pasta with a simple, cheap tomato sauce. We immediately settled in, and Celine said it felt like home, didn’t it?

We ambled about for days. Celine and I went for lunches. We got our ears pierced. We went to the cinema and watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It was so cheap I even bought popcorn, which I never ever do, but I felt like it. It was that, perhaps, more than anything that made the hostel feel like a retreat, having the time to go and watch a movie I had wanted to see since I heard it was coming out. It is such a mundane thing, I think, watching a movie at the theatre, even if I rarely do it. It is not something you find time for when you are travelling, but now we were in this big city with nothing but museums and at a loss at what to do with the time we had in the weather that didn’t seem to change.

One day we rented a car, and this day it actually stopped raining. Celine drove us through narrow streets where google maps told us to go, and it had us taking turn after turn through Costa Rican suburbs. As we climbed higher we got the view of San José and it seemed like the city never stopped. It merged into the other cities, and it was impossible to see where Alajuela began and the capital stopped. There was a haze that was either fog or city dust. We were going to Poás, a dormant volcano with a blue lake at the crater. On our way up the mountain we saw a sloth make its way along one of the electricity cables in that slow, unstressed way that sloths move in. It is a strange thing, to be so slow, to sleep so much, and I wonder if it was happy. I am always moving or thinking about moving, and I never let my shoulders down. Maybe the sloths are on to it.

We could drive almost to the edge of the crater. We only had to walk 400m, and then we could smell the sulphur. Around the edges we could see the clouds, and it felt like the only piece of luck we had had the past week: the unhindered view of the volcano. The water was soft blue, so soft that it was almost white – perhaps because of all the rain the past days. The dirt around the crater was orange in a sharp way, like you expect to see around a volcano, the orange colour that is only present when something is deadly. It was a small achievement to be there, to finally see a volcano. I had this idea before coming to Costa Rica about hiking volcanoes, but in Arenal it was foggy and the rest of them got lost in other places I hadn’t planned on going. But at least I saw this one, even if it didn’t exactly require a hike.

It became a successful excursion. We walked to a lagoon next to the crater, and then drove to a coffee plantation where we just walked around and tasted coffees and watched the beginning of the sunset. They had a butterfly sanctuary and a view of the plantation. We tried to race back to the city, but traffic was heavy. Celine was leaving the next day, so I had to take the car back in the morning. I lost the key to my locker with the key inside it; I woke up at 5AM and remembered that I didn’t have the key, and slept restlessly until the reception opened at 8. We had to dismantle the lock to get it open. I drove the car back to the rental place and walked back. It took me an hour, but I stopped on the way to pick up Harry Potter y la cámara secreta, a frozen yoghurt that made me shiver from cold, and an avocado and tomato to make dinner later.

I was leaving the next morning to Cuba, and I felt anxious. A storm was forecasted, and I desperately wanted to get out of San José and to Cuba where the sun would be warm and the rain would be far away. Costa Rica had started so wonderfully, but with the rain it became this thing I just wanted to escape; a place where I just sat around and waited for things that didn’t end up working. It felt like valuable time and money that I could have done something fun and exciting with, instead I was sitting at a hostel in a city that didn’t interest me at all doing things I could have done at home (blog, read, edit photographs etc.). Cuba promised me a lot of things, and it was what I had waited for for the last ten days. I only had to make it there, it only had to rain a little bit less, or the typhoon had to be a little bit late or a little bit weaker so that my plane could escape to Panama, and then bring me to the bustling, hot streets of Havana.

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Arriving in Costa Rica and Arenal

3. November
As I stepped off the plane in Panama City and into the hallway-chute I felt the humidity so strongly. My immediate thought was: what have I done to myself? I found the gate to Liberia, CR, and read until I boarded. The Cubs won the baseball game, so I can wear my hat with pride. I slept/read my way to Liberia. There I picked up my massive backpack, walked around for five minutes before I found the bus to Liberia, paid $1 and  in 30 minutes I was there.

Liberia was undoubtedly a stop over town. There was nothing to see. I walked around, but there were no cool buildings, no statues, it didn’t even seem like a city to me. It was just blocks, squared blocks, with sodas and fruit vendures etc. I felt the eyes of the men on me, staring, just like they do in presumably all of Central America. I felt exposed, regretting the shorts despite the heat. I missed people, I missed everyone that I know and trust. I missed Clara, who had been through this with me in the Dominican Republic. I missed a companion and the comfort of numbers.

After learning about a bus to a beach I went there. I arrived just in time for sunset. I went for a swim and the ocean was a warm embrace. I drank the biggest margarita and wrote in my journal. I waited for the final bus for almost an hour, feeling once more my solitude as a burden and not a blessing. It always goes in waves like this. But then Adrien from Cananda that I had met in the hostel came along, he had also come to the beach, and now he was going back. I instantly felt more relaxed. It is a beautiful thing to feel how the closeness of a stranger can make such an impression of your state of mind. Just to know that we were in the same boat made us instantly friends, and my stomach unclenched. It also helped a lot when the bus came.

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4 . November
I briefly entertained the idea of Nicaragua: there was a volcano that was active, you could see lava, and another that you could volcano-board off. But I decided that I was in Costa Rica to see Costa Rica, and got on the bus to Arenal. There I met Tommy, another Canadian, and my company for the next seven weeks. He leaned over to ask if I knew where I was going. I said I hoped so, and then we figured it out together. We navigated from bus to bus: Liberia to Cañas to Tiláran and made the one and only bus to La Fortuna at 12:30. The road there was gorgeous, all green rain forests and a beautiful view of the lake. The sky was semi-cloudy, and in the distance we could see most of the Arenal Volcano towering, it’s summit crowned in clouds. This was the only view we got of the volcano, and if I had known then I would have taken pictures, but I was convinced we would get some great views.

In La Fortuna Tommy booked into the same hostel as me, and we grabbed some food at a Soda. I ate my first Casado, a typical Costa Rican dish consisting of rice, fried beans, salad, fried plantains. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was cheap and filled me up. We also booked a trip to hike Cerro Chato, a smaller, dormant volcano with a lake at it’s crater that we could swim in and a nice view of Arenal Volcano, the next day. We also went to these natural hot springs that the hostel offered free transportation to. It was more a river than spring, but it was so nice to just lay there and soak in the hot water for a while.

5 . November
The hostel practically boiled during the night. We only had two fans in the room where 12 people slept, and I was sweating so bad. I eventually fell asleep, and when I got up to have breakfast at 8AM I was the only one eating breakfast –everyone else had already left.

We got picked up for our hike at 10:30, and drove to the trailhead. There we signed a waiver etc. and Tommy made 5 new friends in the space of a smoke. Our group actually turned out to be really cool, and we made a lot of new travel friends. The hike was also really cool. It was cloudy still, so the rainforest was shrouded in fog, and now and then a rainfall would catch us. The trail was quite steep, and the dirt turned to mud from the water. We often had to climb using both hands and knees, and the underside of my backpack was entirely covered in mud. The rainforest was lush, green, and humming with life.

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At the summit we saw nothing. No Arenal Volcano, no crater at the bottom of Cerro Chato. We hiked down to the crater, and the trail was almost vertical at times. Ergo, more mud. I had my legs thoroughly smeared in mud by the end of the trail. We reached the crater and it was so foggy we didn’t see the other side (apparently you should be able to swim across). Although we didn’t see the green water, the massive volcano, it was beautiful in it’s own way. All hues of grey, and we did still swim. It was a little cold, but how many times can you swim in a volcano crater

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Then we hiked through some hanging bridges, to a waterfall, and did a small trip to a frog pond to see some frogs. It was dark by then and we were going by flashlights. We saw the red eyed frog. Suddenly this guy from England shouted and jumped, and on the snake in front of him was a small snake. It had fallen from a tree onto him. This made me very jumpy, so I was quite happy to get out of there. The bus took us the hot spring we had been at yesterday, but they also provided us with a mixed drink and some mud for a facial mask. It was really nice to end the day off like that, we all felt really relaxed afterwards.

A lot of us went together for food, and two of the guys, Olivier and Marko from Quebec, as well as four girls from Germany, were going to be on the same boat as Tommy and I heading to Monteverde tomorrow. Back in the hostel we got the AC going, thankfully, so it was almost cold to sleep. I’m getting to realise how much of this trip is ruled by too hot or too cold sleeps.

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This is the view we were supposed to have.