TL;DR: Slept at a not-exactly-dormant volcano. Fulfilled gringo vacation expectations. Listed to "Shake It Off" 10 times during the making of this blog.
Danielle and I opted for the latter route and decided to go to COSTA RICA! Careful observers of my fascinating Facebook profile may note that I went to Costa Rica after graduation with my college roommates. On that trip, I didn’t have to do any of the planning, but this time, I planned it all. Once Danielle and I decided that we weren’t going to do it on a budget, planning became a lot easier, and last Tuesday, we were off!
We spent one slightly hellish day (7 am – 11 pm) bussing our way down to Volcan Arenal, our first destination. First we had an expreso bus from Estelí to Managua (about 2 hours), and then we took Tica Bus (a Central American inter-country bus line) to the town of Cañas in Costa Rica, which was about an hour and a half west of our destination. But all was not fun and games and impressively upholstered busses: we broke down by the side of the road near San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua for almost two hours (necessitating my use of a lot of Spanish on the phone, always a fruitless endeavor), and then spent a predictable two hours at the border going through customs and bus inspections. When we finally arrives in Cañas hours after we thought we’d arrive, our driver that we’d hired was luckily there to take us the rest of the way to Volcan Arenal in the town of La Fortuna. We rolled up close to 11 pm and promptly went to our large room in the scenic volcano-side lodge, Arenal Observatory Lodge, right in the heart of the national park. I had enough time to break my razor shaving my legs (pro tip: do not wait a month, and do not use the cheapest razor you can find) before we passed out. The hot shower was the most wonderful thing after months of cold showers. Much appreciated.
We awoke in the morning to a stunning view of the now-dormant but recently highly active volcano. It was shrouded in clouds that soon cleared as the sky got bluer. From the 1970s to 90s, Volcan Arenal was the most active volcano in Costa Rica and in the top 10 most active volcanoes in the world. Posters, brochures, postcards, and all marketing for the lodge still feature powerful photographs of red lava flowing down a black volcano in the middle of the night. Those days are past, and now the volcano lodge that we stayed at was host to cultivated nature paths, miles of hiking, a pool, hot tub, nice restaurant, and a spa. Naturally, we’d have to experience all of them.
But first things first: for our first day in Costa Rica, we booked up with the adventures we’d heard we were supposed to have. After a short morning hike around the property, we went for an early afternoon of zip-lining and horseback riding. Zip-lining was just as fun as I thought it would be (Danielle had done it once before). I got stuck twice because I was a little overzealous in my braking. The feeling of flying was amazing, and the inevitable vertigo that happened when you realized you were hundreds of feet above the jungle floor was pretty exciting as well. There may not be a 6 Flags Costa Rica, but we found a good alternative! After that we spent an hour horseback riding in the hills near the zip-lines.
When we signed up for zip-lining, the man at reception at our lodge told us that, for the same price of transport as we were already paying, we could spend the evening at a local hotel springs resort, Baldi Hot Springs. Plus our price of admission there would include dinner. We were sold. Having never been to a hot springs, I didn’t know what to expect. I imagined something like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland (which I have also never seen) but smaller and surrounded by rocks. Then I thought we’d get a dinner in a Styrofoam tray. It still sounded like an adventure worth having.
That all changed when we pulled up at the resort. The walls outside were towering high with the name of the resort on them, and we could see inside to a marble-filled open hall and lots of lush greenery. Then, we went inside. HOT SPRINGS AS FAR AS THE EYE COULD SEE. Up the side of the mountain, hot pools of various sizes continued for hundreds of feet. I am including a convenient link here to the google image search of the area, since I wasn’t about to carry my phone around what was quickly becoming the water park of my dreams: not only were there hot springs, but there were water slides worthy of Water Country itself. There were at least 20 different hot springs, decorated with over-the-top lush tropical greenery all around, and with different features like tiled lounged chairs inside the springs, saunas deep-set into rocks, cold pools set within the hot pools, waterfalls, and even in-pool bars. Danielle and I spent three hours meandering between the different pools and water slides. Once it was dark, the illuminated pools glowed all shades of green in the mist. Then, we had an hour allotted to eat as much as we could in the expansive buffet. Day 1 in Costa Rica: Success.
The next day, we opted for less expensive options. We spent the morning on a free bird-watching tour that the lodge provided, and then hiked the dormant volcano Cerro Chato in the afternoon. It was steep and muddy, and the pouring rain throughout our whole climb made it a much more treacherous affair than was safe to admit at the time. So when we finished, it was time for many hours of rewards: hamburgers for lunch (it had been SO LONG), a full-body massage in the potpourri and essential oil-filled spa, and an alfredo pasta dinner. We slept like exceptionally tired logs.
The next day, we took a shuttle from our hotel to the beach town Sámara, three hours southeast on the Nicoya Peninsula (our whole trip was still confined to general northwestern Costa Rica). My parents’ friend Sara has lived in Sámara running a cottages-by-the-beach business, so we stayed with her for the next two nights and got to enjoy long runs along the beach, beer at sunset, a thrilling sea kayaking-in-pouring-rain and snorkeling adventure, frozen mojitos, and a hike up through the surrounding hills. Sara was a welcoming host and we were glad to get to see the beauty of the famed beaches of Costa Rica – even if we were there during the rainiest month of the year! In the end, this was a boon to our whole vacation: with so few tourists, we had many of our destinations nearly to ourselves, and off-season prices to boot. The only casualty was our exceptionally smelly and wet clothing.
We had one final daylong journey back to Costa Rica on Sunday and decided that when we returned, we would probably fly! We are happy to be back in Estelí and back to normal, which of course means we had a daylong power outage in the city and spent it in a café grabbing onto whatever internet we could find. The first thing to greet us when we crossed back across the Nicaraguan border (in addition to a surprising Ebola screening) was also a power outage. Home sweet home!