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Adventures on Arenal

As a young boy, I was fascinated by dinosaurs and the images of them in books, where they usually loomed large in front of a prehistoric volcano with a red, glowing peak and billowing smoke. Little did I know that one day I would actually see a volcano erupt and watch lava race down its slopes in the darkness of a warm, tropical night.

Situated in Costa Rica's lowlands, Arenal releases large quantities of steam and hot gases, produces hot-water streams and rivers, and has occasional rumbling eruptions, hot-rock avalanches, and flows of blocky lavas. In the early and mid 1990s, it often produced spectacular, fireworks-type eruptions that both startled and delighted viewers. Today, Arenal is still one of the few volcanoes on the planet that has enough activity to draw international attention from scientists, and yet it is calm enough to be observed safely by interested visitors from a prudent distance. But "calm" is a relative term. Arenal still provides surprises, unexpected events, and adventure, sometimes even getting to the hotel to watch the volcano is an exploit in itself.

When I first began guiding guests to Costa Rica in March 1991, Arenal was erupting several times a day. The Observatory Lodge, our usual residence when visiting the volcano, is only 1.7 miles away. Perched on a hill among low mountains and safely separated from the volcano by a deep river valley, the lodge offers an impressive view. The volcano is seen from its base to its peak and fills the view through the large, plate glass windows in the restaurant. Diners were often mesmerized by the spectacular eruptions.       

En route to Arenal Observatory Lodge, you must cross a small river called the "Rio Agua Caliente." Before a bridge was built in 1995, getting over the river was often a daunting challenge. Prior to the water's flow being channeled under the bridge, the river was broad but shallow, only a few inches deep. Staff from the hotel regularly removed larger rocks where vehicles crossed, making the passage usually easy for our tour vans. We crossed the river many times, bouncing over the small, rounded stones on the river's bottom, giving a little extra amusement to our guests.

One night, my group and I arrived at the river's edge. It had rained heavily earlier, and the river was a fast-moving obstacle we now had to cross. The lodge on the other side was only ten minutes away, while turning back meant another forty-five minutes to the nearest town, where we had no reservations. After a long day of activities and a four-hour drive over rough roads behind us, our inclination was to chance it. After all, the river couldn?t be all that deep, could it?
We were completely alone in the blackness that surrounded us. As we paused on the riverbank, everyone stared at the dark, rushing water illuminated by the van?s headlights. Holding our breath and gritting our teeth, we hung on tensely as the driver pressed hard on the gas pedal, and we accelerated into the river, counting on momentum to keep us going. We bounced along roughly while the van plunged deeper and deeper into the water.

Suddenly, we came to a heart-wrenching halt. About halfway into the river, in the deepest section, we were stuck. Water quickly began pouring underneath the door by the lower footstep. "Dios mio (my God)!" exclaimed our driver. Our group comprised one very panicky woman and her stocky husband, two athletic and adventurous women who kayaked as a hobby, and an annoying journalist who seemed to delight in our every mishap. His sarcastic sense of humor didn?t help the situation, either. His comments, such as "Isn't this where the guide gets out to push?" and "If we spend the night in the van, do I get a refund on my hotel room?," made me realize that I had to get out of the van and do something. Judging it too risky to push the van in the swift-running water, I decided to hike up the mountain road to get the lodge's four-wheel-drive vehicle to pull us out.        

"This is a small river, it isn't dangerous, and it isn't raining hard," I told the group. "You're safe in the van, so please stay here while I go up the hill to get help." I grabbed the door handle and tried to open the van's sliding panel. It was stuck, jammed hard against a rock. Instead, I opened a window, pulled myself up on the roof, and slipped out. Saying something like "I'll be back within the hour," I sloshed through the dark, surging water to the shore.

The one-mile route to Arenal Observatory Lodge is set on the edge of a large, forest wilderness. It can be a bit lonely going up the road by yourself on a dark, rainy night, if you think about it long enough. But I didn't allow myself that luxury. I was a man on a rescue mission. My main preoccupation was, as always on night walks, the nocturnal venomous snakes. I kept my small flashlight held at a low angle to better illuminate any vacillating viper on the road ahead of me. It is amazing how many fallen sticks can look like snakes in the dark, although I didn't encounter a single real one.        

When I arrived at the Observatory, I quickly rallied help from the staff. The rescue vehicle was a somewhat battered, twenty-year-old Land Rover. Slow and with a rugged interior that will never be accused of pampering its occupants, it had been built in the era when four-wheel-drive vehicles were designed to be durable and used on gosh-awful roads. We started the Rover and slowly but steadily drove down the mountain, the cavalry was finally coming to the aid of the hapless river victims, and I felt relieved.

We were only a few hundred yards away from the river when we began meeting soggy refugees trudging up the road, without flashlights. One by one, we put them in the van, but when we reached the husband of the panicky woman, he said, "I'm all right. You'd better pick up my wife first. I think she is in shock." Sure enough, we found her in an agitated state, whimpering nervously about having to walk in the dark where there were poisonous snakes.    
My admiration for the humble, old Land Rover soared when we backed it into the water, connected it with a tow cable to the van, and watched it pull the mired vehicle out of the river. Wearily, I got in and drove to the lodge with no further mishaps.

The next day, I quietly questioned the two kayak ladies, who were good sports about the whole river adventure and had garnered my respect by their calm attitudes and courage."Why did everyone leave the safety of the van and hike out on the road in the dark when I was on my way with help?" I asked them.    "We have had a lot of experience with rivers," they replied. "Even small rivers can rise quickly and become dangerous; and although it wasn't raining very hard where we were, a heavy storm upriver could have caused a flood. We thought it best to not wait in the van."   

I dismissed this with, "That river is really small, and I've never seen it rise to a dangerous level."  "Well, don't be too sure," they countered. "Water can be a powerful force." I didn't say anything else. It wasn't until months later that I would have cause to remember their words. One dry, sunny day, I was traveling with a group to the Observatory, and as we were crossing the shallow, gentle river, I was startled to see a small, four-wheel-drive rental car washed about thirty yards downriver. It was lying upside down on its roof. Inquiring at the Observatory, I was relieved to learn that no one was hurt from the accident. Two rental cars with guests had left the Observatory a couple days earlier during a heavy storm. The first car entering the river immediately became stuck, and its occupants left it and returned to the Observatory in the second vehicle to get help. In the meantime, the river continued to rise and swept the car away. Although the bridge has removed some of the excitement of traveling to the Observatory, I have developed a profound appreciation for it.

Text: Jeff Otico (The Adventure Collection)


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