Friday, March 18, 2011

Lago Arenal

I noticed in our 2006 Lonely Planet book that the road from Monteverde to Tilaran on the southwest end of Lago Arenal was listed as one of the worst roads in Costa Rica. While the Quakers had limited some road improvement in the area to slow the tide of tourism, since leaving the Pan Am soon after crossing the border, dirt roads with cantaloupe-sized rocks firmly embedded like cobblestones had pretty much been the norm. We left the cloud forest behind and rumbled north through farmland on 40 km of dirt – shall we just call them “Costa Rican roads?” – towards Arenal.



Our first view of Lago Arenal and we reverted to our pre-El Salvador mirador practices: stopping at every one. Heck, it felt like we were getting mugged every time we went to a restaurant or hotel anyway; We might as well enjoy it.


Behind us, huge windmills lined the ridge. Huh, they must get a lot of wind here. More on this to come… And then in the distance, we spotted Volcan Arenal and its perfect triangular shape. Every volcano we saw just seemed to be getting… well, more “volcanoey.”


We looped around the north side of the lake, wowing at the volcano, the beautiful lake and the ubiquitous “Se Vende” signs advertising property for sale. While pretty much everything on the lake side of the road is owned by ICE, the Costa Rican Electric Company that damned the lake in 1979 and now provides up to 70% of the country’s power from its hydroelectric plant, the large majority of the hills are owned by American speculators and developers waiting for the right price. Still, between the economic downturn and tons of inventory, there are deals to be had.




Coincidentally, the road around the north side of Lago Arenal was also listed in our book as one of the worst roads in Costa Rica, ostensibly because of the potholes and a few sections that narrow to one lane, but I would guess that more accidents result from people looking at the scenery and rolling their Jimmy’s into a ditch. That or driving back from the hot springs at Tabacon after a long soak and a few beers.


“<--- Arenal Lodge 3.5km” “<--- Montana de Fuego 3km” “<--- The Springs 4km” We followed about three of these signs up steep cobbled or dirt roads into the mountains overlooking the lake. The first place was particularly expensive for what it was, and the next couple were beautiful but had been completely rented out, one by a large family and the other by a production company filming a new reality show for NBC. We couldn’t get any info on the show other than that it will air in the Fall. When we drove through, they were wiring the whole place, presumably with lights and cameras to capture all those cringe-worthy moments when the “cast” forgets they’re being filmed. We spent the rest of our time in Arenal speculating on the activities the couples – come on, it’s gotta be a dating show – will do on their dates.

At least each sidetrack had better views of the volcano than the last.



The town of La Fortuna on the far east side of the lake was another tourist center like Santa Elena but with none of the charm and three times the tour companies, many offering trips to back to Monteverde. We had another crisis of inspiration; Why exactly were we here? We’d had a great experience in the cloud forest and done the canopy tour zip line thing. We didn’t have much interest in ATV tours or rafting. You couldn’t really climb the volcano; It had oozed lava for a few years between 1998 and 2000, providing promotional photos for all the tour companies still offering “lava tours” they couldn’t provide. What were we looking for? For now, we just wanted a reasonably priced place to sleep with a view of the volcano, which they all pretty much seemed to have. Walking back from showing us a room, one hotel manager stopped, got out his iPhone and took a picture of the volcano. That was weird, we thought, he must see that every day. We found a cabina between town and the lake and sat on the patio soaking in a perfect view. A day later, we realized that we’d just happened to be there on the clearest day they’d had all month, and we didn’t see the volcano again in the next 9 days.



That night, we ate across the street at a steakhouse decorated to the last detail in western Americana, complete with wagon wheels and lanterns on the walls and a gift shop selling boots, belts and lassos. When the Tico owner sidled up in his western shirt and huge belt buckle to ask us if we enjoyed our meal, I thought he was going to challenge us to a duel. When I saw the prices, I almost challenged him.

As we went to bed, we saw the news about an 8.9 earthquake in Japan. As I understand it, the Richter Scale is such that each degree represents something like a doubling in the intensity of a quake; A 7.1,  which I seem to remember the ‘89 earthquake in San Francisco to be - the one that interrupted the Giants playing the A’s in the World Series - is twice as strong as a 7.0. It was hard to imagine how much stronger an 8.9 would be. In the morning, we watched CNN as tsunami warnings flashed on the screen for everywhere from Japan and Hawaii to the entire west coast of North, Central and South Americas.

In a sidebar in the Lonely Planet, I stumbled on a blurb about Lago Arenal being considered one of the top three windsurfing and kiteboarding locations in the world! Remember those huge windmills we passed on the way in? Well, the next morning, we drove the hour and a half back along the northern shore and out a 4WD road to a spit of land just below those windmills. At the end of a grassy area with hammock chairs hanging from a few shade trees, along a 100 foot row of sails and boards and looking out onto an open beach, I inquired about some kiteboarding lessons. This was TicoWind.

Don’t forget to notice the volcano peeking out from behind the bus below…





I had taken an interest in kiting after a trip to New Zealand on which our guide was an avid kitesurfer and snowkiter. “Traction kites” are those that have the power to move you, and before connecting yourself to one of those, it’s wise to become familiar with the controls and interaction with the wind on a smaller kite called a trainer. After flying a trainer in New Zealand, I was hooked and bought one as soon as I got home. For the time being, I was happy to learn to fly it and wonder at the force it could generate, often dragging me a few steps before I could resist it.

But something about kiteboarding just made sense to me. Growing up waterskiing and even teaching others for a few summers during college and having owned a “Skurfer,” the predecessor to the modern wakeboard, I was comfortable in the water and knew about how body position and force related to getting myself out of the water. And having also spent hours behind the wheel of a boat pulling skiers, it’s particularly cool that the rider is also driving the boat. Oh, yeah, and the boat is a kite.

I wrote a little about wind windows and control of the kite in my Tulum post when I’d taken two hours of lessons on a large kite, learning mostly rigging and safety gear before the wind died down and didn’t return all week. At this point, I had the kite flying skills. When the guys at TicoWind said I could use that experience and be in the water after lunch - and at half the price of Tulum - I gave Ann a look that told her we’d be spending the week here.


Following the IKO (International Kiteboarding Organization) certified teaching program, my next exercise was “the body drag.” Unlike the International Killers Organization’s process by the same name, this involved directing the kite into a moderate power position just on either side of 12 o’clock and using your body as a rudder to steer yourself into the wind or across the wind. Hooked by a waist harness to a 7 meter kite with an inflatable leading edge that, combined with struts running front to back, helped the kite keep its shape and relaunch in the water, I angled myself back and forth, tacking like a sailboat. This could seem like a menial exercise until, more than a few times, I steered the kite into too much power and sent myself and the instructor attached to me by a safety leash skipping across the water. In addition to the concept of translating the wind angle and a rudder effect into a desired direction, kite control and respect for the power of the wind were slowly being drilled into me.


The next step was steering the kite with one hand while using the kiteboard, wide and short with small fins on the bottom like a wakeboard, as a rudder. Once I was ready to go out by myself, in a big lake with steady swells rolling through, it was easy to feel like I was being bossed around. But when I was able to put the kite in the right place and use it to carry me back to the beach, it started to feel more like a relationship.


In the trees behind TicoWind, this little guy and some unknown number of his friends made a racket like a factory full of aging machinery. Out of nowhere you’d realize that the din had risen to an almost deafening level and then, just as quickly, your ears would tune it out or they’d locate a can of WD-40.


The next day, I spent the first part of my three hour lesson being dragged around by one hand with the board in the other. Satisfied, my instructor clipped himself back onto my harness and told me to put my feet in the footstraps on the board. With the kite at 12 o’clock, he told me to send it quickly to 10 and slowly back to 12. Each time I did, I felt the force through my harness pulling me out of the water. Behind a boat with ample horsepower, you can sit way back, straighten your legs and resist being pulled over the front of the board until you pop out of the water. Your first couple tries with a kite, it’s like you’re behind your uncle’s Boston Whaler; To get out of the water, you need to cheat the nose of the board towards the kite and ease up on top of it like it’s balanced on jello. That is, until you’re brave enough to put the hammer down. Once you get the feel of the kite swooping like a Blue Angel coming out of formation and can control the dive to float gracefully back to wingman position, you have enough power for even your Aunt Edna to take a ride.



From the hanging chairs in the shade along the wind beach, Ann managed to secure us a cabina, owned by an Austrian family of windsurfers, that was much closer than the hour and a half we’d driven the past two days. Installed in our two room wooden chalet with a little dining table and kitchen, afternoon naps in the hammock mixed with whimpering and huge quantities of food became the norm.






And a perfect view of the wind conditions. The beach is on the far side of the spit of land jutting out into the lake in the picture below.


Our hosts were spending November to April in Arenal and the Summers back in Austrian. Their four blond kids under 12 who looked like a Rogers and Hammerstein casting call roamed the property, playing with their chocolate lab and two cute puppies, the oldest riding his horse down to TicoWind for windsurfing sessions after morning sessions with his Austrian school teacher. Internet connectivity was provided by means of “The Stick,” a USB cellular modem that we all shared. We’d walk down to the house and ask if anyone was using “The Stick,” and they’d show up at our door a couple hours later asking the same. After too long of switching “The Stick” back and forth between Ann’s and my computers, I finally did 5 minutes of research online and found a way to share the connection between her Mac and my PC.

A couple afternoons, we took a walk up the road through lake view lots with for sale signs. When friends would say, “Oh, you’re never gonna come back. You’ll buy a piece of land in the jungle or find a little gringo town,” before we left, I’d say with confidence that I didn’t think that was going to happen. More likely, I’d say, we’ll see some incredible towns and people living amazing lifestyles and be excited about coming home and finding something just as great closer to friends and family. But, I’d also admit that we’d be on the lookout for places we’d like to come back to year after year, and maybe just maybe, think about investing in a property. The main topic of conversation on these walks was how we could have it all, a place with some land out in the country but still be close and connected to friends and family. And maybe, just maybe a cheap piece of dirt in a tropical paradise for “who knows when.” With tenants in our house through September, we talked a lot about being “tourists” in Northern California and exploring regions and lifestyles there in the same way we’ve been doing it here.



Notice the volcano coming back out for a quick peek just to the right of the center pole. Except for the peak…



I spent my third day in the water playing with the delicate balance of force and resistance. I could generate tremendous power with the kite, but if the board was across its pull or my body weight too far back, I’d go no where. On the next try, I’d typically over compensate, pushing my front foot forward to point the board towards the kite and crunching my knees to my chest to roll up on top of the water, and would be yanked from the footstraps and torpedoed across the water like a cartoon character. At that point, I’d appreciate the repetition of the early lessons as I body dragged after my errant board. I had a couple rides that day, receiving the thumbs up from my instructor trailing me on a jet ski, but would eventually drift so far downwind that we’d have to deflate the kite, wind the strings in the water and limp back to the beach with me “riding bitch” on the back. 


By the next session, my water starts were improving, and I’d figured out the correct body position for downwind rides: weight on the harness, hands light on the control bar to prevent being pulled forward or too much pressure killing the kite, and front foot controlling my angle across the wind and hence, how much the kite was being resisted as it tried to fling me directly downwind. Unlike a wakeboard or a snowboard, kiteboards are designed to be ridden equally in either direction, so my preference for having my right foot forward – called “goofy foot” in surfing, skating and other boardsports – didn’t apply when going to the left. As a result, I couldn’t hold an edge going upwind, couldn’t get my weight far enough back and generally looked like I was being dragged around a rodeo ring by an out of control bull.

Here’s the eldest Austrian son, Max, heading out on a windsurfer towards my decrepit-looking uphill stance.


I took another break from the wind wrangling for a daytrip up the Volcan Tenorio. The rough, steep dirt road leading to our chalet high on the hill was actually on the southern slopes of Volcan Tenorio. But to reach one of its main attractions, we had to drive about 2 hours around to its western side.



Along the route, parcels of land had been subdivided into tiny homesites with rows of flowers marking their boundaries. These developers were thinking very long term before the sprawl would reach all the way up here and people would be willing to be packed into these tiny lots a good ways from the lake. Then again, it’s all pretty stunning.


Though majority of the road over the hill was well-graded dirt, we connected with a paved road for a short period on the far side. Pulling into the Tenorio Lodge, we asked the woman behind the counter where the entrance to the national park was. She told us in Spanish, “Do you have the Lonely Planet? It says the entrance is 6km south of town but it’s really 6km north.” We found the turnoff and bumped along rough road, tempting but not quite requiring four wheel drive. With the roof tent, fridge and Ann’s makeup kit (not really), the the rear shocks on our truck are pretty loaded down. Before we sit in the front, it can feel like we’re about to pop a wheelie. Or like we’re trying to plane your uncle’s Boston Whaler while towing your Aunt Edna on a wakeboard. We lumber along slowly, careful not to bottom out the shocks, while Jimmys with Victorinox roller bags in the back scoot by embarrassingly.

10 km down the road at the visitor center, where they also suggested that we park facing the exit in case the sleeping Volcan Tenorio should happen to awake, we were glad this sign to the waterfall was translated into both in Spanish and English.


A short 1.5km hike along a well-maintained jungle path, and we reached the steep muddy cut off for the waterfall we’d come to see. Ann’s passing a huge Ceiba tree below.


Mineral rich water almost seemed to glow translucent blue.


The waterfall.



Between the mist from the falls and some tropical rain, our glory picture was a little spotty.


On our final day at Lago Arenal, I inflated a 7 meter kite, laid out and doublechecked the 4 lines running from my control bar and rigged them up. I’d spent much of the night, head woozy from our soak in the hot springs and the long drive back around the lake, going through it in my mind. Make short tacks. Try to get a couple good long rides upwind. Keep the kite high with the board at a modest angle, then find some power with the kite, sit back in the harness and carve upwind. Coming back would be easier. Careful about getting too much speed. Use the board as a brake, angling you towards the beach where you started. If things got out of control, let go of the bar and depower the kite. If you still couldn’t hold it and the kite went down, wait for the wind to unfold it, steer it to the edge of the window and water launch. Body drag to the board and start again.




For the first time, it all came together. I still have plenty to learn - changing directions smoothly, toeside turns, jumps, self-rescue and more – but I think at the end of that 5th day, and after hours on deserted beaches from San Francisco to Costa Rica with a trainer kite, I could call myself a kiteboarder.

We arrived in Arenal wondering why we’d come. TicoWind and our chalet on the hill convinced us to stay, but what mostly sucked us in was how dynamic the weather was, without really affecting anything. It would go from sun to tropical rain and back in a matter of minutes with barely any change in temperature. Like your mom came out and turned on the sprinkler for a few times down the slip and slide. It seemed like the hammock would be dry again by the time you got back out to it but the flowers would still be dripping from a fresh shower. On the lake, the wind would whip up whitecaps, all the better for the windsurfers and kiters to play on. White banks hanging over the cloud forest on the south side of the lake would flash to life with electrical storms coming up from the coast. And out of nowhere, a double rainbow drape itself across the sky. All as if to say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”