Saturday, March 19, 2011

Volcan Poas

It was raining off and on as we repacked the food, pots and pans and clothes after a weeklong stay in Arenal. Staying put for a week, even a few days, always results in countless trips out to the truck, unlocking the padlock on the spare tire carrier and swinging it open wide enough for the rear hatch to clear it. Though it’s never quite enough and the lower lip of the hatch to scrapes dully across the rubber nibs of the spare tire. If someone were to find the wad of padlock keys, at least, that allow us access to the nooks and crannies of the truck, there would be no way to decipher which key went to which lock. But we know that the gold key, not the small one but the middle size one, with just the faintest hint of red sharpie where the ink got down into the engraved word “Master,” is the one for the padlock on the foldup table inside the hatch. Easing the table down so it’s supported by the chains on either side, we begin to slide everything into its place in the two cubbies, the left for food and the right for kitchen items, reassembling the three dimensional puzzle until everything fits.

As often happens, as soon as we get on the road, I’m struck by a satisfaction that we’ve driven ourselves from the curb in front of our house in San Francisco to a place where any number of volcanoes could erupt on a given day. I like our setup: small, nimble and flexible. At times I feel like we could be on a weekend trip camping with friends but then become aware that we have with us everything we’ve used - or needed – for the past 4 months. If it rains, we have our raingear; if we’re hungry or thirsty, we have food and water; and if we’re tired, we can pop the roof tent and stay as long as we want. Today, we were headed to check in on one of those volcanoes we’d driven so far to see, not really because we needed to see another volcano, just because we’d driven ourselves from our house to a place where we could go see one if we wanted.

Unfortunately, as we approached the town of La Fortuna, we came across the scene of an accident. A motorcyclist who had passed us a few miles back was lying in the ditch on the side of the road, curled up next to a bent over road sign. At first we thought he’d lost control on the pavement, slick with mist, but the dented front end of a rental Mitsubishi Montero surrounded by a group of horrified 20-something tourists suggested otherwise. Though a crowd was gathering, we pulled over to see if we could help. I just wanted to make sure no one was trying to yank off his helmet or anything after he went head on with a signpost. There were a few locals there taking control , keeping him talking but still, so we didn’t think there was anything else we could do. In town, I flagged down a cop and in excited Spanish tried to explain that there had been an accident. When I said there was a “moto” hit, for a second, I couldn’t remember the word they use for SUV. Turning to our truck and pointing, I remembered and said “camioneta.” At that point, I realized that I may have just told them that a motorcycle was hit by our camioneta. A potentially bad situation. They got on the radio and didn’t seem too concerned as we drove off.


Taxi drivers would just put it in neutral and push it forward in the queue along the main square.

We picked our way southeast towards the capital city of San Jose, planning on stopping in one of a few towns described by our book as quaint artisan villages. As we drove through Sarchi, Barva and Heredia, we couldn’t help but wonder if we would have been more impressed with their large zocalos and historic churches had we not seen so many of them in Mexico. There were a few furniture workshops and wood carvers, but most of the stuff looked a little shoddy to us. The few wood bowls we did like were hundreds of dollars, and we had no way of knowing whether they were endangered wood species. 



We turned north towards Volcan Poas, not knowing much other than that you could drive to the top for a stunning view of a mineral-rich lake in the crater. With the “Check Engine” light having been on since we entered Costa Rica a few days ago, I didn’t like the way the engine was straining to carry us up into the hills. It was likely just low octane gas combined with the altitude, and we took our time, stopping for some pictures of the sprawling city metropolitan area of San Jose. I would have fixed the “Check Engine” light at one of the stops but I didn’t have any black electrical tape to cover it up with.


We looked at a couple extremely dumpy cabinas before seeing the “4x4 solo” sign on one and deciding we had to check it out. We slipped and slid down the steep, loose road for a few kilometers, pretty sure we’d be able to make it back up in the morning. Of course, the pictures never communicate the feeling of rocking side to side, hearing the tires lose traction and feeling the storage box mounted beneath the rear of the truck scraping on rocks.




What we found at the bottom would have likely been another “pass” except for the fading light and wooden deck overlooking the valley below. We settled in to watch the hummingbirds, trying to put the lumpy bed, scratchy sheets and scuzzy bathroom we were paying $35 for out of our heads.






This view certainly made it easier.

A note about Costa Rican food: It’s been terrible. Incredibly salty, questionable meat, and weird vegetables. We’ve had a couple great meals at specific gringo-owned places but the rest has been a real disappointment after good luck in pretty much every other country. On the plus side, everyone says you can drink the water, though we’ve been slow to undo our habits of using bottled water for everything from brushing teeth, making coffee, even cleaning vegetables with the iodine drops added. Then again, neither of us has yet to be sick.

We’d been told that the best way to get a clear view of the crater was to be up there by 10:00. We paid our $15 or so at the entrance at 9:00 and walked through increasing mist towards the lookout. The plants along the path were thriving in the moisture.




The fog only thickened as we approached the crater, and it was a complete whiteout by the time we arrived. Though the hack French tourists with huge camera bags and lenses that were making me feel “inadequate” probably only got pictures like these looking out over the edge…



But, I knew a few tricks on how to get a clear picture…


And to be honest, we weren’t really that disappointed. We really weren’t sure why we were there except that we were trying to see “everything.” We discussed cutting east towards Volcan Turrialba or Irazu, but in the end, decided that it was okay that our interest in volcanoes was currently “dormant” and headed towards a mountain town near a lake we’d read about.