By Zachary Moses
This morning began with a chocolate tour. We all walked from Pozo Azul to the neighboring compound (a community cooperative) and checked in. The tour crossed a long, narrow, hanging steel bridge to get to the other side of a massive ravine. It was kind of misty and the bridge felt like it was never going to stop. Walking along this bridge was oddly cinematographically familiar. I breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the other side without being eaten by a screeching Velociraptor. We also saw no escaped T-Rexes during our hike along the forested mountainside.
Our path ended at a previously abandoned cocoa plantation. A non-profit organization is rehabilitating the land, performing re-forestation research, and making artisan chocolate there now. One of the local guides talked with us at length about the history of chocolate. We even got to participate in the process of making chocolate from start to finish, using both traditional and industrial methods.
The natives called hot cocoa “caca”. As many of you may know, “caca” is Spanish for the word “poop.” When the Spanish came to America, this little language quirk led them to believe that the indigenous people were drinking poo-poo-water. Gross!
However, we overcame our giggling about the local name for the delicary, and enjoyed the opportunity to make “caca” in the traditional style. This native hot beverage even includes tasty morsels like corn and hot chilies…No wonder the Spanish were so concerned!
After our “caca” tour, we departed Sarapiqui and made our trek toward Arenal volcano. On the way to Sarapiqui we came upon a sloth crossing the road. Our Costa Rican guide Ollie had to grab it by the back of the neck to move it across the road and out of harm’s way. It tried to defend itself… But it’s a sloth, so… by the time it managed to muster a reaction, we had already saved its life and placed it on the other side of the highway. Everyone jumped out of the bus to take photos and said things like “aw… look at its little face”.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjKZEJSXnrg?rel=0]
We drove a bit farther, and came around a bend to see one of the most impressive sites I’ve ever seen: an active volcano that was actually shaped like a volcano. This was way better then cartoons! This wasn’t some lava bubbling out of a hole in the ground: Arenal volcano is the real deal. We arrived at the hotel in the early afternoon with plenty of time to enjoy the pool, with its volcano-heated spring water. The warm water is pumped through a series of cascading waterfalls and a fountain, and the pool bar has barstools located about 6 inches under water.
Each hotel room has an amazing balcony, and I awoke the next morning with a view of the smoking volcano. That day half of the group joined me on a trek to the Venado Caves, and the rest joined Ollie to meander along the hanging bridges. I’m not going to lie… I think my cave group had way more fun! The entrance to the cave was hidden in a little valley in the middle of farm-country-nowhere-ville. The guides put helmets on our heads and handed each of us a five-dollar flashlight. We walked down a huge hill and found ourselves at the lush mouth of the cave system.
On the way in, our surroundings got darker and darker until there was no longer any natural light coming into the cave. We clicked on our flashlights and continued deeper and deeper into the darkness. The cave opened up into a huge cavern. I shone my flashlight up at the ceiling and there were bats everywhere; adorable little fruit-bats, snuggling with their families for warmth.
The first tricky spot we got to was called the birth canal. We had to slide feet first through a little opening (breach birth!) and on the other end climbed up a narrow tube and dropped into a shallow pool of water. We traversed the cave in the dry season, but our local guides say that during the rainy season a huge waterfall pours into the pool. From here, we continued down through a loop until we came out about 5 feet from where we went into the birth canal. I can see how one would get turned around and lost without a guide in a cave.
We continued deeper into the caves, walking under waterfalls and climbing up rock scrambles. At one point we reached an impassable dead-end and had to double back. We retraced our steps to where we had passed a ladder earlier. We climbed up and waded through a 50-meter stretch of pooled water. At the end of our wading, we found an amazing waterfall which we used to wash our smelly bits. We then headed back to daylight – quite a shock after our sojourn in the cave. Going farther into the cave would have required more advanced training, and much more time. One could explore these caves for days with the proper equipment.
Tonight we spent the evening at “The Springs.” Here we found a luxury resort surrounded by thermal pools and fantastic amenities, the best of which was a water slide. We had so much fun. A bunch of grown men, hootin’ and hollerin’ in the jungle and sliding down a slide into hot water. It was all so much fun, until one of us lost his credit card in the silty red mineral water.
In the morning we began our trek back to San Jose. I decided to try to finalize all my paperwork while we drove back to the city. I had not realized how serpentine the road was going to be and found myself highly nauseated. As tour leader I certainly couldn’t let my weaknesses show, so I merely gazed out the front window as if looking for some important site to point out to the guests. People kept trying to talk to me, but I couldn’t handle it. I had to make Ollie stop the bus. He was more than happy to accommodate me, since we were near his mother’s favorite local cheese shop.
We also stopped at an artists’ commune near the village of Sarchi where they specialize in hand-crafted and painted ox carts. The artwork was incredible. We got to watch the artists painting amazing designs on their handmade arts and crafts. They gave us a little tour of this pre-modern factory. They don’t use electricity; instead there is an impressive river-turned waterwheel system to work overhead belts and gears that power the whole factory. This was also our last chance to buy loads of presents for the people back home before getting back to the big city.
Tonight our delicious farewell dinner was held at the top of a mountain with a spectacular scenic overview of the city. Several of us went out for drinks afterward in the hotel bar for our one last chance to enjoy the warm Costa Rican evening before heading home the next day, some to snow in the midwest or northeast, and others of us to our own tropical homes.