It was their third trip. This time his birthday, a horseback ride through the cloud forest then on to the little town near the mountain. Each time before it was clouded over, not worth going to see. Maybe this will be the right time to hike the slopes of an active volcano.
They arrived at the open air restaurant amidst a cool drizzle. It looked as if it had rained through the night, or perhaps the light sprinkles were ever present. A part of life in the higher elevations, close to the clouds. Mud sponged around their soles as they stepped from the minivan sent to meet them at the bus stop in Monteverde, a three hour trip from San José the day before. They never opted for the package tours before preferring to simply drop themselves into a place and figure the details out from there. The only caveat, he insisted they always have a place to sleep before heading out. Coordination was required this time, though. A boat trip across the newly filled reservoir, then join their group trekking on horses through the rainforest, then on to the small town they’d been to twice before.
It was her second time to the Central American country. Other than an occasional four day weekender to Mexico, this was his first trip out of the US, a six month stint to Costa Rica renting an apartment in and basing their travels out of San José.
Stomping caked mud off their feet, they’re directed to the restaurant by an extended arm and smile from their driver. They paid the balance of their trip to the small, old woman perched atop a stool behind a plywood pedestal. Through smiling deep nods towards the tables inside the open front restaurant, they’re invited to relax and wait for the boat to show. A young woman stepped to their table as they sit down and took orders of cafe con leche to ward off the chill and prepare for a cold ride across the lake.
They exchanged glances after the first few minutes of body-jarring shocks as the thin, aluminum-hulled motorboat buffeted wave to wave. Covered in their pvc-plastic trench coats purchased on a budget from a surplus store specifically for this trip, they held their hoods against the wind and fumbled with cameras timing shutter clicks between waves. Full tree tops held fast, stubborn against the rising waters of the new reservoir. They could already make out the haunches of Arenal even as its peak lay ensconced in cloud cast.
The boat was met at the other shore by a guide and his shuttle van ready to take them to their riding group. Everyone was brought a horse handed off by the reins. He faced his, pet him along his jaw and scratched under his chin, speaking softly making a new friend. The horse, an auburn youngster with dark stockings of color from hoof to knee, nuzzled a long nose into his chest.
The ride followed a meandering, well trodden path into the high forest. At times vegetation fully encroached upon the them tugging at their clothing and others they found themselves crossing rivers swollen to the riders’ hips. The horse knew the way and plodded on without concern save one slip hiking out of the water to the river bank, a hidden cobble under the mud. The group – six Germans, three Canadians, one Austrian two local guides and including themselves, two Americans – spread apart into two and separated by enough distance that he often found himself alone between the two, a solitary ride through the rainforest.
A four hour trek by the end, their luggage awaited the group along with a return shuttle to Monteverde for some, offering to drop others off at various locations on the way. A hand fell on his shoulder, Elan grinned at them both welcoming them back. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the rain from his bare head before insisting he take their packs to his borrowed VW van.
Elan, their regular guide as he became after their previous two stays at his small hotel in Fortuna, chatted on to them both but directed the conversation more to her as her Spanish was much better than her partner. The closer they came to the little town once more, the mountain, Arenal grew, rising from the surrounding jade green fields absorbing them into its slopes. As he drove, he pointed to the mountain from the steering wheel, telling her it was too clouded over for an attempt today but maybe tomorrow. Elan was eager to get them up the mountain on a clear day. It had apparently become a self-imposed obligation for him since he had been unable to deliver during their other visits.
They settled into what was now their usual second floor room. A sparse but comfortable two bed room with a view of the mountain out the back window. They joined Elan downstairs for coffee to warm up after the ride and their showers. Hot water was an unreliable luxury in country. Later they ate arroz con pollo, rice and chicken, with guava juice at El Jardin across the street. The evening was spent at a hot springs resort. They met a young Israeli couple fresh from their compulsory military service. Above them, in the not so far-flung distance, strips of orange illuminated mist shrouding the mountain’s peak. While mesmerized by the sight, the young man spoke about a conversation with one of the resort’s staff. If the volcano erupted now, the flows, the pyroclastic flows could reach them where they sat now enjoying the warm pools of water. A 1992 eruption flow came within 400 meters of another resort further along the main road.
It was mid-afternoon when they saw Elan several blocks away waving his arms in the air, crossing over his head. They waved back and he beckoned them back to the hotel. They had set off in the morning, breakfast at a new place, a walk around town, through a small art festival with the rest of time lounging under the sun in an open grass field watching a local fútbol game. She gestured back at the mountain, clear of clouds its perfect conical peak set against a rich blue sky.
The three of them drove on, up the slopes as far as the dirt road would go. Elan had been looking for them all around town eager to get them up the mountain while it was clear. It was going to be dusk by the time they hiked to the spot he envisioned given their late start. It’d be worth it, he had assured them. The road ended in a small culdesac parking lot, empty. They climbed from the jeep Elan had borrowed for the rough road. Howler monkeys sounded in the distance, a haze of insect chatter engulfed them but above the background chorus, a percussive din spread across the forest’s resonance they’d acclimated to traveling for months throughout the country. They looked to Elan who smiled, expressing his hope for a good show today.
They hiked along a narrow path, trees enveloped them overhead keeping views of the upper slopes from them. The percussions continued. There was little sense of how long they’d been on the trail. Their focus was on their steps and the trail, avoiding roots yet to dry from the morning rains, negotiating steep switchbacks, wary for the next misstep and eying the next handhold to catch oneself.
Ahead the vegetation cleared. They stepped out onto a swath of barren ground cleared by the most recent lava flow, a river of rock running through the midst of dense foliage. The farthest reaching yet, Elan explained. No one could come up this way for almost a year after, until it cooled enough to walk on. Much of the field was cracked and broken fragments. He felt a slight apprehension walking along it knowing how recently this was a flowing stream and wondered how far off the next torrent down the mountain was. The crushing percussions filled the air now, blotting out the life of forest.
The small group climbed up the lava flow, spread out, taking their own paths. Elan hurried them on as dusk began approaching. He wanted to get them to the spot soon so they could still see up the mountain. They could make out the higher slopes despite a mist spiriting in above. The mountain darkened as it rose above them. They came to a yellow rope spread, waist high across their path, the flow spread out ahead. Guarding against further trespass, a strip of brown, painted plywood, yellow block print across its face, hammered askew into cracks in the rock, “PELIGRO DE MUERTE NO PASE” – Danger of Death. Do not pass. Elan held the rope up over his head, they passed on.
The flow curled and rose sharply to a steep incline leading eventually to the crater of the volcano cloaking itself once again in low hanging clouds. Against its dark flanks tufts of gray sporadically appeared trailing down the slope, each new one accompanied by a deep concussion. Elan let an arm rise in presentation, a smile of pride across his face. Boulders. Boulders crashing down from the mountain. They stood watching then remembered their cameras. They snapped away praying the photos would give justice to the scene.
A mound, a barrier of earth, of rock loomed at the higher end of the flow as the mountain’s slope rose sharply into the mist. They glanced at Elan, a wary skepticism in their expressions. “They never come passed that rise,” he told her in Spanish, she in turn translated to her partner.
He lifted his camera for another shot, focused on one roiling billow of gray bounding down out of the clouds. He could make out the mass itself. A whirling sphere releasing sprays of ash as it plummeted down the blacken slope. Its path centered on the earthen rise. He dropped the camera down and peered over the viewfinder. He had a feeling. It was coming faster than the others. It passed the other trailes of gray. It disappeared behind the mound as he envisioned a ramp sending the projectile into the air.
“¡Corre! ¡Corre!” Elan hollered as he ran passed.
He stood fast, camera still in hand, stomach beginning to leap. His body tense, ready to run. From behind the barrier, a gray mass launched free into the air… Click! Click! He turned and leapt from his spot atop broken crag and ran. She and Elan had stopped a short distance away. She stared at him in exasperation as he approached.
“I got it,” he said holding up his camera in triumph. She shook her head.
They stumbled back up the flow to glimpse where the boulder had landed. Anxiety restrained them from going much further. They sighted a smoldering crater. The mass had crashed into the dense foliage lining the recent flow. Through the white steam a small heap of red lay in contrast. They looked at one another, was it a ball of lava? Prudence kept them from exploring further.
It was dark when they reached the jeep. Out of breath, remnants of the past excitement lingered still. They offered Elan dinner in appreciation for the trip. The three sat on stools, their meals in front of them at a restaurant Elan’s friend ran. They ate at the bar. Elan told the story of the boulder. With all his experience hiking the mountain, this was a new one for him, a new story to tell and embellish for each new listener.
She turned to her partner and laid her head on his shoulder, “Happy birthday.”