We understood the transport booked by our hostel would collect us at 8am, so we were sitting in front of Pension Santa Elena well before 8am.
At 8.30am the young man on reception asked us where we were going – he had not worked on reception during our stay, so was unfamiliar with our plans. We told him La Fortuna. Did we have a booked ticket from reception? No….however I said we had inquired with reception staff on three occasions if our transfer was booked. We were always reassured everything was under control. He said ‘I will fix it’. And commenced making some phone calls.
8.35am: a taxi arrived, courtesy of Pension Santa Elena and we drove along winding, potholed dusty roads to the jeep transfer station.
9.10am: we departed in a jeep immediately. Of course, we were incredibly worried that we were holding up the boat and inconveniencing other tourists.
9.45am: arrived at Laguna de Arenal. To our surprise, tourists were standing by the waters edge waiting for the boat.
10.15am: our boat departed for the La Fortuna side of Laguna de Arenal. We had impressive views of the Arenal Volcano looming in the distance.
Above: crossing Lake Arenal.
Above: Arenal Volcano in the distance.
During this leg of the trip the captain told me about the 1968 eruption. Prior to the eruption the lake did not exist – a river ran through the valley. On the morning of the eruption people in the town of Arenal thought they heard helicopters overhead, and remained in their homes – it was the sound of Volcano Arenal erupting. Forty-two people in the Arenal township were killed. After the eruption, the river was dammed and a lake created. The Arenal township lies at the bottom of the lake where we boarded the boat.
The following information is from arenalobserveratorylodge.com:
At roughly 7:30 a.m. on Monday July 29, 1968 – after having lain relatively dormant for over 400 years – Arenal Volcano erupted with violence and fury. Extreme eruptions and volcanic activity continued for several days, killing some 87 people and burying over 15 square kilometers in rock, lava and ash. The eruptions affected a total of over 232 square kilometers in the surrounding area to varying degrees, with damage to crops, property, livestock and forests.
At the height of its activity this La Fortuna volcano was spewing out massive amounts of lava and ash and tossing giant rocks for distances of up to a mile at speeds of some 600 meters per second.
The explosions formed three new active craters.
Since that time, Arenal Volcano has maintained nearly constant activity ranging from soundless explosions with large mushroom-shaped clouds of ash overhead to booming explosions sending hot rocks nearly a kilometer into the air to pyroclastic explosions highlighted by rushing gases and flowing lava pouring down the side of the volcano. For visitors to Costa Rica, volcano viewing is the most promising at Arenal – no other volcano has been this consistently active.
Arenal Volcano rises to approximately 1633 meters at its summit, although the exact summit height changes frequently due to the volcanic activity.
11am: the boat landed on the La Fortuna side of the lake – tourist vans were waiting to transport everyone to their hostels etc. Extremely efficient, as we have discovered in Costa Rica – our mishap mentioned above has been the only non-efficient experience.
11.30am: arrived at the La Fortuna bus station
12.15pm: bus departed for Cuidad Quesada
1.45pm: arrived Cuidad Quesada bus station
Five minutes later a bus bearing the sign Los Chiles pulled into the bus station
2.00pm: departed Cuidad Quesada for Los Chiles
It was hot, no air conditioning, but at least the windows opened so we had a good breeze when the bus was moving. Unfortunately we sat on the sunny side, so there was little respite from the heat, except for the breeze.
4.30pm: arrived Los Chiles.
A five minute walk took us to Hotel Carolina – I was delighted with the air conditioning in our room. Some days bus connections work just brilliantly!
Above: map detailing our journey. Red indicates the journey from Santa Elena to Los Chiles on 8 April; blue indicates our trip from Los Chiles to Caño Negro on 9 April. The faint grey line above Los Chiles is the Nicaraguan border. (Quesada on the map is actually Cuidad Quesada).
On 9 April we caught the bus from the Los Chiles bus station to Caño Negro, a distance of 26 kilometres. We understood the bus departed at 12 noon, however for some reason it departed at 12.30pm. The bus headed south along the highway towards Cuidad Quesada, then turned onto a rough gravel road. Approximately one hour later we were we in Caño Negro.
We booked an Airb&b residence called ‘Caño Negro Experience’ and had a delightful three nights staying with Renato – Tatiana (his partner) was working elsewhere at the time. We find it a little nerve wracking to book a room in someone’s house – Renato, having an extremely friendly relaxed disposition made us feel immediately at home. I fell in love with Orejas, their dog. Orejas means ears in Spanish, and Orejas had long beagle like ears and an outward friendly disposition. Not a mean streak to be seen. We heard Howler Monkeys every morning around 5am.
Above: Howler Monkey.
Above: Caño Negro experience.
Renato, with a background in ecotourism, was working as a park ranger in Caño Negro. Along came Tatiana, originally from Bolivia, to develop her Master’s thesis in biology. They fell in love, and in love with everything Cano Negro. Their relationship has resulted in buying a house in Caño Negro, renovating it, and creating a business called ‘Caño Negro Experience’ offering a variety of tours. Their home is a typical ‘Tico’ home with iron roofing material nailed to the roofing beams – this creates an exceptionally hot environment at certain times of the day. (Thank heavens for the fan!) Renato said he would like to line the roof eventually – makes great sense. But it is certainly very typical of houses we have seen in Costa Rica. The front of the home has a lovely sitting area enclosed by cyclone wire with passion fruit vines winding their tendrils through the wire. Hummingbirds would flit in through the wire holes and sit on the tendrils. A large shuttered window opened so one could sit on stools and look into the garden – great birdwatching. Some windows had simple wooden shutters, and would remain open during the day – on the odd occasion birds would simply fly through the house! Simply delightful.
Above: Birdwatching from the front of the home.
As relative newcomers to a small village with many established traditions and ways of life, it is always going to be a challenge to show locals the benefits of ecotourism and protection of the wonderful environment they reside in. Renato’s love of this region and everything special that goes with it sees him working in an exceptionally outgoing friendly manner with locals, greeting those he knows, and those he does not know. The word traditions reminds me to mention that men often rode their horses through town – clip clop, clip clop, clip clop.
Above: horse and rider.
We opted to do a walking bird watching tour with Renato on two mornings rather than a boat tour. (Unfortunately I was not well on the second morning, nothing serious, and remained at home with Orejas). 120 bird species were seen over the two days. Some highlights included: Jabiru; Roseate Spoonbill; Yellow-throated Euphonia; Northern-crested Caracara; Nicaraguan Grackle; Northern Jacanas – we have never seen this many Jacanas in one area; and a Slaty-tailed Trogon – sitting on electricity cables in front of the house. Honestly, there are too many species to list here!
Above: Roseate Spoonbill.
Renato knows this region like the back of his hand and on the first day took us to see some lagoons and forest areas. Why is this region so special? Well, it was RAMSAR listed in 1991 and covers 6,506 hectares with wetlands, forests and grasslands. Caño Negro is a ‘protected area’ that allows for a mixed use policy – this means farmers can graze their cows and horses on the large flood plains that have become grasslands in the dry season. The wet season commences sometime in May, and lasts roughly until December. Renato said when the rains commence you see daily changes in the landscape, and it is magical. The rain mostly occurs late afternoon and overnight, and tourists visit all throughout the year. Renato is able to access private properties not inundated with water during the wet season. 315 bird species, 160 mammal species, 49 fish species, and 310 plant species have been recorded.
Above: dry season: boat in the foreground – note the wooden jetty behind the boat.
On the first morning walk there was a heart warming incident along the way. The Frio River still had plenty of water, however the lagoons had varying water levels. Lagoon edges were very boggy. We can across a cow that had become bogged in the mud. A couple of farmers had tied a rope around its neck and were trying to drag the poor cow out of the mud. (A side story here is a number of years ago I became bogged in mud at Broome Bird Observatory, Western Australia, while collecting mud samples, so I could understand the cow’s stress and exhaustion). The rope around the neck did not work, so they tied the cow’s back legs together, then all of them pulled on both ropes. It worked! A girl came running with a large bucket, they filled it with water and allowed the cow to drink. They collected more water and washed all the mud off the cow’s hide. A group of other cowes came over to inspect the action. All of a sudden the cow stood up, walked a few paces, albeit with a slight limp, and began to eat some grass. What a relief for all involved. I hope the limp was temporary. And such a wonderful communal effort to rescue the cow. I have inserted below some photos taken while the cow was being rescued.
Above: cow resting while rescuers provided drinking water.
Above: cow eating grass with curious fellow cows looking on.
We also saw three tourist boats in the river – a man was attempting to lasso a caiman using a rope – certainly not a practice that should be accepted. Renato indicated to the man to put the rope away, and this he did.
I have been forgetting to mention that the Clay-colured Thrush is Costa Rica’s national bird. A few days after we arrived I heard a kitten mewing – I went searching, but no kitten. It just so happens the Clay-coloured Thrush sounds very much like a kitten crying for its mother.
On Friday 12 April we bid Renato and Orejas farewell and caught the 6am bus to Los Chiles, then a taxi to the Costa Rica-Nicaraguan border.