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Costa Rica, Continued, Plus, a Rant – Arenal to the Caribbean | We're Not There Yet

After our morning zip-lining session, we booked the popular jeep-boat-jeep route to Arenal, home of the most famous (and most active) volcano in Costa Rica. The ride, especially the boat ride, was spectacular, but we were less than impressed with the town of Arenal. We didn’t have reservations at any hotel in particular, so we just opened our guide book and chose the best-looking budget option, Gringo Pete’s. Our driver dropped us off in front of a bare-looking building on the outside of town. There was a bit of a gloomy feeling over the place, but I chalked it up to being tired and the approaching bad weather. As soon as we walked into the place, we started to have real misgivings. About half a dozen backpackers sat in the communal area, not talking to each other and not acknowledging us when we walked in. We were shown to a ‘private’ room that had four bunk beds and no bathroom, but the price was many times lower than any other option in town. Things really fell apart when we met Gringo Pete, himself. Before he would give us a key to the room, he insisted on showing us around the hostel. He wouldn’t give us the keys until all three of us had taken the tour together and refused to let us lock up our stuff while we were led around. After being robbed twice, once in a supposedly secure, locked dorm room locker, we were wary of leaving our stuff so blatantly unattended. The fact that there were notes on the walls threatening legal action if any more people were found stealing other people’s food from the fridge did not put our minds at ease. We politely explained that we would prefer to lock up our things rather than leave them unattended and Pete told us that if we had those kinds of trust issues, then we were in the wrong place. Before we could even respond, he had his wife give us our money back and we were escorted out the door. The truth is that our stuff would probably have been fine, but we had had too many experiences in Central America to just trust blindly. And more than anything else, the guy was just a dick. Seriously, what is he trying to prove to us? Had we not been robbed, he would not have been any more right, we would have just had good luck. The fact is that people get taken advantage of all the time while traveling. Backpackers steal from other backpackers, too, and the fact that taking responsibility for your own stuff is frowned upon is just shocking to me. I get the sense that the guy is trying to instill trust in your fellow man and other stupid hippie nonsense like that, but I don’t think the police would be so understanding if we explained to them that our things were stolen while we left them unattended in a room full of strangers. Because that’s just stupid. And so we left Gringo Pete’s dumbfounded by his rudeness and relieved to be out of the place that, quite frankly, gave us the heebie-jeebies. We ended up walking in the rain to a hotel across town, where we paid a lot more money, but were treated with respect.

Still smarting from the rough treatment by Pete, we decided to try to make the best of our stay in Arenal and considered all of the activities on offer. We decided against the volcano tour, as the volcano wouldn’t look much different up close than far away, and we had had bad luck with volcano tours in the past (see: Adonias), so we decided to do the other popular activities on our own: a visit to the Arenal waterfall and the Baldi Hot Springs. For some reason, the three of us decided to walk the 5km to the waterfall down a un-scenic road in the hot, hot sun. Once there, the payoff was pretty great. The waterfall is big and powerful, not to mention very photogenic. Nuri and R made a beeline for the chilly, crystal clear pool at the bottom, shedding clothes as they went. I took a bit more time to jump in the water, but was convinced that if the large, pasty extended Russian family could do it, so could I. We made the return trip back to the hotel on foot and arrived just in time for the proprietor to wave us in, telling us that our shuttle to the hot springs would be there in a matter of minutes. More or less ready to go- attire wasn’t all that different- we hopped in the van and we dropped off at paradise. Or at least, paradise by way of Atlantic City.

Arenal Waterfall

There were 35 hot pools scattered through the maze-like waterpark. There were faux-Mayan pyramids, swim up bars, and an all-you-can-eat buffet. Everyone went around swaddled in the ubiquitous white towels issued by the park and dropped them in piles next to small pools, tucked into various nooks throughout the park. There were waterslides so fast that the attendant stripped me of all jewelry before going down, keeping my engagement ring safe on his own pinky finger until I came back up to retrieve it. The slides dumped out into a big-ish pool, filled with Costa Rican families, drinking beer, cheering each time a new body splashed out the other end. Tickets to the park are sold in time slots; we chose the 5-9pm because it allowed us all afternoon to sightsee in Arenal and because it included the aforementioned buffet dinner. The happy consequence was that we found ourselves in the park at nightfall, when the weather had cooled down, the stars came out, and the park took on a more private feel. Of course, there was also the buffet. Not exactly posh, but nothing to shake a stick at. Much time was spent at the chocolate fondue fountain.

Our time in Arenal turned out to be different than what we had expected starting with the asshole hotel owner and ending in sticky, chocolate-y satisfaction at the kind of place we’d normally never go. We are not spa or waterpark type of people and certainly try to visit more ‘authenic’, cultural spots when traveling. But the mood took us and we all had a slightly unexpected fabulous time. It might have been the same change in mind frame that got us to sign up for the whitewater rafting-as-transportation option that we woke up to the next morning. The short story is that we were looking for a way to get from Arenal, in the central part of the country, to the Caribbean coast (finally!) in a reasonable fashion. Options that were open to us included pre-dawn pickup times with transfers and prices that would have gone into the hundreds for the three of us. Or we could sign up for a whitewater rafting trip that would arrange drop-off in San Jose, Arenal, or the Caribbean coast. This is the kind of organized, high-cost activity that we usually shy away from, but we needed to get to the coast somehow and we had had such a good time by saying yes to the day at the hot springs. So we just went for it.

We got picked up early and driven to the rafting headquarters, where we were fed a hearty breakfast of all the eggs you could eat, and coffee, then loaded onto rafts with a cast of tan, fit Tica guys whose commitment to safety was up in the air, but whose commitment to fun was undeniable. We were tossed and bucked and splashed and battered, then fed lunch on the river before being sorted and sent to our various destinations with the goofy, somewhat terrified smiles still pasted to our sunburnt faces. And then, we finally arrived at the Caribbean.

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