SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — We sat in the waters of a swimming pool near La Fortuna, our eyes on Mt. Arenal, a few miles away.
Sitting in a pool watching a mountain may not sound very exotic, but when that mountain is an active volcano, it evokes more than just your normal emotions.
It was dusk. Though the top of the mountain was covered with clouds, we could see little puffs of steam rolling down its sides. As daylight faded, color emerged.
The clouds surrounding the cone sporadically took on a rosy glow, and soon the puffs of steam turned fiery red--ribbons of molten lava oozed down the mountain.
The next morning we went to the piedmont of Mt. Arenal and climbed part way up. It was still active, but we now could hear as well as see it.
With irregular frequency we heard loud thunderclaps, followed by a noise similar to that made by corn popping. But these were not tasty little morsels, they were rocks and lava ejected from the core of the volcano.
Sometimes the rocks fell close enough for us to see them bounce; mostly we saw only puffs of steam descending from the convulsive turmoil above us.
The citizens of the inaptly named La Fortuna, which lies in the path of this restive volcano, go about their lives with a remarkable equanimity, despite periodic eruptions up to a mile high, the last one in 1985.
We slept without a worry in the small, new Motel San Bosco in La Fortuna, after congratulating ourselves on the reasonable price--only $6 U.S. a night for three of us in an exceptionally clean room with bath.
Active volcanoes, each spectacular in its own way, are commonplace in Central America. We visited several during our stay, but none put on a show like Mt. Arenal's.
Several are alarmingly close to heavily populated areas. Only a few miles from San Jose, the capital, is Irazu. It greeted President John F. Kennedy's arrival with an unexpected salute in March, 1963, and has erupted several times since.
Nearby, and easily accessible from the city, is volcano Poas, with two craters--one a beautiful, emerald-green lake, the other ominously steaming.
Despite the volcanoes, this little country the size of West Virginia is a bonanza for nature freaks of any kind.
Though only 10 degrees north of the Equator, the climate in San Jose is mild, averaging 72 degrees all year. In a valley about 3,500 feet above sea level, the city is surrounded by mountains, some of which are more than two miles high.
The country has two seasons--wet and dry. Even during the rainy winters, morning sunlight is the norm. My hosts, a son and daughter-in-law in Costa Rica on sabbaticals, preferred the winter because of its lush greenery.
In San Jose, deluxe resort hotels are $40 to $150 a night. First-class hotels, mostly downtown, cost $22 to $85. Apartment hotels are $175 to $200 a week, or $500 to $800 a month.
There are, of course, some very economical places, but they may or may not have their own bathrooms, and their cleanliness is sometimes suspect.
Though we ate many of our meals at home--the market is filled with delicious tropical fruits and vegetables, as well as fresh fish and shellfish--we had our favorite places for eating out.
Sodas are fast-food places, and the one we returned to time and again was Soda Tapia. Its arreglados-- delicious hamburger-type sandwiches--followed by a fabulous ice cream with fresh-fruit dessert, is a must. The arreglado costs about $1.25, and the dessert $2 to $2.50.
Two good hotels, the Amstel and the Bougainvillea, serve excellent meals for about $10. Steak dinners at Las Cascadas also cost about $10. For quiet elegance, Chalet Suizo is highly recommended. Prices, of course, vary, depending on what one orders, but they are generally somewhat below stateside prices and they include a 10% tip and tax.
Curio shops abound in San Jose, and many of the outlying villages sell their own specialties. Sarchi, about half an hour's drive from the capital, is great for wooden handicrafts--everything from jewelry to furniture to Costa Rica's famous, brightly painted wagons. Leather craft also is popular and can be found in most curio shops.
Coffee is an excellent buy, whether whole beans or ground. It makes a great gift, especially with one of the little coffee makers called a choreador.
It consists of a wooden stand, like a small easel, from which is suspended a cloth bag through which one pours boiling water over ground coffee.
Potpourri of Creatures
Nature buffs are offered a potpourri of native creatures, including tropical fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and insects. We found them everywhere--in cloud forests, tropical rain forests, dry forests, on the plains and at the seashore.
Water sports and nature go hand in hand. White-water rafting on the Reventazon River combines an exciting and thrilling adventure with superb scenery. These trips cost $59 to $65 a day, depending on which river and what is supplied.