We had arrived after dark the night before and really had little idea what the hotel was like. It was only this morning that we realized that our rooms are surrounded by jungle. I heard a lot of songs and sounds in the morning, including a howler monkey that was certainly very nearby, but the birds and animals were difficult to see here. We did see clearly the long-nosed bats aligned under the roof of one section… and sound asleep, of course! They are very tiny and don’t even look like bats until you examine them closely.
Our rooms were built on stilts along a similarly elevated walkway quite far from the lobby and restaurant which are on the main street of Sarapiqui. So, city at one end of the hotel, jungle at the other: a curious contrast!
After lunch, we headed towards Arenal Volcano, one of the more active volcanoes in Costa Rica. It used to have small eruptions of rocks and lava several times a day, but has been quiet since 2010. Still the magma in its gut heats the hot springs that have made the Arenal Region so famous throughout Costa Rica.
En route, we stopped at Muelle, a small village, to “buy water and use the toilet”, according to our guide, Andrea… but she had an ulterior motive. Muelle is famous for its “Iguana Bridge” and is definitely worth stopping for. This all begin when a local restaurant started feeding local green iguanas their leftover vegetables and of course, this attracted more iguanas who gradually learned to not be afraid of people. There had to be about fifty iguanas that day, either in the trees on either side of the river, or on the deck of the restaurant. This includes plenty of medium size iguanas, but also a few giants that almost looked like dinosaurs! Oddly, there are no young iguanas at all, but then iguanas are very territorial and probably chase them away. Despite their fierce appearance, green iguanas are herbivores and essentially harmless, although they can hit very hard with their tails when they feel threatened. But here at Muelle, they are very calm and you can even pet them!
Next stop: La Fortuna, a small town at the foot of Arenal Volcano. Offcially we stopped so some travellers could mail their postcards at the post office, but in reality, it gave us a chance to visit the beautiful city park and the church just across the street. The colourful beds of cannas were especially attractive.
On the down side, we couldn’t see Arenal Volcano, usually quite spectacular with its perfectly pyramidal shape. It’s summit was lost in the clouds this time around: all we could see was its base. However, we could see nearby mountains, including Cerro Chato that resembles the head of a sleeping man.
A few minutes later we arrived at Eco Termales, a spa in La Fortuna. This is a smaller, more intimate spa than the Baldi spa that caterers to kids and teenagers (water slides, etc.) or Tabacon, very pretty, but not very open to groups. At Eco Termales there is a series of basins that receive hot water from a spring at the base of the volcano. The first basin at the foot of the slope is farther from the source and therefore cooler (but still hotter than your usual hot bath!), but thereafter each basin is hotter than the last. There is also a pool of cold water, coming also a spring from a cooler part of the volcano.
The basins are surrounded by a beautiful jungle with lots of flowers. We saw (and heard!) howler monkeys!
Next stop: Los Heroes Restaurant in Nuevo Arenal. The restaurant looks like a huge Swiss chalet, there are Swiss cattle on the mountain in the background, there is a Swiss-style barn and even an alpine chapel, plus it serves Swiss specialties: we could have been in Switzerland… if wasn’t for tropical vegetation (bougainvilleas, brunfelsias, etc.). Moreover, to give the place an even better Swiss atmosphere, the restaurant was full of Swiss Germans who was caravanning along the entire length of the Pan American highway and who just happened to be there by pure coincidence! The owners are a couple composed of a Swiss German man (I’ll bet you already guessed that) and a Costa Rican woman. The view from the restaurant over Lake Arenal is also superb. A very nice place to stop!
There was a lot of driving to do after that, as we had to get from Lake Arenal, deep in the valley, to Monteverde, high in the Tilaran Cordillera. Until the town of Tilaran, the road was winding, but at least paved and therefore relatively pleasant to travel. From this point on, however, it becomes a gravel road… and a very poorly maintained at that. It seems that the Quakers, who founded the village, do not want the roads that lead to Monteverde to be improved, for fear of being buried in tourists if the road becomes reasonably passable. Nevertheless, the roads going are very annoying! If you ever feel the slightest bit motion sick, take a ginger pill before doing heading out! In addition, this time there was a huge detour over even less well maintained roads than the main one, a detour that added 45 minutes to what should have been an already long ride of 2 hours and 15 minutes. Three hours of twisting, turning, being jolted up and down, left and right, forward and back, trying to avoid the potholes, to stopping (or even backing up to a suitable point) when another vehicle comes in the opposite direction, sinc the road is not large enough to allow two vehicles to easily: it’s quite a trip! But in spite of the horrible road, it certainly is a beautiful trip: mountain pastures dotted with cows and horses, breathtaking views of valleys, a wind farm that seemed to have been installed by aliens and charming farm houses here and there. There was even a beautiful sunset to admire.
So, we arrived at Monteverde about 3 hours later, just after sunset. Our hotel, Hotel Heliconia, is located, as with almost all hotels in the area, on a mountain side. The restaurant and reception are down by the main road, but the rooms are in a series of buildings placed one after the other, each higher than the previous one, further and further up the slope. Our rooms were in the highest part, about 5 minutes walk from the lobby/restaurant if you walked down from room or 15 minutes if you went back, because the way back was all steep slopes and stairs: a tough climb! Fortunately, there was a shuttle that could transport us to and for. I liked to walk down and be driven back.
That evening we had a lovely meal in the hotel restaurant, and then went up on foot or by shuttle to our rooms. We could see the village of Monteverde down below, illuminated here and there like sparks in the night. Beautiful!