La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Fifteen years ago, a close friend of ours in Southern Illinois, Dana Simpson – a dedicated nurse who devoted thirty years to caring for others – came down with COPD.

This disease chewed her up one inch at a time while her husband labored around the clock, sleeping three-sometimes-four hours a day, feeding, bathing, bath-rooming, the whole nine yards – until she passed in December 2020.

Smoking Kills

Hospice came and went over the years as she’d battle back, only to slip away, over and over again.   Her range extended to the whole house at first, an oxygen concentrator droning away twenty-four-seven and reeling our yards of tubing, but the circle drew tighter until she was eventually confined to a hospital bed next to a portable potty.

The prolonged suffering to both patient and caregiver would eliminate most humans in a few months, but Dana had the spirit of a pissed off Viking, and Brad Simpson’s nickname is “Trooper” – earned by combat service in Vietnam – so he sucked it up and carried on fourteen years while simultaneously battling PTSD, dark dreams of explosive death invading those precious three hours every night.  Words are inadequate for a true description of his ordeal.

Dana and Brad, 2012
Dana and Brad, 2012

***

Brad and Dana vacationed around the Caribbean and Mexico before her sickness, and they’d always dreamed of visiting Costa Rica. After many conversations during her illness, they decided to spread her ashes there. When Brad’s turn to join Dana arrives, their son Jesse will spread Brad’s ashes on the same Dominical beach overlooking the Pacific where Dana now rests.

Dana's final rest.
Dana’s Rest. Dominical, CR.

***

Brad spent last year grieving.

When he decided last fall to spread Dana’s ashes, he dialed me up for the wingman position.  We arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica on 4 January 2022.

Sixteen years ago, my son turned sixteen and his marvelous high School Spanish teacher arranged a Costa Rican adventure for the class, and several parents joined the ride.  We made a DVD of the experience, which opened my eyes to what a nation can do for itself.

Oddly enough, Costa Rica declared war on Japan the day after the Pearl Harbor strike.  But Costa Rica disbanded its military in 1948 and began investing in healthcare, education, and the environment. The rewards are still raining down.

“Costa Rica leads the Latin American and Caribbean region in health and primary education, having the second-lowest infant mortality rate after Chile and a 98% literacy rate, according to the 2016-17 Global Competitiveness Report. This tropical country, home to the greatest density of species in the world, takes pride in its ecologically friendly policies that attract tourists to its lush jungles. It also enjoys a standard of living that is about double that of other Central American nations except for Panama, which profits from the Panama Canal.”  -- USA Today.

After a half-day in San Jose, we hired a private van for the three-hour ride north to La Fortuna, a village of 15,000 that exists mainly on tourism.

Driving is tenuous and expensive in Costa Rica, and most locals either walk, ride bikes, or pilot motorcycles. We used Uber almost exclusively in La Fortuna, though we caught an expensive cab one night after staying late at Ecotermales. But the cab driver was insanely funny and full of Pura Vida, so we got our money’s worth.

Pura Vida explained ...

The whole country exists mainly on tourism,  German-owned electronic factories, cultivation of ornamental plants, coffee, bananas, mangos, and pineapple – the juiciest, sweetest pineapple imaginable.

We witnessed the tourism link firsthand at the San Jose International Airport, where people line the fences and cheer as each load of cash-carrying gringos alights on the runway. There is a park right next to the major landing zone and entire families spend whole Sunday afternoons lazing on the grass, picnicking, flying kites, and applauding the injection of life-giving dollars into their economy.

***

We arrived at the Arenal Manoa Hot Springs Hotel on 5 January and immediately fell in love with the place and the people who worked there.  Built on a working cattle farm and dairy farm, the grounds and walking paths seem endless, flora and fauna burst out everywhere, the entire experience capped by a view of Arenal Volcano off the front porch of our little unit.  The artistic maid, always pleasant and accommodating, created a new fantasy figure out of towels each day.  The entire staff throughout the venue were genuinely happy to serve and interact with the guests.

The view from our front porch.
The view from our front porch.
Towel Art, Arenal Manoa
Towel Art, Arenal Manoa
The view from our front porch.
The view from our front porch.

One worker completely captured our imagination with his sunny disposition, Pura Vida attitude, willingness to help others and to learn English as we tried to learn Spanish.  We noticed him riding in to work one day, and I took a picture of his Yamaha motorcycle’s bald tires with exposed cords.

Are you married, Renaldo?  I asked him.

Yes, he said.

Do you have any children?

Three.

Does that have anything to do with those bald tires?

We’ve been mostly out of work for the last two years, he said.

When we left at the end of two weeks in paradise, he found a signed letter with enough cash inside to replace the tires and to fix the seat ripped with overuse.  Brad and I are nothing but working men like Renaldo.  People who came up poor and were mentored into prosperity by others who took a little time to care. We recognize the type.  He’ll pass it forward the next chance he gets.  He’s that kind of guy.

***

La Fortuna Adventures

There are more things to do in Arenal than can be accomplished in two weeks, but we spent lots of time downtown eating excellent fresh food and enjoying professional massages for only $30 — the septuagenarian masseuse and I laughed when I pointed to the sign about “no sexual harassment” — but there is an underground sex cult in Costa Rica that attracts the lowest of characters.  That’s probably true of all Central American countries and Asia.  Beware of sleaze bags.  Some of this may be cultural.

When I visited Bangladesh for a month back in 1999 it was a custom for the Muslim population to break a child’s legs early in life so s/he could make a living as a beggar. But in Thailand, poverty-stricken Buddhist parents simply ship their daughters off to Bangkok for prostitution. There is no limit to worldwide deplorability, it appears.

***

La Fortuna and the Arenal area barely registered on the world’s cultural map before 1968 when the volcano erupted and wiped out Tabacón, a small city on its northwest slope. When scientists from around the world arrived to study the phenomenon, paths and swinging bridges were erected to accommodate the work.

Since the infrastructure was in place after the scientists retreated, poor but-visionary farmers became entrepreneurs, pastures returned to the jungle, and tourism boomed until the recent COVID outbreak.

La Fortuna City Plaza
La Fortuna City Plaza

Nuevo Arenal

Having read about this town full of ex-pats on Lake Arenal, we hired an Uber driver and headed over, only to run across a sloth moving down a tree (they potty once a week) and a family of coatimundis eagerly begging food.

Our driver didn’t know the area and almost wrecked his car on washed-out roads, so we headed back with no real sense of the town.  But after seeing Lake Arenal, we booked a wine-and-cheese boat tour later in the week.

Bogarin Trail

One of the most amazing aspects of this Arenal area is the vision local entrepreneurs projected at the turn of the 21st Century. Twenty years ago people allowed  fields to return to the jungle. These secondary forests now attract all kinds of flora and fauna, and people pay $40 apiece to creep in at night with a flashlight  to photograph them.

I took close-ups with a cell phone. My I-phone 13 does not come with the macro lens, but a software purchase turned the two existing lenses into macros.

La Fortuna, Costa Rica. January 2022.
Bogarin Trail, La Fortuna, Costa Rica. January 2022. Cell phone picture.

Baldi Hot Springs

I visited Baldi (accent on the second syllable) sixteen years ago when it was relatively fresh.  But now it’s a little seedy.  Worth the experience, but there is no limit on people they let in, and the cheesy decor is overripe.  The bottoms of the pools are lined with ceramic tile, so you can easily bust your tail if you’re not careful.

Something hilarious happened, however, at the very top cascade. Several macho Central-American males hogged the area, posing over-and-over for strutting muscle shots, but I stepped into the background at the last second and photobombed them with a big protruding American belly.

Several locals nearly drowned, fizz foaming out their noses, laughing aloud at the spectacle.

Baldi Hot Springs
Baldi Hot Springs

Ecotermales

The best hot spring experience we enjoyed in La Fortuna was across the road from Baldi, and it’s special because they limit the crowd to 150, the dinner buffet includes all the chef-prepared steak, seafood, salad, and chicken you can eat, and everyone’s laid back and friendly.  The grounds are clean and spacious.  At one point a giant black bird — the great-faced curassow — walked right in front of us and then wandered off into the jungle.

There’s a waterfall you can sit behind and exotic birds fly in at random to offer a continual display of wildlife.

Sloth Walking Trail

Open during the day, the animals in this secondary forest next to La Fortuna are difficult to locate without a guide, but we paid the extra money and ours showed me how to take cell phone pictures through a telescope.

Sloth, La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Sloth, La Fortuna, Costa Rica.  Taken with a cell phone through a telescope.
Toucan, taken with a cell phone camera through a telescope.
Toucan, taken with a cell phone camera through a telescope.
Owls, La Fortuna, Costa Rica.  Taken with a cell phone through a telescope.
Owls, La Fortuna, Costa Rica.  Taken with a cell phone through a telescope.

Lake Arenal Boat Ride

We enjoyed a spectacular panorama on Lake Arenal at sunset, wine-cheese-hors d’oeuvres, and a great conversation with a guide who spoke perfect English and knew all the political, geographical, educational, financial, and historical backgrounds of the nation.  We highly recommend seeing the lake and volcano from this perspective, and the tour guides just make it better.

Lake Arenal tripled in size with the construction of the Arenal dam in 1979, which exists at the eastern end of the lake. This hydroelectric project exists at the western end of the lake and is strategically important to Costa Rica, initially generating 70% of the country's electricity, now closer to 17%, and was also a driving force behind Costa Rica's green energy policy.  -- Wikipedia 
Brad and Mike, Lake Arenal, January 2022.
Brad and Gene, Lake Arenal, January 2022.
Lake Arenal, January 2022.
Lake Arenal, January 2022.

Hiking

We did not visit Arenal Volcano National Park with its hanging bridges constructed for scientists in 1968 after the latest volcanic eruption, but we ran into a Canadian ex-pat who moved to La Fortuna three years ago from Calgary after his mother passed and he told us what to do on the next lap.  Brent Munro lends some excellent advice and historical background here if you want to lose yourself on volcano trails.

Travel Cures Your Head

One of the best things about travel is meeting new folks. Americans from Northern California, Kansas, and New York City immediately befriended us, Canadians from Calgary and Alberta bought us lunch, told stories, shared dreams, and shook heads at the ugly divisiveness back home.  We never met a negative, aggressive, ugly American, Asian, European, or Canadian the entire trip.

New friends from Calgary.
Alberta friends!
New friends from N. California.
Northern California!
New York!
New York City!
More California friends ...
Northern California!

But the ugly people at the top – those who respect dollars more than physical health and spiritual well-being – tend to radicalize the glazed people at the bottom, those whose view of the world is shaped by zero travel and a television screen full of talking heads spewing false information for fat corporate dollars, usually pharmaceutical companies with a monetary incentive to keep them blazed and perpetually camped before the TeeVee.

An endless cycle of pill commercials, consequent brain death, and insular dissatisfaction. Alert!

All of that negativity turns to vapor …

When you travel. When your eyes open to the truth about other people in other lands.

Why?

Because they are exactly like you and me.

***

Brad and I parted in San Jose, but he Ubered down to Dominical and had his special moment on the beach with Dana. Looking through tears as I write these last paragraphs, I know that Trooper did all he could.  People with integrity take wedding vows seriously.  No matter what it takes.

“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.”  -- Winston Churchill

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