30 Nov

Volcan Arenal and Last Days in Costa Rica

It’s time to hit the road and say farewell to Costa Rica, which has been our home for the past 6 months. Before leaving, we couldn’t miss out on the iconic volcano and lake of the same name: a visit to Arenal was the last bucket list item to cap off our time in the country!

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There were mixed emotions driving away from our sunny beach town at Playa Pelada. The excitement to get back on the road was bubbling in our bellies, as well as the apprehension that comes with the unknown. Will we have as smooth a ride on the way up as we did on our southbound trip? Will Bruno continue to perform like a champ or will he have ailments that sabotage us?

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Our progress so far: the route takes us from Nosara at the coast to Lago Arenal, and then up to the Nicaraguan border.

As we headed inland the weather cooled and we started the climb to the interior mountains. When we finally crest the ridge, Lago Arenal stretches out in front of us. It’s the largest lake in Costa Rica at 85 sq.km / 33 sq.mi. Friendly locals at the mirador (view point) are curious about Bruno’s strange foreign plates. He makes friends everywhere he goes.

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A hand-painted sign announces Area de Camping on a family property across the street from the National Park entrance. We paid 5,000 colones (about $10 USD). The area around Lago Arenal has a very short window of non-rainy weather. November is nearing the end of the rainy season and even so, our first night is to be a soggy, wet one. Ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys make periodic appearances, adding some levity as we recall some of the non-fun aspects of roughing it.

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Volcan Arenal has been dormant since 2010, but it is the youngest and most active of all the volcanoes in Costa Rica. One of the best ways to attempt to see Volcan Arenal despite the clouds is to climb the neighboring Cerro Chato Volcano, which has been dormant for 3,500 years. It’s advertised as a 3-4 hour strenuous hike of “steep jungle terrain” and it was easily the most technical hike either of us had ever been on.

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We find out later that it’s a “Class C” hike, which means we could have climbed up to 3,500 ft / 1,070 m in just over 2 hours. All we know is, it was steep! Using slippery roots and branches to pull ourselves up, we were rewarded with a lucky and very short view of Volcan Arenal before the clouds moved back in.

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Cerro Chato has a large crater lake that you can climb down into. The climb is literally straight down in some parts that they’ve had to add ropes. We swam in the cool green water with minnows nipping at our feet and legs, and tiny tree frogs chirping on the logs.

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We had a free camp that night in the parking lot of the waterfall in the area. We didn’t visit the waterfall, it was $11 USD per person. We’d already splurged to hike Cerro Chato at a whopping $12 USD per person, so the free camp was welcome. The night guard and his son were interested to chat about our travels and kept an eye on Bruno while we slept.

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Our only repeat visit camp of the trip was at Cañas Castillas. Agi and Guido have an incredible setup for campers and overland travelers. We met a German couple with a son less than a year old named… you guessed it:  Bruno!! He’s having as much of an adventure as our Bruno, seeing as his parents were making a pro/con list to determine whether to drive to Mexico or Brazil next!

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With the Nicaragua border only 20 minutes away from our last Costa Rica camp site, we’re already reminiscing about our 5 months here.

A small handful of things we won’t miss?

Morning scares: opening the back door to find a crab attached to the screen at eye-level.

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Mold attacks on “seemingly” dry clothing – the humidity knows no mercy, is ruthless and without prejudice.

The trend of one new bug per month: flying cockroaches, giant grasshoppers, flat scorpion-types – all gross!

The month of October shall forever be known as The War of the Ants. They conquered the bathroom early on and were determined to have a permanent home there. I’m not taking small ants, either. We went up against big, fat soldier ants. We even watched a BBC documentary to learn more about the enemy, but it just made us more mad. Those tiny bastards are so organized!

Our more pleasant memories

A rustle in the trees, usually signifying a silent monkey troop passing through.

Slithering sounds of the resident iguana across the tin roof. Also known as Noisy McNoiseMaker.

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Deafening rainstorms on the tin roof, making conversation impossible.

The equally deafening racket at dawn made by the multitude of birds in the yard: Wrens, Kiskadees, Magpie-Jays, Grackles, and several Woodpeckers.

The squawking wild parrots gathering at dusk, their color such a bright green that they are indistinguishable from the leafy tree tops.

The black Costa Rican tijo bird, affectionately known to us as “the knee benders”, who do a short squat on their tiny legs before making their sing-song call.

The newfound knowledge that roosters do not only crow at dawn, but all damn day.

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The simple pleasure of swimming in our pool during a warm rain.

On any given day, we may see horses grazing, running, and playing in the vacant property beside us.

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The dog with the broken tail – forever known as “Broken Tail” – coming to visit when she could smell bacon cooking.

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Bruno echoes our sentiments – we had a blast living by the beach, but are so freaking excited to be back on the road!

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  • Tyler in Seattle

    Just found your blog and I’m both incredibly jealous and motivated by it. Congrats on FIRE and having the guts to do what your doing. Safe travels!

    • Amanda

      Love love love that we can motivate someone from afar. That’s one of the big reasons we write! Thanks Tyler.

  • That looks like a serious hike down into that volcano crater! Like some Indiana Jones you-might-never-return-to-civilization stuff.

    • Travis

      Definitely! I kept looking over my shoulder for a giant rolling boulder coming after us!

  • Hannah Ray

    That was my favorite hike!! Did you go swimming in the lake?

    • Amanda

      We did! It was rough to get down to the little patch of beach, but it was well worth it. Tree frogs were croaking and little fishies nibbling at our toes and legs!

  • Freedom 40 Guy

    My wife and I were in Costa Rica a few years back and spent some time at Arenal. Cool place but that mountain peak can be hard to see with all the clouds all the time! Just found your blog and am feeling inspired (jealous) of your adventures. I’m still working towards financial independence and hoping to do a similar adventure some day! good luck on your continued travels, I’ll be following!

    • Travis

      Thank you very much! While climbing up to the top we felt pretty confident that the volcano peak would be covered in clouds, but against all odds, the clouds opened up just for a few minutes so we could take some pictures!