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February 2002

Fire And Rain On Costa Rica’s Volcanoes

Deep in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, you'll learn to dodge fireballs and poisonous frogs while tracing a circuit around a living volcano.

A few hours’ travel in this steamy greenhouse deposits you on the eroding crater rim of Cerro Chato, a lump of safety on rumbling Arenal’s southern flank. A view over the emerald waters of the lake occupying what was once the crater of this volcano is welcome after the oppression of the rain forest. From this plant-smothered rim (used to film jungle scenes for the movie Congo), you overlook the bald, lunar landscape of Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The occasional explosion hurls hippo-size rocks that briefly interrupt the racket of rain forest life.

From the western quadrant of Cerro Chato, the trail drops through forests painted in a thousand shades of green until, near the shores of Lake Arenal, several miles of dirt road lead you to Castillo, a hamlet so small it doesn’t merit mention on most maps. Camp near there and save the 3,500-foot climb to the cloud forests of the Continental Divide for the morrow.

That climb follows the Cano Negro Trail, an old trade route used to shuttle goods over the divide. Small farms line the route near Castillo, but agriculture quickly gives way to the primordial rain forest, with its bullet ants and fer-de-lance vipers–dangers that keep the wise from grabbing branches, vines, or rocks as they navigate the verdant vegetation.

Several river crossings come and go before the steam-room air of the lowlands cools from gained elevation. Though refreshing, the cool air also squeezes moisture from the humid Atlantic winds and makes the “dry season” only a relative term. Rainstorms rarely last longer than an hour, but they can so saturate the atmosphere that drowning seems possible. Different plants inhabit these cooler, wetter domains, but to the untrained eye it’s all jungle. Moss, the distinctive cloud-forest character, coats tree trunks and branches with armor several inches thick.

Eventually, the trail emerges onto a checkerboard of forests and fields supporting the great American addiction. Coffee plantations dot the hillsides. Camp near the Monteverde Mirador Lodge and hope that the fog that so often covers the Continental Divide (it’s called a cloud forest for a reason) clears to deliver a nighttime view of the fire raining from Arenal.

The final leg leading to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve continues on a dirt road for 6 miles through a pastoral landscape. The preserve is lush with life (over 400 species of birds alone) and laced with interesting hiking trails, making it a recommended detour before you retrace the trials of the fire-and-rain trail.

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