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.
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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.

Take the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, separate them by just 60 miles and a range of 10,000-foot volcanoes, and what do you get?

A) perverse weather patterns

B) ecological habitats with multiple-personality disorders

C) treks that can drown you with rain or bomb you with fire

Answer: All of the above, in just a

5-day walk through Costa Rica.

Inhabited by 350,000 species of insects, 12,000 different spiders, 17 kinds of venomous snakes, and various poisonous frogs, Costa Rica's jungle landscape is a hard place to maintain human life, let alone trails and campsites. That explains why a country that's protected more than 25 percent of its landmass in the form of parks and preserves has escaped attention as a prime backpacking destination. It also explains why you need to be a brazen adventurer--maybe even a little crazy--to bed down in these parts.

The jungle, however, is only part of the story. To experience Central America at its wildest, throw an active volcano belching boulders and lava into the mix. That's what will greet intrepid hikers who brave the classic 24-mile (one way) hike from the rain forests of the Atlantic, past the smoking flanks of the volcano Arenal, through the cloud forests of Monteverde, and up to Costa Rica's Continental Divide.

The route from Vulcan Arenal to Monteverde starts near the tourist town of La Fortuna. You'll leave the crowds behind and disappear into the rain forest, tunneling through palms, ficus, and plumerias as you ascend the northeastern slopes of dormant Cerro Chato.

The rain forest envelops you in its humid twilight and the wall of plants beside the trail seems chokingly thick, but the battle for space and light is three-dimensional. Above your head, life flourishes in the canopy, and each broad-leaved tree supports long, creeping vines of philodendrons, vertical fields of orchids, gardens of bromeliads, colonies of leaf-cutter ants, flocks of toucans, and more.

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.

Expedition Planner

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Permits: No permits are needed, but you must pay $10 per person to enter the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. Camping is best done near small towns, where you'll find cleared, flat land on which to pitch a tent. The preserve has shelters.

Route: Trails in the rain forest range from narrow, root-riddled paths to wider horse trails that sport deep mud after a hard rain. None of the numerous routes snaking through the rain forest are signed, so without a guide, you will get lost in the jungle--a scary proposition. Budget 4 to 5 days for the roundtrip walk.

Access: La Fortuna is located in northwestern Costa Rica, about 90 miles from San Jose, the capital city. Public buses, private tour operations, or a rented car will get you to La Fortuna.

Season: Early December through late April is the dry season, but prepare for daily rains. Normal raingear is too hot-use a poncho or umbrella.

Outfitter: A local guide is your best resource since detailed maps and route information don't exist. William Bogarin Solano (fax 011-506-479-9342 or 011-506-479-9091) speaks English. He or his brother can guide you.

Contact: Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, 011-506-645-5122; www.cct.or.cr/monte_in.htm or www.monteverdeinfo.com/monteverde.htm.