Tag Archives: Volcano

Day 10 – La Finca Lodge (Arenal)

Tuesday 28 February 2023 – Early morning number 2. Such a joy, being on holiday travelling….

Not, I suppose, a ridiculously early morning by many people’s standards, but the alarm went off at 6am so that we could present ourselves in some semblance of good order for a day of relentless tourism starting at 0730.  We were actually just finishing our breakfast, which had a decent aspect on to the property

when a chap came over to say hello.  It turned out that he was Danny, our guide for the day, and he was both a very nice guy and very knowledgeable (although we stumped him with the katydid. Hah! Score one for the tourists!).

Our first objective was the Observatory Lodge in the Arenal Volcano national park (where, you remember, we feared to trust the car tyre tread yesterday). It turned out that there was a route available with a much less hostile road surface, so we followed that, and discovered that the Costa Rican attitude to wildlife and tourists means that it is entirely possible just to stop, get out of the car and look at (and, of course, in my case try to photograph) things. Danny, who was clearly one of the good guides, was adept at spotting things, and so we stopped near a river where he had seen some monkeys in the trees.  It is a mystery to me, particularly given my failing eyesight, how these guys can spot things, but I suppose a child of five can do it with 20 years’ practice. So we just stopped and got out of the car, leaving just enough room for a fucking great truck which came along later to squeeze through. And he pointed out the monkeys.

You can clearly see them in these photos, but it took me several minutes to be able to spot what Danny had seen from a moving vehicle – and I had to wait until they moved before I could make them out. I did get a couple of other shots eventually.)

We also saw something which was characteristic of holiday travelling here.  Rather like that game we might have played as kids (I never did this, officer, honest) where you stand somewhere and point up at, well, nothing at all, and see how many passers-by you can get to stop and take a look – well, if there’s a stopped car with people standing outside it staring into the forest, others will also stop and join in.  So we ended up with about five cars’ worth of punters, virtually blocking the road, all trying to spot what Danny had seen – at which point we quietly drove away…..  This is Danny, by the way, fully armed with binoculars and a great knowledge about local wildlife.

We headed into the Arenal Park and, erm, parked in the, erm, car park of the Observatory Lodge, which is a nice building, with a terrace outside which (a) provided us with a coffee, (b) provided decent views over the volcano (which is there behind the clouds, really it is)

and (c) gave a good look out over a feeding station where many birds were, well, feeding. There were large numbers of the ubiquitous Montezuma’s Oropendola, and a Brown Jay was holding its own against these bully birds.  There were also some smaller birds trying to get in on the action, either on the feeders or on the ground.

There were others and I could show you many photos of vegetation where a bird was until milliseconds ago.

Let me give you an insight into how pushy the Monty birds are.  Here’s a video which shows the feeding station being replenished – watch what happens when fresh fruit is available all of a sudden.

The Observatory Lodge was originally set up so scientists could stay and study the vast eruption of the Arenal Volcano in 1968 and, now that things have calmed down a bit, offers various trails through the surrounding rainforest. We took one which promised a waterfall at the far end because that sounded good.  It took us through the Observatory gardens (which have several non-indigenous species on display)

and past some interesting sights, such as a rainbow eucalyptus,

some monkeys (yes, it took me ages to spot them)

and an entire family of coati snuffling around for food and entirely oblivious of humans.

We also passed some flower beds where humming birds could be seen and, if lucky, photographed.

Jane did a good job to capture the Rufus-tailed hummingbird as it went about its business.

(From a geek’s point of view, it’s interesting to note the clash between the 30 frames a second of the video and the considerably higher frequency of wing beats of the bird.)

Then we headed off on the Waterfall trail which led to….

…in my case an opportunity to offer to take a photo of a couple there who thought that having them pictured in front of the waterfall represented an improvement on the marvels of Mother Nature. They were a mixed-race couple. He was English and she, Scottish.  That’s not really an excuse, though, is it?

The way down

was occasionally obstructed by groups of Very Serious Birders

who thought that getting a photo like this

constituted a satisfactory result. Good luck to them, I say. I quite often find that wildlife spotting is enormously frustrating, because of my increasingly poor eyesight. Firstly, I can’t see the bleeders; secondly, even if I can, I can’t appreciate them unless I can get a photo so I can see what’s going on in detail. Many people will coo with wonder as they see some kind of exotic creature scuttling off to a point where they can no longer see it.  All I’ve seen (and this is if I’ve been lucky) is a flash of movement of something or other, which is hardly something to celebrate.  I need the photo so I can see what it is I’ve seen at leisure.  If it’s a good photo that others might like, then for me that’s job done.

Danny pointed out an interesting facet of tree growth in the jungle.  I’ve already shown you one tree survival strategy, which is buttress roots – the wide, blade-like roots which provide the tree with nutrition and stability from a distributed footprint.  Danny also showed us stilt roots,

A Walking Palm

an approach whereby the tree sends roots down separately from a central trunk, to lodge outside the footprint of the tree and provide extra stability.  The tree can also judge which side the light is coming from and send more roots down that side, to give it more strength. In that sense, the tree above can sort of move, hence it being called a Walking Palm. Either that, or it’s doing a handstand, of course.

If I were to walk the trail, I would simply think it was a nice piece of exercise, because I simply can’t spot stuff going on around me.  But some stuff is so arcane it takes an expert to find it. For example, there are some palm leaves that I would simply walk past without really noticing anything. An expert like Danny, though, can spot the subtle signs of damage to a palm leaf that tells him that a species of bat has made its home underneath the leaf.

So you have to know what to look for and then can have a go at photographing it

otherwise you’d walk by, unaware of the ingenious life strategy going on under your nose.  (This is a theme I will come back to in a couple of days, so stay tuned if you’re interested.)

We also saw a couple of Crested Guan.

which is to say that Danny spotted them and I took a photo of one of them.  It’s a good photo, I think, but I need others to help me see these things to get the photos.

And that was about it for our walk through the Observatory Lodge trails.  On a clear day, you can see the volcano.  Today?

Not so much. Never mind, the morning was absorbing and educational, and it was good to talk to Danny about life and politics in Costa Rica (hint – it’s no better or worse than UK or US politics, and just as frustrating).

For the afternoon, we had elected to go to one of the well-known attractions of the La Fortuna area – the Hanging Bridges.  There are two parks which offer a walk through the forest canopy, the Skywalk and Mistico Park.  On Esteban’s recommendation, we went for the latter,

mainly because the bridges offered a view of the volcano, and – who knows? – maybe we’d be able actually to see it later on in the day. There is a restaurant there, at which we lunched on a hearty and tasty local dish, casado, and which gives a view of the volcano.  It looked a little as if the clouds were lifting. Only a little, mind.

After lunch, we made as if to set off on the two-and-three-quarter-mile trail.  Danny stopped us before we even started, and pointed out something that – as ever – we’d have missed if we didn’t know what to look for.  In this case it was a snake,

and not just any old snake, but an Eyelash Palm Pitviper – one which was not fast asleep like the one we saw in Bijagua, but was coiled and ready to spring.  Apparently, they’re so quick that they can catch a hummingbird mid-flight. They are the sixth most poisonous snake in Costa Rica, and after a bite you have about three hours to get yourself to hospital, so finding one so close to the car park was a relief. It would have been a bugger if we’d been deep into the woods and got bitten.

This, although dangerous, is a small snake, and we asked Danny how he’d spotted it.  He let us into one of the local secrets – when something like this is found near where people go in the park, a tape barrier is erected to keep people away.  We found another example on the trail

but as far as we could tell its dangerous denizen had left the scene.

So, what did we see on the trail?

Apart from six suspension bridges across various canyons,

frankly, not a huge amount.  Danny was full of interesting information about how nature takes its course in a rain forest environment like this, but we scored relatively few photos of note. The bridge above gives the possibility of a decent view of the volcano if it’s visible.

One of the most important creatures for the environment is also one of the smallest – a tiny stingless bee called Mariola Amarilla. It’s no larger than a medium-sized mosquito

but has a critical role as a forest pollinator. The picture above was taken at a kind of bug hotel which is one of the various places these creatures have made a home, which you can tell by the entry point to their hive.

What other wildlife did we see?

and – Jane’s favourite of the whole day – a huge cockroach with a blue bum.

So ended a splendid day of exploration of the Arenal area.  It really brought home the extra value that a switched-on guide brings in this country; if we’d walked the paths by ourselves, we’d have missed virtually all of the sights that we actually saw.  Danny did a great job and was a pleasure to spend the day with.

After we got back to La Finca, we didn’t feel the need for a large dinner (apart from anything else we knew that we had to be away early the next morning), but we did feel the need for a beer.  So we quenched our thirst and, at the same time, had a great chat with Esteban.  There were some essential bits of information he provided – when we needed to get away in order to be at our next stop in a timely fashion, whether any of the roads were closed or crappy and how much our room bill at La Finca was (not much, actually – good value, good food, good service, thoroughly recommended).  We also chatted about how he got where he was – a very charismatic but slightly roguish figure providing a great service to guests in a comfortable establishment. In turn, Jane convinced him of the value of Duolingo as a language learning aid, and I put an expensive item on his to-do list – a balloon flight over Stockholm.  He is a qualified balloon pilot and actually offers balloon flights from la Finca.  Had we been staying longer, we’d have been tempted.

Alas, our time there was at an end.  The next day we had to get ourselves near enough to the east coast to be picked up for a boat ride to our next destination.  Pura Aventura were very switched on and had alerted us to a change in where to meet the boat.  So we had a somewhat longer drive, to Caño Blanco, for an earlier rendezvous with the boat. So, guess what?  Another early start….


Easter Island 3: The rest of the moai, a volcanic crater and Birdman

28th March 2018

There are various different estimates of the number of moai on Easter Island, but “upwards of 900” seems to cover it. Some are near platforms and therefore count as official moai, some are in the quarry, some are just any old where and therefore can be presumed to have fallen and broken on their journey from quarry to platform. Ah, well, back to the drawing board. It only takes a year to make another. (And size doesn’t, as far as anyone knows, make much of a difference. The moai appear to have grown over the course of the culture, with later moai being bigger than earlier ones. But bigger ones don’t necessarily take longer, as you can have more men working on a larger statue.)

So, let’s wrap up the moai part of the Easter Island segment of our odyssey with some photos of many of those that have been restored. Firstly, and strikingly, one has been restored with replica eyes being put in place.

Ko Te Riku- with restored eyes

This can be found at Ahu Tahai, and the eyes certainly add character to the appearance, although whether that’s an improvement is a moot point.

Another important platform can be found at Ahu Akivi.

Ahu Akivi

The significance of this platform is that it was the first to be restored, through the energy, insight and enthusiasm of Thor Heyerdahl working with American archaeologist William Mulloy. Sort of Thor Ragnarok Restoration.

Jane’s joke, not mine. She has a thing for Chris Hemsworth. Can’t imagine why.

Heyerdahl is most famously associated with his 1947 Kon Tiki raft experiment in which he sailed 5,000 miles from South America to the Tuamoto Islands to demonstrate the viability of long sea journeys as a way of cultural migration. (Anyone of my approximate vintage will remember that The Shadows had a hit with a record called Kon-Tiki, which just goes to show that pop music can have an educational role.)

Heyerdahl first discovered and photographed the moai in 1955, and he recruited Mulloy to drive the restoration work at Ahu Akivi, which started in 1960, and so has significance as the first platform to be restored.

Mulloy ran several archaeological projects on Easter Island and had great influence in the way it appears today, for which he is justly respected by today’s islanders. He is buried at the Ahu Tahai site.

There are several unusual features of the Ahu Akivi platform:

  • It is inland and facing the coast, whereas other platforms are on the coast facing inland
  • It is aligned so that the moai exactly face the rising sun during the spring equinox; no other platform is so precisely aligned
  • All seven moai are of the same size

There is, of course, a legend about Ahu Akivi, concerning the original Rapa Nui King Hotu Matu’s priest having a dream about an island, the king sending out scouts who discovered the island, with seven remaining to await the king’s arrival as he moved his entire people to Rapa Nui. There are several reasons why the experts dismiss this legend, but, hey, it’s a great story.

And that about wraps it up for the moai part of the Easter Island story. But there’s more, and that is to be found at a site called Orongo, in the south west of the island.

The first thing you encounter as you approach the Orongo site is a spectacular view across the Rano Kau volcanic crater, which is a mile wide.

Rano Kau

The lake is actually a wetland, bordered in some places by a rainforest. Fruit trees grow inside the crater, and the lake, although essentially stagnant, has had special fish put in it which do not need much oxygen to survive but which eat the mosquito eggs and so keep the island’s mosquito population down.

Turning your back on Rano Kau, you go through the Orongo reception (some interesting photos in it, by the way) and into the site of the Birdman ceremonial village.

The Birdman culture replaced the moai culture on the island, being in existence between the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. It was based around a race to the furthest of three small islets off the south-western tip of the island.

The Birdman islets;

The basic idea is that each of 18 tribes on the island submitted a champion, whose job was to climb down the cliff, swim across to the furthest islet (called Moto Nui), await the arrival of the migrating sooty tern seabirds, procure an egg from a nest and transport it back to the ceremonial village. Intact. The winner was the first to arrive with an intact egg (often transported, we understand, attached by cloth to the competitor’s forehead). His reward was to liaise with three virgins who had been specially kept aside for him; the reward for the chief of his tribe was to become the Birdman for the year, a position of some status.

The village itself consists of several stone houses which were, essentially, used only for the period of the Birdman competition.

Stone houses used during Birdman Challenge

Stone houses used during Birdman Challenge

Of these, around a couple of dozen – about half of the total number – have been restored. Embarrassingly, some of the originals were damaged by the British, who hacked them about in order to get at some murals inside them. To compound this, the Brits then stole a unique moai, made of basalt and carved with Birdman petroglyphs and this (“the stolen friend”) stands in the British Museum. Just down the corridor, one assumes, from the Elgin marbles.

So, why did the moai culture die out? And why was it replaced by the Birdman cult? (“no-one knows”, but perhaps the deforestation of the palms left the islanders unable to leave, and the migration of the sooty tern gave them the illusion of being able to come and go at will?) Whatever, it’s another of Easter Island’s unusual sites and sights, and part of a wonderful, compelling and mysterious story which it was a pleasure to spend two days discovering.

In transit 2 – Bariloche to Puerto Varas

24th March 2018

Our time at the very swanky Llao Llao Hotel was all too short, and so we embarked on the next stage of a transit which would eventually take us to our next major segment of our South American odyssey, a couple of days in Easter Island. But Tierra del Fuego to Easter Island is a major schlepp, and so we did in sections, taking in some popular tourist sights en route, as described in part 1. Some more sights awaited us in the second part of the transit, as we travelled from Barioche to Puerto Varas. This is a well-established tourist route, having first been undertaken in 1913 and, notably, by Theodore Roosevelt in 1916 (it was apparently Roosevelt who, basing his knowledge on the recently-established Yellowstone National Park, suggested that the areas surrounding this route be set up as a national park before modern life could damage it too much; and so it came to be, in around 1927). We had catamarans and buses instead of sailing boats and wagons, but essentially the route we travelled was the same; and we had a guide called Eduardo to explain to us what was going on, which was occasionally reassuring.

We started in Puerto Pañuelo, which is conveniently located a few hundred yards from the Llao Llao Hotel.

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The boat took us to Puerto Blest, which is very scenic, but not very photogenic (WALP Factor 8, but all rocks and forests), so people spend a lot of time feeding seagulls.

where we joined a very short bus ride to go to Lago Frias, a volcanic lake. At the end of Lago Frias is the Argentinian end of the border, where passports are checked and you have a chance to see a replica of the motorbike that Che Guevara rode across the Andes back in the days before Andrew Lloyd Webber became a national hero.

The border crossing is a multi-stage process. At the far end of Lago Frias, the Argentinian border staff leave the boat before anyone else is allowed to, so that they can set up their computers and so forth in a hut beside the above bike and another small hut selling snacks. They check passports and then get back on the boat to go back home, as did our Argentinian guide, to be replaced by a Chilean guide called Victoria. She and the ongoing passengers then board a bus, which grinds its way up a rough and winding track to the actual border. A few hundred metres further on, there’s a photo stop to see a local volcano named “Tronador”, or “Thunderer”, so-called because of the noise that the glaciers make as they break up.

Mount Tronador

We were very lucky with the weather, as we could actually see something. Given that this area receives on average three metres of rain (yes, ten FEET) every year, and that it rains some 228 days a year on average, I think we got privileged access.

After this, the bus grinds on to the Chilean border, at a small village called Peulla, where everyone has to get out and open their luggage so that Chilean border guards can check that you haven’t brought anything illicit in. Once again, I had an agony of indecision as to whether to declare all four of the cameras I had with me, but decided not to; and the customs officer couldn’t have shown less interest in my luggage, which made this a good decision.

Peulla is a lunch stop with a choice of two local hostlelries, one of them being a hotel where we had grilled fish with vegetables (Jane) and fried fish and chips (me). We ate in the hotel’s conservatory, which featured a rather novel idea – a sprinkler (arguably a length of hose with holes in it) cascaded water on the transparent roof, and the sunshine through this made rather lovely patterns in the room itself.

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There’s one more boat trip after lunch, which takes the journey on to Petrohué. This is the longest ride, but features nice views of another volcano, called Puntiagudo.

Volcano Puntiagudo

(translated: pointy tip) which looks a little like a local version of the Matterhorn, and another volcano, called Osorno, which I would think that many people would think was Mount Fuji, if they didn’t know better.

Volcano Osorno

After this final boat ride, you take the last bus journey, 50km journey into Puerto Varas. However, the excitement doesn’t dim, even at this late stage, as there’s one final tourist attraction to visit, and time presses. In fact we cut things so fine that we had to sneak round the side of the visitors’ centre to get in to see the Petrohué waterfalls. I’m very glad we made it, as this is a splendid sight.

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And our vulcanological insight was further enhanced on the last kilometres into Puerto Varas, with views of Calbuco, an active volcano which has erupted, and violently, as recently as 2015.

Volcano Calbuco

Puerto Varas is a pleasant town. We stayed at the Hotel Cumbres, which styles itself as the best hotel in Puerto Varas, and I see no reason to gainsay this. We had only one day there, and so, since the sun was shining, we decided to go for a wander around. Before we did this, though, we saw an astonishing morning mist on the lake (Llanquihue).

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There’s little to make Puerto Varas out as exceptional (the hotel receptionist couldn’t when pressed, suggest a single thing worth visiting), but it’s a nice town, with the colourful buildings that we’ve seen elsewhere in Chile and Argentina.

and the same rather alarming approach to electrical wiring.

It’s called the city of roses, for good reason

and has, at one end, a hill which has been pressed into service as a park, named after a significant founder of the city, a German called Bernardo Philippi. One can climb the 500 feet to the top, where there is a giant cross, which is illuminated at night.

So, this was our transit, from Bariloche to Puerto Varas via Petrohué

Tomorrow we’re off to Puerto Montt, to fly to Easter Island via Santiago. I’ll report in from there in due course – stay tuned!