A (wet) birthday vacation

Well, Monkey, if your memory is any good, you should remember the last few days for the rest of your life. And not because you got to spend five uninterrupted days with your dad (remember, I just turned 37 … I’m not old), or even because Nana is here for a visit.

It’s ‘cuz I doubt you’ll ever see that much rain ever again.

The planning for this little sojourn was long, convoluted, and more than a little painful. Especially given all that I was looking for was a few days away from Santa Ana, to see something new in Costa Rica, and to spend time with my family — something I don’t get to do nearly enough of, which is something I deeply regret with each passing day.

Ultimately, it was decided that we’d go to Arenal. This would be your second time to the area, and Mommy and my third trip. (It will likely be our last for a very long time. I’m now officially quite tired of Arenal.) I had told Nana that she’d get to see a volcano (and hopefully see it erupt at night), that we’d stay at a really nice place, and that the Arenal area was fantastic.

Given our previous trip to Arenal (and the one before that), it seemed a fairly decent and honest thing to say. It would appear, however, that Uncle Murphy had also come along for the ride. You remember Uncle Murphy — he’s the one who takes our plans and ruins them every time.

The trip up was reasonably nice. You fell asleep along the way, despite playing with Mommy quite a lot, somewhere around the Los Angeles cloud forest. Nana was watching all the hills and valleys, lush with rainfall, while I watched for all the lunatic drivers. I’m not used to driving such distances during the week — I’m usually at work worrying about network traffic, not oncoming cars.You woke up only after a short pee break somewhere north of La Tigra.

We arrived in La Fortuna somewhere around 14:00, and I rather foolishly thought it would be a good idea to check in to our hotel first, rather than do the smart thing, which was eat. You will learn, Monkey, that your father is often none-too-bright and does some really stupid things. (Mommy will remind you of this quite often, I’m sure.) We finally got to the restaurant somewhere near 14:30, and didn’t eat until nearly 15:00.

La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica, 16 July 2008

Given that your father (that would be me) had hoped for a really nice dinner that evening, it wasn’t exactly the wisest thing. I made it even less wise when we went in search of the ice cream shop Mommy and I had found when we’d first gone to Arenal in 2005 for Mommy’s birthday. It wasn’t where we thought it would be (it had moved), but it was nice. We put you in a little kid’s ride that looked like a double-decker bus. You didn’t like it one bit.

Returning to our hotel — the Arenal Paraiso (where we had a nice little two-suite cabin, ironically number #404) — both you and I went down for a short nap. You were a little overdue, and I was plain wiped. (The last many weeks of work have sapped much of my energy, prompting the time off, and the drive had taken a big punch out of me, too.) Mommy woke us up at 17:00.

404 Cabin Not Found, Arenal Paraiso, Alajuela, Costa Rica, 16 July 2008

I had decided that we would eat at The Springs, a new hotel that had opened in the Arenal area only eight months earlier. My friends (and co-workers) Mark and Denise had stayed there a month or so ago, and swore the quality couldn’t be beat. They neglected to also tell us the state of the road, which was something near “unpassable”. (It’s a wonder they could build the place with roads that bad.) The three kilometre(-ish) trip took nearly 20 minutes, and was very bumpy.

Entrance to The Springs, Alajuela, Costa Rica, 16 July 2008

The hotel is right out of Disney World in terms of engineering, marvel, appearance, and professionalism. (Hopefully by the time you actually read this, Monkey, you’ll have been to Disney World and have some idea what the heck I’m talking about.) Due to my previous mistake, I didn’t get the dinner I wanted. Instead, we had the buffet (this was mostly to benefit your current eating habits, I should point out). It was very good, and the service was beyond outstanding.

(A note to anyone thinking of going to the Arenal area: If you can afford it, I highly recommend The Springs Resort and Spa, it is truly amazing.)

That night, as we all laid in bed, Uncle Murphy arrived to join us. Along with near-three solid days of torrential rain. It was also the first of three very sleepless nights for me.

Rain, Arenal Paraiso, Alajuela, Costa Rica, 17 July 2008

The next morning, we drove down to the restaurant for dinner. We drove because the rain would have soaked us to the bone, and because Nana would have had trouble walking that far on a rain-slicked road. The buffet was typical Costa Rican, with gallo pinto, fruit (papaya, pineapple, and watermelon), scrambled eggs, and various breads. Mommy, Nana, and I each had two cups of coffee.

The problem was what to do with our day. It was, after all, raining quite a lot. So we decided the only thing to try was do some shopping. We headed into La Fortuna, hitting a woodwork studio, children’s clothing store, two or three souvenir shops, and you and Mommy ran up and down a ramp three times. The rain becoming quite the hindrance, we returned to the car to seek more adventure.

Again with the brilliant planning, I thought we’d search out a German bakery that I’d read about in the Tico Times a few months ago. All I knew was that it was west of Fortuna along the shores of Lake Arenal. Which, in theory, is enough. And based on what I saw on maps, looked to be pretty straight-forward.


Well, one thing Costa Rica maps are notorious for is the lack of detail — notably when the map indicates a straight (or relatively straight) line, but the actual road is weavy and windy, and what should take no more than 30 minutes ends up being an hour-long trip. So about 20 minutes into the trip, we turned around and headed back. (Mommy had a massage appointment at 13:00, and we didn’t want her to miss it.)

Instead, I (again, using my ever-so-powerful intellect) decided that we’d do lunch at the Arenal Lodge, which was just before the road over the dam. The rain kept pouring, and we were traveling up a steep, wet, mossy, and windy road barely three kilometres long that took us about 10 minutes to travel. Thankfully, we have four-wheel drive on our little Suzuki.

Lunch was rather disappointing. The Lodge might be a neat place (it’s VERY out of the way), but the food is something less-than-desirable in my book. (My caesar salad was watery and lacking in flavour, and my ceviche tasted too much like fish and not enough like ceviche.) And it rained. A lot. To the point where when it was time to leave, I went to get the car rather than subject the three of you to walking through it.

While Mommy went to her massage, you and I went to splash around in the pool. It would be the only time you and I would go swimming over the last five days, sadly. I had hoped for much, much more than that. When Mommy returned, we all headed back up to the cabin so you could have a nap.

Mommy got a recommendation for a restaurant downtown in La Fortuna called Don Rufino. From the outside, it’s not the fanciest-looking place — in fact, it looks like every other bar in La Fortuna. But the food … the food! I was beside myself. I ordered a tuna dish that came with jumbo shrimp. Even though there were no vegetables, I was in heaven. (I’d been wanting a tuna for a very long time.) I think the only one who wasn’t over the moon with their dinner was you, Monkey.

It rained all through dinner, all that night, and right into the next morning.

We had thought that it might be fun to take Nana out to the Butterfly Conservatory. Which was a risky venture, given the rain, but there’s very little to do in Arenal that doesn’t involve going outside. The drive involves a 8-9 kilometre-long, very rutted, very pot-holed, very bumpy road. Nana wasn’t particularly thrilled with it. (You almost fell asleep twice.) But once again, Mommy and my “Rain Luck” kicked in, and for the time we were at the Conservatory, it didn’t rain. We even learned a few more things thanks to a couple of volunteers from Seattle who could give us a bit more information we didn’t have last time.

Morpho menelaus (Blue Morpho), Butterfly Conservatory, Arenal, Alajuela, Costa Rica, 17 July 2008

Greta oto (Glasswing), Butterfly Conservatory, Arenal, Alajuela, Costa Rica, 17 July 2008

It was raining by the time we got back to the main road. Mommy and I had booked a zip-line for that afternoon, but somewhere 12:45 became 13:15 (or vice versa) and we ended up missing our trip. It rained all that afternoon. In fact, while you were napping, the rain came down so hard that the gutters overflowed and we literally had waterfalls come off the roof. I became horribly depressed about the weather, missing the zip-line, not being able to do anything else, not being able to sleep, and so forth.

Dinner was at Don Rufino again, not having any other better idea (and I’d ruled out eating at the hotel). It was the bright spot of my day. You didn’t eat at all.

Rain. All night.

MOTHRA!, Arenal Paraiso, Alajuela, Costa Rica, 17 July 2008

The next morning Mommy and I were supposed to go on our re-booked zip-line. But the non-stop rain was putting that to an end, once and for all. Despite being here a year, I have yet to actually zip-line through the canopy. At the rate I’m going, I might never get a chance.

I was so put off by the weekend that I basically forced us to breakfast, so we could check out and leave. I had no desire to spend another minute in the rain. The only stop we made heading out of town was so Nana could get a couple of gifts for those back home.

Had the rain not actually stopped as we’d headed south, I might not have had my coup de grace in bad ideas and passed right by the Fortuna Waterfall. However, with the break, I thought there might be a salvageable moment in the weekend.

Sorry Monkey, your father will never learn.

After you travel up the half-paved, half-bumpy road to the waterfall park’s parking lot, you pay US$10 each, and then walk along “600 metres of well-maintained path” to the observation point. What they do not tell you, in any way, is that the path includes a 100+ metre drop into the canyon, down one of the toughest staircases I’ve ever climbed. Nana (rather wisely) gave up only 1/5 of the way down. Mommy decided that she couldn’t go any futher than about 40 metres down before she stopped — she and you never got to the bottom to see the waterfall up-close. I was there for a mere five minutes before going back up to rejoin you.

Stairs, La Fortuna Waterfall, Alajuela, Costa Rica, 19 July 2008

For the record, you didn’t climb the stairs. We carried you. Why the heck we thought it was a good idea to bring you when Nana was at the top is beyond me. Instead, we lugged 20 kilos of wringling dead-weight up and down wet stairs.

La Fortuna Waterfall, Alajuela, Costa Rica, 19 July 2008

Worst. Idea. Ever. [Ed note: It was also probably what contributed to a hernia diagnosed a year later.]

By the time I got the top again, my heart pounded so hard I could hear it, my chest was heaving, and my knees were so weak I was terrified that they’d give out and I’d drop you. About the only thing I had going for me was my pig-headedness to not giving up. I could barely walk. (Today, my legs are so sore I can barely climb stairs at all.)

The rain started up again as we hit the road south to San Ramón. You fell asleep not long after.

At this point, Mommy took over decision-making, and wisely took us to a place neither you or Nana had been to before — Villa Blanca. Mommy and I had gone there for Mommy’s birthday in January, and she had gone again with her friend Erin back in May. Although it meant an extra 20 minute drive along another windy (but not nearly as bumpy) road, we arrived at a cloud-filled and peaceful place.

For the first time in days, I actually felt good. It was quiet and calm. All I wanted to do was sit on a bench and let the clouds drift over me, taking away all the crappy feelings that had been building up for weeks.

Lunch was, as expected, fantastic. You even ate most of your lunch, and even a little bit of Mommy’s.

The drive home was marked only by the usual retinue of morons on the Pan American who don’t understand the concept of lanes or allowing others to pass freely when you’re driving too slowly. (Mommy was not pleased at my driving, and rightly so.) We got home in one piece.

I tried to make dinner that night — pupusas. They were pretty lousy, unfortunately. There’s gotta be a different technique that I need to learn. You didn’t eat anything, again. I was the only one who actually seemed to eat dinner — either everyone else wasn’t hungry, or my dinner was horrible.

For my last day off before going back to work, we’d decided to try going into San José. But at breakfast, you would barely eat anything you normally like — even toast — and you made it sound like you were having tummy problems. You and Mommy returned home, while Nana and I went into the city.

I took Nana to the Central Market, where I’d last been about a year ago. I wound her through the narrow aisles, through little stalls selling just about everything imaginable (and a few unimaginable), before stopping at the Central Market Café. This is where Jason, Mark, and I had stopped for coffee (I had hot chocolate, not yet having started to drink coffee) while on our tour. Nana and I both bought coffee. I would later buy the torilla press we’d been looking for.

Leaving the market, we went down Avenida Central towards the Plaza de Cultura, where we went to the Gran Hotel for lunch. My poor ceviche at the Arenal Lodge was redeemed by possibly the best ceviche I’ve yet had, while Nana had a fried Cambenbert and strawberry sauce tapas. Spying the dark clouds that suggested rain, we headed into the Museo de Oro for an hour or so.

Museo de Oro, San José, Costa Rica, 20 July 2008

The rain, for once, didn’t come. When we came back out, it was only to walk back to the car and drive back home again.

Mommy and I made pizza for dinner, which was very good. You barely ate your corn on the cob or the pizza (both were favourites), which still worries us greatly.

So ends my birthday vacation. I wish I could say I had a better time, Monkey, but I’ll be honest — spending time with you, Mommy, and Nana were my shining points. Otherwise, it was a pretty lousy time. Had I known the weather would be that bad, I’d have suggested we just stay here at home.

It’s time for me to go to bed (you’ve been asleep for about 2.75 hours already). Hopefully tonight I’ll catch up on some of the sleep I’ve been missing.