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Going Places: Tales from the road: Postcards from Central America

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By Jim Gould

June 30: La Fortuna De San Carlos in the "Zona Norte"

Before we leave Quepos, Tanner and I walk the beachfront in town, just a few kilometers from the national park. A band of plastic jugs, soda bottles, and driftwood--six inches deep and six feet wide--marks the high-tide line. Instead of seagulls and terns, dozens of vultures fight over something thankfully unidentifiable. On the water in front of us, a thin splash of diesel rainbows blue and gold. No one else is on the beach. Just the crazy gringos, partaking of the open-sewer tourism.

That afternoon, seven hours of bus abuse inland and north. The changing G-forces in this roller-coaster of babies, school kids, and farmers would prove that even Chuck Yeager didn't have the right stuff for a Tico bus. The conductor charges 20 colones apiece for plastic barf bags, and the locals fill them and chuck them out the windows at cruising speed. The tall, wet-season grass in the ditch swallows them whole.

La Fortuna di San Carlos is our destination. The fortune for the farmers in this high plateau ranch land is eco-tourism. Specifically Arenal Volcano. An accident of nature or an act of God, no matter; the farmers don't split hairs. They make hay while the lava flows. And it is flowing. Our first ten minutes in town, there is a thunderous explosion, the ground shakes, and a dark mushroom plume climbs to the white clouds ringing the volcano top. From the soccer field--the green at the center of this village of 3,000--the volcano rises some 5,000 feet, only three miles distant. It feels so close. Too close. Back in 1968, 62 people melted in Arenal's lava and gasses. Authorities suspect another killer eruption soon. Every half-hour or so, the volcano's loud boom and rumble sends our eyes skyward. No locals--not one--look up.

Mauricio and Randall, two locals who call themselves "autentico" Costa Rican guides, talk us into taking a ride to the western slope of the volcano, for a nighttime viewing of the lava flow and a swim in a hot springs. We join Canadian and Finnish couples and three 19-year-old American girls.

With everyone carrying flashlights, Mauricio finds a hot-springs pool in the jungle, and we strip and soak. Steam mists off the pool, backlit by a full moon. Mauricio and Randall are charming, answering everyone's questions about the volcano and the jungle. Lots of jokes about the American girls' tattoos. The one from Florida has a diamond design that rings her torso. After another booming eruption, Tanner swears she can hear the plok-plok of lava debris hitting the forest canopy. The lava flow glows orange against the increasingly cloudy night sky.

Mauricio and Randall tell us about a 100-foot waterfall on the Rio Fortuna. We decline their services, becoming independistas. A 12-kilometer hike through cattle pastures and fields of ginger, cassava, manioc, maize, and chiles. A climb to the pool at the bottom of the falls. A bridal plume pouring out of columnar basalt--stacked columns of black lava. We skinny-dip until the afternoon rains chase us home.

The next afternoon, on the road to Monteverde, we learn some news from a licensed Costa Rican guide about our volcano guides in Fortuna. Randall has been arrested several times for stealing from tourists. And Mauricio was just released three weeks ago for an attempted rape and beating of an American.

Tanner suggests we return to Fortuna and make Randall and Mauricio eco-tourism sacrifices to the volcano gods. I agree.

Next: My eco-tourism "To Do" list

Other info on travel in Central America

Notes of an accidental eco-tourist
Postcards from Central America. Our correspondent
rambles in search of answers to the eco-tourism myth.

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