A 7am start and departure for Volcano Poas national park. It is important to get the early morning weather in order for us to see the Poas crater in its full glory. Volcano Poas National Park is the most visited in Costa Rica; partly because of its proximity to San Jose but also because the walk takes you right to the crater. The volcanoes in Costa Rica form part of the Pacific ring of fire and therefore eruptions and earthquakes are relatively common. As we reach the park gates I can feel my anticipation grow. I love volcanoes and have visited Etna, Vesuvius and Stromboli only to be disappointed as the clouds gathered and the views diminished…will this be different? There is something about volcanoes; the fire, the drama and their iconic shapes, all the subject of childhood imaginings.
Once at the park we head up a paved trail that brings us out high above the crater. Clouds below us form little bubbles of white. We are so lucky, the sky is clear and we have good visibility unheard of for this time of the year. This volcano is a powerful symbol of the geothermal forces that has made Costa Rica. We can see the sulfuric, bubbling, green rain fed lake at the bottom, and the occasional puffs of smoke rising from the fumaroles. Water from the lake is constantly seeping through cracks in the hot rock, evaporating and building pockets of steam. It is really such a remarkable sight and the best volcano I have ever had the privilege to visit. We take lots of pictures and eventually and reluctantly make our way down, allowing others to take our place on the built platforms that overlook this stunning scene. This is a well-oiled tourist attraction.
It is always surprising to me how much agriculture and habitation exists on the fertile slopes. At 2,600 metres, the air is cool and we are above the clouds that hang in layers over the valleys below us. We are now driving through cloud forest and yet, this is not quite how I imagined it to be. The trees are relatively small and there is a lot of vegetation in the understory. Apparently this is due to the high altitude. Below us, the cloud forest trees are taller and are decorated with an array of epiphytes; mostly bromeliads and orchids. A rainforest tree can contain 100 different species of birds, insects, epiphytes and other plants. In the cloud forest this rises to 200 species, 70% of which are flowering plants; 35 of these are orchids. There are an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 species of orchids in Costa Rica, too many to imagine. I later learn that the cloud forest we are seeing today is the result of a dynamic landscape: earthquakes have caused trees to come and go and have resulted in landslides and reduced densities.
Our next stop is a private tourist attraction called the Watergardens which is essentially a zoological park built around the spectacular waterfalls of the Le Paz (Peace) river. The visit begins innocuously with a walk down through the gardens admiring the variety of birds and plants; particularly the hummingbirds attracted by the feeders. Then the captive animal exhibits begin and our hearts drop. The joy of seeing animals in confined spaces has long-since disappeared for our students and indeed for us too. Never keen to see animals behind bars, we contemplate how emotionally fulfilling it is to see them in the wild: the privilege, the spontaneity, the connection one gets with us and other living things; to be in their world. In contrast, a captive animal, no matter how small, represents a life ‘unlived’, a life imprisoned. Some students walk away and can barely look especially at the big cats. I linger for a while at the jaguars cage: smart, majestic creatures, four of them in a tiny enclosure, pacing, staring, snarling, unhappy. I feel in my heart that I need to stop, to acknowledge them, to admire them and to pity them; otherwise their suffering really is for nothing at all.
It is hard to admire this attraction beyond the beauty of the natural setting. They convey the usual nonsense of rehousing, rehabilitation and conservation. Of course this is a ruse to cash in on people’s natural fascination with the animal other: an appalling business that is played out all over the world.
Our final nature experience in Costa Rica is the Le Paz waterfalls. These are incredible blasts of white power which surge off of the mountain amidst the ethereal cloud forest. A green and verdant place where earthquakes have taken out the primary trees but where the forest and its inhabitants survive and adapt to Mother nature’s forces of change. My favourite of the five falls is called ‘white magic’. If you stare at the water for ten seconds and then move your gaze to the green cliffs beside it, the rock face begins to move as your brain tries to reconfigure reality. The air is pure and fresh, mosses and lichens cling to the rocks and flowering trees are abundant with colourful blooms. This is all amid the sound and energy of the falling water: such an uplifting experience.
It is the end of the day and there is nothing left but a trip back down the mountain towards San Jose. As the bus makes its slow progress, I contemplate all that we have seen and experienced. The time has gone so quickly…. Back at the hotel, there are beers and dinner. I sleep well and begin to contemplate the life back home that awaits me.