Indiana Jones and Volcano
Experiencing a live volcano was on top of our agenda when my friend Rob and I visited exotic land of Costa Rica. The plane touched down in capital city of San Jose, and we headed for car rental to pick up a 4x4 and a map to Mt. Arenal, nearest active volcano.
After an arduous drive through torrential rain, we finally arrived in a quiet village supposedly at foot of a fire-belching monster. I say supposedly because it was so foggy, we weren’t even sure a volcano existed. We couldn’t see a tree a block away, let alone a volcanic mountain looming 5,000 feet above us.
Locals claim if you really listen closely, you can hear beast rumble. We never heard a whimper. By second misty day and night of no sighting, I suspected local population had fabricated story of an erupting volcano in order to attract tourist dollars. A volcano of convenience. No muss, no fuss. Just some imaginary rumbling every so often that only locals hear from a volcano no one ever sees because of rain and fog!
Waiting out rain, we were eating a tasty native dinner of red beans and rice at a colorful local dive when owner of café strolled over to our table. Without invitation, he plopped himself down. Miguel appeared to me exactly as I’ve always imagined don Juan of Carlos Castaneda fame to look. His face was dark and swarthy with a kind but inscrutable expression. Staring straight into our eyes, he declared in halting English, “You want to know volcano, not just look at it.”
Being a veteran traveler, I have learned to be agreeable in a foreign country and, in general, say “yes” to practically everything spoken to me by locals. Not realizing full import of distinction between words Miguel had used, I responded amicably, “Yeah, yeah, of course, we’d like to know volcano.”
Without another word, Miguel turned over my paper place mat and began to draw a crooked line. We watched in silence as he guided pencil over grease-stained paper in absorbed concentration. What emerged was a detailed map of twists and turns with landmarks indicated by little, kid-like pictures of trees, stone walls and tiny shacks to represent a village.
Finished, Miguel sighed and spoke directly into our souls with piercing, green eyes. “This map take you to volcano. To be with volcano—to feel and know spirit of volcano.” Then he laughed softly and cautioned us we would be scared because volcano would definitely erupt when we were there. “But volcano not harm you,” he added hastily. With a wistful look in his face, Miguel shared how he has picnicked at edge of volcano his whole life and towering inferno had never harmed him. His words only mildly consoled me.
The sound of cold, drenching rain woke us at dawn. We still couldn’t see or hear volcano. Since downpour discouraged us from any tourist activity, we decided we may as well get soaking wet following Miguel’s map to wherever it led.
We drove up steep mountainside until rugged jeep road ended abruptly at a craggy cliff. I was very surprised Miguel’s hand-drawn map actually corresponded to what we found on our journey. We followed our friend’s makeshift chart through a hole in a fence, up a circuitous rocky path, over many collapsed lava rock walls and past long-deserted fruit orchards. The trail ended at an imposing 300-foot wall of solid volcanic lava flow so jagged and sharp we couldn’t climb it.
Fortunately for us, Miguel had anticipated this challenge. At edge of lava flow, his map showed a naturally camouflaged trail through dense rainforest. We plunged into dark primeval forest. The jungle growth was so thick with vines and roots, path so muddy and slippery, I felt we’d dropped into a comic scene right out of Harrison Ford movie “Indiana Jones and Raiders of Lost Ark.” During one hilarious moment, Rob and I both lost our footing and, clutching each other, slid back down fifty feet of mudslide trail. Grabbing overhanging vines, Tarzan-style, saved day—and our necks! Our guardian angels must get a lot of overtime pay!
Undaunted and filled with rush of adventure, Rob and I helped each other stand up, pull ourselves together and restart climb. Clawing and scratching our way through rainforest, we finally reached top of lava flow. My first impression was how very windy and cold it was up there for a tropical climate. The pouring rain and dense fog had persisted, obliterating view of anything more than a foot in front of us. As we inched our way along top of volcanic rock, I remembered how Miguel had told us of his many idyllic picnics here with his friends. Not very conducive weather for a picnic on this morning!
Suddenly, a booming roar filled air, followed by a very powerful rumble that reverberated throughout our bodies. We felt Earth roll in one undulating wave after another! Even though Rob and I had never experienced an eruption before, we instinctively knew this was volcano showing its might. The ground continued to heave in unnerving spasms. People-size boulders sped past us down slope. Flying rocks were propelled into nearby trees, sheer force imbedding projectiles cleanly into their trunks. We heard and felt nearby avalanches crashing their way down mountain. We could only see a fraction of devastation because of blinding downpour, but our bodies definitely registered massive rearrangement all around us.
A sharp electric terror shot through every cell of my body. Its message was explicit and commanding, “Leave! Now! You must go now to save your life.”
I shouted to Rob, “We’re out of here! It’s not safe!” To my astonishment, he shook his head from side to side indicating he didn’t want to go.
“I’m staying. This is too cool!” he yelled over roar of wind and falling rock. He was nineteen years old. His sense of novelty and exploration was still stronger than his sense of danger and good judgment. I started to argue. I made zero impression on brash, young daredevil.
Then another explosion rocked our world. I watched in horror as heat, ash and force of blast denuded a huge 200-foot tree in one second, stripping off all its leaves and limbs. If this volcano could do that to a tree, it could do same to us! I knew with certainty I was supposed to leave posthaste.
Jumping off top of lava mound right into rainforest, I bolted without another thought. I threw myself into “Raiders of Lost Ark” express mudslide, riding flowing water and sludge through dense jungle growth down side of still-quaking mountainside. In what seemed like only a few seconds, I arrived at bottom of lava flow. The path was certainly faster and easier going down than climbing up! For a brief moment, I lay soaked to bone, resting in a mud puddle, my ripped clothes covered with brown muck.
Recovering some of my composure, I became aware for first time of heat radiating from lava flow smoldering several feet to my left. I crawled in direction of flow until I was within a few inches of mass. To my surprise, air felt like I had just opened a 400-degree oven. The surface was so hot, I instinctively jumped back a few feet. When we first arrived earlier in morning, extremely cold wind and pelting rain had so neutralized radiant heat from lava, we didn’t even notice temperature.