November 15, 2010

Beware the Jungle Raccoon

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Arenal volcano, viewed from just outside the room where I stayed at the Observatory Lodge

I just returned from a whirlwind, but wonderful, trip to beautiful Costa Rica. Two of my very good friends were married on Saturday at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, which is located within Arenal National Park and is the closest you can sleep (safely, anyway) next to the active Arenal Volcano. The lodge is less than 2 miles from the active volcano, but is relatively well-protected because the property is separated from the volcano by a deep gorge carved by the Agua Caliente River.

 The lodge originally opened in 1987 as a volcano observatory for the Smithsonian Institution. Researchers from the Smithsonian and elsewhere still use the lodge to study the volcano and the surrounding landscape. However, in recent years the lodge has expanded and has also become a tourist destination. Today, anyone can rent a simple, but elegant, room with a view of Arenal Volcano. I highly recommend the lodge to anyone who wants to see Arenal and spend some time in the park. The rooms are no-frills and the paper-thin walls allow you to hear your neighbors’ conversations, but the rooms are very spacious and cozy. By volcano observing standards, the rooms are actually quite posh: there’s hot running water, screens to keep out the bugs (and coatis), and the staff even make towel swans. Most rooms have fabulous views of the volcano, and the walls are adorned with photos of the erupting volcano.

Towel swan!

The grounds consist of beautiful gardens full of tropical flowers and trees. There are at least two Indiana Jones style hanging bridges (one near the reception, another off in the jungle) on the grounds– very fun! There is also a spectacular cobalt blue pool and hot tub. Sitting in the hot tub with a view of Arenal is pretty much an ideal way to relax for a geologist. Unfortunately (fortunately?), the volcano has been very quiet recently. When I visited Arenal in 2008, the top of the volcano glowed nightly with the eruptions. Even when quiet, Arenal volcano still provides an impressive sight. The barren top of the volcano resembles an extraterrestrial landscape (Mars, perhaps?), especially in contrast to the enveloping dense, green jungle.

View from the hot tub at the Observatory Lodge. The mountain in the background is Arenal volcano.
A closer view of the top of Arenal Volcano.

The lodge has a restaurant located near the reception area. The meals are pricey by Costa Rican standards, but the food is excellent and the portions generous. I recommend talapia and wine for dinner and the tuna fish sandwich with an Imperial beer for lunch. Breakfast is a buffet and is included in the price of the room. The service in the restaurant is excellent. The waiters- indeed all the staff- are genuinely friendly, enthusiastic, and very proud of their country, language, volcano, and- of course- the lodge.

There is a balcony outside the restaurant from which visitors can view the volcano and also some of the local wildlife, which is attracted by fruit placed out by the staff. We saw many types of birds, including an impressive species of bird (I forget the name… I will try to look it up, but there are so many types of birds in Costa Rica!) where the males are much bigger than the females. Thus, it is not uncommon to see a small female feeding her much larger male baby (see the photo and movie below). We also saw several coatis, which we called “tropical raccoons” or “jungle raccoons” until we figured out their proper name. I will return to the troublesome coati in a little while… 

Arenal animals, viewed from the restaurant porch.
A little mother bird feeds her giant son.

A coati… on its way to the old lava flow?

 As I was busy helping my friends prepare for their wedding, I didn’t have too much time for hiking and exploring the grounds. However, every morning the lodge offers a free guided hike. You can hire guides for other hikes, or you can explore parts of the property on your own. The day before the wedding, we did manage to make a short hike to a beautiful waterfall.

Waterfall on the grounds of the Observatory Lodge.

 The lodge is located several kilometers away from the ultra-touristy but charming town of La Fortuna. In La Fortuna the shops, cafes, and tour businesses generally have “lava,” “volcano,” or “gecko” in their name… such as the “Lava Lounge Bar & Grill.” The town is a mix of hippie souvenir shops, adventure tour businesses, restaurants, and a few other buildings such as a beautiful church with an adjacent park. In La Fortuna there are also several spas and resorts with hot pools, which are, of course, volcano-heated. To reach the lodge, you must travel 10 kilometers or so along a bumpy dirt road. I do not recommend doing so when you really have to use the bathroom. About a kilometer along the road, I made my friends pull over the 4×4, and I watered the vegetation adjacent to the road.

The lodge made a breathtaking wedding venue for my friends. The groom is a geologist and the bride is an engineer and oceanographer, but she has many geologist friends who drag her along on all sorts of geology-themed trips. The small wedding went perfectly… except for the troublesome coati.

The coati looks adorable. I mean… what could be more adorable than this:

An adorable coati on the restaurant porch.

Or this:

An adorable (and fearless) coati on a walking path.

Beware, though! Although the coati has a long nose and long tail that distinguish it from its equally-cute cousin, the North American raccoon, the coati is really just a tropical raccoon. The coati is just as pesky as the North American raccoon, which I most often encounter eating trash. I think I saw more raccoons (usually in alleys eating trash) during the two years I lived in Boston than I did during my childhood in rural New Hampshire. Or perhaps I just saw the same urban raccoons repeatedly. In any case, there is no doubt that the raccoon is a pest… the coati is just a more exotic version of the cute raccoon pest.

For example, we encountered a “wild” coati eating pizza outside our hotel room. A not-very-smart tourist had left a box of half-eaten pizza outside his hotel room, along with a few beer bottles. The coati helped himself (or herself?) to a slice of pizza then returned for a second slice, walking just a foot or so from us as we watched with surprise and laughter. Somehow, I don’t think that pizza is part of the natural diet of a coati. At least the pizza was hawaiian… perhaps the pineapple is good for the coati. Although, come to think of it, all of the coatis we saw on the lodge grounds did look somewhat plump.

A coati eating a slice of pizza.

You definitely shouldn’t leave your lunch unguarded around a coati. I think the coatis around the lodge often make off with a granola bar or piece of fruit or part of a tourist’s sandwich. We expected the coatis to make off with our food, and so we kept a close eye on it. However, we did not expect the coatis to make off with other items. Following the wedding, we took pictures all over the lodge grounds… a gorgeous place for pictures! The groom’s mother set down her point-and-shoot camera on the deck outside the restaurant while she went to join family for a picture in front of Arenal volcano.

As the family posed for the picture, a coati boldly picked up the point-and-shoot camera in its mouth. The groom’s father noticed and started chasing the coati. The coati took off into the jungle, followed by the groom’s father and a few members of the hotel staff. Although several people searched, the camera was not recovered. In retrospect, perhaps a better strategy would have been to offer food to the coati… perhaps it would have exchanged the camera for a better snack. There are many other pictures from the wedding, but the groom’s mother was quite sad about losing her own photos. Perhaps someone will recover the camera so that we can obtain the memory card, but in such thick jungle that is unlikely. At least the camera-stealing coati provided a fun wedding story! As if being married next to a volcano wasn’t already a good enough story!

To my wonderful friends who were married, your wedding was beautiful. I cannot imagine a better venue for you! Thank you so much for inviting me. I wish you many years of happiness and many adventures, perhaps even a few more involving troublesome jungle raccoons.

An addition: I just received some breaking news from the groom’s sister. The stolen camera has been recovered!

Here is her message:
Ah, but you didn’t get to hear the conclusion of the camera robbery! My dad went out into the woods the next day, guided by two workers, and they found it!! The case was covered in bite marks, but the camera was just fine. :)”