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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Arenal Adventures and Jaco Tacos

It seems like all I do lately is sit here at the computer screen checking airfares to the U.S. With summer just around the corner, Layne and I are trying to make plans but the air ticket prices are just ridiculous! (See my latest column for for more on this.) And it’s a moving target. Just when I think I’ve found a reasonable fare on something other than a “red-eye,” the next day the cost has gone up another $25 or more. It’s nuts!

But since this is such a quiet week here in Costa Rica with Semana Santa (Easter Week) closing everything down like a nuclear disaster, it seems a good time to continue my report on our vacation trip with Sue and Christine. After such a wonderful few days at Bahia Rica (see my last post for details), we reluctantly headed for the ferry again on Sunday morning in time for Thomas to pick up the next arriving sport-fishing guests. Once on the Puntarenas side, we taxied to our rental car pick-up spot and headed up the road toward Lake Arenal.
Lake Arenal

Angling northwest from the magnificent and still active Arenal Volcano, the lake is the largest land-locked body of water in Costa Rica, with a surface covering nearly 33 square miles and a depth of some 200 feet. The hydroelectric dam, which tripled the size of the original lake back in 1979, now provides about 12% of the country’s electric energy. The beautiful rolling pastureland and green forests that surround the lake attract a large number of tourists and also provide home to many expats who prefer the area’s cooler temperatures. With dependable winds for much of the year, the lake is a magnet for windsurfers and sailboarders. Because of the popularity of kayaking on the vast waters, we thought we would be able to tackle another paddling adventure during our stay there.

The dramatic facade of Hotel Tilawa
But this was not to be. Our choice of Hotel Tilawa turned out to be a mini-disaster. In working on his novel, Layne had researched hotels in the Arenal area because one of the book’s main characters owns property there. This hotel had come to his attention via the Internet and one of the scenes in the novel takes place there. Photos of the hotel and activities offered on the website made it sound ideal for our three-day stay. Although Hotel Tilawa has an interesting history, features a dramatic Minoan theme and some nice views, the website definitely exaggerated the facilities. Too windy for kayaking, no direct access to the Lake, a spa that needed an hour to warm up and pool cues that lacked tips: these were just some of the challenges we faced. And incredibly, with dozens of rooms on two floors, a large sitting area with a working fireplace, huge swimming pool, organic garden, microbrewery on the premises and more, we were the only guests! The eccentric proprietor J.P., who built the place 18 years ago, and his family live there, along with a few Tico workers but that’s about it. J.P. quickly made it clear that he is tired of running the hotel and his children seem uninterested in taking over from him. No wonder the place has gone to seed. As Sue and Christine, who are budding screenplay writers, described it: Hotel Tilawa was "The Shining" meets "Night of the Iguana" via a minotaur's labyrinth, complete with murals of bare breasted Cretan maidens jumping over bulls!

J.P. is in his early forties, a tall, rangy man  of very strong opinions who displayed a fast-talking, insensitive and cynical nature that I particularly found annoying. Try to ask him a question and before you can finish, he is speeding ahead, talking over you, assuming he knows what you want. His focus seems to be perfecting the recipes for his microbrewery, and by the way, sampling those products frequently throughout the day. Layne and I spent an interesting hour talking with him and his brewmaster after dinner discussing beer-making, politics and the internships advertised on the hotel website. Whereas we had once entertained the idea of applying for one, we soon changed our minds.

Our reservation was for a two-bedroom suite, but that turned out to be unsuitable because there was only one bed in each room and Sue and Christine preferred not to share. J.P. was kind enough to offer us separate rooms at the same price, but when Sue and Christine looked at this second choice, they discovered that the bathroom was infested with small ants. When we mentioned this to J.P., he shrugged and said, “Well, they were here first,” adding, “There are lots of bugs in Costa Rica. Most won’t hurt you.” No offer of a different room despite the fact they were all empty. Go figure.

As cocktail hour arrived, we asked for ice. None was available but J.P.’s wife valiantly stabbed at a frozen chunk in a bowl, reducing it to pieces still somewhat large for a glass. Nevertheless, we managed to mix drinks in our room before coming down for dinner. As the only guests, we were painfully aware of just how much staff was required for only four people. No wonder J.P. seemed happy to see us leave the next day, cutting short our visit.

The morning hike downhill; watch for barbed wire!
The best part of Hotel Tilawa was Gabriel, an altogether pleasant young Tico who works very hard to make guests feel comfortable. Friendly and personable, he built a fire for us and sat chatting enthusiastically about the various tours he could arrange. But by then we were leery about the place so we put off a decision, opting instead for a hike down to the lake the next morning. After searching around for the trail, we headed down the steep and densely wooded hill, crawling through barbed wire fences, only to discover there was no access to the lake. ICE, the electricity company that owns Lake Arenal, has fenced around it. J.P. had neglected to mention that when we got to the road, we should turn right to reach an entrance. No wonder Hotel Tilawa’s former popularity with windsurfers has dwindled to nothing.

Needless to say, the hike was aborted and Sue and I headed quickly back uphill to check out, get the car and return to pick up Layne and Christine. Halfway up the slope, huffing and puffing, we realized the other two had our room keys and Layne had the car key! But those difficulties were short-lived and with apologies to J.P. (who actually seemed relieved), we were soon off in our rental car, heading for the beach. Onward to Jaco, where we always have a good time. This trip was no exception. 

Pool and courtyard at the Flamboyant Hotel

"Flamboyant" Orchids

Sisters Sue and Christine on their balcony
We discovered a new hotel, the Flamboyant, located right on the beach, with lovely gardens, a great pool and a guarded parking lot. With a friendly and courteous staff, the Flamoyant is our new favorite. We also found a cool taco bar nearby, cleverly named Taco Bar, with fabulous fish tacos and a great breakfast. After two comfortable nights at the Flamboyant, a couple of delicious seafood dinners and hours lounging by the pool, we were ready for the trip back to Atenas.

Dinner out in Jaco

Jaco Surfer

Sunset at Jaco Beach

 Unfortunately, the second morning in Jaco, Layne awoke with a sore throat, which developed into a major sinus infection and put him out of commission. Within days, I was also a bit under the weather as well. That turn of events meant that Sue and Christine spent the last few days of their visit off in San Jose without us. But at least they were able to enjoy several excellent tours of cool tourist spots and museums that they had hoped to visit. All in all, it was a fun trip with good friends.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this post and your photos with us Kat! You have me so excited to go to Jaco beach with my wife next month. I'm definitely going to share this with her also because I know she's going to love. I'm also going to make sure to try Jaco tacos when we go, thank you again for sharing!