I pop out of bed with anticipation before the 4:00 am alarm goes off. Emma snores loudly in the room, her 12-year old arms, slightly too long for her changing tween body, are sprawled across the poster bed, her hand resting Lily’s sleeping forehead. Trish is curled up, passed out from yesterdays adventure.
My excitement is because today will be a Creekmore first: hot air ballooning! The skies of Arenal, Costa Rica await us.
But the weather has to be right, so I temper my expectations. The trip two days ago was cancelled because of early morning rains and I was definitely dissapointed. Today is our back up day. If the weather doesn’t work today we will not be able to go, so I’m very anxious.
I am supposed to call the operator, ‘Serendipity Adventures’, at 4:30am, but I ring him early with excitement. “Hi David, he says” with no accent whatsoever, “we’re good to go, see you here at 5:30”. My slumbering family can have 15 more minutes of sleep before we head off in the dark to our balloon adventure.
Man’s first flight
Hot air ballooning is mankind’s original flight technology. (Well, it’s the first successful flight technology to be precise. That guy who made bird-feather wings and jumped off the cliff was brave, but very wrong.) There were several recorded prototypes before history marks the first flight in 1783, France as the first untethered trip.
An anthropologist speculates that the Nazca lines in Peru were designed and viewed by hot air balloon. Ancient balloons would be filled with hot air at the ground level and then rise uncontrolled until eventually they sunk back the ground. The modern era of hot air balloons with on-board heat sources (and therefore controlled flight) began in 1960 with nylon fabrics and propane tanks providing the flame.
The secret Ballon operator of Costa Rica
Serendipity Adventures, is an interesting outfit. They are a one-stop adventure tour company that specializes in private Costa Rica group tours. If I had known about them, I might have used them for more stuff. But they might also be expensive – I don’t know.
Estaban, the owner, is a Tico but a graduate of University of Colorado, (hence the missing accent) and has been running this adventure travel business for a while in Costa Rica. He is an avid balloonist and has flown a thousand trips or more.
He does these balloon flights mostly to pay for his expensive hobby. He doesn’t advertise it much and it’s barely findable on Trip Advisor. In fact, he only offers it through a few local hotels, one of which is Leaves and Lizards.
Liftoff in a giant balloon
As daylight is breaking, we turn off the two lane highway into something that looks like an abandoned resort, except there is a guard at the entrance that opens the gates. There is nothing around us except farmland and a soccer field on which our balloon is being inflated.
Grass is wet with dew, and a mist encircles the few trees around. Estaban says enthusiastically “this is a perfect day for flight! we’ll get it up and ready in about 30 minutes.” The propane tanks hiss and the huge balloon begins to rise from the ground. The basket is about 5 feet x 6 feet, but there is much less room inside because of the four very large propane tanks .
Lily and Emma are jumping. I’m excited too. What’s it like to be in a hot air balloon? He tells us to climb in and within seconds are are free floating, just feet off the ground. I expected more fanfare, maybe a champagne bottle smashed on the side?
But whatever expectations I had are completely forgotten as we ascend and begin to slightly drift in the wind. Costa Rica is beautiful from this low altitude. Smoke and fog eerily mix as a farmer burns off some material and the morning fog is slowly rolling back in the daylight.
There are a few things that immediately come to mind in a hot air balloon. One is the peaceful silence. Although punctuated loudly by the propane tank, you don’t hear anything up there. You are above most of the birds at about a thousand feet, to which we ascend quickly. And because the wind is carrying you with it, there is no resistance to make sound. The kids and I are nearly silent too. It’s calming.
The other is that you are in a wicker basket with three foot sides suspended in the air at a deadly height. It’s dizzying to look over the edge. Trish has fear of heights, but smartly had a few xanax for breakfast. I love the sensation, but I have weird mental fantasies that I have jumped out of the basket. (Does anyone else do that?)
How to fly with no steering
Estaban shows us how he looks lower for winds. He spits. And the spittle can be seen for several hundred feet down. When it veers off in a different direction, he knows there is an air current there. With that information he can (marginally) choose the direction of flight. We are still, however, mostly at the mercy of mother nature.
Most commercial flights are between 1000 and 3000 feet. That’s the best altitude for viewing, and there is still enough oxygen to burn the propane and create lift. Estaban shows how much control he can get with the craft and takes us to the top of a rainforest nearby, perhaps 60 feet above the ground.
It’s amazing to be at the canopy level. Costa Rica is all about ‘canopy’ you hear the word all the time. But this is a view of the canopy you can’t get any other way. We are just a few feet above the monkeys playing in the trees below us! The basket drags across the tops of the canopy. If there were a ripe mango there, we could grab it.
To the skies
“Want to go high?” he says? Lily shouts ‘Yes!’ and he punches the propane for an extended burst of lift in the balloon. The sun is feeling hot now, even though it’s only 9am or so. We’ve traveled almost 40 kilometers since takeoff, but it doesn’t feel like that that far.
Up high the views are awesome. We’re missing only one thing – a view of the majestic volcano. But it barely crosses our minds because each second is a dream on your first hot air balloon flight.
And we start the long slow descent down, enjoying the warmer air as we get closer to another two lane road and farmland. We stop traffic, at least 4 cars and trucks pull over to watch us descend. The touchdown is barely a bump and we hop out, back on green terra.
We’ve landed in a farm broken into chunks of land used to pen cattle. There is a maze of barbed wire and electrified fence gates that we have to navigate pen to pen until we get back to the chase vehicle and road. One of the drivers gets a big shock from the electric fence and his buddies howl with laughter. He’s fine.
But for us it was a lot more than just another day. We’ve done some odd travel vehicles, but the hot air balloon is a favorite. It’s not cheap – almost $1200 for the four of us – easily our single most expensive activity ever. But I would do it again for sure. (Though, at those rates we won’t be making a habit of it.)
And it’s only 9:30am! Back at leaves and Lizards we get some breakfast. Our day and trip aren’t over yet. We have horseback riding to do.
Costa Rican Saddle Horses
Leaves and Lizards is a great place, unusual in several ways and worthy of your strong consideration for a visit to the Arenal area. The lodge is composed of separate house-rooms that are really spectacularly designed. They have huge glass windows that look straight at the Volcano. It’s a working farm, and the food is very wholesome and fresh.
And the landscaping is really great for a small operation. It strikes a good balance between ‘wild’ and manicured. It’s off the beaten path, and in the wet season that could be a disadvantage, but it was fine for us. (We’d strengthen the wifi signals though.)
But one of the highlights of Leaves and Lizards is their stable of fantastic horses. So often you do horseback riding and the horses are skinny and fly-bitten. L&L has at least a dozen horses, maybe more, including several young ones and a newborn.
Several are Costa Rican purebreds, something that is unusual to horse lovers, although we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference ourselves. Trish and I elect to go on them even though they require a little more direction than the standard quarter horses. They are a little more powerful.
Where do you want to go? A waterfall!
We head out for a long day-trip to, you guessed it, a private waterfall. The first few hours are trotting through private farmland on easy trails, giving way to the shaded cloud rain forest and eventually over a brook that feeds the falls.
Dismounting, Emma shrugs frustratedly. Her horse hasn’t been as responsive as she would like. She’s tired too. It’s been a long last day in Costa Rica. A trail winds up over a forested ridge and down some steep inclines, fortified with ‘stairs’. Halfway there is a rope swing using natural vines that hang from 50 feet up the canopy.
At the river, which is more like a creek because it’s dry season, there are very large boulders that need to be scaled before we can get a glimpse of the falls. There are three families with us, the other two of whom just arrived in Costa Rica. 5 or 6 kids scramble the rocks and the balance beam log that has to be crossed to get there.
It’s worth the scrapes to get there, the pool is lit up by the afternoon sun making some parts of the water blue and other turquiose. And there is a nice sized waterfall at the back of the pool, splashing loudly on to a bunch of large rocks right at it’s base. Half of the pool opposite the waterfall is surrounded by rocks on which we perch and eat lunch. The other half is glistening with water, and covered with ferns.
Kids jump in from every edge into the cool water of the pool that’s no deeper than 10 feet at the center. Watching kids an water is so much fun. I still like to jump in the water and play around or relax. But children will swim non-stop till exhausted.
They’ve brought us a lunch, which is a tuna sandwich soggy from the long haul. Trish looks content eating in the peaceful grotto. We’ve had a good trip.
A real gallop.
Trish took some riding lessons when she was a kid and apparently did pretty well until she got thrown off and broke a limb or two. One of the guides quietly offers the two of us to go ahead and do some faster riding. I’ve never really done anything faster than a trot, but I don’t tell them that.
And it doesn’t matter too much. The Costa Ricans are lively but controllable. We do 2-3 minute sprints up the grassy trail with the foal in tow. Horses at high speed hurt to ride, but it is a lot of fun and they are amazing animals. I can see how people fall in love with them.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch
They are preparing dinner for us as we return and we eat quietly in the open dining room. There are newly arrived guests, with that excited new-tourist look,thumbing through travel guides. That was us 11 days ago.
Tomorrow is our 12th and final day of Costa Rica, which has been a blast. Going home won’t be fun, we have a lot of tough things coming up ahead. We’ll get through those and take another trip soon.