Friday, April 2, 2010

A Little Known Costa Rican Road—One of the World’s Most Beautiful Drives?

Since that first Model T came off the assembly line a century ago, we’ve sought out scenic drives. Some of the roads we’ve created have become world-famous for their charms and views. There’s the vertigo-inducing route from Nice to Monte Carlo and Maui’s Road to Hana, and hundreds of others—all destinations in and of themselves.

I’d like to nominate an obscure road that’s little known, but offers stunning views, natural charms, and expansive views of a lake, mountains and an active volcano: Costa Rica’s Lake Arenal Road.

Forming a half-loop around a 33-square-mile lake, the beguiling road and pastoral countryside through which it passes are becoming destinations. This in a country that boasts plenty of other flashier attractions such as rain forests, beaches, cloud forests and eco-resorts.

Linking the fabled cloud forest of Monteverde and monolithic Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, the road passes through a few sleepy villages, primeval rain forest, tidy farms, and verdant pastureland.

I first drove the meandering road in 1997, and upon each return—and turn—I find the route to be as scenic and inspiring as I’d remembered. And perhaps it gets even better with each passing year. While there are growing signs of discovery, with larger hotels sprouting on the lake’s southern shore and small housing developments popping up on its northern shore, the lake and the area surrounding it remain sleepy and full of both rustic beauty and cultivated charm.

A growing number of small restaurants and cafés have been built to capitalize on the inspiring, idyllic views and sublime air. Built with terraces overhanging hillsides which plunge toward the lake or open-air second-floors, the restaurants and cafés are difficult to resist. As I pass through I’m driven to stop and sit, sip a beer, coffee or fresh juice.

Arenal sits at 1800 feet which minimizes the tropical heat. And given the nearby mountains and Caribbean trade winds, the air is alive, creating an aerial playground for hawks and eagles and giving motion to stands of massive, emerald trees.

Windsurfers gather at the southwest part of the lake. Far above them on grassy hills, giant windmills generate clean energy for the area. Tree limbs, masses of electric-colored bougainvillea and ginger flowers nod and sway in the constant breeze.

There are no traffic jams, neon or stop signs. The place brings me back to somnolent summer days of childhood, when minutes felt as long as hours and time came close to standing still. Maybe vacations are designed to recapture the somnolence and quietude of those long-ago vacations or perhaps summer afternoons. Days stretch into eternity and there’s always a breeze and birdsong in the mornings.

The air here is sweet and fresh, redolent of the humid rainforest, sun-baked earth and grass. When I drove the road this past February, workers were grooming its shoulder and adding a fragrant whiff of fresh-cut grass to an already heady mélange of scents.

The area around the lake is the sort of place that is dream-like and you don’t even need to squint to visualize it. That's probably a good thing, since squinting and driving on such a curvy, undulating road isn’t exactly safe. And this road, albeit much improved in the past few years, still contains plenty of potholes and gravelly spots, so drive with one eye on the views and the other just beyond your dashboard.

Ideally, you should drive this route in a convertible, but these are hard to come by in a country with roads that sometimes more closely resemble rock-strewn riverbeds than paved highways. At the very least, though, you’ll want to unroll car windows—all the better to enjoy the sights, breezes and smells of one of the most beautiful drives in the world.

For non-luxe accommodations, but killer volcano & lake views & an Eden-like setting, check out the nearby Arenal Observatory Lodge which is a 30-minute drive from the eastern end of Lake Arenal.


Chris McMahon, MSJ on April 3, 2010 at 9:43 AM said...

Thanks for bringing Lake Arenal and that amazing drive back! VJ

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