Against all advice we arrived at night. We’d been driving for 2 hours in the dark through something like Jurassic Park. An impenetrable wall of vegetation lined both sides of the narrow, winding road. Lame T-Rex jokes were hilarious. Every fallen log looked like a big lizard.
At irregular intervals the pavement ended without warning. The road became a rutted gravel track. After a while, the track changed just as suddenly back to profoundly potholed pavement. It was as if the Pavement Fairy had flown over and dropped loads of precious black-top at random intervals along the way.
The road was more or less two cars wide except at all the bridges. The bridges were slightly more than one car wide. For the last half hour our aging RAV 4 crawled along in either first or second gear over a dirt road that in the U.S. would have ended at a pile of rusting refrigerators. Here it ended at a luxury resort built at the base of the very active Arenal Volcano, in the Central Highlands of Costa Rica.
Having arrived in the dark we missed the scenery on the way in. Everyone in the car was so intent on not leaving the road or having something from beside the road eat us alive that it was as though we had come in through a leafy tunnel. When the sun rose it was behind a stunning pile of ashes that towered thousands of feet above the hotel. Looking up open-mouthed at the top I had conflicting urges to run away as fast as I could and to climb to the top of it immediately.
We had managed to arrive on one of the few days when clouds and smoke didn’t obscure the top of the volcano. The smoking cone stunned us into silence. It was hard to take your eyes off it. There were no TV’s in the rooms. Chairs faced the windows that faced the smoldering mountain.
On a hike to a nearby waterfall we heard our first tremendous roar. We thought we were hearing jets. The sound was like a squadron of F-15’s blowing by on full afterburner. But Costa Rica doesn’t have an air force and the airport is 100 miles away. It’s the noise the mountain makes.
At night glowing cinders the size of Hummers cascade down from the top of the cone. They come apart as they roll down breaking into a burning, smoking, glowing cascade of lava, ashes and fire. The lava spreads like glowing sweet sauce on an ice cream sundae. Walt Disney himself couldn’t have gotten the permits to build this thing.
Arenal has been active since 1968. As volcanoes go, it’s not particularly dangerous. The BATF has killed more people than Arenal has. Drunk drivers are statistically way more dangerous. Never the less, there’s something about close proximity to potential natural catastrophe that sharpens the senses. And, like life in the path of monster hurricanes in South Florida, there seems to be something about it that makes the land particularly desirable.
The volcano sits at one end of a huge lake. We drove some 20 miles down the north shore of that lake the next day. The roads are so bad it took over an hour to cover the distance. I expected sleepy villages, dusty farms and tiny fruterias, but what we found was a development frenzy in full cry. The volcano was the only patch of ground in the area not sporting a FOR SALE sign.
Why didn’t we think of this for Iraq? We don’t need tanks and planes. For the money we’re spending we could have just bought the place. In the first town we came to you could speak English in any store or restaurant. Menus were in English. Prices were in dollars and about as many of them as you would expect in Florida. Every local had a friend with some land for sale.
Elsewhere I’ve been so far in Costa Rica there is evidence of a migrating U.S. real estate bubble, but here on the shore of Lake Arenal, the evidence is overwhelming. The similarities between this and South Florida in 2004 are striking. Prices have increased over 40% a year for the last two years. People with perfectly good jobs are quitting them to sell real estate. Buyers, almost entirely American, are in a frenzy to buy something, often anything, often sight unseen because prices will only be higher next year. And even with recent price jumps, land is cheap by American standards, and gorgeous by any standard.
Will it end any time soon? I surely don’t know. The participants, like participants in all bubbles don’t think it ever will. There is little borrowed money involved. Or at least the money isn’t borrowed locally. Financing here is expensive when it can be had at all.
There is no evidence of speculation by those who can’t afford to speculate. The gardeners, waiters and house keepers are not buying spec houses yet.
But even with the differences I had an uncomfortable feeling that I had been someplace like this before. We headed back the next day to the suburbs of San Jose, eager to put a little distance between us and looming cataclysm, volcanic and otherwise. I had a powerful urge to get back to where I have trouble reading the signs and communication is an elaborate game of charades.