The Towering Inferno

Guanacaste’s Dry Season came fast and sudden, like someone switched off the water overnight. It’s gotten hotter and dustier. Plants have already started to shrivel and the bugs have started to die. The pattern extends throughout the relatively flat and homogeneous region. So I was all the more surprised when a brief, 45-minute drive took us to a familiar and dramatically different environment: Cloud Forest. Courtesy of our small, hometown resident volcano Miravalles.

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Behold.

Miravalles sits to our Northeast, looming over the plains in an aura of clouds, swatting down cold fronts like bothersome flies. Its position and elevation create a localized rainshadow effect, with wet air from the Caribbean caught against its steep slopes and forced to stay put, depositing their vapor in gentle mists. The mountain thus stays green all year, and constantly feeds the surrounding parched land with rivers like a greedy despot.

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Ahh…about those rivers.

The volcano itself, I am told, is inactive. That is, there’s been no activity from the caldera at the summit, which blew itself up along with the upper third of the mountain in some forgotten cataclysmic age. But the surrounding area, from the foothills to the slopes, is a hot zone for thermal vents, with sulfurous water boiling straight from the ground in several places.

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This place is in no way fucking around. Non-Spanish-speakers, here’s a hint: it doesn’t say “WET FLOOR.”

It’s a pretty dramatic area. Ever since Guatemala, it’s been obvious to me how volcanoes lend themselves to nature worship. It’s a literal expression of greater forces beneath our feet, movements of the very bowels of the Earth, unstoppable and endless fonts of heat and energy. I stood by a hole that gurgled and spat diabolical-smelling mud and realized that no amount of human ingenuity would be able to produce the kind of energy that powered this tiny suppurating mudhole. That’s humbling.

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“Look upon my works, ye mighty…”

But it gets better. See, last year Costa Rica suffered one of its worst hurricanes of the century: Tropical Storm Otto. The Eye passed right over Guanacaste, and the rainfall against Miravalles was tremendous. The leached, rocky soil–precariously placed after decades of gentle misting–collapsed into landslides and floods. One scree pile took down an entire swath of forest and landed in a river, causing a freshwater tsunami of a flashflood that continued down into nearby towns below. A local family I spoke to during the visit described a wave of water, silt, and debris 5 meters high that tore a brand new riverbed into their backyard. They were lucky to keep their house.

The scars of the storm are still visible in the forest, with boulders resting out of place amidst trees and trees resting among boulders. Raw rock, unstained and freshly carved, still screams of the force of the storm and its floodwaters. Concrete fragments and twisted rebar testify to the puny attempts of humans who dare to build upon this mountain. A mountain that bleeds heat and shits flashfloods. This is where a natural disaster combined with another natural disaster. Where a volcano mated with a storm. This is where nature said to humanity, “I see your global warming, and I raise you one Apocalypse.”

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We’re not worthy.

Sorry. That got a little out of hand. But you see what I mean? How can you not stand in awe of this kind of thing? Plus, the small, isolated spot supports a beautiful ecosystem, made all the more precious by its fragility in the face of such destruction.

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It also helps that some of the flowers look like alien pineapples.

Back in the Dry Forest in early Dry Season, I can still see Miravalles in the distance, peeking out from its cloudy shroud. I look with reverence and respect. And also wariness. You never can know what the mountain has in store.

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