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Costa Rica’s largest lake is 33 km / 20 miles long. !!

What a woman says to her ardent lover should be written in wind and running water. ~ Caius Valerius Catullus, Roman poet, 87-54 B.C.

If you weren’t impressed by – or couldn’t see – the volcano, take a ride around Lake Arenal, Costa Rica’s largest lake at 33 km/20 miles long. If nothing else, the size of the potholes in many parts of the road should impress (or depress, depending on your driving skills). The view of the countryside is wonderful.

Tectonic upheavals created Lake Arenal about three million years ago and it provided fresh fish for ancient Guatusu inhabitants of its shore. In 1973 an electrical energy dam raised the lake level and drowned the old villages of Arenal and Tronado. Arenal rebuilt on higher ground as Nuevo Arenal, but lost to the water was archeological evidence of pre-historic habitation, including a native burial ground. The eastern edge of the lake has an incredible view of the volcano, although that side no longer features the lava flow.

As you drive west you pass dairy farms, secondary forests and the occasional habitation. The lake’s water is warm and fine for swimming, but the most popular sports around are sailing, windsurfing and fishing for guapote (bass), who put up a fierce fight. Due to the lake’s alignment and climate, it’s famous for warm winds that whip across its western end – at 60 or more knots, especially from December to February.

Outside of Tilarán you’ll come to huge white windmills rotating with a steady hum on the hills above the lake. Be Don Quixote and chase windmills by turning up one of the dirt roads that rise to the huge metal dragons.

The first stop along the lake circuit should be Los Heroes a restaurant, gift-shop, hotel and dairy farm right out of The Sound of Music. The owners, a Swiss husband and Tica wife, offer small rooms and a mixed menu at their huge Swiss chalet.

Imported embryos from Alpine bovines makes even the family’s dairy herd Swiss. They’re working on a fascinating narrow gauge diesel train (imported from Switzerland, of course) that will take visitors up the mountainside to the cloud forest above their farm, or carry a wedding party from their small chapel.

Arenal Botanical Gardens (www.exoticseeds.com, . 506-6944305) was founded in 1991 by Michael LeMay as a “plant reserve and nature library.” This lush, lovely hillside garden also contains a butterfly farm. Open 9-5 daily, admissions about US $8.Worth a peaceful and quiet visit.

Toad Hall, a famous store that offers a great variety of local and national handicrafts, is located in the tiny town of La Unión. It has a pleasing vegetarian/health food restaurant overlooking the lake. Alternately, drive two km/1.25 miles farther to the artistic Restaurante Sabor Italiano, a pizzeria run by a real Italian family.

THE TREE OF LIFE : Ceiba trees were considered holy in the Maya-influenced pre- Columbian civilizations such as the local Guatusu. They are called the “tree of life.” Their roots lead to the underworld; their trunk is the world in which we live. The tree’s spreading branches hold up the sky, home of the gods.

The quaint but prosperous town of Nuevo Arenal replaced the original town that was flooded in the late 1970s. On the main drag is Tom’s Pan, a German bakery. At last, from here to Tilarán the road improves. Good eats can be found at Willy’s Caballo Negro, three km/1.9 miles west, where vegetarian and European cooking are served side by side. If you follow the signs inland of Nuevo Arenal to Cote Lake you’ll come to Lake Coter Eco-Lodge an inviting little eco-adventure lodge with a canopy slide and environmental programs for eco-tourists.

The Rock River Lodge advertises the “Best Mountain Biking in Costa Rica.” But we know it best for its popularity as a windsurfing outfitter. The restaurant-bar has a welcoming fireplace for cool or rainy evenings. The Mystica Resort, Bar & Pizza (. 506/382-1499, mystica@aol.com) never had Julia Roberts stay there (Mystic Pizza, her first movie... get it?) but does offer wood oven pizza in the restaurant. Their pretty ranch-style cabins have spacious rooms with porches entwined by flowers. Click here for more Hotels


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