Wednesday 6 December 2023

I Saw The Arenal Explode!

An eye-witness account from a 9-year-old boy of the sudden awakening of the "cerro" 50 years ago today

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That morning, on July 29, 1968, the was nothing unusual. At least that’s how it seemed, writes Víctor Hugo Murillo relating his story in La Nacion’s Revista Dominical of the morning that the Volcan Arenal awoke after a prolonged “siesta”.

One of the eruptions of the Arenal volcano, which was reactivated on July 29, 1968 after a prolonged “siesta”

My mom, my dad and I were in the wide corridor of the grocery store talking, I do not remember what. It was a little past 7:30 in the morning.

– How strange, Carlos, you see how suddenly the day is getting very dark, said Mommy.

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– Look, it’s true, and the wood trembles and the gate rattles, added Daddy.

– Is it that the Arenal exploded?, she expressed.

– Ah, woman, only you can think of it. The Arenal?

In addition, there was a hoarse, prolonged noise, similar to the turbine of a jet … that did not advance. It came from something that was stopped.

My mom did not stay still. He entered the grocery store that my father and a brother owned and went to the ‘manigueta’ telephone used to send and receive telegrams to and from nearby towns such as Arenal, Tronadora, El Silencio and, a little further on, Tilarán.

The material spewed by the Arenal volcano, in July of 1968, devastated a radius of 15 square kilometers and killed almost 90 people.

We lived in Venado, a small peasant town, owners of farms and laborers, where the main  -and only- economic activity was a milk farm. It was attached to the canton of Grecia; today it is part of San Carlos.

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The horse was the “car”. The only way to leave quickly was by plane to Ciudad Quesada, Arenal (now submerged under the homonymous lake) or Cañas. On the back of a beast, it was possible to reach Arenal to take a car to Tilarán.

– Carlos, come, believe it, manifested, challenging and with victorious air, my mother, Maravelí. The Arenal is erupting!

Papi (daddy) had no choice but to surrender to the evidence: messages of help, stories of what was happening, dismay and confusion saturated the phone.

Pueblo Nuevo and Tabacón, the two towns closest to the Arenal volcano, were swept away by the fury of the eruptions.

I, 9 years old, the first thing I thought was my satisfaction that on Monday, July 29, 1968, I would not have to go to classes (school) in the afternoon to the bidocente (two teacher) school in Entre Ríos. But it was not only that day because the rest of the week the Arenal continued to demonstrate, with all its fury, that it was a volcano.

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Ah, because although in the school books and on maps it was identified as Arenal volcano, among those who lived in its surroundings it was simply the “cerro” (mountain). Sometimes, when someone called it a volcano, they exposed themselves to mockery.

Angry neighbor

For us, the Arenal was a neighbor. From a window in the kitchen of my house, you could see its perfect cone, sometimes completely when there was no cloud over it.

To me, always with a fever for Social Studies, it was hard to believe that this colossus was now demonstrating strength and destructive power. Just seven months before, in December of 1967, accompanying my mother on a mission from “Niño Dios” to Ciudad Quesada, I had seen it: imposing, beautiful and totally green, from the window of the Cessna that Antonio Toño Espinoza piloted. How to imagine that beneath such beauty was hiding such a powerful volcano!

The Arenal Volcano seen from La Fortuna, San Carlos, in 1966. Brian Castillo

In a matter of minutes, that Monday, the day gave way to the “night”. Everything was disrupted: the work in the field was paralyzed, the chickens looked for the chicken coop and Simbo, my uncle Fabio’s dog, was afraid, like many in Venado.

In my community, where the two teachers were the most educated, understanding what was going on was not easy. Many feared that Venado could be hit by the ashes, sand and fire that we witnessed, helpless, incredulous and ecstatic. Needless to say, it was not holy that they did not come down from heaven.

But no. We were privileged. Because of its position on the colossus, approximately 12 kilometers to the north, in a straight line, we were safe. The Arenal exploded on the west side, opening a crater where it began to spew pyroclastic material and lava. The wind carried the ash and sand to Arenal, Tronadora, Mata de Caña, Tilarán, Cañas and Liberia, and even to the Gulf of Nicoya.

Apart from the surprise of that very different that Monday, I keep another very special memory: on Tuesday, July 30, after one o’clock in the afternoon, another black mushroom from Arenal began to rise again. Again “night”, again fear and expectation.

But what happened that afternoon, according to my childhood memory, was… (caramba, I find it hard to find a suitable adjective) Brutal!, let’s say. As if what was done by the “cerro” the day before had not been enough to boast its power, what I witnessed that day leads me to affirm that I have never seen a demonstration of so much force of nature.

Lava expelled by the Arenal volcano.

The blackish cloud was illuminated by red-hot fire and the sparks of possible collisions between the igneous rocks. The earth trembled and the noise was deafening. The “show” lasted something like six hours.

The next few days, our neighbor continued to sulk, but little by little it’s tantrum moderated.

The Arenal changed the appearance in a radius of 15 square kilometers. Pueblo Nuevo and Tabacón, the two small towns closest, received a full discharge and disappeared from the map, literally.

A few years later, the construction of the Arenal hydroelectric project(that included the creation of the Lake Arenal) finished modifying the landscape.

In a matter of a decade, much of what we had known was no longer the same.

Source: La Nacion

Arenal Volcano (Spanish: Volcán Arenal) is an active andesitic stratovolcano in north-western Costa Rica around 90 km northwest of San José – a 2.5 hours drive, in the province of Alajuela, canton of San Carlos, and district of La Fortuna.

The Arenal volcano measures at least 1,633 metres (5,358 ft) high. It is conically shaped with a crater 140 metres (460 ft) in diameter. Geologically, Arenal is considered a young volcano and it is estimated to be less than 7,500 years old.  It is also known as “Pan de Azúcar”, “Canaste“, “Volcan Costa Rica”, “Volcan Río Frío” or “Guatusos Peak”.

The volcano was dormant for hundreds of years and exhibited a single crater at its summit, with minor fumaroles activity, covered by dense vegetation. In 1968 it erupted unexpectedly. Due to the eruption three more craters were created on the western flanks but only one of them still exists today. Since 2010, Arenal has been dormant

See also List of volcanoes in Central America.

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