Costa Rica's most active volcano looms over the landscape (photo, right). Night is the best time to see it in action. On a clear evening you can see rocks spewing skyward and molten lava rolling down its side.
Vulcanologists estimate Arenal's age at around 4,000 years. It lay dormant for at least 400 years until 1968. It may be local folklore, but Ticos that homesteaded this area in the 1930s and 40s referred to Arenal as "the mountain" and apparently, despite its conical shape, did not realize it was a volcano. On July 29, 1968, an earthquake shook the area, and 12 hours later Arenal blew. The village of Arenal, to the west, bore the brunt of the shock waves, poisonous gases, and falling rocks.
At least 100 people were killed in three days. Since then, Arenal has been in a constant state of activity -- eruptions, accompanied by thunderous rumbling sounds, are sometimes as frequent as one per hour. An enormous eruption in 1998 put the fear back into the locals, though there were no casualties. Nevertheless, it resulted in the closure of Route 42 and the evacuation of several nearby hotels.
The volcano is within 30,000-acre Arenal Volcano National Park, one of Costa Rica's largest parks and most popular destinations. Also in the park are Lake Arenal, the country's most important source of hydroelectric power, and Cerro Chato, an extinct volcano. Cerro Chato's collapsed crater, now an aquamarine lake, can be reached if you're up to a vigorous and steep four-hour hike. Remember that you should never hike beyond the warning signs, even if the volcano appears to be calm. Toxic hot gases are released by even small eruptions, and they move faster than you can.
Getting Here: Turnoff to ranger station is 3.5 miles east of Lake Arenal, and 2.5 miles west of Tabacon. 695-5180. Park is open daily 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. and at night with authorized guides and groups.
Jacamar Naturalist Tours
Rooms With a View:
Some or all rooms at the following La Fortuna?area hotels have views of the volcano.
* Tabacon Hot Springs & Resort
* Arenal Lodge
* Arenal Observatory Lodge
* Arenal Country Inn
* Hotel Las Cabanitas Resort
* Montana de Fuego
* Tilajari Hotel Resort
* Volcano Lodge
* Cabinas Los Guayabos
* Hotel San Bosco
* Lake Coter Eco-Lodge
* Lomas del Volcan
* Luigi's Lodge
Tabacon Hot Springs
Where else can you lounge in a natural hot-springs waterfall with a volcano spitting fireballs overhead? Tabacon Hot Springs (photo,right) is a busy day spa and hotel with gardens, waterfalls, hot mineral-water soaking streams, swimming pools, swim-up bars, and restaurants. The best deal is the $45 zip-line canopy tour, which includes access to the waters. Make spa-treatment appointments at least one day in advance. A shuttle can bring you from central La Fortuna. 13 km/8 miles northwest of La Fortuna. www.tabacon.com. Day pass $29, package with lunch and dinner $45, 45-min massage $55. Daily noon to 10.
More economical and less crowded, Baldi Termae has 10 hot-springs-fed pools that vary in temperature and share views of Volcan Arenal. It has a swim-up bar, too. 4 km/ 2 1⁄2 miles west of La Fortuna. 479 - 9651. $12. Daily 10 - 10.
Towering to the north of Alajuela, the verdant mass of this might volcano is covered with a quilt of farms and topped by a dark green shawl of cloud forest. A paved road leads all the way from Alajuela to its 8,800-foot summit, winding past coffee fields, patches of forest, pastures, fern farms, and increasingly spectacular views of the Central Valley.
Most of the volcano's southern slope is covered with coffee, but the higher altitudes, which are too cold for that crop, hold screened-in fern and flower farms, neat rows of strawberries, and the light green pastures of dairy farms. Only the volcano's upper slopes and summit are still covered with cloud forest, which stretches northward toward Cerro Congo and east toward Volcan Barva.
The road bifurcates at Poasito, not far from the summit, where the route to the left leads to the national park, and the one to the right heads toward the intersection of Vara Blanca. At Vara Blanca, you can turn left for the Waterfall Gardens and Northern Zone, or continue straight to wind your way down the slopes of Volcan Barva to Heredia.
Within Poas Volcano National Park, a paved road leads from the visitor center to the edge of the active crater. The crater is nearly 1 mile across and 1,000 feet deep, making it one of the largest craters in the world. No one is allowed to venture into the crater or to walk along its edge.
Note that the volcano is a popular spot and gets quite crowded, especially on Sundays. It's not the place to go to commune with nature in solitude, but it is definitely worth seeing. The large visitor center has a scale model of the park, a display on vulcanology, a gift shop and a cafeteria.
Getting Here: From Alajuela, drive north through town and follow signs. 482-2424, 192 in Costa Rica. Daily 8:30 - 3:30.
Guided horseback tours hosted by Poas Volcano Lodge (482-2194) of the volcano area take place in the cloud forest of Finca Legua, a private reserve 3 miles north of the Poas Volcano Lodge. Daily tours ($65), which include lunch, run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Make reservations.
Photo Credits: 1) Arenal, Gelbert Lobo/ Arenal.net 2) Tabacon Hot Springs; Courtesy Arenal.net. 3) Poas, Costa Rica Tourism Board