With red hot lava oozing down its slopes, Arenal — Costa Rica’s youngest volcano — was quite the sight to behold when we first arrived in this country a couple of decades ago. After lying dormant for hundreds of years, Arenal blew its top in 1968 — and then proceeded to spew fire and ash for more than four decades, a continuous emission that ranks among the top ten longest recorded volcanic eruptions in the world dating back several hundred years. In 2010, the stratovolcano ceased its rumbling, though on a clear day it is still possible to see vapor rising from the fumarole atop Arenal’s cone.
Although the fiery giant has resumed its slumber, Arenal remains one of Costa Rica’s most popular tourist destinations. La Fortuna, an active town at the base of the mountain, serves as a jumping-off point for forest exploration in the Arenal National Park as well as all manner of adventure tourism, including caving, whitewater rafting, canyoneering, and zip-lines — which are all the rage all over Costa Rica. La Fortuna also provides access to Arenal’s thermal river, with numerous hot spring establishments dotting the road out of town.
With so many excellent options, we decided to make La Fortuna the focal point of our trip with D’s visiting parents. There are two main roads from San Jose to La Fortuna — a direct three-hour drive through Alajuela Province, and a slightly longer route that winds through Braulio Carrillo National Park and passes through Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, where we spent our winter holidays last year. We had enjoyed our stay in Sarapiqui, which in December was pure birding heaven, so much that we decided to break up the drive with a one-night stay there en route to La Fortuna.
In retrospect, that might not have been the wisest decision, as the road through Braulio Carrillo succumbed to stand-still traffic that added more than an hour to our commute and the avian explosion we had witnessed in Sarapiqui at the end of December was nowhere to be seen this time around. There were still some birds at the feeders, and an early morning walk around Sarapiqui’s Selva Verde forest yielded a handful of new species for D, but overall the birds were relatively quiet, so we did not linger, heading on toward Arenal after breakfast.
We wound up spending three nights at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, and in all honesty could have easily spent several more. This is the only lodge inside the national park. The volcano views are spectacular, and the birding as well. There are miles of forest trails around the lodge, which offers free guided walks. And the national park trails — including to the lava flows — are a short drive away. We debated getting a day pass to one of the hot springs establishments but ultimately decided against it given the inconsistent weather and the fact that prices had spiked during the Semana Santa crunch. Instead, we walked the trails and even convinced D’s mom, who is deathly afraid of heights, to climb a tall swaying observation tower, which offered unparalleled panorama views of the volcano and nearby Lake Arenal.
Not infrequently, we end blog posts about the beautiful places we have had the good fortune to visit with a line about planning our return visit soon. In most cases, this of course is purely aspirational, but in the case of Arenal it is actually true. We’ll be back in La Fortuna next month for Costa Rica’s annual Volcanic Ultimate Frisbee Tournament!