At 5,437 feet, Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano is one of the 10 most active volcanoes in the world. It formed about 7,000 years ago and has remained busy during its long life. In 1968, Arenal exploded and killed 87 people, and until the summer of 2010, minor eruptions with smoke and lava were fairly consistent.
Since that time, however, the volcano’s activity has decreased significantly, although scientists insist Arenal is merely taking a snooze. Today visitors won’t see flowing lava, but they can enjoy its grandeur and spend time hiking nearby rainforests or swimming in hot springs pools.
The drive from my hotel on the Gulf of Papagayo to Arenal took more than three hours (about the same amount of time it took me to fly to Costa Rica from Texas). Thankfully, the tour through Swiss Travel was broken up by several side excursions. After the first hour, our group of four travelers, plus our guide, Meyer, stopped at a commercial coffee operation to sip delicious cappuccinos and see coffee beans growing on genuine coffee bushes. I bought bags of ground coffee (the best bargain of the trip).
After the second hour, we arrived at a giant wind farm, which is a source of pride for Costa Ricans, according to Meyer. Currently, 80 per cent of the country’s energy demand is met with hydro and geothermal power. During the dry season from December to May, when hydropower units operate at a partial load, the wind turbines provide electricity almost continuously, helping to reduce the need for diesel-fueled generators. Costa Rica plans to source 100 percent of its power supply from renewable energies by the year 2021.
Continuing the drive, we came upon a Costa Rican family on the side of the road feeding a pack of white-nose coatis, also known as hog-nosed coons, pizotes or “snookum bears.” The family generously shared slices of white bread with me so I could feed them, too, an act that may be illegal though no one dissuaded me. The initial cuddly appearance of these raccoon cousins belies their aggressive behavior and sharp teeth. Some South Americans reportedly keep them as pets and train them to use a litter box. But after they teetered on their hind legs to catch pieces of bread and snapped at me a few times, that idea didn’t seem appealing.
Arrival at Arenal
Four miles from the volcano is the town of La Fortuna where travelers can find good food and upscale hotel accommodations or schedule a variety of adventures: zip lining, white-water rafting, kayaking, rappelling, horseback rides or visits to a breathtakingly beautiful waterfall. Our La Fortuna activity was limited to a pre-arranged lunch of tilapia and flan in tidy café. We then drove to a lookout point at a privately owned rain forest to snap souvenir photos of the volcano. As it often is on overcast days, Arenal’s peak was obscured by clouds.
Toting his personal telescope so we could better view the wildlife, Meyer led us on a walking tour down a crudely carved path into the rain forest of 200-year-old trees with roots larger than logs, rope-thick vines, tropical flowers and exotic birds. My favorite memory is that of a spider monkey with a baby on her back. Whenever she moved from one tree to the next, she’d grab a branch with her feet and another with her hands, transforming her body into a bridge for the baby, who scampered across her to the other side. We also saw the Costa Rican version of a turkey, plus a white hawk and a Toucan. Meyer warned us to watch for snakes, but we didn’t spot any.
When we returned to our van, it was raining, and everyone was drenched. No worries. From there, it was off to a natural hot spring spa, the result of Arenal warming the local groundwater. One of several similar spas open to the public, ours featured six separate pools, each one higher up a hill than the next, and all of them surrounded by lush greenery and blooming orchids. Having planned ahead, we slipped into our swimsuits. We then ordered adult beverages and spent the next two hours in wind-down mode.
After cleaning up as best we could (the hot springs spa had no hair dryer in the locker room), we were transported to a charming hotel restaurant with huge glass windows looking out on Arenal and serving delicious food. Afterwards, our group motored three hours back to the hotel in the dark. Besides the driver, I was the only one who stayed awake the entire time. I was busy planning my next day trip in Guanacaste. by Pat Pape