Arenal, Monteverde, and the Northern Lowlands Feature
The 2-km-high (1-mile-high) Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica's youngest volcano, dominates the region's landscape.
Volcanologists estimate Arenal's age at around 7,000 years, and it was dormant for at least 400 years until 1968. On July 29, 1968, an earthquake shook the area, and 12 hours later Arenal blew.
Until October 2010, Arenal was in a constant state of activity—thunderous, rumbling eruptions sometimes as frequent as one per hour. Now, if you’re lucky, you might see a column of ash or hear a faint rumbling in the distance. When the volcano is not in its "resting" state, night is the best time to view the action: on a clear evening you can see rocks spewing skyward. Although everyone refers to it as "lava," a more apt description of what the volcano churns out is "pyroclastic flow," a mix of incandescent rock and gas.
Best Time to Go
Viewing Arenal can be hit or miss anytime of year. January through April, especially in the early morning, usually means fewer clouds to obscure daytime views. The dry season's clear evenings give the best spectacle of volcanic activity, although Arenal has been quiet since late 2010.
Researchers at INBio, the National Biological Institute in Santo Domingo, north of San José, have been hard at work around the volcano. They see promise in the lichens growing on Arenal's slopes as a source of new antibiotics.
Best Ways to Explore
If you decide to hike the park's Los Tucanes trail, chances are you'll see at least one of the five species of toucan that have been recorded here: chestnut-billed and keel-billed toucans, the yellow-eared and emerald toucanet, and the collared aracari. You'll never look at a box of Froot Loops the same after seeing the real thing. Hummingbirds also abound on the volcano's slope. Look for anything tiny and purple.
For intrepid hikers who want to get a little closer to the action, Las Heliconias trail, which starts at the park reception center, wends through secondary forest and passes by the cooled lava flow from the 1968 eruption. Los Tucanes trail also leads to the lava fields, but it's more of an uphill hike, beginning near the entrance to the Arenal Observatory Lodge. There's also a hiking trail up to Cerro Chatto, a lopsided, extinct crater, partially filled with water, creating a pretty lake.
Two words: "from afar." Under no circumstances should you hike even the volcano's lower slopes on your own. Lava rocks and volcanic gas have killed trekkers who got too close. The tour operators we recommend know where the danger lies and take appropriate precautions. Wait until around 2 pm to see if the weather will cooperate, and then book your afternoon volcano hike.
Despite the fact Arenal has entered the "post-eruption era," many visitors still gaze at its majesty from a distance and the safety of several area hotels, restaurants, and hot springs that afford postcard views.
Top Reasons to Go
All Budgets Welcome
Budget and even moderate travelers are being priced out of the market in certain regions of Costa Rica. Not so here. You’ll find everything from backpackers' digs to luxury hotels in the area around Arenal.
A Perfect Volcano
Arenal’s perfect cone, past images of red-hot flow, plumes of ash, and menacing location close to the tourist town of La Fortuna practically define the term volcano. In October 2010, the volcano entered an indeterminate dormant phase, but that status could very well change in a matter of months.
Sports and Adventure
No other attraction in Costa Rica has given rise to so extensive a list of accompanying entertainment offerings. Come here to pay your respects to Arenal, and you'll find enough other activities to keep you occupied for days. (You'll also appreciate the backup on those occasions when clouds obscure your view of the volcano.)
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