Rising to a height of 1,633 meters (roughly 5,000 feet), 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 nearly 500 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 occurred sometimes as frequently as once per hour. Tourists flocked here for the nightly show of rocks spewing skyward. Experts believe the volcano could now remain in a "resting" state for up to 800 years. After heavy rainfall, puffs of steam occasionally rise from the crater, making for an impressive photo of plumes over its cone. Sleeping or not, the lack of lava hasn't dissuaded travelers from seeing the magnificent mound or even hiking its flanks, which offer views of Lake Arenal in the distance. It still remains among the most visited attractions in the country.
Best Time to Go
Despite its size, viewing Arenal Volcano can be hit or miss anytime of year. January through April, especially in the early morning, usually means fewer clouds to obscure daytime views. Before the volcano entered a passive stage in 2010, the dry season's clear evenings were the best time to see or hear volcanic activity.
It's no wonder Arenal Volcano is so photogenic—the conical-shaped supermodel has the third-most-picture-perfect crater in the world. Take aim quickly if you want to get a good shot, as cloud cover makes this natural attraction camera shy.
Best Ways to Explore
If you decide to hike the 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 way after seeing the real thing. Hummingbirds also abound on the volcano's slopes. Look for anything tiny and purple.
For intrepid hikers, Las Heliconias trail ($15), which starts at the National Park's reception center, wends through secondary forest and passes by the cooled lava flow from the 1968 eruption. Outside the park, Los Tucanes trail ($10) 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 steep and arduous 4-hour hike up to Cerro Chatto ($10), a dormant volcano with a lopsided, extinct crater partially filled with water, creating a pretty lake. Arenal Observatory Lodge has a day pass ($32) including 11 km (7 miles) of trails, lunch, and use of swimming pools.
Two words: "from afar." Under no circumstances should you hike the volcano's trails on your own. In rainy season, some trails like Cerro Chato are extremely muddy and treacherous. Pre-2010, lava rocks and volcanic gas occasionally killed trekkers who got too close to the action. The tour operators we recommend know where the danger lies and take appropriate precautions.
Despite the fact that Arenal has entered the "post-eruption era," many visitors still gaze at its majesty from the distance and comfort of several area hotels, restaurants, and hot springs. One of the best spots to view the volcano is from the observation deck at Arenal Observatory Lodge.
Top Reasons to Go
All Budgets Welcome
Travelers on tight and even moderate budgets 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, network of hiking trails, and thermal activity that heats neighboring hot springs keep the volcano at the top of the "must-see" list despite the fact that its current dormant phase may last another 800 years.
Sports and Adventure
It might have been the volcano that put Arenal on the map, but it's the area's many recreational activities that keep travelers coming back year after year. From zip lines and hanging bridges to waterfalls and raging rivers, Arenal has more attractions than any other destination in the country.
Volcanic Hot Springs
Nearly a dozen hot springs line the main road, with an average of two thermal "parks" opening up per year. The relaxing spa-like experience is the ideal way to soak tired muscles.
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