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The Magnificient, and Active, Arenal Volcano !!

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. ~ Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865

Arenal is the most active volcano in the western hemisphere and its presence dominates the northern town of La Fortuna. If Poás and Irazú have only whetted your appetite for volcanoes, Arenal will make you drool.

The farmland around is a deep green, primary and secondary forests blanket the midlands, and towering above it all is classically cone-shaped Arenal – smoking, rumbling, spewing car-sized boulders and spitting red-hot lava that lights up the night sky (when it’s not covered in clouds and raining, that is).

There are no guarantees that you’ll even see to the volcano’s summit. The last time we were here it was raining or cloudy for four days straight. Arenal began its life about 4,000 years ago and grew to 1,633 meters/ 5,372 feet in height from near continuous eruptions until just before the Conquest.

Then it went silent and allowed nature to cover it with forests and vegetation. So everyone forgot it was a volcano until a few small fumaroles opened at its summit in 1938, then again in 1958 and 1960. In 1967 the water temperature of the Río Tabacón, a spring-fed river than descends the slopes of Arenal, suddenly rose. It was a warning of danger, but so few people lived in the area – and no volcanologists – that it went unheeded. At 7:30 am on July 29, 1968, Arenal Volcano erupted with a pyroclastic flow that raced down the mountainside and incinerated the villages of Tabacón and Pueblo Nuevo – taking the lives of 78 townspeople.

Huge incandescent boulders exploded out of the cone, halfway up the mountain, and left large craters as far as 10 km/6.2 miles away. Things are much quieter today, but Arenal can still be deadly. During the summer of 2000, an eruption flowed down a crevice and enveloped a young American woman, her daughter and a Costa Rican guide while they were on a hike at the edge of the safety zone. All three were badly burned. Sadly, the guide died two days later; the girl a short time after.

Adventures Hikers are now prohibited from getting as close as they did, but the element of danger, however small, is what transforms a visit to Arenal from an interesting ecological attraction to a thrilling adventure experience. On our last visit it rained for three days and we never saw the mountain, but we heard it. Just the idea that we were so close to its power made our stay memorable.

The town of La Fortuna is six km/four miles from the mountain, which is clearly visible from the town’s main square. A road leading northwest around the volcano toward the lake is home to many lodges and hotels, and it’s these places that offer the best views of Arenal. Unfortunately, clouds and rain often cover the volcano. Be patient – the wind will blow them away sooner or later. When it’s quiet at night, listen for the growl and rumble.

Author Note: Be sure to ask the front desk of your hotel for a wake-up call if the sky is clear and there’s a nighttime flow. Lastly, don’t miss a dip in the warm waters of the Tabacón River. The classiest way to enjoy it is to go to the Tabacón Resort & Spa and swim in their pools or in the stream itself.

Another less-expensive swimming pool spa, Baldi Termae (admission under US $8), is on the way there. Another option is the low-cost pool just past the Tabacón Spa entrance, which has facilities. Even farther up the road is a free pool without facilities. It’s not marked, but there are usually a couple of cars on the left.

AUTHOR TIP: Don’t bother to enter the official Arenal National Park (entrance and visitor’s center located up the road to Arenal Observatory Lodge). There are no facilities and not so much to do after driving up a very rough dirt road. However, the hiking trails here do go closer to the lava wall on the less-active side of the volcano, so it’s a bit safer.

It is said that only 10 people out of three million have a chance to see a volcanic eruption, and only four out of three million see a lava flow. At Arenal, if the Guatuso god of fire wills it, you have a chance to see both.

WARNING: Don’t be stupid and try to hike close to the volcano without a guide. In 1988, Steven Simmler, a young American, was carbonized by an eruption while trying to climb to the top.


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