Arenal is Costa Rica’s most active volcano and a must-see on any tourist’s itinerary. Note, however, that it is most often covered in clouds, and getting to see an eruption is a matter of luck (the dawn hours are best, before the clouds roll in; seasonally, you stand a reasonable chance in dry season, and less than favorable odds in rainy season).
Hiking too close to the volcano is not advisable. Heed warning signs—this isn’t Disneyland! The volcano is totally unpredictable and there is a strong possibility of losing your life if you venture into restricted zones.
The one-kilometer Las Heliconias Trail leads from the ranger station past an area where vegetation is recolonizing the 1968 lava flow. The trail intersects the Look-Out Point Trail, which leads 1.3 kilometers from the ranger station to a mirador—a viewing area—from which you can watch active lava flowing.
Las Coladas Trail begins at the intersection and leads 2.8 kilometers to a lava flow from 1993. The Los Miradores Trail begins at park headquarters and leads 1.2 kilometers to Lake Arenal .
Reserva Privada El Silencio (tel. 506/2479-9900, www.miradorelsilencio.com , 7 a.m.–9 p.m. daily, $5), a half kilometer east of the turnoff for the national park, has a three-kilometer trail. You can even drive up to a lookout beneath the flow.
The closest hiking to the lava flows (and the only one offering hikes on the big lava flows), is at nearby Arenal 1968 (tel. 506/2462-1212, www.arenal1968.com , 8 a.m.–7 p.m. daily, $10), near the entrance to Arenal Volcano National Park. Oropendolas and parrots inhabit the guayaba trees festooned with epiphytes in the parking lot, near a mirador that offers sweeping vistas. A steep trail leads up the four-decade-old lava flow. It’s a fabulous hike!
The full loop trail takes you past a grotto that is a shrine to those who died in 1968. The 4.5-kilometer-long Forest Hike leads through a wooded area ringing a small lake created by the 1968 eruption. Mountain bike and horse trails are being added.
You can also hike at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. A guided hike is offered at 8:30 a.m. daily (complimentary to guests). The four-kilometer Lava Trail (a tough climb back to the lodge—don’t believe your guide if they say it’s easy) is free and takes about three hours round-trip. The Chato Trail (four hours) is longer and more difficult.
Outside the entrance to the lodge is the trailhead for the private Los Tucanes Trail (8 a.m.–8 p.m. daily, $4 self-guided), which leads to the southernmost lava flows (one hour one-way).
No camping is allowed in the park. However, you can camp on land adjacent to the ranger station ($2.50 pp), with basic toilets and showers.
Enjoying an enviable setting at a higher elevation than any other hotel in the region, the Arenal Observatory Lodge (tel. 506/2479-1070 or 506/2290-7011 for reservations, www.arenalobservatorylodge.com , from $76 s or $92 d low season, from $94 s or $109 d high season) is a ridge-top property offering immaculate views over the lake and volcano. (Since 2008, the lava flows are on the southern side, although the volcano suddenly stopped in summer of 2010.) The facility, built in 1987 as an observatory for the Smithsonian Institute and the University of Costa Rica, has 40 rooms of three types in four widely dispersed buildings.
Although modestly furnished, the standard rooms are comfortable, with twin beds and sliding glass doors that open to volcano-view balconies. Four observatory rooms have volcano views through vast picture windows, as do nine spacious superior rooms in the Smithsonian block, reached via a suspension bridge. Five luxury junior suites are more graciously furnished and have the best views. Five rooms are wheelchair-accessible.
A converted farmhouse, La Casona, half a kilometer away, accommodates 14 more guests in four rooms with shared bathrooms (only three rooms have volcano views). The White Hawk Villa accommodates 10 people. The lodge offers horseback rides, hikes, and free canoeing on Lake Chato. There’s a splendid walk-in horizon-edge swimming pool, plus whirlpool tub, kids’ pool, and wet bar.
The Arenal Observatory Lodge restaurant is open to nonguests and serves breakfast (7–8:30 a.m.), lunch (11:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.), and dinner (6–8:30 p.m.) daily. The food is far from gourmet, but it’s worth it for its magnificent vantage.
The turnoff to the park entrance is 3.5 kilometers east of Lake Arenal dam and 2.5 kilometers west of Tabacón. The dirt access road leads 1.5 kilometers to the ranger station, which gives a small informational pamphlet and has restrooms. A dirt road leads north from here 1.5 kilometers to a parking lot and hiking trails.