The entire Arenal region of Costa Rica is focused on Arenal Volcano, one of the country’s most famous volcanoes. Until 2010, this was the most active volcano in Costa Rica, and it continues to smoke on a frequent basis.
Near the base of the volcano, a touristy (and relatively pricey) little city has popped up to feed the fury of travelers who want to bask in the volcano’s shadow. Hot springs and spas, tour groups run by just about everyone in town and kitschy shops selling sarongs and keychains have made the town a fairly unattractive one. And, yet, there is a way to enjoy Arenal Volcano without immersing yourself in too much of the touristy crap that has spread out along the base of this otherwise impressive natural phenomenon.
While visiting the Arenal region, we decided to spend a day at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, which was the best decision we made in the area. Arenal Observatory Lodge is a hotel that sits on a nature reserve, so it is void of any of the tacky stuff found on the southern and eastern sides of the volcano. The hotel itself has 48 rooms, but the property is what makes it particularly attractive. Near the lodge are short trails leading through the woods and past gorgeous bushes and trees filled with flowers. Beyond the immediate vicinity are primary and secondary rainforests, waterfalls and seven miles of hiking trails as well as opportunities to spot wildlife (we saw both a coyote and a kudamundi), several species of birds and great views of the volcano.
Hindsight is 20/20, and if we were to do things over again, chances are we would have splurged and just stayed at Arenal Observatory Lodge instead of navigating the otherwise unpleasant atmosphere of the city at the base of the volcano, but the good news is that, whether you stay at the lodge or not, you can take advantage of what the nature preserve has to offer. For a mere $4.00 per person (a steal compared to the cost of other activities in Costa Rica), travelers are invited to spend the day wandering the grounds, hiking the trails and learning about the volcano from the observatory tower, which features articles and information about the area’s history and natural features. There is never a guarantee of seeing the volcano in Arenal as the weather is fickle and clouds have been known to cover the peak for days at a time. If you are lucky (which we were) and the weather cooperates, the views of the volcano are absolutely stunning throughout the property.
The nature preserve is an interesting mix of landscapes ranging from farmland to pine and eucalyptus plantations. One trail heads down to the base of a waterfall while another leads across a hanging bridge. For those with a lot of time to spare, there is also a primitive path that leads to a crater-turned-lagoon. These hard-to-reach trails that are essentially void of other people are hard to find in other places around the volcano because the area in general is so commercialized, but Arenal Observatory Lodge is such a well-kept secret that most people don’t know they can enjoy a day an entire day surrounded by nature and awesome views of the volcano for just a few bucks.
After a day of exploring, the best thing to do in the evening is check out the view from the lodge itself as the sun sets. From the back porch, travelers can see little wisps of smoke escape from the top of the volcano and, if there is no cloud cover, it may be possible to see a glow hovering above the tip of the volcano. Though we had stellar weather all day at Arenal Observatory Lodge, clouds had moved in by the evening hours and we couldn’t see the top of the volcano at all by nightfall. For those who want to stick around through the evening hours, an on-site restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows offers meals with a view.
The Arenal Observatory Lodge is located on the west side of the volcano, and to reach it, travelers have to drive north around the volcano and then 10 kilometers down another ridiculously rough road. Unfortunately for casual visitors, you have to have your own car to reach the lodge, and that means that most people will never make it to the site because it is logistically difficult to reach. However, those with their own source of transportation are likely to enjoy this part of Costa Rica much more if they can escape the commercialism that has been built up around the volcano and make their way to Arenal Observatory Lodge instead.