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The 2-km-high (1-mile-high) Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica's youngest and most active volcano, dominates the region's landscape.
Volcanologists estimate Arenal's age at around 4,000 years, and it was dormant for at least 400 years until 1968. It may be local folklore, but residents before then referred to Arenal as simply "the mountain" and apparently, despite its conical shape, did not realize it was a volcano. On July 29, 1968, an earthquake shook the area, and 12 hours later Arenal blew.
Since then, Arenal has been in a constant state of activity—thunderous, rumbling eruptions are sometimes as frequent as one per hour. These earthshaking events remind everyone what it really means to coexist with the world's third-most-active volcano. Night is the best time to view the action: on a clear evening you can see rocks spewing skyward. Although everyone refers to "lava," "pyroclastic flow," a mix of incandescent rock and gas, is a more apt description of what the volcano churns out. Call it what you will: the spectacle rarely fails to impress.
Best Time to Go
To be honest, viewing Arenal can be hit or miss any time 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 the volcano's flows. Patience is a virtue here.
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. Volcano activity and lava flow can change suddenly, so check with the park rangers to see which trails are currently safe to hike.
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, most recently in 2000. 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.
Beyond that, take a liberal interpretation of "exploring" the volcano, and gaze at its majesty from the distance and safety of several area hotels, restaurants, and hot springs that afford postcard views.
Top Reasons to Go to the Arenal Volcano
All Budgets Welcome
We lament that budget and even moderate travelers are being priced out of the market in certain regions of Costa Rica. Not so here. Choose from everything from backpackers' digs to luxury hotels in the area around Arenal. Feel free to stay for days, no matter what your budget.
A Perfect Volcano
Look up volcano in the dictionary. You half expect to see a picture of Arenal. Its perfect cone, red-hot flow, plumes of ash, and menacing location close to the tourist town of La Fortuna practically define the term.
Sports and Adventure
No other attraction in Costa Rica has given rise to a list of accompanying entertainment offerings quite so extensive. Come here to pay your respects to Arenal, and you'll find enough other area 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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