Friday, December 30, 2011

Visit Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica


There aren’t a lot of erupting volcanoes in the world, at least, ones that you can easily travel to without having to hike through a jungle or sail through an ocean for. That’s not to say I wouldn’t do those things: indeed, I’d jump at the chance to propel a boat around the South Pacific Ocean, or swing Tarzan-style on a vine. However, this November I found a much easier way to cross this item off my bucket list. I traveled to Costa Rica and saw the Arenal Volcano, which wasn’t erupting plumes of ash or spewing steaming snakes of liquid lava, but was resplendent all the same. The volcano was smoking slightly, but for the time being, geologists are predicting Arenal will not be erupting anytime soon.

The view of Arenal Volcano from our hotel balcony.

My husband and I drove up to the town of La Fortuna, nestled at the base of Arenal, from our family home in Carillo, located on the Pacific Ocean. We rented a car from Alamo for $50 a day, which was a pretty average price for car rentals in Costa Rica during the low season. Packed with an overnight bag and my trusty camera, we headed off at 8:30 a.m. for Lake Arenal.

 About one hour into our excursion, we had a flat tire in the city of Nicoya. Our agent at the Alamo office had neglected to tell us that they stored the car jack under the front seat, so after tearing apart the trunk in desperation, we began frantically flipping through the pages of my Spanish-English phrasebook in the hopes it would contain a translated conversation on how to ask for a car jack (it didn’t, by the way).

 Luckily, we were rescued by a friendly garbage-truck driver who used excellent hand motions to converse with us. Within two minutes, he’d located a car jack from a helpful youth down the street, who also joined in to rescue the helpless gringos with the flat tire. After a ten-minute delay in Nicoya, Joey and I were once again on track, waving happily and shouting “Gracias” with enthusiasm as we drove away.

Flat tire in Nicoya - uh oh! But easily fixed.

It took us about five hours in total to arrive in La Fortuna, but really, the drive is about 3 and a half to 4 hours. We stopped for our flat tire, ate lunch in Tilarin, got lost in Tilarin, and paused for many beautiful photo opportunities along the road side. Lake Arenal is picturesque at every turn. When we finally arrived in La Fortuna, we were tired of driving but still happy at having the chance to explore the Costa Rican countryside.

Walking through the Costa Rican jungle near the Arenal volcano

I’d made no reservations for a hotel in La Fortuna - there are about 50 hotels there, and we wanted to hear from the locals their opinion on where to stay. Pulling in at an information center, we found two helpful young ladies who recommended the Baldi Resort and Spa. Tabacon is the more famous resort, but these women assured us Baldi was more accessible, more beautiful, and key for us, more affordable than Tabacon. For $190 US a night, we could rent the deluxe suite with volcano view, soak in the 20 different hot springs, ride the water slides, and eat dinner and breakfast for free. We couldn’t resist.

The gorgeous and relaxing hot springs at Baldi Resort and Spa in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

After driving up and down the La Fortuna highway several times (we originally thought the girls said “Valdez” and, failing to find a “Valdez” hotel anywhere, found a second set of directions from another information center) we finally checked into the Baldi Resort and Spa. The deal seemed too good to be true, but it was everything the ladies had said, and more! Their description of “beautiful” was putting it mildly: Baldi Resort and Spa was nothing short of paradise on earth. Our room had an amazing view of the Arenal Volcano, shrouded in mist, as well as the jungle growth surrounding it.

The hot spring spa at Baldi Resort and Spa

Enjoying a swim up bar at the Baldi Resort and Spa

The pools went on and on, each with a different temperature, design, and theme. Spanish pop and serenade music filtered through the trees. Because it was low season, Joey and I seemed to be two of ten people in the entire resort, although I’m sure there were more. Because of the expansive size of the resort, it seemed empty. We spent that entire afternoon and evening splashing and floating, feeling like royalty. We even hiked through the butterfly/hummingbird garden on the property. If you want to see gorgeous landscaping and pretty much every type of vegetation available in Costa Rica, take a stroll through the labyrinthine garden - just don’t get lost!

Paradise!  I would go back to La Fortuna in a heartbeat!

The next day, we took advantage of the beautiful weather (rumor has it that the area around the volcano is usually cloudy and rainy, but we experienced sun and the occasional puffy cloud while we were there). We hiked down to the La Fortuna Catarata (waterfall). After a majorly bumpy dirt road, comprised of mainly stones and not dirt, we made it to the Catarata parking lot. Tickets were $10 US, and then we were off across a skywalk into the jungle. The waterfall is 480 steps virtually straight down, but worth every stair.

Beginning our hike down to La Fortuna Catarata - great view!

The steep path down to the base of the falls.

The 70-meter waterfall thunders down, sending a fine mist over everything, which was lovely for us considering the heat of the day. Joey dove right in, swimming out to the waterfall, treading water against its current. I was too chicken to swim; the brochure warned against swimming because you could “be sucked in and asphyxiated”. Not my style. I bobbed around on the edges with my camera, trying to capture the beauty of the falls. We had good timing. By the time we got out of the water and dried off, a bus load of about 30 tourists was clamoring down the stairs to ruin our privacy.

The beautiful and powerful La Fortuna Catarata.

Swimming in the waterfall's pool - I was too chicken!

I nearly died of a heart attack on the climb back up the stairs, but was mighty proud of myself when I made it to the top. We shopped a bit at the souvenir shop, which had tons of items at rock-bottom prices (the best I’d seen in either Samara, Carillo, or anywhere in La Fortuna), and then made our way into La Fortuna to deal with the Alamo office and try to get a new spare tire, just in case.

Goodbye, Arenal volcano!

By the time we were done with Alamo, it was time to leave. We would have loved to stay longer and do a hike up the side of the volcano, hit the observatory, and perhaps do the skywalk or rent an ATV, but we only had a week in Costa Rica this time around, and we wanted to see and do much more than just Arenal. We posed for a few farewell photos with the majestic volcano, which cleared up nicely to bid us goodbye. I hope to come back again and spend a little more time at La Fortuna, but this was a nice introduction to Arenal and I can’t complain!