There are many things to see and do in the Arenal area. But none of them would be there if not for the main attraction: the explosive lava flows of Arenal Vocano.
Arenal Volcano is currently celebrating 39 years of continuous eruptions after a very long 400 year sleep. Since that initial and deadly eruption on June 29, 1968 – the result of a massive earthquake – the volcano has been producing huge ash columns, explosions & glowing red lava almost every day. Unfortunately, you can not see any of this from a safe distance during the day (a few people have died trying …).
But on a clear night, it's a different story altogether. Lava and glowing hot boulders shoot into the air and then smash down onto the mountain, exploding and creating a fireworks show visible for miles around.
While the original 1968 eruption wiped out the entire populations of the villages of Tabacon and Pueblo Nuevo, there have not been any really dangerous eruptions since. But since the lava flows have been constant and visible ever since (although visibility is truly weather dependent), Geologists consider Arenal Volcano one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world and the single most active in Costa Rica.
Since the eruptions are only visible at night, a myriad of activities has cropped up to keep you entertained during the day.
Take a relaxing hot spring bath at the Tabacon or Baldi hotels (signs for both are all over the area). Take a heart pounding zip line tour over the rainforest canopy. Rent an ATV for a couple of hours and explore the areas many secluded trails. Or do the same on a bicycle.
If you like the outdoors, you will not be bored in the Arenal area.
Things you should know about Arenal:
- The main attraction, the lava flows, are only visible on clear nights. You should plan to spend at least 2 nights in Arenal in case of cloud cover, which is frequent. Three nights is an even better idea.
- You do not have to go to the park to see the "fireworks." There are many places on the side of the road that offer and equally compelling view, and so do many of the hotels in the area.
- There are visible eruptions on just about every clear night. However, it can be difficult to predict exactly on which side of the mountain they will take place. It can be very frustrating to reserve a room with the expectation of seeing the show from your window, only to find that all the action is on the other side. Unfortunately, there's nothing to do about this. But do not get discouraged: the hotel staff will usually know where the best view is on a given night and how to get there.
- The closest town to the volcano is La Fortuna, a medium sized town by Costa Rica standards, whose primary industry is tourism. Prices are high here by Costa Rica standards (still quite cheap by US standards), but there is plenty of shopping and several restaurants and bars to keep you busy on rainy days and cloudy nights.
Getting to La Fortuna:
- By Car: From the airport, take the Pan American highway North and follow signs for San Ramon (about 56 km). When you reach San Ramon, turn right into the town (there will be a shopping mall on your right). You will start seeing signs for Arenal and various Arenal hotels here. Continue on this road until you hit the city's main avenue. Turn left and continue for two blocks to the San Ramon hospital. Turn right and continue on this road for about 44 km until you reach La Fortuna. From here, it is easy to find the areas hotels. The whole trip should take 3 – 3 1/2 hours.
- By Public Bus: Buses leave San Jose 's Terminal Atlantico Norte every day at 6:15, 8:40, and 11:30. The buses are slow and stop several times along the way, so the trip will take close to 5 hours.
- By Private Transport: Private and semi- private transport is available at the airport or can be booked ahead of time from a variety of companies. A Google search for "Arenal Transport" will yield many of these.