A must see for all visitors to Costa Rica is the explosive giant, Arenal Volcano, located three hours to the north-west of San Jose. A perfectly cone-shaped structure, Arenal is one of the most active volcanos on earth. Seeing the top of it is often difficult because of cloud cover. Early mornings and the dry season offer you the best opportunities. Arenal was important to pre-Columbian peoples, as more than one virgin maiden was tossed into its hell-hole crater in a sacrificial gesture to appease the gods. Arenal rested throughout colonial times until July, 1968 when an earthquake awoke it, and the resulting explosion annihilated the villages of Tabacon and Pueblo Nuevo, where their entire populations perished.
Arenal’s eruptions and lava flows have been constant, and on any day you can hear the massive explosions, and with clear skies permitting, you can see plumes of smoke drifting off to the west, and at night see chunks of orange lava bouncing down the sides, particularly on the west side of the volcano, as the 150 meter deep horseshoe-shaped crater presently opens in that direction.
Arenal, and its little dormant brother, Volcan Chato, lie within the 12,016 hectare Arenal Volcano National Park. There are several trails throughout the park, some take you up to look-out points, or permit you to see active lava flowing, and walk on flows still cooling from as far back as 1993. Hiking too close to the volvaco is not advised as it is quite unpredictable, and could cost your life, as hikers as late as the year 2000 found out too late.
There are several hot spring spas in the area that use the piping hot water seeping through the lava fields into small rivers. The most famous spa is Tabacon Hot Springs on the north west side of Arenal Volcano. There are several natural mineral pools, supposedly good for skin, muscles and arthritis, all diverted apart and joined together in waterfalls, cataracts and slides in a spectacular park-like setting over several acres. The show-piece is a twenty meter wide warm waterfall, like a powerful shower, and you can sit back underneath like a steam room. Ladies be careful, the force of the falls may cause your strapless top to slide to your bottoms! Tabacon has swim-up bars and restaurants, mud baths and massages. At night they put on a spectacular buffet in their restaurant. When making reservations, request a table at the far end of the room nearest the volcano, as you may be treated to a wonderful orange lava exhibition as it tumbles down the sides of Arenal.
Unfortunately, the government has been threatening to close down Tabacon Hot Springs because it is in a high-risk zone, and lies directly in the path of an unpredictable lava and gas avalanche. 1975 was the last time it passed right over the Tabacon Hot Springs site, so in geologic times, that was yesterday, and is sure to happen again!
The beautiful Tabacon Resort Hotel would remain open because it is “protected” by a 50 meter high hill. Unfortunately, the hotel is run by people who make little effort in helping you make a reservation, and it often becomes an exercise in futility. The attitude of all workers in the whole complex falls just short of abusive. Theft, both from your assigned locker inside the hot springs, and from your car parked outside is a growing problem, so beware.
La Fortuna, about six kilometers east of the volcano, is a pleasant little village, nothing spectacular, that is fed by the tourism proceeds resulting from people wanting the Arenal experience. The main road through town points up at the mighty volcano. There are several little hotels and cabinas scattered throught the town, and all the way up the gentle slope heading west towards the volcano, most with great views of Arenal. For five dollars you can take a taxi to Tabacon Hot Springs from La Fortuna. I find it is more rewarding and pleasant, and certainly cheaper to stay in one of these Arenal/La Fortuna accommodations, and just use the Tabacon Hot Springs open from 10am to 10pm, entrance is $35 per person, rather then stay at the Tabacon Resort Hotel overnight.