Costa Rica Day 2: Visiting Arenal, the Rumbling Volcano

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My husband and I are big volcano fans. When we were in Hawaii for our honeymoon, we took a helicopter ride over Kilauea and hovered over the mouth watching lava spill out. When we were in Santorini, we took the boat over to Nea Kameni and walked around. So on Wednesday, our second day in Costa Rica, it wasn't a question of if we would get closer to Arenal, but how we wanted to go about it.

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We were already quite close to it to begin with (see the view outside our hotel room on the right). But we wanted to check out Arenal Volcano National Park anyway. We had heard that there were only a few short paths and that we could probably do it on our own. But then we found out that the cost of a round trip taxi ($30 total) and then the entrance admission ($10 per person) would be almost as much as taking a guided tour ($45 per person when booked through our hotel, most likely could be booked cheaper in town). And we figured that a guided tour would be more fun anyway — and it was a lot of fun, even if the weather didn't exactly cooperate.

We booked a 3:15 PM tour with Costa Rica Wonderland through our hotel on Wednesday afternoon, despite watching the clouds move back and forth across the volcano all morning. We decided to hope for the best — after all, weather is pretty unpredictable here.

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It was still a little sunny when we boarded the van. On the short ride to the volcano park, our guide pulled over so we could see a howler monkey perched high on a tree. I have no idea how he saw it as it took me three tries to spot it with my binoculars with the guide pointing at it. Then we continued on to the park and got a lecture about the history of the volcano as the clouds closed in and a rainbow briefly appeared (see left). The first known major eruption was in 1968 and a lot of people were killed because they had no idea they were living on top of a volcano.(In their defense, it looked a lot different then and was completely covered in trees.)

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The next big eruption took place in 1992 and the trail that our guide took us on crosses the 1992 lava field. You might be picturing a hard, surface, but the "field" was actually a black coarse sand. For whatever geological reasons that go well beyond my understanding, this volcano makes crumbly lava boulders, not liquid lava. And that kind of lava gets a sandy appearance and that's why the volcano is named Arenal, which means sandy in Spanish.

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Already the field has become very lush — dense greenery surrounds the trail on both sides. The plants seemed to be at least 20 feet tall, and the trees were way taller than that. It was mostly just green, green, green but there were some flowers, like lavender-and-white orchids (pictured above) and red-and-orange ones (pictured left). The mile-long path remained dry and dusty (as seen on the right) for about three quarters of the way. Then it became moist and we entered into a fairly dense forest.

During our walk, the guide was pointing out different plants to our group, as well as a few toucans that once again I failed to photograph. I learned about a plant that could give the weirdest plant I have ever seen some serious competition. It's called a "sensitive plant" or a mimosa pudica. The plant doesn't look like much — it resembles a fern and grows close to the ground. But when you touch it, it folds up very quickly and stays like that for several minutes as a defense mechanism. And you thought plants were stationary…

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When we were done with the path, it was time to scramble up some black lava rocks. This was a bit of a workout and was pretty fun. I saw some older people from another tour group that didn't look too happy about it and decided to wait by the path instead. As we scrambled we were rewarded with a closer look at the volcano and some nice views of Lake Arenal (our first time seeing it despite only staying a few miles away). Unfortunately, the clouds became more and more foreboding. The idea had been to stay up there to watch the sun set over the lake. (The sun sets fairly early in Costa Rica because they don't observe daylight savings.) That's actually one of the perks of going with a guide. Without a guide you have to leave the park by 4 PM. But with a guide, you can stay in the park until 6 PM.

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As the clouds gathered over Lake Arenal, we turned our attention once again to the volcano. We made it to the closest legal point — three km from its base. Anything closer to that and you run the risk of breathing in deadly gases — yikes! We heard it rumbling, which was pretty cool. (By the way, the sounds throughout this volcano tour were almost as amazing as the sites — the path was so noisy with birds and insects and who-knows-what-else that it sounded like one of those white noise machines was on "jungle setting" and the volume was turned to the max.)

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When this kind of volcano rumbles, it means it's getting ready to spit out lava boulders, so that's what it did. Now, you can't exactly see this, especially with clouds. You just sort of see dust displaced as if rocks are rolling down the side, because they are (pictured left). If it was dark enough, then you will see red lava streaks. But for some reason (again beyond my understanding) it has to be dark because it isn't liquid lava like in Hawaii. In Hawaii, we saw red lava in daylight.

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Shortly after the rumble, it started to rain. So we scrambled back down the rocks. By the time we had all descended, it had pretty much stopped raining. Then the guide spotted a coati, which looks like a racoon/anteater hybrid. We then walked back down the path, trying to catch glimpses of the sunset in the few spots where the foliage had been cleared. We boarded the van to head back to the hotel, passing lots of people just outside the entrance hoping to see red lava when it got dark. But with this kind of weather, their chances were higly unlikely.

One Response to Costa Rica Day 2: Visiting Arenal, the Rumbling Volcano

  1. Lucy McHale March 31, 2009 at 11:41 pm #

    Hello Liz,
    Enjoyed meeting you and your husband at the Tobacon Grand Thermal Resort and Spa. We were enjoying the hot springs while you guys were out in the elements scoping our the volcano. Thanks for sharing your great write up since we missed the tour. We agree, Costa Rica was wonderful. Come on up and visit us in Lake Tahoe when your travels next bring you west. When you have a chance check out my site at
    Best Regards,
    Lucy & Dan

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