Arenal: Paradise in Costa Rica
The must see place to visit in Costa Rica is the Arenal Volcano; an active volcano with spectacular lava flows set in a lush tropical rainforest. So, I was excited when we left Ecoplaya in Costa Rica’s dry Guancaste Province for Arenal. Arenal embodies the typical vision of Costa Rica with lush tropical rainforest and wildlife. Getting there however can be a problem. Arenal volcano is located in the middle of Costa Rica and the road there is very windy and narrow. To make matters worse, the day we left for Arenal, it was rainy and foggy making visibility poor. For those who suffer from motion sickness, they will understand this tale well. As we drove, Sydney was working on her homework, which seemed like a reasonable plan at that time, but turned out to be a very bad idea. Along the drive she suddenly announced that her stomach “tickled”. Jason, who was driving, desperately searched for a place to pull off the tiny road, but alas he was not quick enough. After a major clean-up of our rental car’s interior, we were off again in search of the volcano.
After miles of fog, rain, and curvy roads it was nearing lunch time and with no volcano or lodge in site, we stopped at one of the first places we came to, Mavericks BBQ. The restaurant is owned by an American expat and the food was a nice change from the bland Costa Rican fair. Personally, chicken and rice with Lizano sauce can only be tolerated for so many meals. The owner of Mavericks was very nice and came over to chat with us for a while. Though the food was a simple American fair of hamburgers, BBQ, and such, the view alone made the meal exceptional. Mavericks’ overlooks Lake Arenal and I could easily imagine waking up every day to that view. What a life it would be and I can fully understand why the owner had come to visit and decided to stay. After lunch, we were off again in search of this elusive volcano.
Before we had left for Costa Rica, we had watched a great family travel video called, Travel with Kids Costa Rica. The family had stayed at the Arenal Observatory Lodge on their visit to the Arenal Volcano. After watching this video, I knew visiting Arenal Volcano was a must and that the Arenal Observatory Lodge was the place I wanted to stay. We saved Arenal for the last part of our 2-week trip to Central America, so we only had two nights there before needing to drive back to San Jose to fly home. Arenal Observatory Lodge is only 1.7 miles from the volcano and has the best view of any accommodations in the area. We paid extra for a room with a large veranda and view of the lush tropical jungle and volcano. I loved sitting on the veranda, listening the jungle noises and watching the plume of smoke rise from Arenal. The room was large, clean, and furnished with beautiful wood furniture. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us until we arrived, the lava had stopped flowing a couple months before we came. Disappointed that we would not be seeing any lava, it was still all worth it.
Arenal Observatory Lodge is remote; only reached by miles of washboard roads and several stream crossings that would not be passable during heavy rains. A couple of days before we arrived, one of the staff had been killed trying to ride a motorcycle through one of the stream crossings swollen from rain water. I was a little nervous about how remote the lodge was, especially since none of the rooms had a kitchen and we would need to eat out for most of our meals. This could be a budget breaker. I was pleasantly surprised though; the lodge restaurant served good food at reasonable prices and was child friendly. I especially liked the resfescos which is a fresh fruit smoothie with choices like mango. The restaurant features huge windows which overlook the jungle and Arenal Volcano. Any table in the restaurant has a great view. The staff each day put out fresh fruit on the deck which attracted many of the brightly colored birds of Costa Rica. We enjoyed eating our meal while watching the wildlife.
Arenal Observatory Lodge sits on a private reserve. Guests can enjoy miles of trails and a hanging bridge that wanders through the rainforest and also offers many free activities. One such activity is the morning guided walk. Up to this point, the howler monkeys had eluded us throughout Costa Rica and Nicaragua. We had heard the howler monkeys on several occasions, but had yet to spy them. I was going to be seriously disappointed if I left Costa Rica without seeing a single howler monkey. After all, that was one of the main reasons we had chosen to go to Costa Rica, for the unique wildlife. We quickly signed up for the guided morning walk and were not disappointed. About halfway through the walk, we saw several howler monkeys with a baby in tow. Sydney was chatty as ever during the walk and made several friends from London along the way. At one point during the walk, the guide pointed out the beautiful, but very poisonous, yellow eyelash viper curled up on a branch along the trail. After that, I was a little freaked out and became much more cautious about where I placed my hands and where I stepped. I shuddered to think how on previous hikes I had blithely placed my hands where ever not really thinking of possible consequences.
Along with free activities, Arenal Observatory Lodge offers some paid activities such as horseback riding. Sydney had listed horseback riding as one of the activities she would like to do while in Costa Rica. Initially, I thought this would be way too expensive. Fortunately, the horseback riding turned out to be bargain at only 7 dollars an hour and was not the typical nose to tail ride that one experiences in most places in the US. The guide spoke little English and allowed us to meander at our own individual pace, which often involved Jason and Sydney racing to be in the lead. We crossed several deep streams, meandered through the jungle, and savored the views of Arenal Volcano. To this day, Sydney still talks about how much fun she had horseback riding through the jungles of Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end and we had to leave Arenal Volcano to go back to work so we can save money to travel full time. While driving down the narrow dirt road from the lodge, we experienced one of those National Geographic moments. Jason had stopped to allow me to tuck the upper part of the seatbelt behind me. The bumpy road had caused the seatbelt to become progressively tight making it impossible to breath. Just as we stopped, a snake slithered quickly across the road capturing a frog right in front of the car, raised halfway up in the air and slithered off the road partially upright to devour its lunch in a safer location. If only we had our cameras out. Our time at Arenal Observatory Lodge was the highlight of the trip to Costa Rica for us and will not be easily forgotten. I loved seeing the variety of wildlife and the volcano. If you are looking for a place to stay around Arenal with many options for activities, beautiful views, an active volcano, and lots of wildlife, the Arenal Observatory Lodge is the place for you. The only thing I would have changed was to spend more time there!