“This makes it easier to identify the bodies,” the hotel’s front desk clerk says with a wink as he straps plastic, hospital-style bracelets to our wrists. “Be sure to note the signs showing the evacuation route and if you’re driving, back your car into the parking space so that you can get out quickly. Answer your phone immediately,” he tells us, “even in the middle of the night, because we will call you in the event of an eruption.”
“‘This makes it easier to identify the bodies,’ the hotel’s front desk clerk says with a wink as he straps plastic, hospital-style bracelets to our wrists.
Although the bracelets are really to allow hotel guests free access to Tabacon Hot Springs the warnings are procedure for checking into a hotel located at the foot of one of the world’s most active volcanos — Arenal Volcano, of Costa Rica. After being dormant for 400 years, Arenal erupted with unexpected fury in 1968, burying nine square miles in hot lava, rock, and ash. Three small towns were destroyed. The roads in the area are still pocked with Volkswagen-size craters and huge, black boulders dot the green pastures where cows now graze peacefully.
The volcano has been active every day since 1968 with hot rocks and lava tumbling down the southwest face every thirty minutes or so. A potentially deadly avalanche occurs without warning every two to three years. The guest rooms at Tabacon Resort are slightly elevated above the surrounding area which makes them somewhat safer but the Tabacon Hot Springs lie downwind and directly in the volcano’s eruptive path. Dangerous? Could be – but what an unbelievably beautiful setting for a rain forest resort and spa with lush tropical gardens, cascades and waterfalls, and steamy hot pools of geothermal mineral water bubbling up directly from the heart of the volcano.
1. Take a Dip in the Hot Springs
Tabacon Resort is located between the town of La Fortuna (renamed after it was “fortunate” not to be destroyed by the volcano) and Lake Arenal, halfway between Costa Rica’s two international airports, San Jose’s Juan Santamaria and Liberia to the north. From San Jose, it takes about three hours on a very crooked but newly paved road. Although Liberia is slightly closer, the trip from the airport takes about the same time, on a very crooked road that is so full of pot holes it required our driver to spend as much time on the left side as the right, which was quite nerve-racking on the many blind, hairpin curves with sheer drop-offs and no guard rails.
From either direction the drive is picturesque. Imagine a tropical Bavaria complete with chalet-like houses and cows grazing on steep green mountainsides. A stop for a coatimundi to cross the road and another stop to see a troop of sleeping howler monkeys draped over the branches of a huge tree reminds us of where we are.
“Imagine a tropical Bavaria complete with chalet-like houses and cows grazing on steep green mountainsides.”
Despite being shrouded in clouds, the volcano makes its presence known with deep, thunder-like rumbling as we grab our umbrellas, provided by the hotel, and walk to dinner at the restaurant by the hot springs. An open air multi-terraced dining area overlooks a steamy swimming pool complete with a pool bar. The pool is fed by the Tabacon River as it spills down the slope. Because of the altitude, the nights are cool which makes the hot springs a favorite place to be. After dinner, we change into bathing suits and instead of the swimming pool decide to test the waters of the various natural pools and waterfalls that get progressively hotter as you climb the hillside. We find a quiet and secluded spot that is just the right temperature and luxuriate under the starry sky. This experience alone is worth the trip to Costa Rica.
2. Do water Sports in Lake Arenal
If you can drag yourself away from the hot springs there’s plenty to do in this area. At 40,000 acres, Lake Arenal is the largest lake in Costa Rica and has perfect conditions for windsurfing and kiteboarding with strong steady winds year round, sometimes blasting at 30 to 40 miles per hour and even higher December through April.
“Lodges on the west side of the lake specialize in windsurfing and kiteboarding and lodges on the east side offer fishing and boating.”
There’s also excellent fishing for a hard fighting species of rainbow bass that the locals call guapote and the flashy, acrobatic fish called machaca. Lodges on the west side of the lake specialize in windsurfing and kiteboarding and lodges on the east side offer fishing and boating.
3. Walk through the clouds on Hanging Bridges
The Hanging Bridges are just a five-minute drive from Tabacon Resort. This is an almost primal experience as you walk along a series of paths and suspension bridges up through a beautiful tract of primary forest into the cloud forest canopy. Jaguars were spotted frequently when the paths and bridges were being built although lately sightings are rare. The trail starts on the forest floor where only 1% of the sunlight reaches. We can hear rain pattering in the treetops 150 feet above our heads but no raindrops reach the humid ground. We walk slowly and quietly along a circuitous route up the mountain and high up into the vaporous treetops listening to the calls of unseen birds and the rustle of animals nearby.
“We’re expecting a dinosaur to rise up out of the primordial mists at any moment.”
We step out onto a suspension bridge and look up at another partly hidden by clouds impossibly high over our heads. “We’ll be up there in fifteen minutes,” our guide tells us. We expect a dinosaur to rise up out of the primordial mists at any moment. Instead, we see a pair of toucans, a procession of leaf cutter ants, a poison dart frog, a slow moving sloth, huge termite nests the size of a chubby child, and we hear the eerie, moaning roar of howler monkeys in the distance.
4. Fly through the cloud forest on a zip-line
If instead of seeing strange creatures, you’d rather be one flying through the jungle, you might try one of the zip-line canopy tours. There are several in the area. Not up for the zip-line, but interested in seeing the forest from above? Sky Tram offers open ski lift style gondolas that begin near the shores of Lake Arenal and go up into the mountains with excellent views of the lake and volcano. From here you can hike a series of trails and suspended bridges.
After the ascent, you can hike down, take the gondola, or strap on a harness and ride top-speed zip cables down to the bottom.
5. Climb and crawl through the labyrinth of caves at Venado Caverns
For the fearless and hardy, Venado Caverns is a 7 million-year-old labyrinth of caves about a 30-minute drive from La Fortuna. This is the real thing, no piped-in music, no flood lights, no concrete walkways or hand rails. It’s wet and dirty and requires sloshing through an underground river, crawling on your belly with only your head above water, and squeezing through the “birth canal”.
“Bats whoosh past your face and big black spiders cover the walls, but workers check the cave periodically for dangerous snakes.”
Bats whoosh past your face and big black spiders cover the walls, but workers check the cave periodically for dangerous snakes. If you’re afraid of the dark, claustrophobic or arachnophobic, stay away from this tour. Hard-hats, face masks, flashlights, and rubber boots (up to size 11) are provided.
6. Hike to La Fortuna Waterfall
One of Costa Rica’s most spectacular waterfalls is located in the Arenal region. You can take a one-hour hike from the town of La Fortuna or ride horseback to the falls then hike down into the canyon on a steep, wet, slippery trail (although there are steps and a handrail) that leads to a pool at the base of the thundering falls where you can take a swim or rest on the huge rocks and dangle your feet in the water before heading back to town.
“…hike down into the canyon on a steep, wet, slippery trail (although there are steps and a handrail) that leads to a pool at the base of the thundering falls…”
Adventure, thrills, wildlife, scenery or just relaxing under the stars listening to the volcano breathe while watching glowing lava ooze down its side – this area of Costa Rica offers a wealth of unforgettable (and exciting) experiences.