Location: Within Arenal Volcano National Park; 11 miles west of La Fortuna
Altitude: 5,436 feet above sea level
Arenal Volcano is one of Costa Rica’s most popular attractions, and for good reason. On clear nights lava flows can be spectacular, especially when viewed while soaking in a naturally-heated hot springs at one of the nearby thermal resorts.
Volcano aficionados have declared Arenal the third-most perfect volcanic cone in the world. It is also the youngest and most active volcano in Costa Rica, and one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world. Arenal is a stratovolcano, similar to Japan’s Mt. Fuji.
Arenal has had several names throughout the years, including Arenal Peak, Rio Frio Volcano and Pan de Azucar (Sugar Loaf). In Spanish, Arenal means “hill of sand,” and refers to the volcano’s ash, or sandy slopes.
Just 3,000 years old, Arenal Volcano is considered a young volcano. Little is known about its early life, but it had been believed dormant from AD 1500 until 1968. Drawn by verdant slopes and incredible views, adventure lovers, hikers and naturalists regularly ascended to the volcano’s summit, often camping out in the cool crater.
On July 29, 1968, Arenal Volcano violently awoke. For the first time in over 400 years, the volcano began to erupt red-hot lava rock. The eruption did not occur from its main crater, but instead from two new craters at the western side of the volcano. Eighty people and approximately 45,000 cattle, in addition to countless wildlife, were killed in the eruption.
The 1968 eruption wiped out area towns, including Tabacon and the original Arenal. Today, they lie flooded beneath Lake Arenal, which was created in 1979 for hydroelectric purposes. The largest lake in Costa Rica, the 21,128-acre reservoir provides almost 50% of Costa Rica’s total electricity, as well as water for farming and irrigation. Arenal Volcano National Park, adjacent to Arenal Lake, is an important watershed, providing over 70% of the lake’s water.
At just over 1,800º F, Arenal Volcano’s lava is considered to be quite cool, and this low temperature makes for thicker, more solid lava. Since the 1968 eruption, Arenal has continued to erupt on a daily basis – a phenomenon known as strombolian activity – and as the “cool” lava rock accumulates, the volcano grows almost 10 feet per year. Over the last 40+ years, a second cone has grown up next to the previous, and today, Arenal sports two twin volcanic cones. The volcano’s second cone is just a few feet taller than the first, and together, they form the world-renowned “perfect” volcanic cone.
Lava flows tend to change directions every six to eight months, and typically favor the southwest and/or northwest slopes of the volcano. Explosions shoot ash plumes more than half a mile above the volcano and send boulders the size of houses tumbling down the slopes. In addition to daily activity, there are infrequent major eruptions.
Volcanologists in Costa Rica constantly monitor Arenal’s activity and warn that the volcano could have a major eruption in the future. The biggest threats are pyroclastic flows, a mixture of hot rocks and gases that can travel up to 50 mph, destroying everything in their path. Arenal Volcano National Park officials mandate that tourists stay on marked paths and keep a good distance from the crater.
Many hotels and ecolodges in the La Fortuna area cater to the awesome volcano view, which is best observed on a clear night. Chato Volcano is Arenal’s neighbor to the southeast, also located within Arenal National Park.
With over 200 volcanic formations, Costa Rica is a literal hotbed of relaxing mud baths, mineral pools, and thermal hot springs. Celebrated as one of the country’s best ways to be pampered, hot spring facilities range from rustic, natural pools to manicured grounds with well-maintained springs.
Hot springs are generally defined as springs produced from geothermally heated groundwater. There are several sources for earth-heated waters, but in Costa Rica, there is but one: volcanoes. Adjacent to underground lava and hot rocks, spring water travels through the ground, often picking up dissolved solids. Homeopathy and local traditional medicine have long held that, because of their high mineral content, Costa Rica’s hot springs have healing and restorative properties. After soaking in the steamy water, you’ll be hard pressed to disagree.
Well distributed around the country, the country’s hot springs are usually found within a few miles of an active volcano. Arenal, Rincon de la Vieja and the Miravalles Volcano are the country’s most popular destinations for thermal soaks, boasting highly-rated hot springs, mud baths and spa facilities.
Natural hot springs, or warm thermal pools located adjacent to cool-water rivers, are an option for adventurous travelers and hikers. Generally located within national parks or private reserves, these pools are rustic and offer few amenities. Most notable are those in Rincon de la Vieja National Park and Tenorio Volcano National Park. Miravalles Volcano offers fantastic mud baths, promising a natural salve for both skin and the soul. Horseback rides and hikes can be arranged to these secluded locations.
Resorts throughout Costa Rica have harnessed the restorative powers of volcanic hot springs, rerouting waters into luxurious facilities. Hot spring retreats boast lush grounds, landscaped gardens and pampering day spas. Visitors can enjoy mineral soaks in secluded pools of varying temperatures.
Due to a thriving tourism industry and nightly lava shows, the Arenal Volcano area is the current hot springs champion of Costa Rica. Four major facilities offer hot springs retreats – Tabacon, The Springs Resort, Baldi and Ecotermales – while smaller resorts offer entrance to their own thermal pools.