When heading to volcano country in Costa Rica, most visitors want to get as close to the geological epicenter as possible, hiking near the rim, zip-lining over the craters, getting the room with the best view. For Vulcan Arenal, considered one of the most active volcanoes in the world, the Arenal Observatory Lodge is as close as you can get.
This 48-room lodge is the only hotel inside Arenal Volcano National Park and is partially funded by the Smithsonian Institute, which does research on the volcano and monitors its activity. It’s also a working cattle ranch whose employees attempt to make the ranching as sustainable as possible. There are 400 acres of reforested land, almost 300 acres of natural rainforest and plenty of hiking trails, waterfalls, volcano hikes and wildlife to keep anyone amused for days.
Rooms are located in several buildings throughout the property. La Casona is located just down the road and, as the budget option at the Observatory, comes highly recommended. Rooms on one side have a stunning view of the volcano, and the porch looks out over Lake Arenal to the west. Bathrooms are shared but big, new and very clean, and the building has an almost hostel feel, as you tend to interact with your neighbors more frequently. The best rooms if you want to meet people. There are also Standard and Smithsonian (located in the original lodging at the research center) rooms, suites, and a villa. Most rooms have great views, though they can get pretty pricey.
As far as entertainment goes, I could spend hours just sipping on tropical drinks and staring at the volcano, trying to decide if there is more smoke coming out of it than there was yesterday. Arenal last erupted in 2010, but many of the trails to the summit — less than 2 miles away — are closed due to dangerous fumes or small explosions that have killed hikers. This is about as close you can get:
But there is a lot of ground to cover. After checking out the little museum and monitoring station, hanging out in the gorgeous spring-fed pool, taking a horseback ride in the park (they rent horses and conduct tours right on the farm), and taking advantage of the many tours they can arrange from the lobby, you can take a hike to the nearby waterfalls, around the volcano, through the jungles, or up to Cerro Chaco, an old crater that used to be the active volcano in the area, now filled with a small lake and technically not extinct. This last hike is a lot more difficult than you might think (straight up and up and up), so give yourself plenty of time, bring plenty of water, and be prepared to get caught in the rain.
If you’re into birds, this could be one of the best places in the area to catch a glimpse of plenty of rare species. A British group staying there even caught sight of a quetzal, though I was not lucky enough. But the forests around the main lodge are colorful flurries of hustling and bustling birds, and the hotel can provide you with a comprehensive birding list if you want to check off your successes. There are lots of other critters to see, but be on the lookout for pit vipers that like to hang out in the trees!
The accommodations at the lodge are all very nice, but the biggest drawback (or plus, for some) is that the Arenal Observatory Lodge can be difficult to get to. It’s several miles outside of La Fortuna, the nearest town, and from any services, notably a market to buy cheap eats. The main roads around Lake Arenal and La Fortuna (and all the way to Liberia and San Jose) have all recently been paved and are currently well-maintained (but prone to washouts from flash flooding), but the road to the lodge is seven or so miles of dirt/gravel/pitted road that, during the rainy season, is impassible to anything but a 4WD vehicle. Keep in mind that bridges aren’t as popular in Costa Rica as they are elsewhere, and fording rivers is quite common. So once they’re at the lodge, many people don’t leave to explore town or find different menus than that found at the lodge. The food in the restuarant is fine (and a small breakfast buffet is included in your room rate) but not cheap, and many ingredients are locally sourced, but the choices can be bland and boring. Most people choose to eat there for convenience and for the incredible views of the volcano from every window.
There’s something about being on the front lines of a deadly volcano that could go at any time that makes a vacation well worth the windy roads to get there…