The perfect trip: Costa Rica
Seeing lava flows today depends on the volcano’s daily moods, and a lack of clouds around the summit. However, Arenal’s activities have also turned La Fortuna into a centre for outdoor adventure, with trails that range from wheelchair friendly to a four-hour hike up to the crater lake of Arenal’s dormant neighbour, Volcán Chato. To the east, the churning rapids of the Balsa and Toro Rivers deliver heartpumping white-water rafting. To the south, in a narrow mountain canyon, hikers abseil down cliffs and waterfalls, and to the west, visitors soak away aches and pains earned in more energetic pursuits in a series of steamy hot springs.
Standing at the edge of ‘El Salto’ – a deep natural swimming hole on the southern edge of the village – Sergio says the area was attracting local explorers back in the early 1900s, when people came to scale the steep Arenal and camp in the warm, plant-filled crater at the top. ‘Some folks used to call it the Cerro de Los Arrepentidos – the Mountain of Regret,’ says the gregarious Sergio with a chuckle, ‘because so many people who started the climb would regret it about halfway up and then just walk back down.’ In recent years, the volcano has mostly become quieter. The last significant flare-ups were in the 1990s, but traces of the behemoth’s blistering past can still be found all over Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, where short trails wind through lava fields studded with coal-coloured igneous rocks. Today walkers are obliged to stop well before the summit, because occasionally – just when all is quiet – Arenal groans and rumbles to remind her visitors that she is merely taking a nap.
For guided adventures, see desafiocostarica.com.
Where to eat
This is cattle country, so you can’t go wrong with the delicious grilled steak at Don Rufino (steaks from £15).
Where to stay
Four miles west of town and surrounded by tropical rainforest, each of the 50 woodlined casitas (little houses) at the tranquil hillside retreat Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens comes with a volcano view. The resort also has a restaurant, pool and a spa with an open-air treatment room overlooking the forest (from £180).
Monteverde: Best for forest walks
‘The cloud forest is an interminable source of surprises,’ says Eduardo Venegas Castro as he walks beneath the trees. He has spent most of his adult life in Monteverde, having served as a director of two of the area’s most prominent cloud forest parks. Today he leads hikes around the mountains, armed with a spotting scope, a camera, binoculars and a small birdwatcher’s book.
Straddling the continental divide, the Monteverde area is a conservation zone preserving cloud forests where evergreen vines and lichens cling to every available surface, and jewel-coloured quetzals and hummingbirds flit between the trees. Hiking through the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, it is easy to understand Eduardo’s sense of mystery. Sitting at more than 1,650m above sea level, the reserve marinates in near-constant cloud cover. Moody light conditions are accompanied by a running soundtrack of drips and trickles, occasionally punctuated by the startling, synthesizer-like cry of the three-wattled bellbird.
The vegetation seems intent on covering everything in sight: massive plants sprout leaves the size of patio umbrellas and the vines of the strangler fig curl around wild avocado trees. Everywhere there are bright bursts of orchids, some of them no bigger than the head of a pin. Santa Elena is home to roughly 600 of Costa Rica’s 1,400 or more orchid species. Eduardo smiles as he looks out into the trees where a curling mass of green disappears into the mist. The forest does not reveal its secrets easily.
Half-day tours are available from flordelistours. com (from £30 per person, including park fees).
Where to eat
On the road to Monteverde, cosy Chimera serves excellent tapas (from £3; 00 506 2645 6081).