The very idea of seeing a live volcano thrilled and worried our kids.
"Is it going to erupt while we're there?
"Will we see lava?"
"Do the hot springs burn your skin?"
Fortunately, the answer to all these questions was "no." See, sometimes saying no to your kids makes them happy!
The drive from Liberia to the Arenal Volcano area in Costa Rica is about 3-4 hours, depending on exactly where you're headed. The volcano is at one end of Lake Arenal, which is a HUGE and beautiful lake with all kinds of small communities along the way. As with most roads in Costa Rica, it's a twisty ride and you don't want to rush it because it is so beautiful. Leave time for some stops along the way, like the famous German Bakery in the town of Nuevo Arenal.
FUN FACT! Nuevo Arenal (New Arenal) is called such because the original town of Arenal was destroyed in the eruption of the volcano in 1968. About 80 people died, and the ruins of the town are now at the bottom of the lake.
We kept our track record of making one major wrong turn on each road trip and ended up on a gravel road to Monteverde, which is the cloud forest region. As much as we would like to see Monteverde, it's best to have a 4 wheel drive vehicle for that trip and we were on a mission to see the volcano so we turned around.
There's lots of places to stay on the road to Arenal, but we wanted to get to La Fortuna which is past the national park area and one of the larger towns in the region. The whole Arenal area attracts young, outdoorsy, entrepreneurial folks and the energy is one of community and fun adventure. I was pleasantly surprised to find that while you CAN do very strenuous hiking, zip lining, boating, windsurfing, etc. around Arenal, there really is a way to experience all the region has to offer without breaking your knees.
Our first night we stayed right in La Fortuna at Hotel Arenal Jireh, which had a balcony, fridge, pool, hot tub, hot water, A/C, wifi, and hot full breakfast delivered to your room for $60 a night. You can stay in town for as low as $15 a night and as much as $200 per night, your choice. The absolute BEST part of this hotel though was the staff. Even if you don't stay at the hotel, I would stop there and introduce yourself and ask them to help you out. Both Jessica and Ulises are American but fluent Spanish speakers well familiar with the area. We hired Ulises to be our tour guide the next day and that was one of the best decisions we made since we got to Costa Rica. It took all the guesswork out and ended up saving us money.
**You can contact Ulises Vaquiz for Arenal area tour information at UlisesVaquiz@gmail.com. He was fantastic with the kids, is safety certified, and really knows the area.**
We ventured to the Arenal Observation Lodge, which used to be a base for scientists to study the volcano, and now is a privately owned resort and museum-$6 gets you in for the day (half price for kiddos, the tour guide is free). After being mesmerized by the sheer amazingness of Senor Arenal himself, we ventured around the restaurant, through the gardens and past the guest accommodations, museum, and pool (I would stay at this place if we go again) down into the jungle.
Here's what we heard (listen carefully for the Howler Monkeys)...
Here's what got the kids super excited...
Here's what we saw...
After going across the two suspension bridges, we emerged into some of the farmland and forest that 's part of the Lodge. There is large working animal and macadamia nut farm. Many people don't know that Arenal Volcano has a second crater, and we were fortunate enough to have the chance to get a great look at it.
We ventured back to the observation deck for trail mix and frutas, and to our delight had a lovely guest...a kawati. He sniffed us thoroughly, declined our offer of pineapple and trail mix, and padded back off into the forest.
You would THINK that would be enough for one day's adventure, but no! All this glory was before 1pm. Since Ulises is part of the expat community in the area, he took us to the little town of El Castillo and introduced us to Mikey, who is a former pro BMX biker. The two of them showed us a "secret" access to the lake and Mikey proceeded to launch the kids in the water repeatedly, much to their (and our) delight.
The perfect end to the day was our unanimous family pick for "best thing ever." THE HOT SPRINGS. Ulises showed us the public access point for the hot springs, which is really more like a hot river. You can go to resorts all over the Arenal area and pay $30-$60 for a day pass that
includes private hot springs and sometimes a meal or other activities included. We like free. The water of the hot springs left our skin amazingly soft.
We were more than ready to relax by the time we dropped off Ulises and headed off to our hotel. We stayed this night at the Arenal Volcano Inn, a couple of kilometers outside of La Fortuna (read: QUIET). We paid more, but there were far more amenities and the restaurant was one of the best we've experienced. Full buffet breakfast was included, and the pool and hot tub were lovely. The room was very spacious with large, comfy beds.
The next morning after a leisurely breakfast we made full use of the jacuzzi and pool and headed back to Playas del Coco. We will definitely be back to the Arenal region, we barely even scratched the surface of all there is to do, and I've got a powerful urge to zip line down a mountain!