Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica
Actually, the chances of us being carbonized by an errant lava rock are not that great. The last hiker to actually be burned to a crisp occurred a decade ago when three hikers were caught by a particularly energetic eruption. One was fatally burned, the other two were critically injured. But the volcano seems particularly active this day, a fact confirmed by a local guide we happen across on the trail, and we are wary of flying lava. We don’t want to have our names added as a footnote to the lore of Arenal.
But our goal evades us. We still haven’t caught sight of the volcano’s active crater. And if the low cloud cover stays, we will never see the peak of Arenal, its cone spewing rocks and lava. So we continue upward, hoping that we’ll get a break. We leave the second-growth area and hike through a zone of thicker rainforest. The canopy here completely hides the sky. So now we are even more skittish. At least before we were comfortable with the pretense that we could see a hurtling rock and scramble out of the way. Since we can’t see through the jungle canopy some 80 feet overhead to watch for flaming meteors (not that it would do much good anyway, we’d probably stand awestruck while a boulder flattened us.), every rumble from above results in involuntary flinches from us.
About 2200 feet up the mountain’s steep lower slope, we break out of the thick rainforest into an open area on the western slope. This face of Arenal has been scoured clean of all vegetation by the heat of the volcano’s core and the rocks flying out of the volcano’s innards. The climbing is tough here, the slopes a combination of loose gray ash, small porous lava rocks, and irregular football-sized boulders. There is little soil to hold this aggregate together and we find our footing precarious and dicey. Our hiking becomes an ordeal of sliding and stumbling. The contrast between the open slope and the rainforest is dramatic. From the deep green rainforest vegetation with its colorful splashes of red and yellow and blue birds, butterflies, and flowers we have emerged into a dull monochromatic world of ash and smoke. Everything is gray; the ash-laden slope, the dreary gunmetal volcanic rocks, and the dull sky overhead.
The grumbling from above, no longer muffled by the isolating effects of the jungle canopy, is unnerving. Each eruption is announced with a sharp report similar to a cannon shot, followed by a growling roar that sounds like a cross between rolling thunder and Godzilla’s stomach after eating half of Tokyo. We can feel the ground rumble beneath our feet. From somewhere up the slope we hear gigantic rocks skipping and somersaulting down the gradient. We have come about five miles from the road near the village of La Fortuna, through the rainforest to this point on the naked slope. It has been a hot and hard climb through rough terrain with the ever-present threat of catapulting rocks on our minds. We have ascended beyond the recommendations of the local guides, who at this time are no longer leading clients much beyond the confines of the upper rainforest.
With the limited visibility, we know it is unsafe to proceed further. Besides, any further progress would be futile since we would practically have to reach the summit to see any volcanic activity. The day is growing short and light is fading. We decide to stop and regroup and decide on our next move. Then, as if on cue, the mist disappears, the clouds that have enveloped Arenal blow away and there it is. In its near symmetrical beauty, the conical mountain is revealed. Arenal has two peaks, the result of an ancient eruption that blew out of the side of the mountain and then formed another cone. Both summits sit before our eyes. We can see the cone flinging rocks up into the sky where they tumble back to earth and begin their cartwheeling roll down the mountain’s flanks. A puff of ash dust explodes with each impact and the rocks fracture and splay into ever smaller and more numerous bits, one trail of hot rock becoming two, then four, then twenty, fanning out over the lower slopes.
Arenal is one of the most active volcanoes in the Americas. Located along the mountainous central spine of Costa Rica, in the Tilarán Range, about 80 miles northwest of San Jose, the volcano is surrounded by a number of hotels, lodges, and restaurants that cater to hikers. Guides and maps are available at most of these businesses. Be aware that the many tour companies and guides serving Arenal strongly discourage independent hikes up the volcano. This is not only for selfish reasons, but also due to safety concerns. Local guides know the safe areas to enter and the unsafe areas to avoid and will discourage you from hiking to the mountain alone. Still, the available maps show various trails to take to reach points on the mountain that are well beyond where most guides are willing to take you. With a little bit of coaxing, you can squeeze hiking advice from the guides. During our hike we encountered more than one guide who strongly discouraged us from proceeding up the mountain beyond the limits of the rainforest. Despite this, hikers commonly proceed onto the lava fields. But use caution and definitely do not proceed up the slopes into the volcano’s active danger zones. Many of these are marked with signs and flags. You can get a great view of the volcano and experience the beauty of the rainforest without frying the rubber soles off your boots.
Also near the foot of the volcano is Tabacon Springs, whose volcano-heated hot springs are famous for boiling tourists. There is a spa located along the highway leading past Arenal and after a tiring day of hiking the mountain, this is a great place to catch dinner and soak in the steaming springs while partaking of a cool drink from the swim-up bar in the spa’s pool.
Arenal volcano is one of the major tourist attractions in Costa Rica. As a result, a significant infrastructure of hotels has grown up in the surrounding area. Finding adequate lodging and dining is no problem. There are many fine lodging options in the area but a notable one is the Arenal Lodge, located about 10 kilometers from the volcano. Rent a junior suite at the lodge and your picture window will face Arenal. You can sit on your front porch and watch Arenal’s show all night long. The nearby tiny town of La Fortuna offers shopping and a smattering of local restaurants offering authentic Costa Rican cuisine.
Contact Arenal Lodge at 011-506-228-3189, email: email@example.com. If you prefer not to hike solo, many Costa Rican companies provide tours to the Arenal area, offering combinations of guided hiking tours, mountain biking, or horseback riding. A couple of these are Fantasy Tours, 800-272-6654, email: firstname.lastname@example.org , and Sunset Tours, 011-506-479-9415, email: email@example.com, http://www.sunset-tours.com/.
(This article originally appeared on Great Outdoor Recreation Pages (GORP.com))