Costa Rica’s natural fire and water tour

Special to The Times

Little can top the drama of seeing an active volcano, and one Central American country -- Costa Rica -- has seven, including spectacular Arenal. A visit to Arenal is among the world’s travel highlights. And both the trip and the stay are affordable and easily made.

Arenal, a little more than nine miles from Fortuna in northwest Costa Rica, is a region of forested hills that contains the towering mountain peak that bears its name. The volcano’s brilliant nighttime lava shows have become a prized local commodity. There is some debate on the odds of a big eruption, and folks aren’t allowed to climb the volcano itself.

Viewing an eruption is a matter of chance (the odds are best from December to April, in dry season), but at any time of year, the glow of bubbling lava is a thrilling encounter with nature. It occurs often enough to justify an overnight stay, but unpredictable local weather can sometimes wreathe the summit in clouds that obscure the view.


Even when that happens, there are plenty of other things to do. You can partake of another local geothermal feature: hot springs, channeled and turned into attractions, such as Baldi Thermae Spa ($18), with pools, water slides, bars and restaurants. Some visitors prefer the pair of springs run by Tabacon resort, (877) 277-8291,

One is Las Fuentes ($8), where you can soak and cavort in naturalistic streams and waterfalls. Its more expensive counterpart, Tabacon ($29; $19 after 7 p.m.), is a tropical garden interspersed with more elaborate streams, waterfalls and pools; there are also more conventional pools with swim-up bars, a spa, restaurant and more.

Numerous other nearby activities include Costa Rica’s signature “canopy tours,” in which you whiz over and through the treetops while dangling from a steel cable in a harness. (Tamer variants involve canopy trams and hanging bridges over the jungle.)

And everywhere there is whitewater rafting, horseback riding, exploring local caves, visiting Indian reservations and water sports on beautiful Lake Arenal, all of them inexpensive by U.S. standards because of Costa Rica’s low price structure.

For lodging and dining, the best deals are in La Fortuna, a town a short distance below the volcano. You can rent a small, dismal room for as little as $12, but good-quality budget lodgings start a little higher. A good choice is Hotel Fortuna, (866) 907-4678,, which charges $20 for a double. For amenities such as air conditioning, cable TV or a pool, try Luigi’s Hotel, 011-506-479-9898,; $72 for a double.

Heading out of town and lining the road that climbs the hill toward Arenal are the fancier, more expensive lodges and resorts. Some have superb volcano views and better-quality restaurants -- but even these are moderately priced by U.S. standards. They range from the modest (but TV- and AC-equipped) Roca Negra Inn, 011-506-479-9237, where doubles start at $30, to Tabacon, where doubles start at $139 in the low season.


In between, there are Los Lagos, 011-506-461-1818, (from $77), Arenal Observatory Lodge, 011-506-290-7011, (from $53) and Montana de Fuego, 011-506-460-1220, (from $110).

Many U.S. gateways and airlines provide affordable service to Costa Rica; for example, flights out of Los Angeles are available for about $360 round trip in early June. If you want to consider a package tour combining air and lodging, try Central America experts such as Capricorn Leisure, (800) 426-6544,, and Tara Tours, (800) 327-0080,, which has a seven-night tour, including air transportation from LAX, for $1,744 per person.

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