Arenal Volcano National Park
Last Updated: May 09, 2013
Arenal Volcano National Park draws on the imagination as you wander through each of its unique and bizarre landscapes. From the Heliconias trailhead, you'll walk into a hedge maze of tall grass– a similar species to sugar cane. The grass, known as brave cane, rises some twenty feet into the air on all sides of the trail, acting as the first of the pioneer plants that will lay the groundwork for the rainforest's regeneration.
Location : 80 miles northwest of San Jose
Area : 29,692 acres
Hours : 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
Telephone : 2461-8499
Entrance Fee : $10.00
Beyond the brave cane, small twisted trees, more fitting of a desert, grow out of the volcanic soil. Below them the tiny sprouts of touch-me-not plants, droop inward with the slightest brush of a hand or foot.
Rainforest covers more than a third of the 30,000 acre national park. While much of the original rainforest destroyed in Arenal volcano's 1968 eruption, parts survived –even when choked in volcanic ash. At certain places in the park, you can see where the trail separates the rainforest from the brave cane.
Deeper into the park, you'll encounter the remnants of the 1968 eruption's Lava flow; the broken pieces of lichen smeared volcanic badlands that reach up from the rainforest. Standing on top of the lava flow, you can see impressive views of Lake Arenal and the volcano.
Although it's too dangerous to actually walk up Arenal volcano (poisonous gas is always a deterrent), you can still enjoy more than five miles of trails through the parks many habitats including rainforest, grasslands and volcanic badlands.
First-time visitors to Arenal Volcano National Park may notice that one half of the volcano appears charred, black and barren while the other is layered in thick, primary rainforest. During the 1968 eruption, lava and molten rock demolished the western half of the volcano leaving behind ash-covered ground, igneous rock and giant craters from volcanic debris.
Average Temperature: 75 to 90 degrees
Annual Rainfall: Up to 195 inches
Weather, as in much of Costa Rica, is unpredictable with clouds rolling in at a moment's notice, obscuring Arenal's near-perfect cone. Increase your odds with a visit during the dry season.
Hikes and nature walks are the most popular activities in the park where experts estimate that approximately half of Costa Rica’s land-dwelling vertebrate species live.
Note that, for the safety of park guests, hiking is only permitted on marked trails. Additionally, due to the volcano’s toxic fumes and gases, visitors are not allowed to hike near the volcano's crater.
Camping is not permitted in Arenal Volcano National Park. The Arenal Observatory Lodge is located in the national park and is the only place visitors can legally sleep within the park's boundaries.
Flora & Fauna:
Hikers and wildlife watchers often see howler and spider monkeys, white-nosed coatis, sloths, deer, boa constrictors, parrots, parakeets, black vultures, resplendent quetzals, trogons, hummingbirds, and motmots. Plenty of interesting ferns, heliconia, match trees, brave cane and hardwoods dot the landscape as well.
A ranger station and restrooms are located at the entrance to the park. Trail maps are available at the ranger station.
The park has four trails that span more than five miles through the park.
Heliconias Trail: This 0.6-mile loop trail is the ideal introduction to the park and volcano, as it passes by the 1968 lava flow site. The trail has access to a longer one-mile trail that leads to an overlook of the volcano and Lake Arenal.
Las Coladas Trail: Mostly flat, this 1.25-mile trail winds around the base of the volcano, offering views of the 1993 lava flows. This trail connects directly with the Toucans Trail.
Toucans Trail: Continues from the Las Coladas Trail another 1.8 miles through dense, tropical rainforest. This is a great place for spotting wildlife, especially howler and spider monkeys in the trees. On the way back to the park entrance (the trail does not loop, so hikers must double-back), enjoy excellent views of the volcano summit.
Lookout Trail: Accessed only from the park headquarters, the Lookout Trail leads down to Lake Arenal. Located at the base of the volcano, the trail offers great views of the 1968 and 1993 lava flows, as well as Cerro Chato and Arenal Basin.
Light rain gear is advisable. Visitors can hike park trails on their own or join a guided hike available in La Fortuna.
From La Fortuna drive west toward Tabacon Resort and continue 1.2 miles until you see a sign for the national park. Turn left on the hard-packed dirt road, and then follow the signs to the park, which will be on the left.
A taxi costs approximately $50-60 round-trip from La Fortuna to the western part of the volcano. Buses are available twice a day, 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., cost $5.50, and leave from the La Fortuna bus station.
At approximately 3,000 years old, Arenal Volcano is considered a young volcano. Little is known about its early life, but it had been believed dormant from AD 1500 until 1968. In fact, adventure lovers, hikers and naturalists regularly ascended to the volcano’s summit, often camping out in the cool crater.
On July 29, 1968, for the first time in recorded history, Arenal Volcano erupted. Lava and magma exploded from the volcano, turning its once-green slopes to dots of red and gray ash. Eighty people and approximately 45,000 cattle, in addition to countless wild animals, were killed in the eruption.
The 1968 eruption destroyed several towns, including the original Arenal. Today, those towns lie flooded beneath Lake Arenal, which was created in 1979. The largest lake in Costa Rica, the 21,128-acre reservoir provides almost 50% of Costa Rica’s total electricity, as well as water for farming and irrigation. Arenal Volcano National Park, which is adjacent to Arenal Lake, is an important watershed, providing over 70% of the lake’s water.
Interestingly, Arenal Volcano’s return to active status was not through the old crater – on July 29, lava erupted from three new craters, shooting out enough lava rock to begin creating a new cone beside the old crater. Today, Arenal Volcano’s second cone is a few feet taller than the first, and together, they form what is considered the third-most perfect volcanic cone in the world.