On our first full day in Costa Rica, the BF and I boarded a shuttle bus and started our 3.5-hour commute on some super, nausea-inducing curvy roads to the Arenal region of Costa Rica (San Jose is in the south, west part of the country, Arenal is sort of in the north, central part.)
The Arenal volcano is the main attraction here. It's a relatively new volcano, having been created in the 1960s (and taking out a nearby town when the mountain blew its top.) It's an active volcano, almost always erupting - but often covered in clouds. So it's really a crap shoot for how much of the volcano you'll be able to see.
The closest town to the volcano is La Fortuna - renamed because the town was "fortunate" to survive the first eruption. It's about 2 blocks big, and mostly houses a few restaurants and gift shops for the tourists. Although there's a really pretty church with a view of the volcano, and a pretty park in front of it.
Our hotel, the Arenal Paraisso (Par-ay-ee-so), was about five minutes outside of La Fortuna, on the way to the volcano. Every room has a volcano view, and our bungalow was our own little house, complete with a resident hummingbird in the bush out front. It had a porch, it was made entirely of wood, and it was quiet at night except for the night animals and the monkeys. This area is chock-full of wildlife. This particular hotel had its own hot springs (which were actually not hot, because they cheated and funneled them from the REAL hot springs) and its own zip line. (Zip line tours are HUGE in Costa Rica. Word of advice if you do this, only about 10 percent of the zip line operators are actually licensed. Check before you jump off of a 500-foot high cable line.) We enjoyed the hotel, but it was a bit rustic, there were bugs (you're in a freakin rain forest, what do you expect) and there was a bit of a musty smell. However, I don't think you'd find any different in any other hotels.
We purchased a volcano hike tour from Sunset Tours (can't say enough good things about Sunset Tours.) We got on a van and took a very bumpy ride to the base of the volcano (the side that wasn't erupting) and took an hour-long hike through the primary forest surrounding the volcano. On the way, we stopped to be overrun by some Quintis, which look like raccoons with longer snouts. They were not shy (the photos below show the BF being surrounded. Yes! A photo of the BF. Another to follow on Thurs of the two of us, up close.) Once on the hike, we saw howler monkeys, which made the BF super happy, and lots of birds. The guide was great - he knew everything about the forest, and did one heck of a howler monkey call.
After the hike, we got back on the bumpy road to the active side of the volcano (along with every other tourist in Arenal) to see the volcano erupt. There was a fair amount of cloud cover, but after about 10 minutes of watching, we saw the volcano spit out some firey rocks and ash. (I was expecting a lava flow, but according to the guide, that kind of eruption is rare to see. It's more rocks being blown out of the top.)
Our second day in Arenal, we took a side trip to the Cano Negro Wildlife Reserve, also with Sunset Tours, on the Rio Frio river to go wildlife spotting. That'll be tomorrow's entry.
And now, for some Arenal photos. (Roll over the image for the caption.)