Views from the Arenal Observatory Lodge, Costa Rica
The Arenal Volcano is one of the most visited areas in Costa Rica. It’s easy to see why – there’s a colossal volcano sticking up out of flat farmland. And it explodes, a lot. In fact I think it is considered the world’s most consistently active volcano.
The image of red hot lava pouring forth into the night sky is a staple of Arenal tourist promotion. And yet, you can only see this from one side of the volcano. The crater tantalisingly changes shape periodically to expose the lava flows to different directions.
Its first eruption in recorded history or memory was 1968. Until then, the locals thought it was just a big hill. In fact they called it ‘El Cerro’, the hill. Presumably they got an almighty shock when it suddenly erupted in their midst.
The scars from that first, most major, eruption are still very much in evidence in the immediate vicinity of the volcano. Black sand, lava fields and very patchy vegetation. This despite Arenal being basically in tropical lowlands where, if you threw a peach stone out of the window in the morning you’d be harvesting peaches by the afternoon.
The way things are set out at Arenal is that there is one main road which loops around the north side of the volcano. To the south is more or less national park, very little in the way of population.
At the moment, and for the last 18 months or so, the crater has been exposed to the south. There is just one hotel to the south of the crater, the Arenal Observatory Lodge.
To get that priceless view of red hot lava against the night sky, you really have to go to the Observatory Lodge. The hotels to the north of the volcano can’t wait for a big explosion to clear their view of the lava!
The Observatory Lodge is very close to the volcano as it was originally created as an observation point for the Smithsonian Institute. It feels somewhat like a scientific institute still – certainly the older rooms do. You don’t come here for luxury though it’s comfortable enough. Rooms are en suite and the service is friendly.
You do come here for the views at night. I should say the possible views at night since Arenal volcano is so often coated in cloud.
You also come to the Observatory Lodge to look for birds, it has an extraordinary list of species.
You might also come here because it is significantly higher than the town of La Fortuna and the other hotels in the Arenal area. Something like 600m higher. That makes all the difference in terms of temperature. While La Fortuna sweats, the Observatory Lodge enjoys cool evenings and night times.
This photos probably sums up the Observatory Lodge quite well. A couple sitting out birdwatching, the enormous volcano ahead, covered in cloud. The peeling paint on the decking (it’s due to be repainted right around now).
What the photo doesn’t capture is that the volcano is very, very active at the moment. This means that every hour or so, there was a very large explosion. Much like thunder, at times far louder than that. While I was here there was an explosion loud enough that even the local guides ducked.
Just after the explosion, you would see boulders cascading down the blackened slopes of the volcano. During the day they just look like large grey boulders. At night, you see that they are in fact glowing red.
It really is spectacular.
I should add that the Observatory Lodge is in fact several miles from the volcano so you are very safe. I should also add that you don’t necessarily have to stay here to enjoy the nighttime pyrotechnics.
You can pay a few dollars to come into the Observatory’s grounds. There are lots of self guided trails through the forests. You can then stay for dinner at the restaurant before heading back round to your hotel on the north side.
A word or two of warning and advice:
1) It’s really only worth going there if it’s likely to be a relatively clear night.
2) Go mid-afternoon to enjoy the grounds and surroundings. The lodge lies just beyond the Arenal National Park and other places you should visit when in the area.
3) The Observatory Lodge is 9km off the main, paved, road. That means 9km of dirt road. If you stay for dinner, you’ll be driving it in the dark. It’s not a problem per-se but you really do need to be cautious when driving on dirt roads. Doubly so after dark.
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