Volcanoes are generally considered rather scary, unsafe places. There was that whole Pompeii incident, of course, not to mention Mt. St. Helens. Any sensible person knows that you don’t want to be anywhere near a volcano when it erupts, and that volcanoes have the nasty habit of erupting at unpredictable and very inconvenient times. Nevertheless, dozens of active volcanoes around the world have become major tourist destinations. PR types minimize the danger, of course (“Over 27 months without a tourist fatality!”), and, statistically speaking, the odds do indeed favor a safe visit. But many thousands of tourists take the risk because volcanoes are so strange and interesting. Most of us know volcanoes only from stories that are set in faraway places and therefore have a mythological character; seeing an active volcano in person seems a little bit like seeing a unicorn—something that doesn’t seem like it could really exist.
In central Costa Rica, the Arenal Volcano offers the quintessential volcano tourism experience. Practically the entire economy of the nearby town of La Fortuna is based on tourism. There are hotels, lodges, restaurants, tours, hikes, and activities of every description that cater to people who make the long drive to the area for one reason: to hear the rumble and catch a glimpse of spewing smoke, ash, and lava from Arenal. But by far the most famous (and most expensive) attraction besides the volcano itself is the Tabacón Hot Springs Resort & Spa.
Forgotten But Not Gone
Tabacón was once a tiny, quaint village nestled at the base of Arenal Peak. The mountain had been a volcano once, yes, but it hadn’t erupted since 1525 so its history was effectively forgotten. In 1968, a class of schoolchildren in Tabacón was given the assignment of drawing a picture of their town. When one child labeled the mountain “Arenal Volcano,” the teacher marked it wrong: “Arenal Peak is not a volcano, it’s just a mountain.” A few days later, the mountain erupted. The entire village of Tabacón and the nearby town of Pueblo Nuevo were wiped out, destroyed by ash and hot gases. Although many of the town’s residents fled when the rumbling began, 78 people died.
In the years since, there have been several other significant eruptions and a few fatalities. A major eruption in 1998 forced the evacuation of nearby hotels, and lava came rolling down the hill as close as 500 feet (about 150 meters) from the resort. Arenal is still quite active, with minor eruptions many times a day. By day there are puffs of smoke accompanying the menacing rumbles, and on a clear night you can see orange streaks running down from the peak. Such is the popularity of the volcano that enterprising developers decided to erect an elaborate resort on the site of the former town of Tabacón. Where better to experience the sights and sounds of Arenal?
Tabacón consists of two sites: a hotel with famously expensive views of the volcano (and an optional wake-up service for guests who want to be informed if the sky clears in the middle of the night to see an eruption), and the expansive hot springs and spa complex across the road and around the corner. The term “hot springs” is not strictly accurate, as the source of the water is an underground river, but the water is heated naturally by the volcano so the net effect is the same. The water is channeled into a series of interconnected pools where, because the hot water is mixed with cold water in varying proportions, the temperature ranges from briskly cold to 102°F (39°C). Signs next to each pool indicate its temperature, though I can say from experience that some 39° pools are hotter than others.
Caution: Water May Be Hot
The pools themselves, some of which include waterfalls you can sit under for a natural massage, were for the most part constructed from local stone in such a way as to look quite natural. I realized just how natural they were the first time I stepped in one. The bottom was littered with large, slippery, irregularly shaped stones. It was sometimes quite difficult to move around without slipping, tripping, or stubbing a toe. Then I began to notice there were very few handrails, no signs urging caution, and no requirement that guests sign a release form before using the hot springs. I laughed to myself when I realized that such a place could never exist in the United States; it would be either regulated or sued out of existence in a week. That made me enjoy the experience all the more—a place where adults were given credit for some common sense, where simple pleasures could be appreciated without a generic, artificially sterile environment. Imagine that.
The grounds where the hot springs are located are meticulously manicured but still appear to have been carved out of a little corner of rain forest, which in fact they were. It gives you a sort of “Jurassic Park” feeling—a controlled slice of a wild environment. And despite the large numbers of tourists, it is a wonderfully relaxing place.
Float Me a Loan?
I had just one disappointment: a much-hyped warm pool with a swim-up bar. I had never been to one before and that sounded like great fun. Contrary to what was stated in the ordinarily unimpeachable Frommer’s Guide to Costa Rica, the swim-up bar did not offer the option of paying with a preauthorized credit card voucher; they accepted only cash. If I may say so, a cash-only swim-up bar is about the silliest thing I’ve ever heard of. Once you get to the bar and figure out you can’t pay for anything, you have to get out of the pool, go back to the locker room, get some cash, return to the pool and wade out to the bar carefully, holding bills so they don’t get wet—and with nowhere to put your change. After all that aggravation, you’re going to want a very large piña colada to settle your nerves. Fortunately, those are easily obtained.
After a long day of trekking through the hot, humid rain forest, there’s nothing like a nice relaxing soak in a hot, humid spa. No, really. Strangely enough, the hot water actually feels very refreshing, especially in the evening. We didn’t plan far enough ahead to get reservations for a room at Tabacón—which is just as well since we got a better deal and a great view at another lodge down the road—but day passes are available for a modest fee, and often included as part of other tour/adventure packages. When Arenal is not busy devastating the countryside, it’s often clouded in, so you may travel halfway across the country and find there’s nothing to see. The hot springs themselves are worth the trip, but all the same, I suggest watching your step on those wet rocks. —Joe Kissell