Aside from its beaches (which we didn’t get to visit but which we will hopefully be back for soon), probably the most obvious thing to do in Costa Rica is to visit a volcano. Costa Rica has 6 active volcanoes, the most visited of which is Arenal.
Located in the province of Alajuela, it’s easily a 3 hour drive from San José; by far not the most accessible volcano if the capital city is your base camp. But Poás was closed and Irazú wasn’t as easy for us to get to, so Arenal it was.
And it was fantastic!
Since this was my first time abroad, we’d booked a tour complete with transportation, food, and an English-speaking guide. I know this wasn’t the most authentic way to see the country, but for two relatively inexperienced international travelers, it was much easier and I stand by this decision. Someday I’m sure we’ll be comfortable making our way through foreign countries on our own, but we’re definitely not there yet.
Despite the fact that it was an organized tour, I feel like they did a pretty good job of making it an authentic cultural experience. Our guide was Costa Rican and full of knowledge and we learned so much history. We ate at small local restaurants. We drove down backroads rather than highways, passing through some off-the-beaten-path rural towns. And we stopped for souvenirs at a local craft market, which sold only items made by the locals, so our purchases directly supported the local economy.
After picking up all the tour members – which was a pretty diverse group that included 4 other Americans and one person each from Argentina, Mexico, Canada, Great Britain, and France – we headed northwest out of San Jose on the Intra American Highway towards the city of San Ramon. Along the way, we passed thousands of acres of coffee fields. Coffee is one of the main exports of Costa Rica and a large driver of their economy, behind tourism, electronics, and medical equipment.
San Ramon is a city of roughly 100K people located in the Alajuela Province about an hour northwest of San José. This region was initially a popular place for tobacco farming, which was actually prohibited when the area was under Spanish rule. Many illegal tobacco farms existed up in the mountains, though, and after gaining independence in 1821, tobacco farming became legal. For many years, tobacco was the main crop grown in San Ramon and a major export of Costa Rica. However, in the 1970s many other nations also began growing tobacco and Costa Rica struggled to compete. Nowadays, they grow a lot of coffee – as mentioned above – sugar, and houseplants, and are also a large producer of milk.
After passing through San Ramon, we headed north along Highway 702 towards La Fortuna and Arenal. This 1.5-2 hour drive took us through a very rural part of the nation that mostly consists of farms and tropical rain forest. Many of the fields were comprised of rows of house plants, which I found very interesting. It never occurred to me that house plants were actually grown in fields somewhere; I always just assumed seeds were planted in pots and then once they started to grow, they were sold. So it was a surprise to find out that most of the plants grown here in the Alajuela Province are exported to the US and Canada. How is it that we’ve even managed to make house plants an environmentally costly thing?
Anyway, as the road gained elevation we found ourselves driving through a tropical cloud forest, so named because it spends most of its life in the clouds. As you might expect, this area had extremely high humidity and lower temperatures than the surrounding regions. Grass also grows plentifully here, making it a good place to raise cattle.
Much of the forest is also protected by the government. Costa Rica is a very green country and they have prioritized conservation and environmental protection; 27% of the nation is currently part of either a conservation or reforestation program and they’ve also set aside numerous areas as National Parks. Plus, the entire nation currently obtains nearly 99% of their electricity from renewable sources, which is incredible! It’s not a perfect system. They still use fuel for cars and heating, and much of their renewable energy comes from 6 reservoirs, which of course means that waterways have been dammed. But it’s still a noteworthy accomplishment, and something the entire world should strive for. We could all probably learn a lot from Costa Rica.
Arenal Volcano is located in San Carlos county. This is a very hot and humid region, with ideal conditions to grow numerous crops including corn, plantains, pineapple, taro, yucca, and cassava. As with the rest of the nation, they also raise cattle here.
The small town of La Fortuna is located at the base of Arenal Volcano, and we stopped here for a delicious lunch. Nearly 80% of tourists who visit Costa Rica come to Arenal, so this is a busy area. The food was delicious and the open-air seating area was a beautiful place to enjoy a tasty meal.
From here, we headed to Arenal Volcano National Park. Arenal used to be one of the most active volcanoes in the world, but it hasn’t erupted since 2010. Currently, it’s one of the most perfectly conical mountains in Central America and is surrounded by lush vegetation. At the National Park, there’s a short path leading out to amazing views of the volcano as well as Lake Arenal.
After taking in this massive volcano (it rises nearly 5000 feet/1500 m above the surrounding landscape), we continued to our final destination of the day: Tabacón Hot Springs. The water at Tabacón flows out of the side of Arenal, and the hot springs resort has both manmade pools and also natural flowing streams in which you can soak. It was a wonderful, relaxing experience, complete with a pool bar, waterslides, rainforest, and an iguana sighting!
Also, their dinner buffet was amazing!
And this, sadly, was the end of our Costa Rican adventures. It was far too short a trip and we absolutely plan to return at some point in the hopefully not-so-distant future. If any of you have been to Costa Rica, I’d love to hear your recommendations for places to visit when we return!