Costa Rica’s spectacular mountain region a must-see

By Catherine Kolonko


The ocean water is warm, the surfing is great but in Costa Rica, there is also a wealth of natural beauty at loftier heights in the country’s mountainous region.

It’s a landscape alive with color and sounds that heighten the senses.

Large leafy green plants drape like curtains on a stage of lushness, a spectacular reminder that this is the tropics. Trees bear fruits of sweet mango and guava.

Nature has painted flowers of many shapes and sizes in brilliant yellow, red, orange, purple and blue. Bees and other insects dart about them, while toads and birds go about their business with a melody of vowel-like croaks, and laid-back chirps and whistles. Try to identify the source of sounds in this place of abundant wildlife. It is an amusing way to pass the time.

Then there is Arenal Volcano, in Spanish Volcán Arenal, Costa Rica’s most active volcano, located in the country’s northwest and a three-to-four-hour drive from the airport outside the capital of San José. More than anything, seeing it makes it worth putting the beach behind and hitting the road that winds its way into the jungle’s heart.

It’s a moment to savor. That first glimpse of the volcano could very well turn around an ordinary day. Be prepared for that moment to sneak up on you, as it did me. It happened as I sat in a rocking chair on my patio at the Mountain Paradise hotel, my nose pointed into the pages of a Costa Rican guidebook on the Arenal region.

It was my second day visiting La Fortuna, a small, welcoming town that serves as a sort of touristic base camp for people intent on seeing the Arenal Volcano. I wanted to hike among the lush vegetation in search of exotic wildlife, swing down a zip line, close my eyes and sink into one of the nearby volcanic fed hot springs; then make it back to my hotel by nightfall for a chance to gaze upon lava, glowing orange in the night.

That’s what I wanted to do but the ticking clock reminded me that I had less than 24 hours remaining on this leg of my trip. So plan B was to read up on each activity before more of the morning slipped away and then choose only the best one for my schedule, budget and mood.

“Oh, look you can see the volcano,” my cousin and traveling companion said, stepping out on to the patio.

I raised my head and took in the thrill of clearly seeing the jagged, horizontal top of the volcano for the first time since we arrived. How long, I wondered, had I sat ignoring the very thing I had come here to see?

I felt privileged because some days the white, puffy mists of clouds that linger near the mountain completely hide the volcano crown. Visitors who don’t stay long might miss it altogether.

Somehow it’s easier to think of a mountain as a living thing when you know it can explode and spew angry fire from its belly. A volcano commands attention and respect for its power as well as its beauty. I stared mesmerized, and imagined what it could do and had done in the past.

In 1968, the Arenal Volcano erupted with a devastating explosion that spilled massive amounts of lava down the mountain, burying the town of Tabacón. An estimated 80 people were killed trying to flee.

One person who survived was Ramon Swartzentruber, a friendly, soft spoken, bilingual guide for the nature walk that I had signed up for not far from the base of the volcano. A wilderness hike is one of several activities to distract visitors while waiting for the main attraction to appear from a cloak of clouds and pour lava down the mountain.

Recalling that memorable day from his childhood, Swartzentruber described what his family heard and saw that made them instinctively run for their lives.

“We could feel the rocks and stones falling — small rocks” he said. “So we knew something was going on. We didn’t take no time. We just ran the other way.”

His family was poor with meager possessions but they grabbed what they could before they fled.

“I used to sleep on a potato bag on a concrete floor. So we put that on our heads and whatever rags we had, we put on our heads and ran the other way. Ran away from the activity of the volcano and the (falling) rocks,” he said.

Swartzentruber is a nature lover and freelance tour guide for people who want to get a close-up view of Costa Rica’s Arenal region. On this day, he guided me and two visitors from Barcelona, Spain, into the wilderness of a private conservation farm called El Silencio. He stopped briefly to reflect on surviving the furious purging volcano when he was just five years old.

“If it had been maybe two miles closer I might not be here,” he said.

At the age of 7, Ramon was adopted and that’s how he learned to speak English. The language skills benefit his work as a guide. During our tour, he easily switched back and forth from Spanish to English to point out a toucan perched high in the tree tops. The large bird with the colorful long beak is best viewed with binoculars or a zoom lens of a camera.

Swartzentruber stops along the path, thick with layers of leaves moistened from recent rain, to pluck a bitter leaf from a plant. He tastes it and then offers for us to do the same. You can rub it on your skin to repel insects, he explains. Later he picks up a fallen guava and cuts a thin slice to reveal pink flesh inside. It tastes sweet. He warns that you could run into worms if you try to eat from too deep inside the fruit. That’s good to know.

Everyone wants to see wildlife and Swartzentruber does his best to spot and point it out. Off in the distance, we saw a sloth, a brownish motionless blob attached to a tree limb. It blends with the foliage. Later a litter of raccoon-like creatures scurry about in trees above us — first difficult to see — a sore neck and patience with binoculars finally delivers. No howler monkeys this time, but he’s seen them on occasion.

Before beginning the hike, Swartzentruber gave us some basic safety rules to be sure to follow. He mentioned one of the two reptiles I’ve been afraid of crossing since deciding to visit Costa Rica.


He explained that he will speak softly and so should we. Always remain behind him and if he stops, we should stop. This way we will improve our chances of seeing more wildlife. Also, there might be a snake ahead on the path.

“Tengo miedo!” Deciding to practice a little Spanish, I tell him I’m scared.

“Me too,” he says, and we all laugh.

But I really was afraid. First because snakes give me the creeps but more so because in my research before booking my trip, I learned that Costa Rica has several poisonous snakes and a fair share of roaming crocodiles. Given all the beauty of the country however, I had decided to go and just do my best to avoid both creatures. I can happily report that I succeeded.

While chatting with Swartzentruber during the hike, I discovered that the wait for lava could be a very long one as there has been no activity on Arenal Volcano for almost a year. Nothing since has compared to 1968.

“It’s been spewing since ’68 and then it quit close to a year or eight months ago, something like that,” he said. “So it’s not making eruptions right now.”

The glow of the stars in the sky would have to do as it seemed there would be no sightings of burning lava on my last night in the Arenal region. Still, I wasn’t disappointed. A hike that took me up close and personal with nature’s many wonders was not a bad consolation prize.