La Fortuna, Costa Rica and Arenal Volcano National Park — By Jennifer Shipp
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La Fortuna, Costa Rica and Arenal Volcano National Park — By Jennifer Shipp

When I planned our trip to La Fortuna, I pictured us hiking or boating somewhere around Arenal Volcano National Park. The place is a haven for tourists. It has it all: a volcano, ziplining, hot springs, horseback riding, waterfalls, hiking, and kayaking. We’ve been living in Alajuela now for over two weeks, and during this time I have asked the question ”what is there to do in Costa Rica?” a number of times. I’ve wondered if there was some reasonably priced grand activity I’ve never done such that I would be lured away from this house that is mostly inaccessible to everything in Costa Rica except Poas Volcano.

I’ve studied the Costa Rican guidebooks and if there’s one thing I’ve realized, it’s that the particular tourist attractions at Arenal Volcano National Park are everywhere. So why did we decide to go there? Mostly because of the volcano.

Even though an Arenal volcano eruption hasn’t occurred for two years, it’s still an interesting sight to see because it just seems so edgy. It seems as though we might hear about it in the news someday and be able to say, “We were there.” Of course, it would be an even cooler and edgier story to tell if we were there when it erupted after years of dormancy, but I’d also want to get out of that sort of situation alive and intact so hearing about it on the news later would probably be exciting enough for me.

It just so happened that a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck about 80-90 miles off the coast of El Salvador on Sunday, August 26, 2012 as we were leaving La Fortuna (where Arenal Volcano National Park is located). Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, and Mexico were all given tsunami warnings. A meager 4” wave struck Acajutla, El Salvador later on, but other than that and some small earthquakes and broken windows in a small southeastern farming community in California, nothing “big” happened.

Volcanos and earthquakes are “exotic” natural tragedies to our family and though earthquakes are rather hard to pin down, we tend to get excited about the idea of seeing some lava. We went to Mount St. Helens to see our first volcano about 3 years ago on a very foggy day. We only had one day in the area and it was quite a drive off the beaten path to get there, but Mount Saint Helens is such an historical icon that we really didn’t want to miss it. But by the time we got up the winding roads to the Visitor’s Center, the volcano was completely shrouded in mist. We thought we’d wait for a little while and maybe the fog would lift.

We went for a walk, but the mist still enveloped the view. So we meandered through the Mount St. Helen’s Visitor Center for about an hour. Sometime around noon, we decided to watch a special movie about the volcano on a big screen equipped with a horrible speaker system. At the end of the movie, the screen lifted in a climactic moment to reveal a huge pane glass window looking out at… a big white cloud of heavy fog. A kid who worked at the Visitor’s Center then ran out onto the platform outside the window and held up a big poster of Mt. Saint Helen’s and danced around with it. That was as close as we got to laying our eyes on that volcano.

Arenal, however, was impossible to miss. It looked the way you would picture a volcano looking as a kid; tall and conical with a little crater at the top.

It’s true that the Arenal Volcano activity has slowed over recent years. An expatriate named William told me that the volcano used to be lit up every night with rivers and tributaries of red hot lava. He thought it was “cool” and lamented the fact that it quit spewing lava about 2 years ago. I asked him how long it has been erupting like that before it went dormant and he said, “Like, forever.”

But actually, according to what I’ve been able to find out about Arenal Volcano history, the eruption that started the tourist craze to La Fortuna began with quite a boom in 1968. The eruption buried 15 square km with lava around Arenal and killed almost 90 people. The cities of Tabacon, Pueblo Nuevo, and San Luis were all buried. Arenal Volcano activity continued daily from 1968 until 2010. I asked William if he was at all worried about volcano’s silence. “Doesn’t a quiet volcano like that seem a bit ominous?”

He didn’t think so. But personally, I’d rather live in Tornado Alley than in La Fortuna with the threat of a volcano in my backyard.

 

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