Last month the dry season had fully arrived in Monteverde—dust from the roads coated everything, our azalea bush was covered in magenta blossoms, Monstera and banana leaves drooped from lack of water, and instead of being defined by clouds and mist, our mountaintop views spanned all the way to the Nicoya Penninsula and to Arenal Volano. Perhaps it was the clear vistas of much of the rest of Costa Rica, or perhaps I had simply been in Monteverde long enough, but my thoughts began to drift beyond the cloud forest. As a result, I’ll be spending the next several weeks describing some of our favorite, non-Monteverde corners of Costa Rica.

Today’s post is dedicated to La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano. As the crow (or grackle, in our case) flies, Lake Arenal is no more than 30 kilometers north of Monteverde, but for us humans the journey involves bumpy dirt roads and passage over the Continental Divide. The good news is that shuttle companies offer daily “Jeep-Boat-Jeep” trips between Monteverde and the Arenal region: first they drive you from Monteverde down to Arenal Lake, then you hop in a boat to cross the water while enjoying spectacular views of the volcano, and finally the shuttle delivers you to your hotel or hostel. Not bad!

Morning birding outside our hotel in Arenal.

A couple of weeks ago our family spent three days in Arenal. The largest town in the region is La Fortuna—a nice hub for affordable accommodations and food—but we splurged on a hotel closer to the lake and to Arenal Volcano, given our interest in hiking and swimming in the region’s thermal rivers and pools.

Arenal Volcano was Costa Rica’s most active volcano until 2010. It erupted unexpectedly in 1968, destroying the village of Tabacón. Eleven years later the Costa Rican government relocated the village of Arenal to higher ground and built a new dam which tripled the size of Lake Arenal. This hydro-electric project initially provided over 70% of Costa Rica’s electricity. At the moment, Arenal Volcano is considered dormant, though its dome still dominates the region’s landscape and the volcano’s geothermal activity heats numerous springs.

Birding in the area proved to be spectacular, and this was how we started each morning: awakened at 6:00 by the deep groans of howler monkeys, foregoing the hairbrush but grabbing the binoculars and our favorite Costa Rica bird book. Before coming to Central America, I was an amateur birder, at best; my kids and I could name about ten species of birds that frequented our backyard feeder in Maine. Costa Rica has not simply nudged our family, but enthusiastically shoved us, into birding—it’s impossible not to be interested in all of our colorful avian neighbors here.

A Red-legged Honeycreeper charms us on a morning bird walk.

One of the joys of traveling into different ecosystems in Costa Rica is being rewarded with whole new groups of birds. Our first morning in Arenal, right on our hotel’s grounds, we were charmed by colorful little birds, including bright red Summer Tanagers and blue-and-black-feathered, Red-legged Honeycreepers with their eponymous red-orange legs.

One afternoon we went for a jog up a bumpy farm road near the hotel and were rewarded with a nesting colony of Montezuma Oropendolas, an eccentric black bird with an orange beak and yellow tail feathers. The slightly smaller females were busy flying back and forth through the golden afternoon light with beaks full of straw, which they then wove into pendulous, tear-drop-shaped nests. The males provided cheerleading support with high-pitched clucking calls that bubbled out of them, punctuated by a full, upside-down flips on their perches. These birds put cuckoo clocks to shame.

With their pendulous nests and a penchant for flipping upside down after each call, these Montezuma Oropendolas were a highlight of our visit to Arenal.

Nearly everywhere we turned the volcano popped out of the horizon. For one of our daily outings, we visited Arenal Volcano National Park.  We hiked about three and half kilometers, starting on the Heliconias Trail, winding up to the periphery of an old lava flow (this mountainous giant burps out big rocky chunks rather than gelatinous lava) and down around to an enormous Ceiba (kapok) tree. Along the way, we spotted a flock of Costa Rica’s largest toucans, the Black-mandibled, and some absolutely massive Crested Guans which, according to our book, only grow to three feet in length. But every time any one of us looked through the binoculars, each repeatedly proclaimed, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” They looked just too big to be real.

Climbing a Ceiba tree in Arenal Volcano National Park.

Like many hotels along the road between Nuevo Arenal and La Fortuna, ours offered a thermally heated pool. The water was so comfortable that six-year-old Reid forgot about  needing to pinch his nose whenever he submerged his head, and I (a woman who has been known to wear her full-body wetsuit into our public pool in Maine) never even thought of feeling cold. Though we made frequent use of the pool, we were eager to play in thermally heated water in a more natural setting, so we clambered down the steep embankment of Highway 142, near Tabacón Resort, and played in the free-access, comfortably warm river.

Soaking in the warm river near Tabacon Resort.

As we leaned back into pools, our backs buffeted by the current, we spotted a foot-long brown and green lizard with an iridescent, silvery head, a long tail, and sinuous feet. It suddenly made a mad dash upstream, right on top of the water. What? Was this a miniature basilisk? Could we truly believe our eyes? Soon we spotted two other similar lizards bobbing their heads on the bank and then sprinting 5 to 10 feet upstream in spite of the impressive current.

Costa Rica never ceases to impress with its wildlife and natural beauty, making naturalists out of us even when we think we aren’t looking.