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In search of a lava show in Costa Rica

There we were, my group of three and 20 other eager volcano visitors, staring into a black abyss hoping to see the hot red splash we'd come for. Maybe if it rained slightly, and a heavy gust of wind blew in from the Caribbean, our guide said, at that moment we might see Arenal Volcano put on the most spectacular lava show ever we'd ever see — correct that, the first lava show we'd ever see. That was the idea we were so easily sold on at the hotel: Lava spewing over a black blanket of night, with no city lights to spoil the glow. It looked so magical in the video projected over and over at the hotel...

What we failed to realize was the sky could be clear blue but for one cloud looming over the 1,657-meter-high peak of Arenal, which is (allegedly) the most active volcano in Costa Rica, located in La Fortuna about 90 kilometers northwest of San Jose.

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Fortunately there's plenty of other stuff to do there, both day and night. Here's a snapshot.

It poured rain — even though it wasn't supposed to during the dry season — but it was among the most enjoyable drenchings I've ever endured. My father, stepmother and I were on a two-hour hike across hanging bridges, up and down narrow dirt paths through the premontane rainforest, as our tour guide, Walter Steller, called it. Walter is a Tico (Costa Rican) and said his non-Spanish-sounding names come from his German ancestry. The rain apparently spooked some of the rodents and snakes we might have seen, but no matter, we marched on to the penetrating roar of howler monkeys and spotted a family of feasting white-faced capuchin monkeys. The bridges lend trekkers a nice, unobtrusive spot from which to view the canopy of thick lush forest. And a healthy rain soaking seemed par for the course.

Nothing like a hot bath after a rainy hike. There are several hot springs near the town of La Fortuna, including Eco Termales and Baldi. On Valentine's night, my girlfriend and I went to Baldi, which has dozens of pools of different temperatures, some with swim-up bars, one with water slides — a dangerous combination, one would think. During the day, I'm told, there's nothing like the views from a natural steamy spring. At night, minus the view, it was still amazing — and romantic — to sit in hot pools, some with falls dumping hot water over your shoulders and head, while the outdoor air is just cool enough to make you want to never get out of the bath.

For Valentine's dinner, the romantically-lit Lava Lounge hit the spot.

It's important not to get too on-edge about needing to see the top of the top of the volcano. Chances are slim that you will. Nonetheless, tourists do things around town in La Fortuna, or sit at the hotel pool, or take excursions to other sites, always keeping Arenal in the corner of one eye in case it decides to disrobe. All told, never seeing its summit or its lava, it didn't matter — life was good at Arenal.