Costa Rica is a hot country - not just in terms of its tropical sunny weather - but geologically speaking. It boasts 10 volcanoes, many of them active, which have been erupting with lava and ash over thousands of years. These volcanic eruptions have provided fertile soils for local farmers who reap healthy crop harvests from the land, and whose cattle produce creamy, top-of-the range, Costa Rican milk.
On the second leg of the Discover Costa Rica tour, visitors head to the 1670-m tall Arenal Volcano, the youngest volcano in the country. Until late 2010, the Arenal volcano exploded with lava flows on a regular basis which wowed visitors who witnessed the nighttime spectacular of red hot explosive fireworks from the safety of their hotels.
A gentle guided hike along the base of the volcano, along the Ceibo trail in the Arenal National Park, is now the perfect way to explore the forest that sings with birds and is thick with trees, colourful flowers, and epiphytes.
The walk begins by weaving through a wild cane plantation at the base of the volcano which now sits in the 772 square miles of the Arenal Volcano National Park. Amid the wild cane (cana brava) labyrinthine sandy path, visitors can spot the nests of red-bellied variegated squirrels, touch the famous shrinking mimosa plant, and hear the song of the wide variety of birdlife including the scarlet tanager, barred antshrike, crested guan and grey-headed chachalaca.
As the trail enters the forest, it's dense with fallen leaves and scattered figs. The woody range rings out with the ‘ting ting' of frogs and the whirr of hummingbird wings, and the fragrant smell of the vanilla orchid fills the air. The tour guide points out a monumental ceiba tree draped in lianas before continuing past huge ferns, bamboos and grasses. All through the tour, the guide alerts visitors to the botanical and wildlife wonders of the national park: the red torch flower, related to the ginger family, which brightens the green atmosphere of the hardwood jungle; and the elevated treetop home of the three-toed sloth. These sloths love to live in the cecropia tree with their leafless branches and open, palm-shaped leaves.
The park path then emerges onto the knobbly and chunky, metallic-grey lava rock plain - the result of a 1992 lava flow. Here, the solidified lava, now smothered in lichen, has been ‘frozen' in writhing twists of stone. On one side, the volcanic flanks rear up to the crater, on the other are views of the expansive Arenal Lake stretching into the distance. Time is spent sitting on the sculptured bumps watching cattle tiptoeing around the lava platform ledges. While resting and admiring the views, the excellent guide tells visitors about the devastating 1968 eruption which spewed lava and ash over a six square mile area at 100 miles per hour killing 87 local people.