New Year’s Eve Blast
All the guidebooks say pretty much the same thing: it’s the most active volcano in this part of the world, a great show when it erupts, spectacular, but as it borders on the cloud forests it’s often socked in. In other words: really cool, but don’t get your hopes up.
We’d booked a single night at the Arenal Observatory Lodge – originally run by the Smithsonian for research purposes it’s been converted into a fine hotel on the south side of the volcano. The guidebooks assured us that the location was safe.
Arenal is an almost perfect cone, almost a mile high. The clouds held off as we crept around Lake Arenal to the west. What should have taken half an hour tops took close to two hours over the potholed asphalt and bottom-scraping washboard gravel roads around the mountain.
The hike started out much like the others on the trip: a rattling ride to the trailhead, sudden stops as the guide’s head twisted to catch a bird call, more monkeys in the trees. The area around Arenal is warmer and more humid than the cloudforest and we found ourselves breaking a late-afternoon sweat as the path rose. The top half of the cone was now completely obscured by cloud and we focused on the local wildlife instead.
We got to see our first Toucan, a yellow-beaked fellow with a lonely cry.
Tuned in to the bird calls, I barely registered the popping sound coming from the mountain. It sounded like a warmup for a Civil War reenactment, a distant pock pock pock of light gunfire. But there was a rocky element to the sound as well, almost like cinderblocks breaking on the ground.
Suddenly deep gray clouds of ash and steam raced down the side of the mountain, sliding into view below the cloud bank and billowing back into the fog.
These pyroclastic flows can reach 100 miles per hour – we were about two miles away but I’d bet the ash was doing 60 on the way down.
We envied Christian – our guide – for having this kind of show as part of his daily routine. Or so we thought. He had never seen anything like it.
Christian: “This is very dangerous.”
We consulted with a group passing in the other direction and decided to head for higher ground. 20 feet higher. Not a whole lot for us to work with.
The pyroclastic show lasted all of about five minutes, but the cone continued to throw down lava every so often. We were far from harm, but the rumor back at the lodge was that hikers in the national park in the path of the eruption had to run for their lives and emerged from the park covered in ash.
A few hours later the ladies were celebrating the eruption and New Year’s Eve with a signature combustion drink (Lava Flow? Flaming Moe? I forget). The restaurant was packed; the lodge was sold out and everyone was dressed up for the occasion. I played along by miscalculating the exchange rate and treating us to a great $30 bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape that set us back $60 at checkout the next morning.
As the clock struck midnight the restaurant DJ struggled with a balky CD player and we retired to the observation deck to take in the natural fireworks. The clouds had parted and the blood-red glow from the cone was a forceful presence in the night sky. I grabbed the tripod and camera from the room and fiddled with the focus ring in the dark as Melanie emerged from below carrying trays of margaritas. We curled up in the deck chairs and watched the glowing lava blobs (skiiers, we called them) roll downhill, breaking into slow red sprays along the way.
New Year’s Day: the mountain was quiet again, collecting another shroud of fog. The hotel staff put out a tray of chopped-up fruit, attracting the most colorful collection of birds any of us had ever seen.
If I could do it over again I’d spend a few nights at the Lodge, relax a bit and probably visit the legendary hot springs along the north side. As it was, we had a magical 20 hours or so at the volcano.