This article has taken me way too long to post; hiking at the Arenal Observatory Lodge is actually one of my go-to activities for entertaining visitors when I have family or friends visiting. The trails are great for a casual hike, it’s not crowded, there’s lots of wild-life, and it’s very affordable (just hard to get to without a rental car). Plus there are spectacular views of Arenal (hence the name “Observatory Lodge”–it’s an observatory) on clear days. This is the only place I’ve spotted Baird’s Tapirs and Anteaters in the wild. Every time I visit I seem to get surprised by some new plant or animal I’d never seen before.
The Observatory Lodge is situated about as close to the volcano as you will get, yet is located in the “green zone” or essentially the no risk zone. Even though you feel like the crater is practically on top of you, the eruptions from decades past all went a bit further north of the Observatory. In fact part of the premises was constructed for a team of Volcanologists for the Smithsonian Institution who lived on-site in the 1970s; you will probably pass by the residence building constructed for them that is now part of the Observatory Lodge hotel and aptly named the “Smithsonian Rooms”.
Upon arrival to the Observatory Lodge you will pay at the entrance to the hotel property at a big yellow gate with a guard house. Immediately to the left are some other trails and I’ve heard (by heard I mean happened to me the first time I went to the Observatory Lodge) of unscrupulous tour salesmen who will claim that is where you want to go; it is not. Go straight to the yellow gate to go to the Observatory Lodge.
The price is $10 per person for foreigners and 4000 colones for Costa Rican citizens and residents. They will give you a colored wristband and a map of the property (follow link for digital version to follow along my suggested route below). From there you will continue uphill about 1.5 km to the parking lot of the Observatory Lodge. On the map you may notice that it lists entrance to Cerro Chato, but as mentioned in our updated Cerro Chato guide, it is presently closed to visitors.
The nice part about going uphill (in a car thus saving you the exertion) so much is that you’re at quite a bit higher elevation than La Fortuna. Between the slight elevation difference, the occasional lake breeze, and abundant shade it makes for a pleasant hike even on a hot day. The Arenal Observatory Lodge is made up of about 870 acres of land; about half is pasture land worked by local farmers, another quarter is new-growth forest as they continue to work on preserving and restoring the environment there, and the final quarter is virgin (old-growth) forest.
When you first arrive you’ll find yourself in a part of new growth Caribbean Pine trees that surround the parking area. From there I suggest heading to the reception/restaurant area. There is a viewing platform to see Arenal Volcano, Lake Arenal, as well as many tropical birds and Coatimundis. The map is your guide, but I have my preferred route through the property:
First go past the Smithsonian rooms, you will go through the estate gardens which show a variety of local flora which is well labeled. That will take you to “the green gate” from there you will have a short walk on an access road until you take a right hand turn to go to the Danta Waterfall. Take a quick down and up to the waterfall before continuing on the trail until you get to the hanging bridge.
Here you can either go left back to the lodge, or (my preferred route) cross the bridge and keep following the trail. This trail will have pasture land on your right and some manicured gardens and the Danta River (a stream really) on your left. My favorite part is when you get to the next trail junction; the trail will make a Y with an old house in front of you. To the right is the brown trail which makes a loop out through virgin forest and then past some local dairy farms. It adds about half an hour of hiking, but is well worth it. You will have to cross a small stream by walking on rocks twice (or just walk through the shallow stream), but it has the best views and is the most deserted part of the Observatory Lodge’s trail system.
As you end the loop you will start walking down a lane of Rainbow Eucalyptus trees. Eventually there will be a trail to your right (orange trail) that goes up over a small hill and takes you to the closest look-out spot for Arenal. It is stunningly close to the volcano (the pictures don’t do it justice). That will dump you back out not too far uphill from where you turned off to go to the waterfall. All told it is about a 2 hour hike that is not too strenuous. Additionally if you are into Geocaching there is a fantastic 7 part GeoCache series hidden along the route I mentioned.
Once you arrive back at the Observatory Lodge you can wander over the other hanging bridge to look for the frog pond and check out their Arenal Museum. The Observatory Lodge one of the best cheap activities around the La Fortuna – Arenal area.
Observatory Lodge Entrance: