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While in the town of La Fortuna, be sure to spend some time simply people-watching from a bench or grassy spot on the central plaza. It’s also worth a quick visit to tour the town’s Catholic church. This contemporary church was designed by famous Costa Rican artist Teodorico Quirós, and features an interesting soaring concrete front steeple and clock tower.

Experiencing the Volcano ★★★

For the past couple of years, the Arenal Volcano has been very quiet, with no loud eruptions or pyroclastic blasts. Still, the actual volcano remains a stunning sight to behold and the natural park, and surrounding trails and activities make this a fabulous destination. That said, Arenal is surrounded by cloud forests and rainforests, and the volcano’s cone is often socked in by clouds and fog. Many people come to Arenal and never see the exposed cone.

Note: Although it’s counterintuitive, the rainy season is often a better time to see the exposed cone of Arenal Volcan. I’ve had excellent volcano-viewing sessions at various points during the rainy season; during the dry season, the volcano can often be shrouded for days at a time. The bottom line is that catching a glimpse of the volcano’s cone is never a sure thing.

Despite its current state of dormancy, climbing Arenal Volcano is neither common nor recommended. Over the years, many daredevil climbers have lost their lives, and others have been severely injured. The most recent fatalities occurred in August 2000. This is still a very “alive” volcano, with steam vents and a molten core.

Arenal National Park ★★ ((tel) 2461-8499) constitutes an area of more than 2,880 hectares (7,114 acres), which includes the viewing and parking areas closest to the volcano. The park is open daily from 8am to 3:30pm and charges $15 admission per person. The trails through forest and over old lava flows inside the park are gorgeous and fun. (Be careful climbing on those volcanic boulders, though.)

The principal trail inside the park, Sendero Coladas (Lava Flow Trail) ★★, is just under 2km (1.25 miles) long and passes through secondary forest and open savanna. At the end of the trail, a short natural stairway takes you to a broad, open lava field left in the wake of a massive 1992 eruption. Scrambling over the cooled lava is a real treat, but be careful, as the rocks can be sharp in places. Many spots throughout the park offer great views of the volcano, but the closest view can be found at El Mirador (The Lookout) ★, where you not only can see the volcano better, but also can hear it rumble and roar on occasion. From the parking lot near the trail head for the Lava Flow Trail, you have the option of hiking or driving the 1km (.6 mile) to El Mirador.

Butterfly Garden -- Located 2km (a little over a mile) beyond the Arenal dam out beyond the Arenal Hanging Bridge, the Mot Mot Jungle (tel. 2479-1170) has a large enclosure, where they breed and display a wide variety of local butterfly species. They also have some gentle paths planted with local flowers that attract a number of free flying butterflies, as well as hummingbirds. A tour here includes an explanation and exhibit of the insect’s entire life cycle. It’s open daily from 8am to 4pm, admission is $10.

Cooking Classes -- If you want to learn a little about Costa Rican cuisine, try the Tropical Cooking Class ★ (tel. 2479-1569; www.costaricacooking.com), offered up by the folks at Lava Lounge. The 3 1/2-hour class is held at a beautiful lookout and open-air kitchen near the Río Fortuna waterfall. Advance reservations are necessary. The cost is $125 per person.

Especially for Kids

Located a couple of miles outside of La Fortuna, the Ecocentro Danaus ★ (tel. 2479-7019; www.ecocentrodanaus.com) is a private biological reserve and sustainable tourism project, which offers educational and engaging tours. Among the attractions here are a butterfly garden and reproduction center, botanical and medicinal plant gardens, and a small museum honoring the local Maleku indigenous culture. It’s open daily from 8am to 4pm, and admission is $17, including a 90-minute guided tour; or $12 for a self-guided visit. Night tours ($37) are offered by reservation. Children 5 to 10 get a 50% discount, and children 4 and under are free.

Set along the banks of the Arenal River, Club Rio ★★ (tel. 954/727-8333 in the U.S. and Canada, or 2401-3313 in Costa Rica; www.thespringscostarica.com) is a wonderful playground for parents and kids alike. You can go inner tubing on the river, ride a horse through the forest trails, visit their midsize zoo, and take a shot at their three-story climbing wall. There’s also a series of naturally fed hot springs sculpted alongside the river, as well as a restaurant and some simple chaise lounges for relaxing. It’s part of The Springs Resort and Spa , but you don’t have to be staying at the resort to enjoy the activities and facilities here. A day pass ($60 adult) gets you access to the facilities and two of the above-mentioned adventure activities, as well as a full lunch and free run of all the pools and waterslides at the resort itself. It also allows for re-entry to enjoy the pools and springs the following day.

Those looking for close and intimate animal encounters might want to head to Proyecto Asis ★ (www.institutoasis.com; tel. 2475-9121), a wildlife rescue center and volunteer project. The staff offers two types of daily tours twice daily (once in the morning and once in the afternoon). The standard tour is informative and comprehensive and takes you through the facility and introduces you to their charges and mission. This tour lasts 1[bf]1/2 hours and costs $29 for adult and $17 for children 4 through 9. However, if you sign up for the “volunteering” addition, you get to stay on for another 2 hours and help around the center, nursing injured animals or cleaning cages. This option costs $51 for adults and $29 for children 4 through 9. Longer-term volunteer residencies and language classes are also available. Proyecto Asis is located about 30 to 40 minutes outside La Fortuna on the way to Ciudad Quesada.

Finally, the newest attraction on the block is the Kalambu Hot Springs & Water Park (www.kalambu.com; tel. 2479-0170; daily 9am–10pm; $32 adults, $16 children). While most of the other hot springs in the area might have a waterslide or two, this place is a true water park, with several large waterslides and a massive and very entertaining children’s play area and pools. The latter includes a giant bucket that is constantly filled and then dumped on everyone below. There are also a few quieter pool and hot spring areas. If you enter after 5pm, the entrance is $20 adult and $10 children.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.