Far from the epicenter of tourist claptrap that is La Fortuna, the tiny village of El Castillo offers another, rather less accessible, vantage point for seeing spectacular Volcan Arenal. Only a handful of hotels and other businesses have chosen to build on this side of the mountain, the most prominent of which is Arenal Observatory Lodge.
Built in 1987 as a Smithsonian Institute scientific research station, this sprawling complex was constructed atop a ridge just 2.7km (1.7mi) from the crater, supposedly safer than La Fortuna from the lava and ash eruptions that rocked the region throughout the 1980s and 90s. Today, Arenal is a quieter, though still technically active volcano, but still seems larger than life when viewed Arenal Observatory’s restaurant and hotel.
Even if the mountain is veiled in mists, there’s still plenty to explore on the Observatory’s enormous grounds. You can explore the 800 acres of primary and secondary rainforest, gardens, and farms on more than 11km (7mi) of trails, some of which connect to adjacent Arenal National Park. Sturdy hikers can begin at the observatory and traverse the park, via Cerro Chato, and arrive at La Fortuna Waterfall before sundown.
The Observatory also offers several guided treks, including special tours for birders, and many other activities and amenities.
The 9km (5.6mi) dirt road from the turnoff to El Castillo is unpaved, and can get rough, particularly in rainy season. If it’s been wet, ask about road conditions before driving there in a 2WD vehicle. Taxis waiting at the La Fortuna bus stop, however, can take on anything.