All of it comes at very reasonable prices. For $185 per night we stayed at the luxurious Lost Iguana Resort - 100 acres of tropical botanical gardens and volcano-view rooms with outdoor showers, Balinese furnishings, and Egyptian cotton sheets. A few steps from our room is a first-class spa and a restaurant with good, inexpensive food (a grilled tilapia entree costs $12).
While it was tempting to never leave the resort's grounds, there's a wide variety of activities available nearby, including two national parks, hot springs, waterfalls, zip lines, nature walks, raft trips, fishing, and kayaking. Most of the tours and activities are locally owned and operated, and discounts are available for many of them at the Lost Iguana concierge desk.
But the star of Lost Iguana is Arenal Volcano, a mile high and perfectly conical. It's a massive presence that sprang to life in 1968, when an eruption killed at least 62 people and wiped out a nearby town.
Today Arenal is still going strong, growling, erupting almost daily, spitting rocks and lava from its cone. It is one of the world's 10 most-active volcanoes. When the view is not obscured by clouds, orange lava can be seen flowing from the cone at night.
Elaine Knight, a Houston real-estate developer who opened the Lost Iguana in 2004, never tires of the ringside seats for dramatic displays.
"Some of the greatest views I've enjoyed of the volcano were in the evening with lightning behind the volcano, yet the volcano was clear and had lava bouncing down," Knight says. "Even if you see the volcano only during the day, you will be impressed. At times it rumbles like thunder, and smoke will pour out of the top. At night, it can be barely active to lava visible every 5 to 30 minutes."
Arenal is not the only natural wonder at Lost Iguana. More than half of the resort's 100 acres is a primary rain forest that Knight has laced with trails. Guests can see 300-year-old pilon trees, cross rushing creeks on rustic bridges, and experience the jungle firsthand.
On a two-hour nature walk with guide Johnny Calderon, we come upon a remarkable sight: a line, as far as we can see, of ants moving single file from the top of a fig tree down the trail to their nest. Each ant is carrying on its back a piece of leaf, perhaps 10 times its size, plus another, smaller ant.
"These are leaf-cutter ants," Calderon says as we squat for a closer look. "The big one cuts and carries the leaf; the little guy fends off parasitic flies and other enemies."
Each tiny bit of leaf is headed for the nest, where it will nourish a fungus that will be harvested and used to feed the entire colony. A single leaf-cutter nest can contain an underground metropolis of thousands of football-sized chambers housing a society of more than a million ants, Calderon says.
"Ants invented agriculture 50 million years ago," he adds.
Just off the resort property are the Hanging Bridges of Arenal, a 618-acre park with hiking trails that loop through the rain forest from the ground to the tree tops. During a three-hour hike, we cross seven steel bridges, several of them about 300 feet long, suspended across layers of the jungle.
Late on our final afternoon, nursing sore muscles from a long, uphill hike, my wife, Susan, and I retreat to the Golden Gecko Spa, which is built along a small river and has a Balinese theme. We each get a massage in an open-air, thatched bungalow with a wood fire. Susan takes advantage of a package that includes a foot soak and exfoliation, which are administered as she sips mint tea in front of the fireplace. Next comes a 60-minute combination "Swedish and Trigger Point" massage, and, finally, a clay facial.
The nightlife at Lost Iguana is very noisy, beginning shortly after sunset with the electrified simmer of insects. As the night deepens, they are joined by the bic-bic-bic of frogs, the lionlike roars of howler monkeys, and a medley of warbles, pops, rubbings, squeaks, and chirps.
The variety of creatures seems endless, but the sound is orchestral and unified. We sleep with our screened doors and windows open, allowing it to lull us to sleep.
After three days at the resort, we're refreshed, rejuvenated, and back in Hershey in time for Monday breakfast.
Vibrant Costa Rica
Resort & Spa
All 42 rooms have a view of Arenal Volcano. The resort's 120 acres offer trails through a rain forest, a swim-up bar and open-air restaurant, plus a spa with saunas, gym, and massage bungalows. Information: www.lostiguanaresort.com.
The park actually has two volcanoes: 5,357-foot Arenal and 3,740-foot Chato Volcano, inactive for nearly 3,500 years and with a collapsed crater containing a lagoon. Information: www.arenal.net