HOTEL: Arenal Observatory Lodge La Fortuna

HOTEL: Arenal Observatory Lodge, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Overall: We’d stay here again ONLY for the lava flow view.

The details: Arenal Observatory Lodge is located on the lava-flow side of Arenal Volcano (at least it is currently – the lava flow shifts from time to time). We stayed in a “standard” room located on the second floor for three nights. AOL is remote. To get here, we drove 10km off-road… well, it was technically on-road, but many parts are tooth-rattlin’ bumpy and lumpy. We paid $ 94USD/night, including breakfast buffet and taxes.

As mentioned above, the ride here was bumpy and part of that was due to someone at some point thinking it was a good idea to install a sort of speed bump every 20m up the last five km of the ride. That, coupled with the potholes, made this the worst road yet in Costa Rica. And, all things considered, really not that bad – just a pain in the ass. Literally. The Jimny is not kind to my bones.

So we get here and check-in is easy enough, but the $50 lost key charge and $20 lost towel charge sign posted prominently behind the counter aggravates me a bit. Allan (who is quite charming and nice) suggested we drop our bags in our room, head to the bar & grab a couple drinks to take to the Jacuzzi and soak for a bit. So we did. We checked out towels and had to sign for them and show our room key. We picked up two high-priced drinks from the bar ($8 and $9). The Jacuzzi and pool are located across a hanging bridge and up a small path and near the Smithsonian rooms. It’s a BIG Jacuzzi and infinity edge pool with a kiddie pool, too. Nice enough.

The room is Spartan. Two wooden chairs, a small stool at a tiny desk, and two double beds. Sliding glass doors led to a small porch with two chairs that you can see both the lake and the volcano from. No A/C, no TV, no radio, no clock, no phone, and no WiFi. The lack of internet at this place is quite maddening because the nearest internet connection is 20+ km west in La Fortuna. Also, this is one of those joints that you can’t flush the toilet paper.

The grounds are HUGE with lots of trails throughout and an offered 8:30am hike for free. Lots of birds and monkeys and creatures all over. There is also a small “museum” on site about the Arenal Volcano and tectonic plates and so on. The seismograph monitor is also located here in the museum. AOL claims to be associated with the Smithsonian (and supposedly was built for the scientists from there to use when studying Arenal), but I have a hard time believing that line because this is quite the pathetic museum. A bunch of mimeographed newspaper articles - some in English, some in Spanish – were framed on the walls, but funny enough, most of them were just the first part of the article. If the article continued onto another page, that page was not there. A copy of the well-known National Geographic map of the tectonic plates and some explanation of the plates was there on the walls, four or five tiny samples of lava rock, some volcanic ash, and that was about it. Thank God there was no admission charge to this.

Other points of aggravation:
You MUST be back through the main gate by 11pm because it is locked at that time and doesn’t open until 7 in the morning. What the fuck? A curfew? I mean, I think that if I’m a paying customer and paying US prices here, I should be allowed to come and go as I please.

Breakfast is only served between 7am and 8:30. Given that it’s light out by 5:30am, I don’t understand why they can’t offer breakfast starting around 6:00 or so. This isn’t some little five-room B&B – they’ve got loads of staff and tons of guest rooms. Our last day, we arrived for breakfast at 8:10am. By 8:25, the staff was pulling up the chairs and putting them on the tables even though there were at least seven tables still having breakfast and a sign saying Cerrado was placed outside the doors.

The laundry service is by-the-piece and it's 3USD for a shirt, $1 for underwear, $3 for shorts or pants. At Banana Azul, it was $7 for an entire load to be washed, fluffed, and folded.

While their prices on AOL t-shirts and hats were reasonable enough (10USD/each), I was grossed out by the addition of the phrase "An Explosive Destination" on all the apparel. Why is that necessary? I mean, there's already a volcano depiction in the logo. And are they so hurting for cash that they can't give away the hotel logo postcards? Those were 33 cents, USD each. I'm not paying to mail your friggin' logo somewhere. However, a lighter for 1USD with the phrase "An Explosive Destination" was kinda funny....

The staff is not super-attentive at the front desk. When we were trying to arrange an early morning tour, the staffer spent almost 12 minutes ignoring us – checking the answering machine, scribbling things behind the desk – and then seemed annoyed when we asked if there was enough time to drive to make an 8:30 tour. We wound up just driving to SkyTrek without reservations and it worked out fine. When checking out, again, we were not even acknowledged for at least five minutes even though no other guests were at the desk besides us.

And the lack of WiFi is truly outrageous at these prices.

On the good side, The Dog and I were super-pleased with the active lava viewing and we saw a few cool birds, too. Our room was approximately 1.7miles from the actual volcano crater. We were also quite lucky in that there was no cloud cover on Arenal for the first two nights so we got a decent show of lava & red-hot tumbling boulders. On our last night, the clouds rolled in on Arenal around 5pm and stayed there for some time. When I awoke at 4am, I went outside and looked up and the sky was perfectly clear and The Dog and I saw more stars than anywhere else in the world… and he’s been to Turkey, Afghanistan, and lots of remote places.

In summation, the only reason to come to Arenal Observatory Lodge is for the lava view and if the lava flow shifts again (as it does), don’t waste your time or effort to come here. There are loads of other choices in the La Fortuna area.