Costa RicaCosta Rica

Soaking in Arenal's Volcanic Hot Springs

Destination: Arenal

We loaded up and drove to Tabacon Thermal Resort, home of Arenal's famous mineral hot springs. I had visited in 1993 (totally by accident), the first year it opened. We had driven to Arenal and, while we were exploring, had happened upon this unusual spot. Back then, there was hardly anyone there and I can still remember slipping into the warm waters, lying back with a large drink in my hand, and watching hummingbirds flit overhead as red streams of lava coursed down the volcanic slope. I hoped it hadn't changed too much.

We arrived and it was immediately evident how popular the Tabacon experience has become. There were parking valets and things were hopping. I didn't realize that we were in the middle of Semana Santa, the Easter Holy Week, a prime time for vacationers and a holiday for Costa Ricans. We were immediately welcomed, got our locker keys and towels, and headed to the changing rooms.

tabacon in 1993

The air was blanketed in the steaming mist rising from the hot springs and, being good little "turistas," we immediately struck out for the swim-up bar at the pool. Struck out being the operative words -- during Holy Week, all sales of alcohol are banned for three days throughout Costa Rica. All, that is, except wine which we were told "Jesus might have drank" and therefore we could too.

We decided to wander a bit before indulging in the springs, and took a tropical trail that led to the resort's Grand Spa.

Holy Moly! Talk about luxury -- this place was beyond any spa I had ever seen. It was as professionally appointed as any I have seen in California or Palm Beach and the list of treatments offered made me long for a healthier discretionary bank account. Number One on my Bucket List of Things To Do is to hold a baby orangutan, and spending two days at the Grand Spa is now at Number Two, taking the place of having a housekeeper once a week (Mr. Clean and I just have to become better friends).

lush bromeliads

We wandered the steamy walkways where gigantic blossoms bloomed sweet scents and though it was a very busy day, never felt crowded. The innumerable hot spring pools, which are heated by magma, are naturally tucked into the foliage and seclusion is the name of the game. We found pools with perfect perching rocks on which to sit and others with cascading waterfalls. The waterfall pools were my favorite since I could tuck back under them; my view through the pounding water felt privately surreal as the musical water sounds blocked out the world.

The impressive Arenal volcano loomed above us, but was evidently bored and didn't utter so much as a rumble. But since there were discreet emergency exit arrows on the labyrinth of pathways and we had to park facing out (in case a quick getaway was necessary), we were reminded that it could still be very active.

We spent hours going from one river-fed pool to the next (all different temperatures from warm to positively sauna-like at 102 degrees) before deciding to un-waterlog ourselves, take a shower, and have dinner. The restaurant is staffed by four international cuisine chefs and each night features a different themed buffet. Tonight was Spanish Night (lucky us!) and the spread was a refreshing combination of beautiful fresh fruits, traditional foods like paella, gazpacho, locally-caught fish with creamy fennel sauce, and a dessert table groaning with sweetness.

chef in action

As we watched from our table, folks continued to enjoy the evening water experience -- zooming down the water slide or resting on stone benches built into pools that were now visible with subdued lighting veiled by the mist. Tabacon has a five-star hotel down the road a piece and its guests sported fluffy bathrobes (blue for the men, pink for the women) which proclaimed their enviable status as guests of the resort.

The hot springs had indeed changed in many ways, but all for the good. The natural beauty has been preserved and made even lusher, while the resort atmosphere makes you feel special and privileged.

And, of course, the 5,000-foot tall volcano reminds you that Mother Nature is still in charge.

Soaking in Arenal's Volcanic Hot Springs in Pictures