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Tabacón Spa


The first indication that life was about to slow down was on the drive from the airport, where we passed Costa Rican workers hand painting the white perforations that divide the road into lanes that are either coming or going, depending on how you see things. Moving closer to our destination, the Tabacón Hot Springs Resort and Spa, Volcán Arenal loomed ahead like a friendly monster. Even from afar, I sensed the paradoxical effect of this volcano, inspiring tranquility as well as apprehension.

At Tabacón, you will leave your everyday troubles behind, partly because of the peaceful setting, and partly due to the active Arenal volcano, which appears to always be on the verge of blowing into the stratosphere: it has a way of keeping your troubles in check. In truth, pyroclastic flows in 1975 and 1993 almost wiped out the hotel and all its guests, this guest included. The hotel is periodically evacuated: including only a few days after my most recent visit.

Active volcanoes aside, Tabacón is a playground for grownups. Volcanic activity has carved a forest of thermal pools into the earth. Arenal provides an underground molten heating system for these springs, which vary in temperature according to their proximity to the volcano. It’s no wonder the Guatuso Indians believed the God of Fire lived inside the rumbling mountain. Spend your evening steeping in the pools, but keep your eyes on Arenal, who frequently drizzles a steady orange neon bolt from his mouth, piercing the backlit stars.

Inside the hotel, rooms are stylish, with furniture and art handcrafted by local artists. Some of them boast luxurious deck side hot tubs. Visit the Iskandria spa to enjoy a banana mint facial, the coffee sugar body scrub, or my favorite, the volcanic body wrap, after which you will be led naked to a nearby spring to rinse off the volcanic mud. Exotic flowers and butterflies abound in Tabacón’s gardens, and the quaint town of La Fortuna is a five minute ride away. Arenal, the dutiful sentry, keeps a constant watch, a looming photo opportunity.

The hotel provides booking for various daytrips; we chose an intermediate level whitewater rafting trip, which turned out to be a wonderful refresher course. Our teenage guides made sure I didn’t fall out of the raft, and treated us to a carved watermelon at the river’s edge. The tour operator can also book you for waterfall rappelling and other hair-raising adventures.

For three days, I enjoyed a perfect, unobstructed view of the volcano. In this short time, I grew to regard Arenal as a natural compass, happily replacing my subway map and my Blackberry. “Should I get the camera?” I mumbled every few hours from the pools, the massage table, between bites of various meals. On our last day, I gathered my photo equipment, and went outside only to be greeted by an amorphous, smoky mound where Arenal had stood majestically for the last few days. Until we meet again, Arenal, for now our time together is only in my memory.

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