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Arenal Volcano: History and Information

This is an interesting article that owners of The Village of San Buenas may find interesting. Costa Rica is full of wonderful and amazing sites. Although The Village is approximately five hours from Arenal it makes for a great weekend getaway.

Originally written in Landings – Nature Air Magazine

Not by Fire Nor by Water

The Resurrection of Arenal and Surrounding Towns

By Cara S. Klempner

When William Blake wrote “Great things are done when men and mountains meet,” he probably wasn’t envisioning a tourist destination based around a lava-spewing 3-cratered conical volcano. But the push and pull of the Cocos and Caribbean tectonic plates have given rise to more than just stunning peaks and roiling magma; the area’s had its share of other frictions as well.

La Fortuna, east of Arenal Volcano, was a wild frontier where a few brave souls battled the elements and dense forests to clear farm lands and children walked miles to one-room schools. Settling west of the volcano around 1940 were pioneers from Alajuela displaced by the Central Valley’s burgeoning coffee production and rapid population growth. The volcano’s millenium-old westward eruptions had formed a large loam-filled depression crisscrossed with waterways, including the Arenal River that was later dammed to form the Arenal hydroelectric project. The sandy basin’s abundant grasslands were perfect for cattle farming.

Named after the then-dormant volcano, Arenal quickly became a commercial center for scattered settlements in the region. Passable roads into the region via Cañas and Tilarán ended at Arenal. In this broad, volcano-encircled valley, settlers would soon find themselves fighting for their lands against natural forces and the march of progress.

The Sleeping Giant Awakes

Prior to July 29, 1968, the Arenal Volcano’s lush forest cover gave it the appearance of an innocent mountain. That fateful Monday, its western flank erupted, spreading sand and ash over a 200 kilometer area. Newspapers reported 90 deaths, but eyewitness reports range into the thousands, with the cattle death toll totaling tens of thousands. The Global Volcanism Project has since determined that Arenal has had regular eruptions every few hundred years dating back seven thousand years.

Erminia Monge, 54, was an eyewitness to the eruption:

The images of that day are engraved in my memory. Two days before, it rained a lot. The next day there was sand falling, rain mixed with sand. Everyone knew then that it was a volcano – the radios were all staticky and you couldn’t make calls. The morning of the eruption was sunny and crystal clear. My father said he wanted go over to Pueblo Nuevo to see what was going on. We told him not to go.

Then there was a great boom, and an enormous cloud went up and came falling downwards. “Let’s get out of here!” my father yelled. We were terrified. We didn’t take anything with us; we just started walking as the day blackened into night.

My father returned the next day. The cheese had rotted, the cows were braying. People couldn’t cross out of the affected areas because the rivers were swollen from the rains. A helicopter distributed food to us every few days, the basics. We spent two weeks with seven other families – each in one corner of a tiny house in Venado; we bathed and washed our clothes in the river.

The campesinos were not people who would flee easily. When they saw the initial signs, they thought it would pass. The mentality was different then: people were used to waiting, and to accepting what God wanted. If they died, they died; if they lived, that was good too.

Clean Energy

As the region recuperated, many families moved to Arenal away from the volcano’s eruptions. Monge’s family followed, and as she was planning her wedding at 22, ICE was planning a hydroelectric project and that required the evacuation of the up-and-coming town. Monge became the first to marry in the new settlement of Nuevo Arenal.
ICE held meetings in the movie theater … the place was packed. People didn’t want to leave. Little-by-little ICE convinced people. They strung us along with promises of a special reduced electric rate, of new roads. Basically they were forcing us to leave.

My family didn’t leave until the flooding started. We thought, “What is in this new place for us? What will we do there?” The old town was small, but rich: everyone knew each other. People were honest, upright, and lent a hand to each other. In Nuevo Arenal we found a desert: there were no trees or roads—it was a mess. We had to travel by horseback 30 km to Tilarán for supplies, the roads were impassable. Many families were divided by the resettlement process.

Old ICE publications document an earnest, idealistic effort by young intellectuals fresh from San Jose’s universities and eager to apply their technical expertise to what was considered a wasteland. The team saw the resettlement wholly in positive terms: “The project will create new forms of employment, and new opportunities through better salaries, technical formation, and relations with people from other parts of the contry … there is also a possibility of new activities like fishing and tourism … factors which will unite in a process of cultural transformation.”

Eighty-two-year-old Mario Hidalgo, who was vice manager of energy for Costa Rica’s Electric Institute (ICE) at the time the Arenal plant was built, recalls:

“The idea for the dam came about in the 1930s. Topographers began studying the terrain and river flows. The conditions were ideal for creating a reservoir: this exceptional site allowed for the storage of vast quantities of water with minimal alteration. An additional benefit was that the water leaving the plant could be used as irrigation for agriculture in the dry Guanacaste region. Many people were interested in starting tilapia farms and growing rice along the irrigation canals. The Inter-American Development Bank pounced on it. It was considered ‘sexy.’ It wasn’t expensive, and it had so much potential. They immediately agreed to fund it.”

Jose Luis Sibaja, 61, is a seasoned community leader who was born in Mata de Caña, the relocation site that old Arenal residents voted for. Tourism and foreign settlement along Lake Arenal’s balmy, northern shores in the 1990s sparked a construction boom, boosting the struggling agricultural economy and generating significant revenues. As he recalls:

The first 15 years were very difficult. There was no work; farming was bad. Now with foreigners buying properties, land prices have risen, and some have benefited. ICE promised many things in verbal agreements, but talk is cheap. They abandoned us. They did come through on their promises of homes, but the roads, we are just now finishing! Most who came were farmhands, previously landless; ICE gave them small farm parcels with houses. These people had never had their own land. They came with nothing. It was a town full of poor people. There were immediate benefits for those of us living here: electricity, roads, banks. It was a great thing having these new people in the town.

ICE’s Hidalgo reflects that, “All change brings about pain. Some people are satisfied, others not. There should have been more follow-up with the resettled community. In a similar relocation situation, Hidalgo recalls the ethical challenge faced “An older woman lived alone with her cow; each day she grazed it in a pasture and milked it on her patio. Her house and the pasture were bought by ICE. A few days later, the woman died. There is no consoling oneself in these cases. When you put them on a balance: the woman, with her cow and her few belongings on one side, and on the other side, the project – you cannot say which one weighs more, you really cannot.”

Deep in the bed of Lake Arenal lie two pioneer towns, whose residents 35 years ago felt hope and fear clashing in their hearts as they faced the necessity to uproot. The volcano, its mineral rich waters now feeding luxury resorts, its molded terrain having birthed frontier towns, cattle farms and a major hydroelectric project, stands as witness and catalyst to the region’s development, growing with each lava spurt, and holding its own secrets deep within.