Introducing Unión Area
Attractions below are listed in order of their distance from the Laguna de Arenal dam.
You can’t miss Hotel Los Héroes, a more than slightly incongruous alpine chalet 13.5km west of the dam. Large, immaculate rooms with wood paneling and hot-water bathrooms are decorated with wood furniture that may make Swiss-Germans a little homesick, particularly when viewing paintings of tow-headed children in lederhosen. There are also two apartments (each sleeps up to five) with full kitchen, huge bathroom and balcony overlooking the lake. Facilities include a Jacuzzi, swimming pool and a church complete with Swiss chimes. The owners have even built a miniature train (US$11) that brings you up a hill to an underground station beneath the Rondorama Panoramic Restaurant (mains US$10 to US$20), a revolving dining room (seriously!) that’s reportedly one-of-a-kind in Central America. There’s also a hiking trail that is great for wildlife-watching.
Rates for the gorgeous cottages at La Mansion Inn Arenal include a champagne breakfast, fruit basket, welcome cocktail, canoe access and horse rides. They feature huge split-level rooms with loud paint jobs, private terraces, lake views, high ceilings and Italianate painted walls and arches. The cheaper rooms are almost as swank, and we actually like them a bit better. There’s also an ornamental garden featuring Chorotega pottery, a fabulous infinity lap pool, and a formal restaurant (four-course dinner excluding wine US$22 to US$38) with a bar shaped like the bow of a ship. It’s 15.5km west of the dam.
You'll see the psychedelic Boa Art Shop signs for several kilometers, and it's worth a stop for mind-melting totem poles with floating heads and hands, and engaging ceramic works made by Guanacaste artisans. Pieces are hewn from local clay and hand painted with natural paints alchemized from the same mud as the dish itself. All the wood sculptures are made from roots found in the lake. Incredibly, no varnish is used, only beeswax.
A serene, German-run escape, La Ceiba Tree Lodge is 22km west of the dam and centered on a magnificent 500-year-old ceiba tree. Its five spacious, cross-ventilated Spanish-tiled rooms are entered through Maya-inspired carved doors and decorated with original paintings. There are rustic artifacts on the walls, a polished wood ceiling and epic views of Laguna de Arenal. The tropical gardens and utterly lovely dining–hangout area make this mountaintop spot a tranquil retreat from whatever ails you. It's one of the best value places on the lake.
Another accommodation option is Villa Decary B&B, an all-round winner with bright, spacious, well-furnished rooms, and two massive Cape Cod–style casitas that sleep up to four. The elegance extends from the clumps of slender palms to the delicious full breakfasts and, of course, to the fabulous hosts. Rooms have private hot showers, a queen and a double bed, and bright serape bedspreads and artwork. They also have balconies with excellent views of the woodland immediately below and the lake just beyond. The casitas have epic views from wide porches, and kitchenettes. Paths into the woods behind the house offer opportunities for bird- and wildlife-watching, and there’s a good chance that howler monkeys will wake you in the morning. Guests can borrow binoculars and a bird guide to identify what they see. Decaray (named for a French botanist who discovered a new species of palm) also boasts one of the best collections of palm trees in Costa Rica. And by all means, pay your respects to Olivia, she is a goddess. It’s 24.5km west of the dam, and 2km east of Nuevo Arenal.
Make absolutely sure to book dinner reservations at the Gingerbread Hotel & Restaurant, one of the best restaurants in northwestern Costa Rica. You may even choose to stay at the charming boutique hotel built into the same stone house as the restaurant, but the thing here is the kitchen. With the freshest local fare providing the foundation for his weekly menus, Chef Eyal, the bigger than life Israeli who trained in Chicago and NYC, turns out transcendent meals and is choosy about his wine list, emphasizing top Chilean and Spanish vintners (wines US$30 to US$200). Portions are enormous and it's best to split and share. We loved the blackened tuna salad and the mushrooms smothered in creamy, parsley inflected gravy. It's big food that goes down smooth, and there’s no pretension in this very cozy, out-of-the-way, lake-view dining room with walls covered in paintings by artists in the community. A word to the wise: do not pass up dessert. Come prepared – credit cards are not accepted, and don't be alarmed if Eyal, shouts, sweats, dances and raps along to Naughty by Nature. It happens.
Just before you reach Nuevo Arenal you'll pass a marina, where you can join Arenal Kayak for a guided paddle on the lake. It also offers hotel pick-up free of charge.