4×4 Lake Arenal – Road to El Castillo
4×4 Lake Arenal – Road to El Castillo: My wife, Breck, and I secured our paddleboards onto the roof rack of our Land Rover Defender 110, left Playas Del Coco and headed toward Lake Arenal via the Inter-American Highway. Two hours later we reached the turnoff at Cañas in our well-equipped rig, eager to head into the much cooler highlands. We had our Waze set for Tronadora, a small town on Lake Arenal’s southern shore where we hoped to find paddleboard Lake Arenal heaven.
We shifted into 4×4-low and eased
into the raging current off Lake Arenal.
Over the years, we have paddled everything from surf breaks in Hawaii to high-altitude lakes in Colorado but had longed to SUP on Costa Rica’s largest lake, located beneath Volcán Arenal: Lake Arenal. We got out of our Land Rover, glanced at the washed-out bridge on the road to El Castillo, and realized that getting there was all part of the adventure.
We had set up the vehicle rental three weeks earlier, and when we landed in Liberia our Land Rover was waiting in the parking lot. We loaded up our gear and headed to the beach, only 25 minutes away.
We rolled into Playas Del Coco and quickly found our reservation at Café De Playa, a hip boutique hotel, just in time for happy hour. The next morning we had breakfast at Soda Jardín Tropical, a local favorite, then hit the beach for some amazing paddle-boarding in the bay. After a couple of days in Coco we decided to head for a cooler climate and set our GPS for Lake Arenal, where we had planned to camp and paddleboard Lake Arenal for the next few days.
Costa Rica is a relatively small country, roughly the size of West Virginia. Even though it accounts for only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface, it contains nearly 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity — more than 500,000 species in all. The varied terrain shifts between forests, valleys, mountains, volcanoes, plains and wetlands, making it one of the best places on the planet for exploration and adventure.
Lake Arenal is rated one of the best windsurfing spots in the world, so we knew it would be a stretch to find calm waters to paddleboard Lake Arenal. After studying a map of the lake, it was apparent that the southern shore near the volcano could offer the calmest waters. What we didn’t know then was that the road along the southern route was rugged, not well marked and frequently closed due to treacherous river crossings.
We arrived in Tronadora, stopped to get our bearings and then headed east toward the small village of El Castillo, where we had planned to set up camp. A wrong turn set us back several hours as we found ourselves lost in the mountains heading toward Monteverde. We retraced our tracks from a cattle ranch high above the village of Río Chiquito and asked a local for directions. He explained that the road was easily missed and pointed in the direction of what looked like a construction site. We turned onto the road and realized that the bridge had been washed out, hence all the heavy equipment. If we wanted to make it to our camp we had no other choice but to cross the river. We shifted into 4-low and eased into the raging current. Our approach was slow and steady and we made it to the other side with a sigh of relief.
Back on track, we followed the shoreline to the east and kept our sights set on the picture-perfect conical shape of Volcán Arenal. We stopped for lunch at a beautiful cove and took in the breathtaking scenery. As we enjoyed our snacks we noticed a few howler monkeys in the nearby trees and wondered if they would join us.
After lunch we continued on toward our camp, which we guessed was roughly an hour away. We were surprised to find two more river crossings along the track and noticed that they were flowing heavily. Luckily our Land Rover was well equipped with 33-inch BFG All Terrain T/A K02 tires and an ARB Safari snorkel. The final crossing appeared extremely deep and swift and we couldn’t clearly see the bottom. We decided that one of us should attempt to wade across using a wooden staff to gauge the depth. The water line was just below the bottom of the door of the truck, so we decided it was safe to proceed as long as we took it easy.
The Defender handled the river with no problem and we made it to the other side with success. As we continued along the lakeshore, we passed through some of the most beautiful and remote rainforest in Costa Rica. The trees were home to troops of howler monkeys and a beautiful array of bird species.
We arrived at the tiny village of El Castillo just before dusk, deployed our GEO Adventure Gear rooftop tent and set up our camp on the edge of the lake. The two of us enjoyed our room with a volcano view and agreed that life was good!
The next morning we awoke early to clear skies and calm waters, which we were certain was a gift from the volcano gods. Breakfast had to be put on hold, since we agreed that we should get on the water as soon as possible. Within minutes, our paddleboards were fully inflated and our dream came true as we paddled across the glass-like Lake Arenal, with Volcán Arenal looming over us.
The weather held out for most of the morning and we paddledboarded Lake Arenal to our hearts’ content. Afterwards, we devoured a well-deserved brunch and then paddledboard Lake Arenal for another hour before the rain set in, forcing us to call it quits. We hung out in our rooftop tent for the remainder of the afternoon, fantasizing about our next paddle-boarding trip … possibly to the Golfo Dulce. We marked a date on the calendar and drifted off for a nap, despite the unsettling cries of the howler monkeys.
Our adventure on the Road to El Castillo in Costa Rica exceeded our expectations. We explored remote backroads by 4×4, paddled the largest lake in the country and left with a deeper understanding of what the locals refer to as “pura vida” — pure life.