San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Leaves and Lizards Lets Guests Get Up Close and Personal with Arenal Volcano

If you live in Costa Rica, or you’ve visited, chances are you’ve seen pictures of Arenal Volcano.

Maybe you’ve been to La Fortuna, the town closest to the volcano in north-central Costa Rica, and tilted your head up, marveling at the lava flows and listening in amazement to the ever-present roar of boulders hurtling down mountain slopes far above, drowned only by the calls of tropical birds and the nocturnal chortle of frogs and toads.

Maybe you even stayed up late, watching the lava ripen with darkness into brilliant orange spits of flame on a clear, starlit night.

But until you’ve watched all of these things from over the tops of your bare toes as you lie in bed, perched in one of Leaves and Lizards’ three hilltop cabins, you haven’t really seen it all.

On the day my wife Grace and I arrived, owners Steve and Debbie Legg greeted us with fresh-caught tilapia ceviche, hearty, meat-filled Argentinean empanadas and a glass of fresh watermelon juice.

Outside their dining room window, clouds had gathered around the summit of the volcano, and though the view was as majestic as any ocean or mountain panorama we’d ever experienced, we could see no lava.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Debbie quickly assured us. “If it clears, we’ll call you tonight – whenever it happens, even if it’s 3 a.m. – at least, if that’s OK with you?”

Was it OK with us if she called when lava started spewing from the first active volcano either of us had ever seen?

We told her that would be just fine.

The next morning, early, well before sunrise, the clouds parted.We watched in awe as lava dribbled down the side of the volcano like strawberry syrup on a vanilla sundae.

The phone rang minutes later.

“Have you seen it?” Debbie asked.

Now That’s Service

A view of the volcano and smoldering lava is far from guaranteed on a trip to Arenal – no one, after all, can predict the weather. But genuine, friendly and personal

service is always part of the deal, according to the Leggs.

“What we’re selling here is tranquility. You’re a little closer to the volcano in La Fortuna, but you get a neck ache looking up at it,” said Steve, who, together with his wife, opened the retreat to guests in early January.

For those who love the outdoors – a near requirement of any visitor to Arenal – you can flip through page after page of personal tours in a guidebook Steve and Debbie have created for their guests.

And for those who love the indoors, rest assured, all the creature comforts await: plush, soft mattresses (a rare commodity in Costa Rica), 800-count Egyptian cotton sheets, a bathroom with on-demand hot water, even a fridge well stocked with cold beer – at a reasonable price.

“We charge you what it costs us.” Debbie said. “When you get here, we want you to have a beer and enjoy the view. And you shouldn’t have to pay $5 for it.”

But you will notice a couple of things missing – namely, television and air conditioning.

“We thought about televisions and air conditioning, but we decided our guests

would miss out,” she said. “We want them to look out the window at the volcano, and listen to the sounds.”

It’s part of the Leggs’ philosophy: providing an experience that brings guests closer to the tranquility and peacefulness of the natural world around them, as well as the


They’re particularly proud of their ecoand community-friendly practices: a biodigester uses methane gas collected from pig and cow manure to fire their cooking stove; local craftsmen helped decorate and outfit their cabins; the woods they use are all harvested sustainably; and they’re actively replanting their 26-acre property with native trees and shrubs.

They’ve also worked hard to recruit guides and even their chef from the town of Monterrey and the surrounding countryside.

It shows – in both the quality of the food, which is a delicious blend of local ingredients and foreign flair – and in the quality of the guides, who are all enthusiastic and, thanks to their local upbringing, incredibly knowledgeable.

“We’ve really enjoyed getting to know the local community, and showing it off,” Debbie said.

Sunset Horseback Ride

On one of our two afternoons at Leaves and Lizards, the Leggs and guide Felix Porras accompanied us on a horseback ride through the rolling pastureland and lush tropical forest surrounding the retreat.

Porras, dark, slender and infinitely knowledgeable, has the easy laugh and smile of a man who’s lived his entire life in the country – his hours dictated only by the rise and fall of the sun.

He pointed out toucans near the crown of a tree, pecking away at fruit in the growing shade of late afternoon.

“They come every morning and evening when there is fruit in the trees,” he said.

Later on, he spotted a trio of deer grazing in a field, turkeys hopping from tree to tree, and a sloth picking at its head with the rhythm and slowness of a grandfather clock.

He recalled the volcano’s last major eruption in 1968, when he and his brothers ran cross-country to Ciudad Quesada to escape the lava, swimming across rivers and fighting their way through the dense forest.

When we arrived at the river that borders his finca, or farm, Porras, with a fisherman’s gleam in his eye, tossed a guayaba seed into the rushing water, and a dozen fish rose to snap at it – another bit of wildlife to add to our growing list.

On the ride back, the sun dropped low beneath the clouds, bathing Arenal’s flank in an almost mystical veil of golden-purple light. The air had cooled to that perfect late-afternoon temperature, not too hot, not too cool, and we lost track of time to the rhythmic beat of our horses’ trotting – like listening to a favorite song on the radio, or the beating of rain on a tin roof.

Back at the cabins at nightfall, we cracked a beer and sat in hammock chairs on either side of the porch. The clouds parted once more, and we watched, hypnotized, as streaks of lava burned orange in the gathering darkness, and then thundered down the volcano’s sides.

For a minute, it was exactly as Steve and Debbie had promised: just us and Arenal.

Getting There, Rates and Information

Leaves and Lizards Arenal Volcano Cabin Retreat is in the town of Monterrey, about a 3.5-hour drive from San José – roughly the same distance as nearby La Fortuna. Leaves and Lizards provides detailed driving directions on its Web site,, or can help arrange transportation by tour bus from San José ($29 one way) or private taxi ($90-120 one way).

Rates are $90 per night or $550 per week, including breakfast. For lunch, add $5; for dinner, add $10. Meals are served family-style in the Leggs’ kitchen and dining room. They can help arrange tours, including birdwatching, horseback riding, fishing and hiking, among many others.

For more information, see the Web site or call 478-0023 in Costa Rica or 888-828-9245 toll-free from the United States.


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