The region surrounding the Arenal Volcano is one of the top destinations in Costa Rica. From 1968 until 1998, Arenal Volcano was one of the most active volcanos in the country, erupting daily and offering an incredible view of the red lava pouring over the sides of its crater. The red lava days are now gone, and the volcano was officially declared dormant in December 2010.
Despite the lack of volcanic activities, tourism has not slowed down at the base of Arenal Volcano. The sleepy town of La Fortuna serves as the gateway to Arenal and plays host to numerous accommodation options, restaurants, and activities in the area.
How to Get to Arenal
Arenal Volcano is located about 80kms Northwest of San Jose in the province of Alajuela. The easiest way to get to Arenal is by driving. If you are coming from San Jose, it should take you no more than 3-4 hours to get to La Fortuna.
If you are taking the bus, there are direct buses from San Jose leaving at 6:15 AM, 8:40 AM and 11:30AM and a number of later busses connecting through Ciudad Quesada. You can check the Bus Schedule HERE
A number of shuttle buses also operate along the San Jose-Arenal route, Liberia – Arenal route, and Tamarindo -Arenal route with one-way ticket costs starting at $45/person. You can book the shuttles with Interbus HERE
If you want to save time on transportation, consider flying. If booked ahead of time, a one-way domestic flight with local airlines Nature Air or Sansa can be as cheap at $50-60/person.
Best Time to Visit Arenal
Arenal is a great destination to visit any time of the year. Dry season (Dec-Mar) is generally the best, if you want to avoid the rain, however, that’s also the busiest time of the year, so expect higher prices and lots of other tourists.
Don’t be afraid to plan a trip to Arenal in the rainy season. We visited in later October and loved our stay. It almost always rained in the afternoons, leaving mornings sunny and clear, perfect for a swim in the pool, or a hike in the national park. The clouds parted more than once a day giving us a chance to admire the cone-shaped volcano in all of its beauty.
Activities in La Fortuna/Arenal
While the volcano itself is definitely the main attraction in town, there are lots of other things to occupy yourself with while in the region.
Arenal Volcano National Park
The national park offers visitors a chance to admire the Arenal Volcano from up close. Even though it’s not possible to hike to the top of the volcano, you can walk along one of the paths and over the lava rocks to a mirador (viewpoint) that on a clear day offers a great view of Arenal. The loop trail is a pleasant 3-4km walk winding through a primary rainforest with plenty of chances to spot wildlife along the way. One of the highlights of the trail is a 200-year old Ceibo tree that greets visitors about half way along the trail.
Park entry is $15. Budget 2-3 hours to complete the walk.
Rafting on Rio Balsa
Arenal Volcano is conveniently located in close proximity to a couple of Grade 3-4 rivers in Costa Rica, including Rio Balsa and Rio Sarapiqui. Rafting on Rio Balsa with the crew from Desafio Adventures was one of the highlights of our time in Arenal. It was an exhilarating 2-3 hours ride that offered just enough fun and adrenaline without the accompanying fears.
Desafio’s half-day rafting adventure tour includes all the rafting gear, 2-3 hours of rafting along the Grade 2-3 rapids, and a delicious lunch served as a local finca (farm) following the ride. The first part of the river adventure was rather full on, while the second half was more laid back offering a chance to sit back and admire the beautiful natural setting around us.
Rafting packages with Desafio Adventure Company start at $69/person. To view and book their trips, go HERE.
Thanks to geothermal activity beneath Arenal,There are 3 large hot springs resorts in La Fortuna, with admission prices ranging from $36 to $115/per day.
Tabacon Resort & Spa is the first and most upscale hot spring resort in La Fortuna. Tabacon offers visitors access to dozens of hot spring pools in a lush Garden of Eden type of setting. Tabacon offers half day passes (entrance and lunch or dinner) at $70 and full day passes with one meal for $85 and two meals for $105.
If you can afford to splurge, we highly recommend dedicating a whole day to soaking in the hot springs at Tabacon. It’s a beautiful place that takes time to explore and enjoy thoroughly.
Baldi Springs is the second popular choice for hot springs in town. Baldi Springs are known to attracts a younger (more budget conscious) crowd and offer a more upbeat setting. Baldi Springs daily pass costs only $34 or $56 with lunch or dinner.
Eco-Thermales is the third hot springs option available in town. This resort is much smaller in size than Tabacon and Baldi, and offers another alternative for a budget conscious traveler. Day pass costs $35 or $55 with lunch or dinner.
Lake Arenal sits at the base of the Arenal Volcano and offers a number of activities to the curious visitor. There is stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, and in the windy season (Jan-Mar) windsurfing and kitesurfing. But even if you are not interested in taking part in any of the above activities, a drive down to Arenal Lake is still worth making, as the lake offers a unique perspective on the Arenal Volcano and the surrounding area.
La Fortuna Waterfall
Located just 6km outside of La Fortuna town, La Fortuna waterfall offers an easy hike to a great swimming hole at the base of the fall. The trail to the waterfalls runs through a lush tropical forest and emerges some 20min later at a set of 400 steps leading to the base of the waterfall. Bring a bathing suit and enjoy a refreshing dip in the base of the falls or join others for a picnic on the rocks.
The entrance fee is $8, all proceeds are reinvested into local conservation efforts.
Cerro Chato Volcano
Cerro Chato volcano is not as well known as its famous brother, Arenal, but it does offer a unique opportunity to hike up to and inside the crater. We didn’t end up doing it ourselves, but the hike is said to steep and sometimes muddy, and is thus only recommended to those in good physical condition.
For more on hiking Cerro Chato, check out Matt and Jenn’s post HERE.
Tenorio Volcano National Park
A visit to Tenorio Volcano National Park should be reserved for those with a lot of time to spare in the region as getting to Tenorio from Arenal takes 2 hours. Tenorio is a true Costa Rican rainforest renowned for the beautiful aqua coloured Rio Celeste Waterfall.
Where to Stay in Arenal/La Fortuna
Our biggest advice to those visiting Arenal Volcano is to stay outside of La Fortuna town. Yes, it seems counter-intuitive to stay outside of the town that serves as a hub of activities in the region, but having visited the area ourselves we can tell you one big difference between the hotels in town and those outside. THE VIEW!
Many of the hotels just outside the town offer unobstructed views of the volcano. And while you can still luck out with a nice volcano view room in town, they are much more rare.
We stayed at Arenal Hotel Resort & Spa, a beautiful resort with great views of the volcano, on-site hot springs, 3 restaurants, and a fitness centre. Rates starting at $150/night.
Where to Eat in Arenal/La Fortuna
Most restaurants in the area are located in the town of La Fortuna, so unless you are eating at your hotel be prepared to venture into town. We didn’t try every single restaurant in town during our visit, but below is a list of the restaurants we tried, enjoyed and are happy to recommend to others.
Lava Lounge Bar & Grill – great atmosphere, good drinks, delicious local and international food. Try their ceviche and mango cheesecake.
Life House Organic Restaurant – Plant base farm to fork dishes that cater to those looking for a healthier lunch/dinner option. Try their cucumber juice and mango pico de gallo.
Pollo Fortuneno – budget friendly grill with the best grilled chicken and rib dishes.
Kappa Sushi Fortuna – if you are tired of rice and beans, this is a great alternative. Delicious sushi at a very affordable price.
If you want to get the most of your visit to Arenal area, plan to spend at least 5 days in the area. There are no shortage of activities, and plenty of ways to relax and enjoy the beautiful natural setting of the Arenal Volcano area.
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Want to see more from our time in Arenal? Check out our Vlog on Exploring Arenal:
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