Discover Arenal in Costa Rica – All You Need to Know for Visiting La Fortuna
The perfect cone of Arenal Volcano is the beating heart of northern Costa Rica. An active stratovolcano, it spewn smoke and sulfur into the air as recently as 1998 and is currently out of bounds to trekkers because of it. But the mountain is now the kingpin of one of the most breathtaking and adventure-filled national parks in the country.
Whitewater rivers beckon rafters in the nearby rainforests, horse treks offer scenic rides, and hiking tours ring the Arenal reserve. Plus, there are adrenaline-pumping ziplines and broiling hot springs, to name just a few activities.
The Arenal area is famously known as the adventure capital of Costa Rica and this ultimate guide to traveling around Arenal can help you plan your jaunt to this ever-alluring corner of the country. It’s filled with practical info on how to get into the town of La Fortuna, along with some inspiration on what to bring and what to do when you arrive. Let’s just say the hiking boots and the waterproofs are likely to come in handy on the tours around Arenal!
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My experience in Arenal
I had heard tales of a mist-haloed, triangular peak of a volcano that rises high above the central plains of Costa Rica long before I came. When I finally arrived at Arenal, the sight didn’t disappoint.
The mountain itself dominated the horizon as I skirted around the snaking roadways that slink by Lake Arenal. Clouds clutched its top. Lush rainforests rolled down its flanks. At its base, woods of regimented Honduran pines and striped eucalyptus patchworked with coffee fields and open pastures. Signs promising adventure beckoned every 330 feet (100 meters) – a sloth reserve here, a rapids river there.
That was my first taste of a town that is one of the foremost adventure hubs of Central America, not just Costa Rica itself. There’s really no end to the heart-thumping tours that are on the menu, no matter if you want to whiz on wires through parakeet-filled rainforests or trek through muddied trails to hidden waterfalls. You simply have to travel to the Arenal area if you’re looking for an active retreat.
Ever since I was young, I have dreamed of exploring this incredible planet. I have been very fortunate to have explored over 50 countries across this extraordinary world and to have made travel my career. I am very grateful to run The Explorer’s Passage, a premier adventure travel company, and in my opinion, the best tour operator in Costa Rica. Our team has over 30 years of experience there. If at any point throughout this guide you find yourself with questions, reach out to us and we’ll gladly help build your dream trip!
Inside this Guide
- Where is Arenal?
- How to get there?
- Getting around Arenal
- The best time to visit Arenal
- Top things to do around Arenal
- Where to stay in Arenal?
- Where to eat?
- What to pack for Arenal?
Where is Arenal?
The peak of the Arenal Volcano rises almost midway across the northern top half of the country, some 70 miles (112 km) from the Pacific coast. It’s officially in the province of Alajuela, though the border with much-vaunted Guanacaste Province (one of the main attractions in Costa Rica, the land of Pura Vida) is less than 4 miles (6.5 km) to the west of the summit.
Lake Arenal, the adjoining body of water that’s also a major draw for relaxed cycling outings and hikes, stretches west into Guanacaste from the Arenal volcano for about 20 miles (32 km).
La Fortuna is the nearest town also located in the province of Alajuela, situated about 80 miles (130 km) northwest of the city of San José. To get to La Fortuna from Arenal, you would need to travel east for about 4 miles (6.5 km).
How to get there?
When most people talk about visiting Arenal, what they really mean is that they’re heading to La Fortuna. That’s the town right on the eastern cusp of the Arenal volcano and now the de facto hub for most of the adventure outfitters that operate in the national park’s region.
A bus runs once per day from San José to La Fortuna and takes nearly four hours. You can do the trip a little faster in a shared or private minivan, though, which have flexible departure times and take just over three hours. As is normal in Costa Rica, buses from other destinations – even places like Monteverde, which is a mere 66 miles (106 km) away – will usually involve a change in either San José or somewhere else along the way.
There is also the very small La Fortuna Arenal Airport for those with extra cash to splash and less time to spare. It only hosts two services, one from Quepos and one from San José.
Getting around Arenal
The town of La Fortuna – the main hotel and tour outfitter hub of the Arenal area in Costa Rica – is 100% walkable. Taxis gather in the center near the bus stop to take you to the nearby hot springs, Arenal Lake, and other local attractions. Most people will either rideshare to keep costs down or rent their own car.
If you’re not on an organized tour and don’t have rides prearranged around Arenal, we like the latter option. Remember that Arenal isn’t just one location but a whole region centered on the mighty Arenal Volcano. The extra freedom of having your own wheels to travel will go a long way in La Fortuna.
The best time to visit Arenal
Arenal really comes into its own in the Costa Rican dry season. That runs from November to April and is the time with the clearest weather in these mid-altitude regions of the north. Clear skies mean two things: better views of the peak and less rain, which helps keep the hiking, biking, and bridle trails free from mud.
That said, even the peak months in the Arenal Volcano National Park don’t guarantee unobstructed tours and prime adventuring conditions. Weather is very variable here, so you never really know when you’ll wake to find the Arenal volcano hidden behind plumes of mist.
The upsides to visiting during the rainy season in Arenal are the wilder waterfalls and rainforests, as well as the cheaper hotel rates. You can expect temperatures during these months to be around 83°F (-28℃).
Top things to do around Arenal
Have we mentioned yet that Arenal is all about adventure? Well…it is. From roaring whitewater rafting sessions to trekking through toucan-filled jungles, there’s tons to sink your muddied boots into in these parts. Check out our recommendations for the top things to do around Arenal:
- Arenal Volcano National Park – Local tour operators will take you through a whopping 30,000 acres (over 12,000 hectares) of protected rainforest in the shadow of the Arenal Volcano peak itself which makes up this incredible reserve.
Its trails – especially the two loops in the central sector of the park – are a chance to see petrified lava rocks and some of the largest Ceiba trees in all of Costa Rica. Occasionally, said paths will emerge onto a viewpoint that stuns with frontal visions of the mighty slopes of the mountain looming to the west. On these tours, you’ll be so close you’ll be able to see the magma channels whittled into its sides!
There’s wildlife in abundance near the Arenal Volcano, too. Keep watch on your hikes for capuchin monkeys, sloths, and toucans in the woods, along with crocodiles in the waterways.
- Rejuvenate in hot springs – Where there’s a volcano like the one in Arenal, there’s usually hot springs. And boy oh boy are there countless locations to go and soak in naturally warmed geothermal pools around Arenal.
There are two main options for hot springs: paid and free. We actually prefer the latter because they’re altogether wilder and less like a hotel spa. Take for example the ones at Rio Chollin, where you’ll soak in a gurgling river that steams at a regular 105°F (40°C). For paid hot springs, the Tabacon complex can’t be beat.
- Challenge yourself on the ziplines – If you’re up for the thrill, no trip to Costa Rica could possibly be complete without experiencing the excitement of ziplining. Arenal is the capital of ziplining here, too, so it’s the prime place to get aerial if you’re feeling up for it. There are comprehensive tour courses that offer a dramatic tram into the heights of the Cordillera de Talamanca and then a series of seven lines that get you streaming between the Ceibas at 45 miles per hour (72 km/h).
- Hike to La Fortuna Waterfall – Lately, an Instagram favorite and seriously jaw-dropping enclave of the Arenal rainforests is La Fortuna Waterfall. It beckons on the western edge of the national park and is a super-easy hike to get to – a 15-minute walk down some stairs built into a wooded cliffside is the entry point. What awaits is the famous 200-foot (60 m) cascade that streams like a ribbon of silk through a gap in the mountains to a pool of pure azure blue. When considering when to visit, the dry season is prime time for a swim as it gets a little rough in the height of the wet season.
- Ride the rivers while rafting and whitewater rafting – There are a myriad of rafting options to be had out of La Fortuna, on a whole string of different rivers that babble through the sierras near Arenal Volcano. The most popular are probably the ones that conquer the Balsa River, which has Class II and III rapids (great for beginners and families). More challenging outings can take you onto the Saraquipi River for Class V rapids, or the Toro River for Class III and IV rapids. The latter tend to have better views but will be harder going.
- Ride the waves while paddleboarding and windsurfing – Any water sports enthusiasts must include in their visit to Costa Rica the pure thrill and experience of paddleboarding and windsurfing on Lake Arenal. Famous for its consistent winds and stunning views of the surrounding mountains, Lake Arenal is the perfect spot for both activities.
Rentals and lessons are readily available from various companies that line the shore, and guided tours can take you to the best spots on the lake. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced paddler or windsurfer, Lake Arenal is sure to offer an unforgettable experience.
Where to stay in Arenal?
Since Arenal has boomed as a major center for outdoor activities, the selection of hotels has gone from zero to plentiful. Today, you can bed down in luxury spa hotels that channel the warm spring waters to feed their wellness facilities or go budget with local B&B guesthouses with a classic Tico welcome. Here are some of the best options for hotels and other accommodations:
- Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa – The Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa is now something of a famous name in the Arenal region. As the moniker implies, its highlight is Costa Rica’s largest network of naturally flowing hot springs, which run through a series of stunning outdoor pools framed by the surrounding rainforests. Guests rest easy in rooms that are spacious and plush. Plus, the onsite spa facility offers bespoke massage treatments and more for the perfect way to relax after an active day.
- Arenal Kioro – Hemmed in by eucalyptus rainforests some 10 minutes’ drive from the center of La Fortuna, the Arenal Kioro eco hotel is all about luxury with a conscience. Some of the hotel’s rooms have spectacular panoramas of the Arenal volcano, while private hot spring baths await in the 27-acre (11-hectare) grounds. Arenal Kioro offers 8 different hot springs with every pool varying in temperature and size.
- Nayara Springs – This is a part of the Nayara Resorts collection of luxury hotels that offers you the chance to experience the authentic Costa Rica rainforest. Part eco lodge, part honeymoon hotel, Nayara Springs has tentalow rooms that spill onto panoramic decks with infinity pools. This resort even has its own private sloth sanctuary and hot springs. What’s more, the Nayara Springs resort sits just 15 minutes north of the Arenal Volcano.
While Nayara Springs is an adult-only resort, around the Arenal area, you’ll also find some of the other popular resorts by Nayara Resorts including, Nayara Gardens and Nayara Tented Camp – both of which are great for couples and families. Don’t be fooled by the name though: Nayara Tented Camp is no backcountry safari getup!
- Manoa Hotel – Roughly midway between La Fortuna and the northwestern edge of the Arenal Volcano National Park, the Manoa Hotel is a top mid-range budget hotel option that promises real immersion in nature with some seriously fantastic views. Rooms are simple but very comfortable. There’s also a top restaurant at the hotel serving hearty Costa Rican and other popular Central American dishes. And of course, they offer two hot spring pools and a jacuzzi, in addition to a full-service swim-up bar for cocktails while you soak.
Where to eat?
You’ll need plenty of fuel to keep you going through those zipline sessions and sloth-spotting treks in Arenal Volcano National Park. Thankfully, the area, particularly the main town center of La Fortuna, is now brimming with wonderful dining options featuring local Costa Rican cuisine. Here are some of the best and our all-time favorite places to eat:
- Don Rufino – Plying its trade for more than a decade in the heart of the town of La Fortuna, Don Rufino is now firmly established as one of the go-to options near the Arenal Volcano for fusion food. The menu combines local produce with international cooking flair to offer dishes like chimichurri glazed shrimp risotto and rib ravioli.
- Arábigos Coffee House – One of our top breakfast stops before an early trek, Arábigos Coffee House opens its doors at 7am. The brews are, naturally, fantastic (this is Costa Rica, remember?). You can have them in any number of artisan ways, from Chemex to AeroPress. Pair your caffeine with tasty breakfast options that range from savory eggs on toast to sweet pancakes.
- Soda Mima – There’s nothing quite like a classic Costa Rican soda (a simple tavern that sells cheap food) when it comes to getting that fix of the local stuff. Head to Soda Mima in La Fortuna for delicious eats like spicy rice, burgers, chicken fajitas, Tico tacos – the mouthwatering list goes on.
What to pack for Arenal?
When planning your adventure to the Arenal Volcano, make sure to bring lightweight, breathable clothing. Long sleeve shirts and pants, a hat, sunscreen, hiking boots, a rain jacket or poncho and other waterproofs, a swimsuit, sunglasses, and a reusable water bottle will serve you well. These essentials will keep you comfortable and protected while you conquer the National Park’s zipline sessions and sloth-spotting treks. For a full list of what to pack for Arenal, just reach out to my team for more guidance.
If you liked this post, be sure to check out the 15 best places to visit in Costa Rica and 14 fast facts about Costa Rica. You’ll also find more of this kind of adventure content on our blog page!
Why travel with The Explorer’s Passage?
Experience Arenal Volcano National Park with the best tour operator in Costa Rica. Our guides have been leading adventure trips in Costa Rica for over 30 years and are experts of the Arenal Volcano and La Fortuna area.
We pride ourselves on delivering extraordinary tours based on travelers’ needs and are humbled by our guests’ testimonials. In fact, our dedication has earned us a 5-star rating on Tripadvisor, and awards by Travel+Leisure Magazine and Newsweek. Check us out and discover why so many travelers worldwide choose us. My team and I would love for you to join us on our Arenal Volcano adventure or any of our many other adventure trips!
Founder & CEO
The Explorer’s Passage
About Jeff Bonaldi
Jeff Bonaldi is the Founder and CEO of The Explorer’s Passage, an adventure travel company. His mission is to provide travelers with the opportunity to transform their lives and the planet through the power of adventure.
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