The region of Arenal, Costa Rica is one of the top destinations in the country. From 1968 until 2010, Arenal Volcano was one of Costa Rica’s most active volcanoes, 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.
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Despite the lack of volcanic activities, tourists are still keen to visit Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica. Many travelers add a trip to Arenal Volcano National Park to the top of their list for scenic hiking trails and access to natural hot springs.
The sleepy town of La Fortuna, Costa Rica serves as the gateway to Arenal and plays host to numerous hotels, restaurants, and activities in the area.
About Arenal and La Fortuna
Arenal is known for its 1,633 metres (5,358 ft) tall volcano of the same name. Years ago, Arenal Volcano was completely dormant. This all changed in 1968 when an unexpected eruption famously destroyed the small town of Tabacón. The eruptions continued daily for years, turning the La Fortuna area into a tourist hotspot.
Up until 2010, Arenal was Costa Rica’s most active volcano. And although it has since been dormant, scientists believe it may one day return to its lava-flowing state. That being said, Arenal and La Fortuna are completely safe to visit and welcome thousands of travelers every year.
Arenal Volcano National Park is the second most popular park in Costa Rica. La Fortuna offers many tours to see the volcano and explore the nearby lake and hot springs. People consider Arenal one of Costa Rica’s best volcanoes to see because it’s so tall and symmetrical against the surrounding pastures.
Check out our Vlog on Exploring Arenal Costa Rica:
How to Get to Arenal
Arenal Volcano is located about 80 km northwest of San Jose in the province of Alajuela. It’s nestled in Costa Rica’s northern lowlands where it stands tall amid low-lying forests and bubbling thermal pools.
Rent a Car
The best way to get to Arenal is by driving. Whether you want to check out the town or head straight to Arenal Volcano National Park, you’ll need to head to La Fortuna.
San Jose to Arenal
If you are coming from San Jose, it should take you no more than 3-4 hours to get to La Fortuna. Traveling west on Route 1 will take you to San Ramon where you will then take Route 702 to La Fortuna.
The total driving distance from La Fortuna/Arenal to San Jose is 139 km (86 miles). Although it doesn’t sound like a long distance, the winding roads will slow you down so be sure to plan accordingly.
If driving on windy roads in a foreign country makes you feel uneasy, consider alternative transportation options, like a shuttle or public transport.
Tamarindo to Arenal Volcano
To travel from Tamarindo to La Fortuna, head to Liberia. From Liberia, you will make your way around Lake Arenal to get to the entrance of the park. The distance from Arenal to Tamarindo is 205 km (127 miles) and is a 3.5-4 hour drive.
Jaco to Arenal
Heading from Jaco to La Fortuna is a 157 km (97.5 miles) journey north. You will drive to San Ramon and follow the same winding roads as you would from San Jose. The drive from La Fortuna to Jaco takes about 4 hours.
Monteverde to Arenal
Although the two look close on a map, the distance is deceiving. The drive from Arenal to Monteverde and vice versa takes 3-4 hours. It’s a 118 km (73 miles) trip that winds through mountainous terrain before hugging the coast of Lake Arenal.
The first part of the trip from Monteverde to Tilarán follows a very bumpy unpaved road. A 4×4 vehicle is recommended, although you can make it in a regular car if you take your time. But, during the rainy season (October and November specifically), the road is impassable without 4×4 and we do not recommend taking your chances.
Liberia to Arenal
Route 1 from Liberia will get you to the town of Cañas. From here, you’ll then make your way around Lake Arenal to get to La Fortuna. This route is 132 km (82 miles) and takes about 2.5 hours.
Planning on driving while in Costa Rica?
Follow our Costa Rica driving tips for a smooth ride.
Use Local Transport
If you are not renting a car in Costa Rica or prefer a greener alternative, you can get to Arenal by taking local buses. They are hassle-free, comfortable, and well-connected.
There are a number of direct buses from San Jose leaving at 6:15a.m, 8:40 a.m and 11:30 a.m most days. As well as a number of later busses connecting through Ciudad Quesada.
The Bus Schedule is a great resource for checking up-to-date bus schedules for destinations nationwide. However, tickets can only be purchased in person at the bus station. You can purchase them a few days ahead or on the day of.
Take a Shuttle Bus
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 $54/person.
Interbus, Gray Line and a few others offer private and shared shuttles that offer a more comfortable ride than a public bus. To find the best price and book a seat online, head to Bookaway.
Arrive by Air
If you want to save time on transportation, consider flying. If booked ahead of time, a one-way domestic flight with local airlines Sansa can be as cheap at $50-60 USD/person.
Sansa airlines have direct flights to La Fortuna on most Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The flight is very scenic and takes only 30 minutes.
Best Time to Visit Arenal Volcano
Arenal, Costa Rica is a great destination to visit any time of the year. Dry season (Dec-Mar) is generally the best time to visit Costa Rica, 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, Costa Rica during the rainy season.
We have visited Arenal a couple of times, in both the dry and rainy seasons and have enjoyed our stay both times. In the rainy season, it almost always rained in the afternoon, 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.
Afternoon rain showers rolling in at Arenal Volcano
Things to do in Arenal, Costa Rica
Visit the Arenal Volcano National Park, Costa Rica
The national park offers anyone visiting Arenal Volcano a chance to admire the 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 the Arenal region.
Entrance Fees & Park Hours
Park entry is $15 USD per adult. As part of the country’s conservation efforts, 100% of park admission fees go directly to Costa Rica’s National Park Fund.
The park is open from 8 a.m to 4 p.m daily.
Enjoy the Hiking Trails
There are 2 main hiking trails in the park. They offer unique glimpses into the pathways of lava flows from the days of Arenal’s active volcano status. The trails form a 4 km (2.5 miles) loop that can usually be done in 2-3 hours.
The loop begins at the entrance to Sendero Las Coladas, which is a flat and pleasant 1.7 km (1 mile) stretch. The hiking trail is named after the lava flows that formed after an eruption in 1992.
Most of this trail is secondary growth because volcanic eruptions wiped out the majority of the primary trees years ago. Toward the end of the trail, you will leave the forest canopy and get to observe the hardened lava streams. There are wooden stairs leading to a mirador, or lookout, for an incredible view of the volcano and Lake Arenal.
After the mirador, head back into the forest for the El Ceibo Trail. While most old growth was destroyed in eruptions, there are a few mighty trees that managed to survive. This 2.3 km (1.5 miles) flat trail is named after its resident giant Ceiba tree that is over 400 years old! Keep in mind that you can always do this portion of the loop trail first if you want to save the lookout for the end.
On the other side of the loop trail is the Heliconias Trail. This is a flat 610 m (2,000 ft) trail that winds through the secondary growth forest. Along the way, look out for wildlife like howler monkeys or a Bare-necked Umbrellabird.
Other Things to do in Arenal
While the volcano itself is definitely the main attraction, there are lots of other things to do in Arenal, Costa Rica. Whether you’re seeking adventure or relaxation, these activities and tours are sure to make your trip a memorable one.
Go White Water 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!
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 $75 USD /person.
Desafio Adventures office in La Fortuna
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 at a local Finca (farm) following the ride.
Arenal Hot Springs, Costa Rica
Thanks to geothermal activity beneath Arenal, there are 3 large hot springs resorts in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, with admission prices ranging from $34 USD to $105 USD/per day. Here are a few of the best hot springs in Arenal.
Tabacon Resort & Spa is the first and most upscale hot spring resort in La Fortuna. Tabacon Costa Rica offers visitors access to dozens of hot spring pools in a lush Garden of Eden type of setting. Half day passes (entrance and lunch or dinner) start at $70 USD, full day passes with one meal are $85 USD and full day passes with two meals are $105 USD.
If you can afford to splurge, we highly recommend dedicating a whole day to soaking in Tabacon hot springs. It’s a beautiful place that takes time to explore and enjoy thoroughly.
Baldi Hot Springs is the second most popular choice for hot springs in town. The Baldi hot springs are known to attract a younger (more budget-conscious) crowd and offer a more upbeat setting. A daily pass costs only $34 or $57 with lunch or dinner, or $79 with both lunch and 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. A day pass costs $40 or $62 with lunch or dinner.
Check out Lake Arenal
Lake Arenal sits at the base of the Arenal Volcano and offers a number of activities to the curious visitor. It’s the largest lake in Costa Rica and one of the best for fishing and water sports.
Here are a few of our favourite activities at Arenal Lake
Stand-up Paddleboarding (SUP) – You’ll be standing on a broad, sturdy surfboard, using a long paddle to move around surprisingly easily! You’ll start the day at the base of the volcano, learn all the basics of SUP and get in a great workout for your core, too. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for the many fish that live in the lake.
Kayaking – For two hours, you’ll kayak all around Lake Arenal, led by a professional guide. You’ll enjoy great views of the volcano and you’ll have a unique point of view to appreciate the local wildlife, especially if you’re a bird-watcher.
Windsurfing or Kitesurfing – these activities are only available in the windy season (Jan-Mar). Kitesurfing is probably a better option if you’re a beginner since it tends to be cheaper and a bit more convenient, and the wind is stronger since the kite catches it from higher up. But whether you choose to man your own sailboard or hitch yourself to a kite, you’re in for an exciting day and quite the workout.
Swimming – Since most people focus on fishing and water sports, many wonder, is it safe to swim in Lake Arenal Costa Rica? Absolutely! The water is nice and clean and makes for the perfect cool dip after a day of hiking.
Even if you’re not interested in any of the above activities, a drive to Lake Arenal is still worth the trip. As the lake offers a unique perspective on the area surrounding Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica and the volcano itself.
Hike to La Fortuna Waterfall
Located just 6 km (3.7 miles) outside of La Fortuna town, La Fortuna waterfall offers an easy hike to a beautiful waterfall and a fun swimming hole.
The trail to La Fortuna waterfall runs through a lush tropical forest, then emerges some 20 min 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 $15 USD, all proceeds are reinvested into local conservation efforts. Hours are from 8:00 a.m to 5:00 p.m daily.
Visit 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 be steep and sometimes muddy and is thus only recommended to those in good physical condition.
The entrance fee is $15 USD per person.
Explore Some of the Best Hanging Bridges in Costa Rica
Exploring the Costa Rican rainforest from high up in the trees is one of the best ways to see wildlife without disturbing it. The Arenal Hanging Bridges sit on 600 acres of protected land and form a network of trails through the forest. Because these bridges are hanging, they don’t disturb the rich flora and fauna beneath them. You can visit the Arenal Hanging Bridges on your own or with a guide as a part of a tour.
Entrance to Mistico park for a self-guided tour is $26 USD per person. There are also many tours that include transportation from your hotel.
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.
The entrance fee to the park is $12 USD per person.
Places to Stay in La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Our biggest advice to those visiting Arenal Volcano is to stay outside of the town of La Fortuna. Yes, it seems counterintuitive to stay outside of the activity hub of the region, but La Fortuna hotels are limiting.
Having visited the area a couple of times ourselves, we can tell you one big difference between the hotels in town and those outside. 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 La Fortuna, they are much rarer.
Best Hotels in Arenal, Costa Rica
Arenal Hotel Resort & Spa, a beautiful resort with great views of the volcano, on-site hot springs, 3 restaurants, and a fitness center with rates starting at $150/night.
The Tabacon Grand Spa Resort is an excellent place to spend the day at the hot springs but it is also a great place to lay your head for the night. They have a wide range of rooms and suites to choose from which start at $310/night as well as some great sustainability practices in place.
Arenal Oasis Eco Lodge & Wildlife Refuge is committed to natural resource conservation and sustainable operating practices. They are situated at the base of the Arenal Volcano. A bungalow nestled in the jungle will set you back $88 USD /night.
Volcano Lodge is a spa hotel built on hot springs. The hotel’s rooms boast beautiful volcano views and 2 outdoor thermal pools to soak in. There is also a spa on-site for a full “thermal experience.” Standard rooms are $239 USD per night while a thermal room with private hot springs is $350 USD/night.
Tio Felix Eco Lodge has incredible views of Arenal Volcano and is a short walk to La Fortuna Waterfall. A basic room is $50 USD /night and includes breakfast.
Hotel Las Flores Fortuna offers colourful accommodation with great views of Arenal Volcano just outside of Fortuna. There is an on-site restaurant and rates start at $53 USD/night.
Hotel Rancho Cerro Azul this highly-rated hotel has a beautiful property, and stunning vistas. A double cabin starts at $89 USD/night.
READ NEXT: Best Places To Stay In Costa Rica
Best Restaurants in La Fortuna/Arenal Costa Rica
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. There are lots of things to do in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, so you can end a day of adventure at a nice restaurant.
We didn’t try every single restaurant in town during our trip, but we did find some good ones. 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.
How many days do you need in Arenal Costa Rica?
If you want to get the most of your visit to Arenal, plan to spend at least 5 days in the area.
There’s no shortage of fun things to do and ways to relax near Arenal and La Fortuna. Travelers can get the best of both worlds with adventure and serenity in Arenal Volcano’s beautiful natural setting.