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A guide to visiting Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Until 2010, Arenal was Costa Rica‘s most active volcano. Though Arenal is still active (one of the 5 active volcanos in Costa Rica), the regular spewing of lava, gas and ash following the 1968 explosion came to a standstill in 2010.

Between 1968 and 2010, visitors to the area could marvel at the 5,673ft, symmetrical, cone-shaped appearance of Arenal volcano as it displayed activity. Since 2010 though, Arenal volcano has been considered ‘sleeping’. Experts do believe we will see Arenal volcano’s activity once more, but when? No one knows.

Fear not though, safety is at the forefront of tourism decisions here in Arenal and around Arenal volcano. It is absolutely safe to visit. There are limits on how close people can get to the volcano (you cannot climb or ascend it) and if there is any volcanic activity recorded, park rangers will not hesitate to close the trails.

Regardless of volcano activity though, the Arenal region is a stunning addition to your Costa Rica bucket list. There is a plethora of activities and adventures to go on here and so much flora and fauna to witness.

Some of the best things to do in Arenal include tours of the cacao farms (where you make your own chocolate), soaking in the geothermal springs, sloth watching, river rafting and hikes through Arenal Volcano National Park. More on the best things to do in Arenal later in this post.

I have just spent 5 days exploring Arenal, La Fortuna and the surrounding areas and so in this Arenal travel guide, I am going to share with you the best things to do in Arenal, my top tips for Arenal, the best places to stay when visiting Arenal and much more.

This is a complete travel guide for those of you planning to add Arenal to your Costa Rica road trip or central America adventure.

Other blog posts and travel guides that you may enjoy:

A guide to visit Arenal volcano, Costa Rica

With this Google Map, you can have all my tips and recommendations at the touch of your fingertips. These are all the things I wish I knew and spent a lot of time researching before my Costa Rica adventures. 

This Google Map Legend includes:

  • Best walks, hikes, viewpoints and activities
  • Best waterfalls, beaches and coves to visit
  • Road trip tips (campsites, laundrettes, lunch spots)
  • My favourite places for coffee, brunch and dinner
  • Things you must add to your bucket list!
  • Travel guide links within each location

Where is Arenal? How to get to Arenal / La Fortuna?

Arenal volcano itself is located 90km northwest of San Jose (the capital) making it around a 2.5-hour drive if you’re hiring a car and heading straight up there. The roads are pretty good (for Costa Rica roads) and so the drive is an easy one!

If you’re looking to use public transport, there are many bus routes that have La Fortuna on their network (this is the closest town and considered the ‘gateway’ to the National Park). I spoke to someone in Arenal that had taken the bus from SJO airport up to La Fortuna and it had taken 4.5 hours total, costing around £10.

There are two main bus lines that run throughout Costa Rica: Gray Line and Interbus.

See more information about using buses to travel Costa Rica here.

If you’re driving from Santa Teresa, the drive is around 5.5 hours. If you’re driving from Monteverde the drive is around 2 hours. I did this drive and extended it to 3 hours with a stop off at the gorgeous Rio Celeste waterfall.

Where to stay when visiting Arenal volcano?

The best place to stay in Arenal, in my opinion, totally depends on the transport you have available and your budget. Chances are you want to see more than your hotel room whilst staying in one of the most sought after locations in Costa Rica? Right, okay so…

If you’re looking. to stay for a few days and get a really varied adventure during your time in Arenal, I’d suggest staying where most people do, in La Fortuna. La Fortuna is considered the gateway to Arenal Volcano National park and is a little town that sits right beside it. There are so many gorgeous restaurants, offerings and things to do in La Fortuna, it’s the perfect compliment before and after your adventures out in the National park and surrounding areas.

However, if you have a car and are after a particular ‘vibe’ perhaps you’ll consider a quirky Airbnb stay, knowing you can drive to the volcano/town whenever you need? 

There is also the option to stay in one of the many Hot Spring Spa’s and hotels in Arenal itself. This is a more pricey option but if the finer experience is what you’re seeking, these resorts are gorgeous!

If you’re looking for a hostel, La Fortuna again is my recommendation to you. Selina has a hostel here and there are plenty of others to choose from depending on your budget.

If you find this Arenal travel guide useful, I’d love for you to share it with your friends!

My accommodation recommendations for visiting Arenal:

  • I stayed in this gorgeous Airbnb (pictured below) on a cacao farm, just a 10-minute drive from La Fortuna. It was so peaceful and away from the town in a real ‘local’ neighbourhood. I have to admit, as a solo traveller, I like to have a little more ‘life’ on my doorstep to engage in and with however for a few days it was glorious to wake up to the sound of the birds and enjoy breakfast in the heart of nature.

My accommodation recommendations for visiting Arenal:

  • This was the second place I stayed in during my time exploring Arenal. I love this place SO much and wouldn’t hesitate to come back. It was walking distance from La Fortuna, clean, equipped, attention to detail and very affordable. This Airbnb (pictured below) is a renovated container with a porch to enjoy breakfast with views of the volcano! I even had a few hummingbirds enjoy breakfast with me.

Example prices in Arenal / La Fortuna:

(As of May 2021.)

  • ATV 1 day rental = $40-60
  • Cocktail = 3500-4000CRC
  • Main meal = 2500-8000CRC (it really depends how local you eat!)
  • Coffee = 1500-2000CRC
  • Standard double private room 50-90$ USD per night
  • Hostel bed in shared dorm 15-40$ USD pn
Let me know in the comments if there are any other example prices you’d like from me in this * travel guide.

Top tips for visiting Arenal / La Fortuna:

  • Wake up early for the best chances of seeing the volcano, another reason to stay at an accommodation with a view. I saw it on day 5 as the sun came out finally!
  • Book your accommodation in La Fortuna instead of Arenal to save money!
  • Eat at local restaurants to save money on food. You can eat for as little as 1000-2000CRC
  • Visit during the rainy season for ‘off season’ cheaper prices on accommodation. The rainy season is May-November.
  • You can rack up a big bill by booking lots of activities here. A lot of activities available here in Arenal are also available all over the country. Bear this in mind and don’t get too much FOMO in one place.
  • Look out for ‘sodas’. Sodas are small Tico (Costa Rican) eateries where you will find local food, locally priced.
  • Take a reusable water bottle with you. Tap water is drinkable and it will save on single used plastic and your pennies!
  • Get a massage with Maria at Los Sueños Spa in La Fortuna! Best massage i’ve EVER had!

My favourite places to eat in Arenal / La Fortuna:

  • Organico Fortuna – You can always rely on me to find the places with the smoothie bowls, avocado toast, bullet coffee and matcha lattes… this is it! Serious great food though, the bottom left image is the Mahi Mahi with avocado and almond sauce with roasted veggies!
  • Chocolate Fusion – if you’re looking for the organic chocolate meal kind 😉
  • Soda Viquez – Fabulous place to try the local dishes!
  • Soda la Hormiga – the top-recommended ‘local’ place to eat in town. Great food!

Best things to do in Arenal: A travel guide to visiting Arenal volcano and La Fortuna

1. Take one of the wildlife tours / walks in the area

In and around La Fortuna / Arenal Volcano National Park, there are plenty of opportunities to witness the diverse flora and fauna that Costa Rica is home to. If you’re ready to see some sloths in the wild (who isn’t) there are some great opportunities to do so in Arenal / La Fortuna.

I walked the Bogarin Trail (pictured below) and wandered through the woodland for about an hour and a half. It was gorgeous!

The Bogarin Trail is one of the best chances and places to see sloths in La Fortuna. Tickets cost $10 to enter, with guides coming at an additional cost.

Would I recommend a guide? Honestly, the guides know their stuff. They know the environments the animals like, they know where they tend to hand out, they have the binoculars and the eye for spotting. They know the land, the fascinating flora and everything in between. I would highly recommend getting a tour guide and can recommend this tour.

We didn’t go with a guide but could see where guides were stopping along the way for a cheeky marvel (budget tip right there). Of course though, if you’re coming just to see a specific animal and want to maximise your chances of seeing them, getting a guide is absolutely the way to do it!

Top tips for travelling in Costa Rica
A guide to visit Arenal volcano, Costa Rica

2. Explore Arenal Volcano National Park

Though it is prohibited to ascend or hike the volcano itself (safety reasons), the best experience to get up close and personal with this incredible landscape is by hiking around the National Park.

By doing so you can witness lave flow remains from the 1968 eruption along with unique ecosystems and a diverse range of exotic species.

There are many routes and trails you can choose from, all with varying ability levels and lengths, but do not fear – you don’t need to go far for a view!

Arenal Volcano National Park entry is $15 USD per adult. 100% of park admission fees go directly to Costa Rica’s National Park Fund to support conservation.

3. Enjoy the geothermal springs around the base of the volcano

Without a doubt, one of the best things to do in Arenal / La Fortuna is to visit and soak in the hot springs.

Heated geothermally (from the Earth’s interior) Arenal Volcano has gifted the area with mineral-rich hot springs, around which many hotels have centred resorts around for you to safely bathe in.

Here in Arenal, you have a few options to enjoy the hot springs:

  • Stay at one of the hot springs resorts in Arenal and enjoy the inclusive use of the pools
  • Purchase a day pass to one of the resorts and enjoy the pools for a morning, afternoon or evening (some include treatments, dinners and more)
  • Soak in the free river hot springs (see pictures below)

Notes for visiting the free hot springs:

  1. Google Free Natural Springs Tabacon and the spot has been marked on Google Maps
  2. You will need to pay 2000CRC to the guy on the road (he will watch your car, effectively this. is parking cost)
  3. Remember, though you save money by soaking in the river springs for free, remember the temperature is not monitored and there are no lifeguards. Enter at your own risk.
  4. If you enjoy the free hot springs, take your rubbish with you when you leave. Leave no trace.
  5. The river hot springs are an amazing option if you’re on a budget and are just passing through for a quick dip!
A guide to visit Arenal volcano, Costa Rica

4. Get out in nature and be present with the abundance of Mother Earth all around you

Costa Rica is without a doubt the most beautiful, abundant and vibrant country I have ever visited. 

The flora and fauna will blow you away and La Fortuna / Arenal is no exception. There are so many plant and animal species that only live inland and this is a great place to keep your eyes peeled.

I was forever in awe of God’s creations here in Arenal. Just look at the selection below…

5. Visit a coffee plantation / drink a locally sourced coffee

I mentioned coffee tours in my guide to visiting Monteverde, Costa Rica, but in case you aren’t visiting there or didn’t get a chance… Arenal is another great place to get onto a coffee plantation and see how this popular bean is grown, harvested and ground.

I can recommend Jacamar Naturalist Tours and Don Juan for a coffee plantation tour.

6. Do a cacao tour and learn how chocolate is made!

Another fabulous tour to do in Arenal / La Fortuna is a cacao tour to see where and how chocolate is made.

I absolutely loved my tour at Eden Organic Farm. We learnt about the Mayan / Aztec roots of cacao, its original and intentional uses, how it’s grown, selected, fermented and dried!

Then… the best part… we got hands-on with making ‘God’s Drink’ and our own chocolate bonbons.

Yarixa was my tour guide and she was so wonderful. I’ve not seen a bad review of Eden tours and my Airbnb host recommended them also!

Book your tour with Eden Organic Farm here.

A guide to visit Arenal volcano, Costa Rica

7. Buy some local chocolate to take home / for yourself hehe

If you don’t get a chance to do the chocolate tour, but want to try the chocolate. I have great news.

Eden Organic have a shop in town selling their chocolate! I actually came in here before I booked the tour and loved the chocolate so I was so pleased to then go to the farm from which the cacao originates!

They have bars of chocolate, cacao balls, different flavoured chocolate bonbons, hot drinks… all sorts! You name it, they’ve got it!

The shop is called Chocolate Fusion and is located in the centre of La Fortuna, see picture below.

A guide to visit Arenal volcano, Costa Rica

8. Visit Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge

Though it’s a 2-hour drive from La Fortuna, La Fortuna / Arenal is one of the most popular places for people to access a Caño Negro Wildlife Tour from. Whether that’s a wetlands tour in a pontoon boat, rafting or hiking!

Located near the border with Nicaragua, Caño Negro has been considered by many to be the third most important wetland in the world.

Its extremely humid conditions give a home to very unique species and many people travel here to witness monkeys, caimans, iguanas, crocodiles, sloths, and many rare birds!

Explore tours available here.

Top tips:

  • bring binoculars
  • speak to your accommodation about tours, they may be able to do a deal for you!
  • stay present and alert, nothing is guaranteed to be seen – you’re in the wild!

9. Visit La Fortuna Waterfall

La Fortuna Waterfall is located just 6km outside of La Fortuna town, offering a pretty easy hike and an opportunity to see the gorgeous 75m tall waterfall… plus have a dip!

The walking trail to La Fortuna waterfall goes through the lush tropical forest, before meeting a descent of steps to the waterfall.

The walk is around 20/25 minutes and the entrance fee is $15 USD.

Hours are from 8:00 a.m to 5:00 p.m daily.

10. Take a selfie with the volcano... obv.

A guide to visit Arenal volcano, Costa Rica

11. Take a day trip to Rio Celeste National Park

Around an hours drive north of Arenal and La Fortuna is Rio Celeste National Park, another gorgeous area that is home to the beautiful waterfall picture below. Hello turquoise waters. The waterfall is accessed via a 25 minute walk/hike (its pretty easy) through the forest and then the final descent is pretty epic, leading you down the steps to stand right beside the waterfall.

Unfortunately, you cannot dip in this waterfall you can only admire it and admire the nature around it. I saw Morpho butterflies and two sloths in the trees above the falls – it was magic! Another reason to have your binoculars with you…

There are many other trails you can explore in this National Park which are included in the $13.50 entry ticket to the park. You could easily spend the day here.

Top tips for visiting Rio Celeste National Park:

  • Rio Celeste National Park is open 8am – 2pm daily.
  • No single-use plastics are permitted, no drones either. Bags are checked upon entry.
  • Parking is 2000CRC cash
  • They sell coconuts and food at the entrance
  • There are toilets at the entrance
  • You can continue down the road and dip in the same water from the waterfall, in the river, for free!
  • When you drive up towards the national park, locals will wave at you to pull over and park. This isn’t an essential action, they are just trying to get your custom!
A guide to Arenal Volcano and La Fortuna, Costa Rica-44

12. Drive on to Monteverde Cloud Forest Nature Reserve

Home to the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Nature Reserve, this is a spot not too far from here that you should definitely consider heading to next.

A guide to visiting Monteverde, Costa Rica

13. Drive on to Santa Teresa, Nicoya Peninsula

Looking to add some ocean time into your Costa Rica itinerary?

I spent 1 week soaking up the coastline, beaches, surf and yoga in Santa Teresa / Mal Pais and it was glorious.

The perfect compliment to an inland adventure.

The ultimate Santa Teresa travel guide, Costa Rica

The best things to do in Santa Teresa

15. Rafting on Rio Balsa

This was actually one of the things I didn’t do – but would have LOVED to.

Tell me you don’t look at these images advertising the rafting tours and get all excited to experience that adrenalin?

If your reaction was hell no, fair enough.

If you’re keen on a dose of adrenalin, this is the activity for you!

Book your rafting experience from Arenal here. It’s one of the best things to do in Arenal!

16. Visit or adventure on Lake Arenal

Lake Arenal is the lake situated in the northern highlands of Costa Rica, just the other side of the Arenal volcano. It is currently the largest lake in Costa Rica at 85-square-kilometres and is the perfect place to walk, cycle, fish, kayak or take on a water activity!

You won’t go far without seeing companies advertising their adventures around it. Actually, as I write this, I remember driving past a quad bike centre and they do quad bike tours of the lake with volcano views! That would be so fun!

17. Get a volcano mud wrap and massage at Los Sueños Spa

This is actually me saving the best til last.

So I’d heard that having a volcanic mud wrap or treatment whilst visiting La Fortuna / Arenal was one of the best things to do here.

I didn’t plan to do so but one evening, after a long drive, I fancied treating myself to a massage and drove past this place. They had an offer for a 1hour 15minutes, $55 package (Volcanic mud face mask, massage, reflexology and hot stones).

It was absolutely INSANE. Maria, my therapist was so intuitive with her massage. Deep, healing and, well, the best massage I’ve ever had.

So much so I came back for another the next day before I left.

Is there anything else you'd add to this Arenal travel guide?

Where are your favourite things to do in Arenal / La Fortuna? Anything you’d add?

Love as always and happy adventuring,

Mollie.

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