Your Complete Guide to Visiting Arenal Volcano
In this complete guide to visiting Arenal Volcano, you’ll discover what makes this Costa Rica highlight unique, what it offers to adventure seekers, and how to make the most of your stay.
Costa Rica’s most famous active volcano is arguably what put the country on the tourist radar all those moons ago. Today, it’s the surrounding natural splendors, the impressive array of outdoor adventures, and the convenience of the quaint little town of La Fortuna that keeps the tourists flowing in.
Arenal is to Costa Rica what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris: an unmissable highlight you wouldn’t dream of skipping. Not only on your first visit but on EVERY visit to the country.
Here’s all you need to know about the jaw-dropping Arenal Volcano!
What is the best base for visiting Arenal Volcano?
The tiny hamlet of La Fortuna is the revered springboard for visits to Arenal. The charming town is home to 15,000 residents but welcomes millions of visitors, every year. It sits in the central lowlands, about 100 miles northwest of San Jose, the country’s capital.
Look, right here…
And here’s a closer overview of the town and its immediate surroundings…
As you can see, La Fortuna really is the heart and soul of Arenal adventures.
The town was first founded in the 1930s as a farming hub and quickly became popular, and renamed ‘The Fortune’, thanks to its immensely fertile lands. Arenal’s catastrophic eruption of 1968 alienated everything within a 10-mile radius and reshaped the landscape. As a consequence, it created what is now considered to be the single most jaw-dropping natural highlight in all of Costa Rica.
La Fortuna sits just 6 miles from Arenal Volcano although, as a visitor, you need not worry about impending eruptions. Despite this being ranked among the world’s 20 most active volcanoes, Arenal has not threatened to erupt in a big way since 1968 and has been declared dormant since 2010. Mind you, this stunning peak still puts on a spectacular show now and then. After dark, you can see slow-moving lava cascading from the active western side, and smoke is often visible during the day. Local experts are on the ball and strict safety guidelines are in place, limiting how close visitors can get.
Hiking trails abound and afford magnificent views of the volcano and night-time lava spectacles. At the slightest hint of a rumble, trails are closed to hikers but this isn’t something that happens very often.
It’s easy to see why Arenal is the country’s foremost attraction (it is a picture-perfect peak, after all) although you’ll be astounded to discover just how many volcanoes there are – not only in this immediate region but throughout Costa Rica!
Find out which Costa Rica volcanoes you can climb.
The best places to stay when visiting Arenal Volcano
Being such a popular tourist hub means La Fortuna boasts a wide range of accommodation options to suit all budgets – from inexpensive guesthouses to eye-popping luxury resorts. Naturally, many people opt to splurge when visiting Arenal.
After all, waking up to a spectacular view of the volcano is a once-in-a-lifetime experience no one forgets in a hurry.
The best hotels in Arenal also boast their own hot springs. Being a volcanic region, Arenal and La Fortuna offer an abundance of natural thermal pools.
The perfect antidote to aching muscles after a full day of adrenaline-pumping adventures, Arenal’s therapeutic hot springs are divine!
Find out more about the amazing hot spring resorts in Arenal and La Fortuna – you’ll discover they come in a range of budget options. These are the top 12 Arenal hotels we can highly recommend for your visit.
What you should know before visiting Arenal Volcano
SIZE: The Arenal Conservation Area covers a mind-boggling 504,000 acres of spectacular wilderness, protecting over a dozen distinct reserves. The volcano itself, stunning as it is at over 5,300”, is just one of the many biological and geological highlights to discover. Nearby Arenal is Chato Volcano and its amazing collapsed caldera, for example, which is now the lagoon that feeds La Fortuna waterfall.
TIME NEEDED: The sheer size of the Arenal area and the complexity of its landscapes translates into a near-endless array of activities on offer. Most visitors will dedicate two or three days to their Arenal visit although, in all honesty, you can easily fill a whole week with outstanding adventures.
WHAT TO PACK: As with almost all destinations in Costa Rica, you need to pack for all eventualities. Include functional outdoor clothing, rain gear, good hiking boots, insect repellent, and sunscreen, no matter the time of year. Don’t forget to pack your bathers and plenty of waterproof bags for activities like rafting, kayaking, and waterfall chasing!
BEST TIME TO VISIT: The Green Season, which runs from May to October, is a phenomenal time to visit Arenal and Costa Rica in general. This is the rain(ier) season that keeps many tourists away. That means everything is quieter and cheaper although cloudy skies ensure the peak of Arenal is pretty much shrouded in mist for days on end. Many will surmise that the dry season (Dec-April) gifts better chances of crystal-clear views of Arenal, but you should know that the peak of the volcano is shrouded in cloud for most of the year. It really is the luck of the draw so, from our viewpoint, the best time to visit Arenal is anytime you can get here! Arenal is an unforgettable sight, every single time.
Besides… the rainy season is the best whitewater rafting and kayaking season so if that’s the prime reason for visiting, don’t let a few clouds deter you.
BE AN EARLY BIRD: For the best chances of seeing the peak of Arenal in all its cloudless glory, get into the habit of waking up at sunrise. This is perhaps the best reason to stay in a lodge or resort with a stellar view of the volcano.
DON’T SUFFER FOMO: If you arrive in La Fortuna and Arenal without having any activity booked, you will likely be overwhelmed by the array of stuff on offer and waste a lot of precious time deciding what to do first (and second and third). Fight your FOMO and plan your adventures ahead of time. Incidentally, this will also save you quite a bit of money. Plan and book a bundle package and you’d be surprised how much more affordable your trip can be.
IF YOU’RE SHORT ON TIME: Arenal’s amazing resorts offer more than just silver service, stunning views, and private thermal pools. Many are spread on astonishing swaths of private and protected land, which means you’ll have walking trails and wildlife spotting chances right at your fingertips. Although we normally don’t recommend locking yourself up in a resort and ignoring the rest of the world when visiting Costa Rica, these amazing lodges do a great job of offering a lot of options for those who are time-poor. If you are visiting our country for just a few days, consider enjoying the spoils of one of Arenal’s best properties and include one or two full-day excursions nearby.
The Arenal Conservation Area is home to an astonishing array of wildlife species, including the elusive resplendent quetzal. Dedicated bird watching tours are incredibly popular here, as Arenal boasts almost all of the over 800 bird species found in Costa Rica. Other wildlife to spot includes three distinct species of monkeys (howler, spider, and white-faced), as well as sloths, coatis, deer, jaguar (although you’d have to be pretty lucky to spot one), tapir, a vast array of butterflies, snakes and frogs and many more unusual species. Night-time wildlife spotting tours are on offer and recommended for avid frog lovers.
Although the area is bustling with wildlife, this is not Costa Rica’s very best place to see many of them. Human habitation, the sheer number of visitors on trails, and the thick forest canopy allow the many creatures to hide well. If you want to head out specifically to spot wildlife, we suggest you go with a local knowledgeable guide and make sure you are hitting the trails at first light.
The very best things to do in Arenal
If you are an adventure seeker then whooooaa, are you in for a treat?! Arenal offers an astronomical array of outdoor activities. No matter your age or fitness levels, you will find more adventures than you could ever enjoy in just a single visit. This is what makes Arenal an ideal destination for family adventure trips, as well as honeymooning couples and solo travelers.
There is something here for everyone.
Wading through the maze of Arenal activity options can be overwhelming so we thought we’d share the top things to see and do in this glorious part of Costa Rica.
Hit the hiking trails of Arenal
Exploring under the steam of your own two feet is undoubtedly the best way to start your Arenal adventures.
Hit the Bogarin Trail for good chances of seeing sloths, the aptly named 1968 Volcano View and Lava Trail to see the jaw-dropping remnants of old lava flows, or the short but very sweet Los Heliconias Trail, which starts at the ranger’s station and guides you to an incredible volcano viewpoint. This trail is just over half a mile and is an ideal intro for families with small kids in tow.
A longer but still easy trail is Las Coladas, which follows the base of the volcano (1.2mi) and you could easily extend that by 1.8mi by continuing on the Los Toucanes Trail, a very popular bird-watching route.
Aside from volcano-centric hikes, Arenal also offers a route to the 240″-high La Fortuna Waterfall, by far the most famous cascade in the area. This is an easy half-hour hike no one should miss! For those who want to inject even more fun on a trail, do note we also offer ATV riding and horseback riding tours to La Fortuna!
Get a bird’s eye view at the Arenal Hanging Bridges
Hiking trails on terra firma abound but if there’s a unique ‘walk’ you must do, it would have to be the Arenal hanging bridges loop. The luscious reserve offers a variety of hiking trails, zipline rides, and more – spending an entire fun-filled day here is an unforgettable experience! Paths are safe and well-marked but we always recommend going with a guide. There are great chances of spotting wildlife here but you need an expert eye to help you see them!
Chase wild waterfalls on a canyoning expedition
Once you’re ready to dial up the adrenaline, the Arenal activity options can get more daring! On a thrilling day of canyoning just outside La Fortuna, you’ll be scrambling over boulders, jumping into refreshing pools, and rappelling down a series of waterfalls. This is a half-day excursion of moderate difficulty that always proves to be an absolute crowd pleaser!
Want something even more extreme? Ask us about our Extreme Canyoning Tour in Arenal!
Soak in geothermal pools
Soaking in hot springs is a crowd favorite and it’s certainly not something you’ll want to miss. The unique geology of the area has spawned a bevy of mineral-enriched thermal pools and many hotels and lodges have sprung up all around them. The marvelous thing is that you’re not forced to stay overnight if you don’t want to: the best and most famous hot springs, within hotel grounds, are open to daytime visitors. Just keep in mind that some hot spring hotels offer private pools for guests so that’s an enticement that’s hard to forego.
Here’s our list of the best hot spring hotels in Costa Rica – note that not all are in the Areal and La Fortuna areas. Given the country’s many volcanoes, thermal springs abound!
Enjoy a day trip to the Tenorio Volcano National Park
The Tenorio and its iridescent Celeste River are about an hour’s drive north of La Fortuna. The river is famous for its incredible color and its gorgeous pool can be accessed via a relatively easy half-hour hike that culminates above an incredible staircase, which leads you down to the glowing emerald pools.
The Rio Celeste National Park is stunning and offers and offers a variety of trails and you could easily spend an entire day exploring its magical nature and wildlife. This is one of the best day trips you can take from La Fortuna and the river one of Costa Rica’s unique highlights.
Tackle an unforgettable river rafting excursion
Whitewater rafting is one of the most coveted outdoor adventures offered in Costa Rica. In and around Arenal, there are options for family-friendly Class II and III rapids (along the Balsa River, closest to La Fortuna) and more challenging Class III and IV rapids on the Sarapiqui River, only an hour’s drive away. The Balsa run is amazing and is relaxing enough to soak up your surroundings and even spot wildlife along the riverbanks. You can take it easy – especially if it’s your first time in a raft – and just enjoy the relaxing yet still a thrilling experience.
Sarapiqui, on the other hand, taps into the world-class rafting experiences for which Costa Rica is renowned. This river serves up 10 miles of twisting gorge runs and over 40 continuous rapids. This is the ultimate thrill-seeking Arenal experience for true adrenalin junkies.
Want to know what else you can do in Arenal? Here is our full list of 15 Amazing Things to Do in Arenal.
Experience Arenal Volcano with Costa Rica Rios!
So much to do and don’t know where to start? We’re here to help!
At Costa Rica Rios, we plan award-winning adventure tours for families, couples, and solo travelers. We offer group tours and tailor-made adventures and can include as many of the above-mentioned activities as you can fit into your itinerary. We can plan everything from A to Z, including transfers, national park guides for hikes and wildlife trips, and overnight accommodation according to your wishes and budget.
We also offer Arenal Activity Options if you’re looking to spend a day out with us on a mind-blowing adventure.