A Guide to Arenal | Costa Rica
Arenal is known for two things: its volcano and its jungle. Each morning and night during our visit I'd bask in the multitude of fauna noises and watch ten different types of hummingbirds flit from purple flower to purple flower. The howler monkeys were chattiest in the morning and by evening the toads and frogs would start croaking. In our short stay near the base of the volcano we saw toucans, a coati, an anteater, a red-eyed tree frog, countless butterflies, and at least a dozen species of other birds. I fell into deep, restful sleeps each night thanks to the real life white noise machine beyond the screens of our room. We came for the volcano, but fell in love with the lush greens and aqua waterfalls of the jungle.
You have two options to arrive into the Arenal area if you are arriving by plane:
Fly into Liberia, drive 3 hours (transfers can be booked through Arenal Observatory Lodge for $180-$200)
Fly into San Jose, take a 17 minute Nature Air or Sansa flight to La Fortuna (Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa is about 40 minutes to an hour from the airport – they can arrange pick up for you)
Where to Eat
Soda Visquez | There aren't many impressive restaurants in La Fortuna or the surrounding area, so we suggest you stick to traditional Costa Rican sodas, and specifically Soda Visquez. Laid back, good fare and the only spicy dish we were able to get while in the country. Ask for something picante and they'll steer you in the right direction.
Where to Stay
Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa | If you’ve come to the La Fortuna area, it’s because you want to see the volcano and you want to experience the jungle. The best place to do this is at the Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa. Spend the extra money to get a mountain view room so that you can enjoy the beauty of Volcan Arenal from your personal balcony. Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa is the closest place that you can stay to the volcano and is located within the Arenal Volcano National Park, with many of the best hikes starting from their property.
What to Do
If you do only one hike during your stay, hike Cerro Chato. A long dormant volcano with a crater lake at the top, Cerro Chato provides a challenging uphill climb, but rewards with lush views and a swimming hole at the top.
There are a number of great hot springs in the area (thanks Volcano!): Tabacon Hot Springs, Baldi Hot Springs, Ecoterminales Hot Springs, and The Springs Resort & Spa. If you rented a car, pull over on the side of the road before you get to Tabacon from Arenal Observatory Lodge (you'll see a river off the road, and if it's the weekend and/or nice out, there will likely already be cars lined up). You'll find a "hot river" that's free. Hot springs are littered all over, so if you speak Spanish, see if you can't find a less well known spot that doesn't require an entrance fee!
Whether you book a tour with a local operator, or visit the frog pond via the trails in the park on your own, we highly recommend a night walk. Bring a headlamp per person to see the thousands of insect eyes in the trees and on the trail. Something about the light being in the center of your forehead reflects differently than if you just have a flashlight. A spider the size of my hand dropped down in front of my husbands face on its web, and my husband would probably have run into it if he didn't see its sparkling eyes!
The true highlight of a night walk though is seeing tree frogs. They likely won't be in the pond, but the pond creates an environment for them that they enjoy, so they hang around on plants surrounding the water. Look up, under, and around to see some of these famous creatures!
Zip lining, Waterfall Rappelling, Horseback Riding, Nature Centers, you have the pick of guided adventures here. Everyone we met enjoyed their tours (even though some said they were cheesy), but we didn't take any ourselves.
La Fortuna Waterfall
A plunging 75 meter waterfall surrounded by green foliage, La Fortuna Waterfall is one of the main attractions in the La Fortuna area. The dirt road that leads to the entrance winds uphill past houses and a hammock store. After paying a $12 per person entrance fee, it's just a short paved walk to the main overlook. The real work comes if you want to swim. It's about 600 steps down...and then back up. But it's totally worth it.
Taxi | If you stay at Arenal Observatory Spa, you’re in the middle of the jungle, so taxis aren’t cheap to and from here; expect to pay ~$30US each way to and from La Fortuna. The good news is that you are staying at the main attraction so there isn’t much need to go to La Fortuna. The restaurant options are mediocre in the area, so you are better off eating breakfast and dinner at the hotel than spending $60 for a taxi to eat at an overpriced so-so restaurant in La Fortuna.
Shuttle | The cheapest transportation option to and from La Fortuna is to schedule one of the shuttles with the front desk at the Lodge. They range from $6-$8/per person and run at certain scheduled times during the day.
Car Rental | Of course, you can rent a car to give yourself more freedom. If you are only staying in the area for a couple of nights, this probably isn’t necessary, but would be helpful for a longer stay.
Insider Tip: most of the adventure tours will pick you up at your hotel as part of their package.