The majestic Arenal Volcano is located about a 3 hours drive north of San Jose, Costa Rica and about 2 1/2 hours from Liberia. It is a great stopping point whether you are flying into San Jose (SJO) or Liberia, Costa Rica (LIR). It is in the Alajuela province of Costa Rica, south of Lake Arenal.
You really need at least 3 days to experience the Arenal Volcano. As a tourist, 2 days isn’t enough time, but after 5 days, you might be ready to move on. Arenal Volcano is about a 10 minute drive from the town of La Fortuna, but you can see the volcano from the town.
WHAT TO DO
An abundance of hot springs surround the Arenal volcano that come from a geothermally heated underground river. Many resorts have capitalized on these springs to create unique hot springs experiences.
Tabacon Thermal Resort Tabacon offers a one day pass that includes food, but is actually more than The Springs two day pass. Tabacon prides itself on being carbon neutral and eco-friendly. It also has an adults only section if you’re traveling without kids and don’t want to hear other people’s children.
The Springs has a two day pass, so even if you aren’t staying at the resort, you’ll want to get a pass early enough so you’ll have time to enjoy part of the two full days. (They don’t offer a 1 day pass). Their animal exhibit is small, and doesn’t allow children under the age of 7, but it is one of the best exhibits I have seen in Costa Rica. They allow you to go in the cages with some of the animals.
Los Lagos – The inexpensive day pass is great for kids, but adults be careful on the slides as they seem to be engineered for shorter people. (I’m only 5’2″ and I hit my feet on the bottom of a pool when I slid down.) The slide with the tunnel seems to have a deep enough pool for adults. Los Lagos has a variety of pools with a variety of temperatures, and a stellar view of the volcano.
Kalambu Hot Springs in La Fortuna is another water park that is popular. It is new and great for kids and families. It looks like something you could find in Florida, or any warm place in the US. So while kids may be thrilled, unless you’re a waterpark connoisseur or have children, you might want to check out the other hot springs options.
Baldi Hot Springs– If you’re looking for somewhere that still has massive water slides for children, while incorporating more of a rainforest feel, but still has an entrance that looks like it could be on the Vegas Strip, Baldi is a great option. A little something for everyone.
But hot springs aren’t the only thing to do in La Fortuna…
La Fortuna Waterfall – A great waterfall because it is easy to get to, has a parking lot, then a short hike to get to it, and they sell food and water at the restaurant near the parking lot, so you don’t have to pack a days worth of gear. And you can get in the (brisk) water near the waterfall and splash around. (Probably the most photographed waterfall in Costa Rica is the Rio Celeste, and it is breathtaking. However, once you get to it, you aren’t allowed to get in the clear enchanting waters. So you take photos of the most gorgeous water you’ve ever seen, then turn around and schlep the 30 minute walk back to the parking lot.) So I like La Fortuna waterfall because you can actually get in the water, probably only need an hour or two to experience it, and still have time in your day to see other things in the area.
The Mistico hanging bridges are a very popular attraction. So popular that depending on the time of year, may feel a bit touristy.
Make time for El Silencio lookout or Mirador El Silencio for the volcano hike. It’s usually not as crowded like at hanging bridges. And you get incredibly close with breathtaking views.
WHERE TO STAY
Arenal Springs Resort – For the price, it was a great deal, it has hot and cold pools and we had a stunning view of the volcano from our room (The photo above was from our porch.) The rooms are little casitas with a Tico feel. They also have a morning yoga class and everyone was extremely hospitable. The food was just okay here.
Hotel Mountain Paradise – down the same road as Arenal Springs Resort and very similar to Arenal Springs Resort in the layout and accommodations. They have massive bathrooms and outdoor tubs. They have fewer pools than other hotels. Some of the rooms are much nicer than others, so pay attention to that when booking.
I haven’t personally been to the below hotels, but they have been recommended to me:
Volcano Lodge and Springs – Sura Bar and Bistro restaurant here is supposed to be good.
Los Lagos – kid friendly with great variety of pools and small animal area you can tour. Pretty good food.
Chachugua Eco Resort was recommended, but it’s pretty far from all the restaurants and other hotels. Most hotels are within 10/15 minutes of the town of La Fortuna. This one is at least a 30 minute drive, but it gets good reviews by both locals and tourists.
WHERE TO EAT
Don Rufino has some of the best dishes I’ve had in Costa Rica. And in addition to the excellent food, it was the best service I’ve had in Costa Rica, with a highly attentive waitstaff. It is a must and I recommend getting reservations.
Inspira restaurant is a clean, crisp cafe right across from the main park in La Foruna, near the church. It offers delicious and healthy lunch options.
Head over to Rancho Perla for authentic Costa Rican cuisine in a traditional setting.
Check out La Forchetta for Italian. They also offer yummy vegan options.
Chifa La Familia Feliz has amazing authentic Peruvian food for when you don’t have time to pack in a trip to Peru, but want a memorable meal.
For healthy vegetarian options or breakfast/lunch check out Orgánico Fortuna.
Arenal Crepes and Lounge is a great place to start your day with crepes, however it gets mixed reviews for it’s lunch/dinner options.
Everyone raves about Gingerbread. For two years I have been trying to eat here, but it is only open for dinner from Tuesday though Saturday, and is about an hour drive from La Fortuna.
While not a lot of ambiance, Restaurante Tiquicia is where you go to experience patacones and Costa Rica’s famous chiliguarro*.
* The unofficial national drink of Costa Rica is Chili guaro or chiliguaro or after you’ve had a few, silly guaro or shillygwahrow-row-row-your-boat. It is a mixure of lime juice, tobasco, sometimes tomato and guaro, which is essentially moonshine. It’s like if a bloody marry went on a 3 day bender. It’s liquid fire, it’s that’s even possible. But you should try one, because hey, when in Rome, you take photos of the Vatican, when in Costa Rica, you try chili guaro.
Pack a rain jacket, even if you visit during Costa Rica’s dry season. La Fortuna doesn’t experience the dry season like Guanacaste and other parts of Costa Rica, and seems to get precipitation year round. Because of this, it is more reliably lush and green, however the clouds can block your view.
When the volcano is visible, it is beautiful. However, it is often clouded over. I recommend getting up first thing in the morning to try and get a glimpse of nature’s masterpiece before the clouds roll in.
You might have seen stunning photos at night of lava at the top of the volcano. You should brace for disappointment if this is on your bucket list. The volcano has been pretty quiet since 2010, and even if there is some activity at the top after dark, it could be hidden behind clouds. But you never know, you could get lucky. And if you feel slighted because you didn’t experience lava magic, check out the Poaz volcano near San Jose, it’s the largest active crater in the world.
If you’re driving to Arenal from San Jose and want to take the scenic route, stop by and check out Rain Forest Adventure.
If you’re driving from Liberia, stop and enjoy the amazing food and views at Cafe y Macadamia right on Lake Arenal. It has phenomenal views of the lake and the wind farms nearby and the food is really good. If you want to stay on this side of Lake Arenal, check out availability at Lake Arenal Maleku airbnb condos on airbnb or booking.com.