A guide to Arenal Costa Rica
January 27, 2020
He yells, waving wildly.
The waterfall drowns out most of his words. My Spanish is not good enough to put meaning to the words I do hear.
I had just entered the cold rocky pool of water, well out of the waterfall danger zone.
I motion back. Get further away from the waterfall landing zone or get all the way out of the water?
“All the way out” is his clear and urgent motion.
With a shrug, I climb out. As I reach the man, he points to his walkie-talkie and says something in Spanish. At my blank stare, he says “rain”.
Fifteen minutes later, his one-word explanation is crystal clear. The fast-flowing clear-water 200-foot cascade has been transformed. It is now a thundering, muddy, killer of a waterfall from a rainstorm upstream.
I attempt to thank him – in jumbled and inaccurate Spanish – for pulling us out. He understands enough to give me a half-hug with a “mucho gusto” (my pleasure).
This is one of the many wonders of the Arenal region in the Alajuela Province of Costa Rica.
- Why go?
- Getting around
The area in and around Arenal Volcano National Park and Lake Arenal in the northwestern section of Costa Rica has something to entice everyone.
Located about equidistant, 2.5 hours, from both the Liberian and San Jose airport, the area is easy to access.
The National Park, established in 1991, is part of the overall Arenal Conservation Area.
Looking for wildlife? If sloths, monkeys, crocodiles and birds galore fit the bill, then you are in luck.
Want to hike? Choose your hike – view the 1968 lava flow trails or snag a view of the Arenal Volcano in the distance. Odds are your choice of lodging has it’s own selection of jungle trails as well.
Need a caffeine fix? No problem. Coffee roasters abound. You can even schedule a tour of a coffee plantation.
Time for an adrenaline rush? Plenty of zipline and canopy tree tours around to fill your day.
Water sports calling your name? Lake Arenal could keep you occupied for days.
The list below is a small sampling of things to do in the Arenal region.
Bogarin Wildlife Trail
- Flat hiking trails
- Wildlife viewing – birds, sloths, and alligators
This easy to access park is located five minutes west of the town of La Fortuna.
Referred to as a “Sloth paradise”, Bogarin Wildlife Trail is also a great place for viewing birds and fauna. The flat dirt trails loop for 2 kilometers through the forest canopy. It was raining the day I visited but under the foliage, the rainfall was barely noticeable.
A $10 entrance fee permits you to wander the self-guided trails. You get a map showing the spots where sloths are most likely to be spotted.
Professional guides, available for an additional cost, would be a good idea for this park. I roamed the park for two hours – looking up the entire time. In the end, all I got for my effort was a crick in my neck.
My unguided sloth quest proved that I had a lot to learn about sloth-spotting. Later, I learned how well sloths camouflage into their environment. Since sloths spend most of their time in the same tree, a guide can help spot sloths quickly. An added bonus of a guide? A guide can tell you all about the plants and help you spot birds as well.
The check-in staff had advised keeping a distance from the pond. Due to the weather, the alligators would be lurking in the water.
At one of the ponds, a man mimed seeing and asked ‘¿caimán?’. When I shook my head no, he gestured for me to follow. He then pointed out both a 1-foot baby alligator floating vertically in the water and a 4-foot adult full submerged in the pond. Both were well camouflaged.
La Fortuna Waterfall (Catarata Río Fortuna Waterfall)
- waterfall viewing
La Fortuna Park is technically an ecological preserve of Arenal Volcano National Park. But it has a separate entrance fee ($18USD for foreigners) from the National Park.
Be prepared to climb – there are 530 steps down to waterfall (and the same amount back up!). There is a viewing platform at the top of the stairs if you want to skip the stairs. The trail is well-designed with metal steps and hand-railings. Stop at the frequent rest landings and benches to catch your breath as you climb out and enjoy the waterfall view.
Depending on the weather, you may be permitted to swim in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall as long as you don’t get too close to the waterfall itself. The waterfall has a danger zone directly below it that includes strong currents and a risk of being pummeled. Staff will shout and blow a whistle if you get too close to the danger zone.
Downstream from the waterfall pool, there is additional access to swim in the Fortuna River.
The park has restrooms and changing rooms at the top of the waterfall. There are no facilities at the bottom of the stairs.
There is also a restaurant on-premise.
Don’t skip the Orchid Garden walk – it is a short stroll that displays a variety of orchids.
Down to Earth Coffee
The Down to Earth teaching farm is located just outside of the La Fortuna Waterfall park. Grab a cup of genuine Costa Rican coffee to enjoy on their porch.
The enthusiastic staff will tell you all about the variety of beans they sell. Make sure you sample their irresistible chocolate covered coffee beans and their smooth coffee liqueur. Stepping inside the cozy store, you will have to navigate bins of avocados – a by-product of the avocado trees used to shade their coffee plants.
Tours of their coffee plantation (located several hours from the teaching farm) are offered on a regular basis.
Driving along Route 142, you are bombarded with “Hot Springs” signs.
Choose from a variety of hot-spring themes ranging from exclusive to family-oriented. Some of the resorts require appointments (e.g. you have a slot of time to enter their hot springs pool). Costs for the private hot springs vary widely.
We skipped the fee-based springs and instead went to the heated Tabacon river (also known as the free hot springs).
To get there, park in front of the Tabacon Hot Springs resort. You will know you are at the right place as it will be the spot with many cars lining the road. The cars look like they skidded off the pavement- tipped at an odd angle with two wheels in the cement drainage ditch. An attendant will ask for a parking fee (2000 colones or about $4USD) to ‘watch your car’. Pay it – the experience is worth it.
The river had been described as ‘natural, be careful!’. I was expecting to hunt for a few pools of tepid water. But the entire river is warm!
Relax in the pools others created by moving rocks around. Or better yet – find a rock to hold onto and let the warm current massage your muscles as you gaze up at the forest.
Bodies litter the banks where the trail meets the river. For a bit of solitude, follow the well-worn path along the river either up or downstream to find a spot with fewer people.
Bring food or drink as you’d like – many families were set up for an afternoon in the river including picnic meals.
Arenal Volcano National Park
- hiking trails
- wildlife viewing such as birds and sloths
The goal was to hike here. Unfortunately, bad driving directions from google maps had us arrive only moments before the park’s closing time. I would put this on the list of places to see. But be sure to double-check the driving directions and the park hours as they close earlier than you might expect.
Arenal Observatory Lodge
- waterfall viewing
- wildlife viewing
Even if you are are not staying at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, you can buy a day pass to hike the 7 miles of trails and view the on-site waterfall.
That said…be leery of the scam artists just outside the lodge gate. Having read about the scam ahead of time, I thought I was prepared.
Nope! The redirect was so convincing that my companions and I fell for it.
Here is the scam. As you approach the unmanned, official-looking gate to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, a person will step in front of your car to block you. This casually attired person asks your destination – hotel or trails?
If you say ‘trails’, he says “This way. Park here”. Note – this person is NOT an official lodge employee nor is the fee they charge the fee to get to the actual Lodge trails.
The trail they point you to is a pleasant trail – you will see birds, howler monkeys, and old lava flow. But it is not the official trail of the lodge.
My recommendation? Do not stop for the individual standing in the road – drive around him without pausing as I later saw other cars doing.
Having fallen for the scam, I ran out of time to actually hike the official Lodge trails.
- kayaking and SUP tours
- wind sports
Check with your hotel for the best tour operator or rental place. Personally, I enjoyed walking along the road and shoreline looking for birds and different viewpoints of Arenal Volcano.
Lake Arenal is a man-made 33 square mile lake. Locals will tell you the history of the lake is controversial.
After the 1968 eruption of Arenal Volcano, the government relocated two towns from the area citing safety reasons. According to locals, the people of those towns were then relocated directly into the path of two active volcanoes. The land of their original towns was sold for a profit to the power company I.C.E. who then created the lake for hydroelectric purposes. The lake is now touted as part of the sustainable energy strategy for the country.
- butterfly and frog viewing
Locals recommend this a a “must-visit” spot.
Formerly a cattle farm, it is being replanted to its original rainforest state. One of the volunteers for the conservatory raises butterflies in her home country of New Zealand. She was “bowled over” by the number of frogs and butterflies at the conservatory.
It was recommended as I was leaving town. “You went to the Butterfly Conservatory, right?” So I don’t have the first-hand experience of a visit but it is on the to-do list for future trips to Costa Rica.
Odds are whatever hotel you stay at will have its own hiking trails.
I stayed at the Essence Arenal in El Castillo. The trails on that property include a “stairway to heaven trail” through the jungle as well trails that wind through the property. Benches along the pond give you a chance to sit and wait for birds to appear. Toucans, wild turkeys, and other birds flocked to the trees to feed as I sat and watched.
La Fortuna Hotel
The La Fortuna Hotel, the tallest building in downtown La Fortuna, offers a good night’s sleep. An on-premise restaurant offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At check-in, you are given a voucher for ‘welcome drink’ at the bar.
Be prepared to hand over $10 as a key deposit (a frequent occurrence in Costa Rica) and to wear a wrist band proving you are a guest (another common theme in Costa Rica). The hotel can arrange day tours if needed.
Essence Arenal and Spa (Essence Boutique Hostel)
Essence Arenal is an excellent lodging choice if you have your own transportation.
Located in El Castillo (a windy drive southwest of Arenal National Park), this lodging takes you away from the crowds. Some online sites list is as a hostel – if that’s true, it is unlike any other hostel you have ever stayed at.
A German man (who sailed to Costa Rica over the course of three years) created the spa on a former cattle farm. All the trees and plants have been hand-planted with the intent of restoring the property to its original rain-forest state.
Plan on at least a day at the resort itself. On-site they offer services such as yoga, massages, a sweat lodge, a spring-fed pool, a hot tub, day tours and hiking trails galore.
The yoga deck is open-air with a view of the Arenal Volcano. Imagine holding warrior 2 position as the volcano peeks out from behind the clouds. Bright yellow birds fly past as a cool breeze blows through the studio. It’s hard to focus on your poses with that much beauty around.
Upon check-in, you are offered a titzki – a homemade bubbly sweet-sour drink. It is an alcoholic beverage that tastes similar to Kombucha.
The onsite restaurant serves three vegetarian meals a day. You won’t miss the meat, I promise.
You are invited to make your own tea from their bushes and sit and enjoy the view of the Arenal Lake and Volcano.
Lodging offered includes both private rooms with en-suite bathrooms as well as ‘glamping’ options (permanent tents with a real bed, lights, and a shared bathroom).
Having a rental car will be the easiest and best choice to maneuver the Arenal region.
Be prepared as you drive around the Lake for narrow, curvy roads shared with cyclists and cows. Driving after-dark takes nerves of steel. Street lights are few and far between. Road markings are infrequent. But pedestrians clothed in dark-colors with no reflective gear exist in your lane around every bend in the road.
Taxis are available to move around the local area. Prearranged shared shuttles offer transport to and from the region.
I also had luck with unintended hitch-hiking when I tried to walk to locations. Other travelers offered rides to places they were already headed. And locals were insistent on giving partial rides along their route.