The area of Arenal Volcano National Park is one of the main unskippable destinations on any Costa Rican itinerary (especially, for a first-timer around-the-country package trip). With hot springs and a large concentration of nature-centric attractions, it is certainly a great place to spend several days.
The principal town, La Fortuna, is centered on a lovely square which gets pretty lively in the evening. Restaurants and souvenir shops predominate on and around the main thoroughfare, but every second door in the center is also a tourist information point, where you can arrange for a wide variety of tours and experiences; we also saw a butcher, a couple of hotels, one or two galleries, a gym, a dance club, so it’s a fairly thriving city, if not necessarily a sightseeing destination on its own. There is a newish-looking church on one side of the square that was not open in the evening.
To the south of the city center is Rio Fortuna Waterfall ♥♥. Not exactly inexpensive at ₡11,000/$18pp to enter. There are 514 steps to reach the bottom (and most annoyingly, the same number to climb back to the top). In front of the waterfall, a hard-to-navigate rocky landing is a prime selfie spot, but to the side, you will find a more peaceful little beach, easy to wade in for a swim. Very cold water, of course – and utterly brilliant. At the top, you can find a couple of educational trails and a reasonable full-service restaurant.
Many of the hotels offer their own on-premises hot springs (such as our accommodations – see below), and there are tons of places where you can come in for a day or for a few hours. Among the most famous ones are the Tabacon Hot Springs. The resort of the same name has a relatively exalted status, but we considered instead stopping by the nearby free springs, which are alternatively called “Tabacon Free Hot Springs” or El Choyin. These are the only truly natural – as in, “not managed by some establishment” – accessible hot springs. Being unattended, they are labeled less “safe” than paid resort ones by many tour advisories. You can only really visit them with your own transportation, so we ended up not going.
Heading to Mistico Hanging Bridges ♥ is another unmissable component of the Arenal stay. It is technically a fairly long walk around the jungle with six hanging-bridge crossings. Some fauna will inevitably be spotted, but keep your expectations in check. You can walk on your own, but with a guide carrying a telescope, you will both get a lot of interesting commentary and a much better chance of seeing some animals among the trees. It frequently rains in the afternoon in the forest, although we were lucky.
There are several ziplining options in the area. Our package included Arenal Canopy Adventurer ♥ operated by Jacamar. I personally expected a longer experience than just about an hour of actual movement on the lines. Some companies advertise up to 16 segments; in our case, it was eight lines plus a Tarzan swing. A fun experience, although your mileage may vary.
Other possible excursions in the area include going up the volcano, visiting a chocolate factory, white-water rafting, and more.
Uber and taxi services are reasonably easy to obtain around La Fortuna, but you may have challenges away from the town center. With Uber, the fares are often attractive, but it may take a long time to confirm a willing driver. WiFi is frequently patchy when exists and the cell signal is not always reliable, which could make the problem worse. You may have to ask the hosting business to call you a taxi, which may be more expensive: it is usually $12 for trips between La Fortuna center and most hotels and goes up to $20 for longer trips. Uber usually quotes $5-8 for the same distance (it does go up in the evenings).
There is apparently a regular “hop-on/hop-off” service that connects all of the main points of interest in the area. I have not personally glimpsed a sight of it, nor am I sure whether it runs with any frequency to be useful.
You will certainly need cash for tips. Taxis expect cash as well, so in general, for a 10-day stay in Costa Rica, I estimate a supply of at least $400 is necessary to have on hand. Dollars are accepted everywhere at ₡600 for $1, and you can use your credit cards in all other situations. Taking the local money out of ATMs is obviously an option, but you may end up with a surplus in the end; ATMs repeatedly teased me with an offer to dispense dollars and then refused to do that.
Beach sellers of refreshments and other stuff, if you decide to buy something, will also most likely want cash (and they can be bargained with); we’ve seen some accept Venmo from those who can easier communicate with them.
Places to Eat
On our stay in the area in late 2022, we took advantage of the full-service restaurant on the premises of our resort (see below) on most occasions. Only for two meals did we venture outside, as a party of three.
Jalapas ♥♥♥ reportedly has breathtaking views of the volcano, but in the dark of the night it appears to be in the middle of nowhere; it is some distance away from the center of La Fortuna, and the road getting to it is terrible (taxi will certainly ask for a higher fare). The food, though, is entirely fantastic, as is the ambiance and the service. Two different ceviches (especially tropical), dill salmon, and a local plate called Chifrijo all got the highest marks. Our damage: ₡46,500/$78 (only one drink for the party).
Don Rufino ♥♥, conversely, is just a block away from the central square of La Fortuna. It was packed during our meal (the reservation proved essential). There is no a/c, only fans, and it gets a bit stuffy if you are not right under one. The food was excellent, from ceviche and fish soup for appetizers, to “grandma’s recipe” chicken and pork steak for mains. Our damage: ₡85,900/$143, with a regularly-priced bottle of wine.
In late 2022, we stayed at the Volcano Lodge and Spa ♥♥, which is located on the main road a few kilometers northwest of La Fortuna’s center. The fairly large territory – our cottage was at the opposite end from the reception no less than a 5-minute walk away – includes two areas with pools, a restaurant, a couple of hot spring clusters, and recreational areas including walking trails. Hot springs differed in temperature and amenities: a super hot one, a mildly warmer level, and a “jacuzzied” cluster augmented by a wet bar. Plus a sauna, and a pool-type jacuzzi as well. Various diversions, such as ping-pong, billiards, and board games are available on demand, and there is a quiet hammock area. Nice, spacious room, with a back porch looking out on the jungle; the a/c unit could not exactly overcome the stuffiness, but tolerable. The on-premises restaurant offers a very good menu for both lunch and dinner (if obviously slightly overcharging for the convenience of not having to travel anywhere). Buffet breakfast is reasonably broad-ranging in offerings. If you want to stay at the resort at all times, you have everything you need; if you plan to go out not on a pre-booked activity (which will include a timely pick-up and drop-off), and are not driving, then the location may be a bit of a downside in regards to transportation (see above).