Costa Rica has become famous for its rich biodiversity, its fascinating natural landscapes, its wealth of outdoor activities and its laid-back, happy people. People of all ages and walks of life come to Costa Rica, from honeymooners and young families to groups of friends and retired couples. The country is brimming with experiences to be had, views to be enjoyed and nature to be explored, but the Arenal Volcano makes an appearance on every single “Top 10” list of must-sees. And for good reason! Arenal, Costa Rica is a must see destination.
The volcano, which sits at the heart of the Arenal Volcano National Park, is one of the country’s seven historically active volcanoes, with activity dating as far back as 7,000 years. The volcano was long believed to be dormant, until it violently and suddenly erupted in 1968, burying towns and launching boulders up to a kilometer away. Decades of less dramatic eruptions followed, but the eruptive cycle ended a few years ago (2010) and there has been no sign of activity since. In addition to the volcano, the park is also home to the massive Lake Arenal, the largest lake in Costa Rica.
The peaceful town of La Fortuna de San Carlos – referred to as simply La Fortuna – is something of a “base camp” for the sights and activities offered in and around Arenal. It’s located just a few kilometers from the peak of the Arenal Volcano and the entrance to the national park. La Fortuna, originally called El Burío, was founded in the mid 1930’s by a small group of settlers came to the area to cultivate the extremely fertile lands surrounding it. The agricultural town was later renamed “La Fortuna”, Spanish for “Fortune” or “Luck”. The town truly lives up to its name; in addition to the fertile lands yielding cash crops like yucca and papaya, La Fortuna escaped the 1968 eruption that buried several neighboring towns unscathed and, furthermore, the town has flourished with the rise of Arenal as one of Costa Rica’s top attractions. Today it is without a doubt the main town in the Arenal area and provides all the services and comforts of a good tourism base.
When To Visit Arenal
Trying to plan when to go to Arenal? Arenal has a tropical climate that varies very little from month to month… at least in terms of temperature. Temperatures are warm, the air is muggy and the days are long year-round. While the country lacks seasons in their traditional sense, there is a dry season (May – October) and a wet season (November – April) which, in terms of tourism, not surprisingly coincide with the high and low season, respectively. However, keep in mind that there is plenty of sun during the rainy season and plenty of rain during the sunny season; this is the tropics, after all, and the precipitation here is famously unpredictable. Coming during the dry season – and during holiday seasons like Christmas and New Years, Easter week, summer breaks from school, etc. – means higher prices and larger crowds, while low season means you’re bound to save more than a few pennies on travel and accommodation.
What To Pack for Arenal
It’s hot and humid year-round in Arenal, so there is truly no need for a heavy coat and wool socks, even in “winter”. Pack light, comfortable clothing and good footwear for walking and hiking. Also, whether you come during the rainy season or the dry season, the unpredictable tropical climate means you will get rained on at one point or another, so a light jacket or poncho should definitely find its way into your suitcase.
Getting There & Around
Arenal is about a three-hour drive from the Juan Santamaría International Airport located outside of San José, Costa Rica’s capital city. Renting a car is a very popular choice, as Costa Rica is a country teeming with spectacular scenery that begs to be explored at your own place and on your own schedule. However, if you’d rather someone else take the wheel, there are plenty of options for local and national travel, ranging from private services to shuttles and buses. Furthermore, many travel companies provide their own transportation. If you’re traveling to or from San José, there are also daily flights between the Juan Santamaría International Airport and the Arenal Airport, a small domestic hub just outside of La Fortuna.
Where is Arenal?
The Arenal Volcano is located in the heart of the Arenal Volcano National Park which, likewise, is located in northwestern Costa Rica in the Alajuela province, the San Carlos Canton and, most specifically, the La Fortuna district. It’s about a three-hour drive from the San José, the Costa Rican capital, and from the Juan Santamaría International Airport, likely your point of entry in the country. The town of La Fortuna is located just off the eastern edge of the park; it’s about a half-hour drive (18 km) between the Arenal Volcano, located at the center of the park, and La Fortuna.
The Arenal Volcano National Park forms part of the larger Arenal Tilaran Conservation Area, which protects eight of the country’s 12 life zones and 16 protected reserves. In addition to jaguars, white-faced capuchin monkeys, coati and spectacular tropical flora, nearly 850 species of birds live in the park, making it an extremely popular destination amongst birders. The luckiest ones catch a glimpse of the brilliant red and green feathers of the endangered and ever-elusive quetzal, a national treasure.
The weather in Arenal is both predictable and unpredictable. On the one hand, it’s always warm and humid, with average annual temperate hovering around 30ºC (85ºF). And Arenal is close to the equator, so the days are always long. The unpredictable part? The rain. While there is a rainy season when it rains more and a dry season when it rains less, it’s the tropics we’re talking about and rain comes and goes seemingly at random. One moment you’re squinting in the sun and lathering on sunscreen, while the next you’re sprinting for cover from a torrential downpour. Luckily, rain most often comes in the form of passing showers, typical in tropical climates, so even if you see storm clouds rolling in in the morning, don’t cancel your afternoon hot springs soak.
Whether you’re eating on a budget or not, there are plenty of eating establishments, ranging from family-owned eateries – called sodas – serving up traditional Costa Rican dishes like casado to international gourmet dining. Many resorts and hotels, especially those located further afield, have well-regarded restaurants and bars and are open to everyone, whether you are a hotel guest or not.
No matter your preferences and budget, there are plenty of accommodation options in the Arenal area to suit any traveler, from backpacker hostels and standard hotels to rustic lodges, cute guesthouses and luxurious resorts. The most wallet-friendly options can be found in the town of La Fortuna, while more elaborate hotels and resorts are found further afield, either tucked in the forest or close to the base of the volcano. Whether cheap or pricey, most options have views of the volcano, and many have additional comforts like swimming pools, spas, restaurants and bars. Some – like the ultra luxurious Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort – even have their own natural hot springs!
Things to Do in Arenal
Whether you want to go it alone or tag along on an organized tour, there is no shortage of activities to keep you entertained from sunrise to sundown. There are jungles to be explored, natural hot springs to be relished, dramatic waterfalls to ogle, low-key towns to peruse and an endless list of outdoor activities for all levels: hiking, birding, biking, horseback-riding, rafting, zip-lining, rappelling and much, much more.
Lake Arenal has also become something of a mecca for windsurfers and kite surfers from around the world, thanks to its massive size and reliable wind. It’s also ideal for all sorts of other aquatic activities ranging from rainbow bass fishing to paddle boarding, wakeboarding and kayaking.
Whether you’re windsurfing on Lake Arenal or browsing the shops of La Fortuna, the tall, imposing presence of the Arenal Volcano will be your constant companion.
Life Around Arenal
The Arenal Volcano National Park is a true spectacle of nature, brimming with stunning landscapes and hundreds of species of tropical flora and fauna. While towns in the area were originally agricultural in nature, today they are geared toward providing visitors from around the world with the services and amenities they need while in the area. You’ll find most of the essentials in the town of La Fortuna, Arenal’s main town, though the many resorts and hotels dispersed throughout the area will certainly lend you a hand with anything you may need. La Fortuna is a small town that is only a few streets wide, so the bulk of the hotels, restaurants, shops and services all located within walking distance from each other either along the main street or around the small central park.
Public Transportation: The bus station, which connects La Fortuna with San José, Monteverde and other destinations, is located in the center of La Fortuna, in front of the MegaSuper grocery store.
Shopping: As you can expect, there are plenty of souvenir shops in La Fortuna selling all sorts of volcano-inspired paraphernalia, but you will also find a handful of craft shops and art galleries that are a delight to browse. You can also find your go-to shops for groceries, clothes, sports gear and other necessities here.
Money: There are a handful of banks, ATMs and currency exchange establishments located throughout the town.
Gas Stations: The 24-hour gas station in La Fortuna is right on the main street, one block from the park.
Laundry: There are a few laundromats in the center of La Fortuna. Your hotel may also offer laundry services.
Internet: There are a couple of Internet cafés on La Fortuna’s main street, while many of the nicer accommodation options and dining establishments offer free WiFi.
Cellphone Reception: In La Fortuna and around the resorts reception is reliable, but it is likely to get a bit spotty as you explore more remote areas of the park.
Restaurants: There are restaurants for every budget and preference, ranging from family-owned eateries to fine international establishments.
Medical Services: There is a medical clinic in the center of La Fortuna, one block northeast of the park. There are also dental clinics and a couple of pharmacies.
Emergencies: Need assistance? Call the Tourist Police (telephone: 2479-7257)