Arenal / La Fortuna is one of my favorite places to go in Costa Rica. To me it is the quintessential Costa Rica. It is green, green, green. It has a perfect volcano and a perfect waterfall. It is chock-full of wildlife, both on the ground and in the air. Each morning a natural alarm clock of howler monkeys and birds will wake you. Just about any adventure activity can be done here, or not far from here. The area is studded with natural hot springs from volcanic waters where you can soak your weary bones after a day of hiking, zip-lining or horse-back riding, and there are lots of great spas where you can get pampered. It’s inland — there’s no beach — but you can go to the beach any time. If you go to Costa Rica, seeing the rainforest is an absolute must. And Costa Rica has plenty of beaches if you want to add on a few days before or after your Arenal trip.
Arenal is actually the name of the volcano that draws people to this area, but you often hear people saying that they are going to Arenal. The town itself is called La Fortuna or Fortuna de San Carlos. Whichever term you use, people will know what you are talking about. There is a lot to do and see here, so three days is really a minimum. I’ve spent a full week here and still didn’t do everything there was to do. It’s a good place for families, couples, and singles. Everyone will have a good time.
Arenal volcano has been in a resting phase since October 2010. The last major eruption was in 1968, and from that time until 2010, Arenal rumbled and spewed smoke and lava pretty much consistently. I was fortunate to see the volcano in action many times from 2003 – 2007, but after that rainy season seemed to last longer, and Arenal was often hiding behind cloud cover for most of the day when I was visiting. Sometimes it would reveal itself just for a minute, and then quickly disappear. There is no guarantee of seeing the volcano, but when it lets itself be seen, it’s spectacular!
Speaking of rainy season, Arenal is in an area known for rainforests, so that means it rains there all year long, but more at some times than others. Typically rainy season is May – December, but I’ve found it can still be quite rainy in January and even February. When you go to Costa Rica, go expecting rain. It has to rain in a rainforest, and the rain is the reason it’s so beautiful, green, and vibrant and supports so much life. Rain can come and go at any time. Bring a rain jacket with you, and embrace it! If you really, really don’t like rain at all, you probably shouldn’t go to Costa Rica. One thing I’ve learned to love is sitting on a porch or in an open-air restaurant during a rainfall. It’s a special time to relax, whether you’re curled up with a book and a cup of coffee or sharing a meal and conversation with friends. Once I spent 10 days in a house in a Costa Rican neighborhood in the middle of rainy season. Every morning it poured for a couple of hours. There was really nothing to do but sit on the porch in a comfy leather rocker and drink my coffee and watch it rain. I loved it. There was something very meditative about it, and I felt that I was connect to the natural world. Then it would clear up and I’d go off to Spanish class or take a hike, and it would often rain again in the late afternoon for an hour or so. It’s not a bad thing.
I’ve been to Arenal / La Fortuna in many different months. I’ve had dry Januarys and wet Januarys. Ditto for February. March and April have been dry, and I’ve been lucky to have dry weather in July and August, even though it’s the middle of rainy season. This area gets some of the Caribbean weather patterns, which are different from the rest of the country, so it’s possible to hit a dry time in the late summer. Just don’t expect it. Keep your rainjacket with you in case you get a surprise shower.
Hotels in Arenal / La Fortuna
As it’s a popular tourist site, La Fortuna has a plethora of hotels at all price levels, and ditto for restaurants. You can have a low-cost back-packer experience, or spend more money for more comfort and service. Since this blog slants toward people who like to travel authentically but comfortably, I’ll tell you about my favorite places. Keep in mind that things change from time to time. For example, I used to really love going to Arenal Lodge. It is off the beaten path and you really feel like you are getting away from it all. The drive itself is an adventure. The hotel is not fancy, and not very expensive, but it has a lot of rustic charm and the chalet rooms are huge. Sitting on 2,000 acres of rainforest, it has beautiful views of the volcano, pretty gardens, trails, lots of wildlife right on the property, and at one time it had a beautiful butterfly house. Service was excellent and food was decent. I went there two years in a row, but then the next time everything changed. Although the restaurant staff was still very friendly, there were new people at the front desk who were rude and didn’t care about their customers at all. The grounds were not taken care of, and the butterfly house was downright sad. I didn’t go back, and then a few years later I heard that they were starting to make improvements, so I went with my family just for one night. It was on the upswing again, but not quite there yet. I haven’t been back in several years, but from reading the reviews, it looks like it may be back on track. I’d love to hear from anyone who’s been recently.
As you travel on the main road through La Fortuna, you’ll see many hotels lining the road. So many choices. Tabacon is pretty famous, but I personally don’t like that one. They have beautiful hot springs, but bring busloads of people in for a hot springs and dinner package, so it’s been crowded and noisy every time I’ve been there, and I’ve seen a few unpleasant drunks there too. There’s another hotel along the road called Arenal Springs. Lots of people make this choice, but it’s not quite right for me. The grounds are attractive, and service is excellent. The rooms are individual little casitas placed around the property, and some have garden bathrooms, and there are two huge, very nice rooms, but the rest are just OK. There’s a beautiful yoga deck, nice spa, hot springs, and a restaurant. I found the restaurant to be overpriced and not so good, although service was outstanding. What makes it not quite right for me is that it’s so busy. Lots of people are coming and going all the time. Even at night, cars can drive right in front of the casitas, which is unusual in Costa Rica hotels, so you can hear road noise during the night if your neighbors like to stay out late. I feel there’s less privacy there, as the yoga and hot springs are close together and out in the open. People love this place, and a lot of people want a busy, populated place, but I prefer more quiet. I’m just trying to give you an idea of what I like vs. what I don’t like so you know where I stand.
What do I like? Arenal Kioro. This is a very nice hotel and spa, and can be a romantic place for couples, although the rooms accommodate families nicely as well. Each room has an indoor hot tub facing the volcano. The grounds have lovely gardens and hot springs, and the spa and spa services are fantastic. (You can read my full review here.)
Lost Iguana. This is another nice choice, as there are rooms of many different styles to accommodate all travelers, whether they are couples, families, or friends sharing a room. The hotel is surrounded by jungle and faces the volcano. Many of the rooms have outdoor jacuzzis, some have outdoor showers, and some have two bedrooms with various configurations of beds. There is a lovely spa — I had a heavenly facial here. There’s a pool, bar, and yoga deck, and you can enjoy seeing many species of beautiful birds while you eat breakfast every morning.
Nayara. A very nice, upscale choice. It has a separate adults-only section as well as another section for people traveling with children. I didn’t actually stay at Nayara, but I spent three nights at Nayara’s sister hotel, Rio Celeste Hideaway, which is nearly identical, but does not have the adult-only section. Rooms are spacious, colorful, and nicely decorated with large baths and both indoor and outdoor showers. The entire hotel has an exotic vibe. Nayara has three restaurants, and reviews are good. There is a pool, bar, yoga deck, spa — everything you could want for a fabulous vacation. You might need to add a couple of extra days where you don’t even leave the hotel!
Things to Do
There is an endless list of things to do in Arenal. Most of the hotels can arrange tours, or you can visit a tour operator in La Fortuna to sign up on your own. If you came on a package tour, the tour organizer can arrange tours and activities for you ahead of time. Keep in mind that many of the tours involving water are not actually in La Fortuna and involve a bit of a drive. Plan on 45 minutes to an hour each way for white-water rafting, waterfall rappelling, tours to Caño Negro or Peñas Blancas, or the Venado Caves. (Don’t believe it if they tell you it’s 25 minutes.) In most cases, they will pick you up at the hotel, and you should let them. The roads in Costa Rica are bad and poorly marked, so let someone else do the driving. Most of these tours start early in the morning to take advantage of the daylight and to have a better chance of avoiding rain. It’s dark by 6:00 all year round, and most parks close at 4:00. The classification of white-water rapids depends on the season and location, so check with the tour operator. Waterfall rappelling is a fun adventure, but is not offered at the La Fortuna waterfall (at least not as of this writing. I hope they don’t allow it so it can stay as it is.)
If you want to see wildlife, the tours at Caño Negro or Peñas Blancas are great options. You can see numerous species from both sites. I’ve taken several groups, and I never get tired of it. Caño Negro offers covered boats, and Peñas Blancas offers open, floating rafts. Being in an open raft is fun, but be aware that you’ll be exposed to the heat and sun for a couple of hours. The Venado Caves are a good adventure: You walk through real caves — they are not disney-fied, so there are no sidewalks or lights. They’ll give you a helmet, flashlight, and rubber boots because you will likely slosh through water at some points and you have to squeeze through a couple of tight places, including the “birthing canal.” The caves are thought to be 6 million years old and were once under the sea. It’s really cool because the walls are covered with ancient fossils, including imprints of sea shells. Bring a change of clothes because you might be wet at the end. This is a fun adventure if you aren’t too claustrophobic or scared of the dark. (This group of photos was taken at Caño Negro.)
Here are a few activities that you can do right in Arenal:
Guided walk in the Rainforest. You can do this on the ground or on the hanging bridges. You can even take a volcano hike that starts in rainforest and ends up at an observation point. (You cannot go all the way to the top.) Hanging bridges starts on the ground and ends up high so you get different perspectives. It’s fun to do hanging bridges, and certainly worthwhile, but I’ve seen more animals doing a walk on the ground. There are even a few night walks available, which offers a completely different rainforest experience. You want to go into the rainforest with a guide, and in most places you have no choice. Some hotels will have a little rainforest trail that you can do on your own, but otherwise a guide is required. I suggest that you do everything with a guide. They make it so much more interesting — they can teach you fascinating things about what you’re seeing. They see things you wouldn’t otherwise see. If you’re going all the way over there, you might as well learn as much as you can about your environment, right? Wear hiking boots or closed-toed shoes with grip on the bottom. Do not wear sandals or open-toes in the rainforest.
Zip-Lining. Zip-lining adventures started in Costa Rica, and they have it down. A series of cables attached to trees runs through the rainforest, and you glide from one to the other. You will have to sign a waiver, then get your equipment and have a short lesson on how it works. It’s really fun, and pretty safe, as you’re attached by an extra safety line the whole time. I’ve gone with groups from age 10 to 84! The most important thing is to listen to the guide and watch them, as they will tell you exactly when to break to slow yourself down in time. On some lines, if a child does not weigh enough, he’ll have to go with a parent or the guide, and most guides will offer a fun tandem ride on the last line so you have an opportunity to go upside down or do a trick. (This is usually offered to women and children.) I’ve zip-lined many, many times, and the only time it was not fun was when I went in the pouring rain. When the lines are soaking wet, it’s very hard to break. I slammed into the guide every time (if he wasn’t there, I’d have slammed into a tree), and he told me that he probably wouldn’t be able to have children because of me! I felt terrible, and I wish they’d just close the zip lines when it rains that hard, and I’m sure the guides would prefer it too. Only the larger men in the group were able to break on the wet lines, and every one else just flew all the way in. So my advice: Do the zip-line, but don’t do it in the rain. Long pants or long shorts are more comfortable, as you’ll have straps around your legs.
Horse-Back Riding and/or Hike to La Fortuna Waterfall. The waterfall at La Fortuna is most definitely worth seeing. (See the video near the top of this page.) You can either walk through a rural Costa Rican neighborhood and hike down or ride a horse to the point where you hike down. (You can also be driven to that point, but it takes some of the adventure out of it.) The hike down to the waterfall is pretty steep. There are steps carved out of the forest to make it easier, but they are steep and of course you have to climb back up, so being in fairly good health is important. Once down there you can take a little swim. It is very dangerous to swim close to the waterfall itself, but there is a natural pool just a few feet away. The rocks can be slick, so you might want to have some kind of water shoes with you like Keens or Tevas.
The horses in Costa Rica tend to be smaller than those in the U.S., so I personally feel a lot more comfortable on one. A guide will go with the front of the group and another will go in the back to make sure everyone is doing OK. The horses are well trained, but they all have their own personalities and you are doing the driving yourself, so even novice riders will feel pretty good about what they accomplished on this tour. Wear long pants and hiking boots, and keep a rain jacket in your day pack just in case. If you plan to swim, you can either wear your suit under your clothes or put it in your pack to change in the rooms provided at the top of the fall. Like all tours, arrange this through a reputable tour operator.
Hot Springs. There are many natural hot springs around Arenal, and soaking in them at the end of a busy day is a real pleasure. (Of course you can soak at any time.) Your hotel may have hot springs on site, or you might visit a special hot spring and make an evening of it. My favorite is Eco Termales. The springs are lovely and have varying temperatures to enjoy. They are in a natural setting and not disney-fied. There’s a bar, and the Costa-Rican dinner they provide is really good. Yet, it is a smaller, family-run hot springs and they control how many people come in at one time so it’s never a zoo in there like it can be in some of the other hot spring sites. It’s truly a lovely, relaxing evening.
Spa Treatments. Several hotels in this area have lovely spas offering a full spectrum of massages, facials, and treatments. Two that I’ve enjoyed are the Neidin Spa at Arenal Kioro and the Golden Gecko Spa at Lost Iguana.
Lake Arenal: Arenal has a beautiful lake that provides hydro-electric power to much of Costa Rica. You can take a sunset cruise on the lake, kayak, or wind-surf. There is a lot of wind on the lake, so kayakers have sometimes had trouble staying on course.
Visit a sustainable ranch. Rancho Margot makes an interesting half-day tour, but you can also stay there if you are up for a rustic experience. In fact, you can even volunteer and do a work-stay for an extended time. I toured here and found it absolutely fascinating. It’s a working, sustainable ranch in the rainforest. They have their own chickens, cows, and pigs and turn the waste into bio-fuel. They grow their own vegetables and make their own soap, have a kiln for pottery, and they train locals how to cook for a crowd so they can be eligible for restaurant jobs. I definitely recommend visiting. Whether you stay or not depends on your comfort level with no-frills stuff. The rooms are basic but very clean and cute and I could stay in one. (There is no air conditioning.) However, the meal situation made me slightly uncomfortable, as I’m fanatic about everything having to do with my food being very clean. I used the ladies room in the dining area, and it was so dirty that it made me uncomfortable about the thought of eating there. The kitchen could have been spotless, but being in that dirty bathroom put me off. Meals are buffet style, not at all fancy, but I had a decent salad and pizza. Plates, silverware, and cups were a bit worn, but clean. This was the one downside of my day here, but I loved learning about how this ranch works and recommend making a visit. It really is interesting.
Where to Eat in Arenal, La Fortuna
Most of the hotels have restaurants and include breakfast with your stay. Many serve lunch and dinner as well. As far as local places, the least expensive places are “sodas” or “soda típica” which are small restaurants frequented by locals that serve typical food like casados (a platter of rice, beans, meat, chicken or fish, salad, tortilla, plantains) gallos (meat, chicken, or cheese between two tortillas), olla de carne (stew of meat and root vegetables), sopa negra (black bean soup), rice dishes, etc. You will see these everywhere, and there are several in La Fortuna. None are fancy, some are so-so, and some are quite good. Ask your guide or hotel for a recommendation. If you see a lot of people eating there, it’s probably a good one.
A popular place to eat very good local cooking with a little bit of touristy charm is La Choza de Laurel. The address is 300m west from the Fortuna Central Park, or two blocks from downtown. (That’s about as good as it gets for Costa Rican addresses, but you’ll see it!) This will be more expensive than eating at a soda, but the food is delicious and portions are huge. I highly recommend a batido — your choice of fruit blended with either milk or water. (I like mango y leche best.) For appetizers, the ceviche here is excellent and comes with patacónes, fried green plantains that are delicious. It may be filling enough to be a lunch. Yucca fries are a yummy alternative to french fries, and must be tasted when in Costa Rica, and the guacamole with patacónes is really good too. The salads are fresh, delicious, and huge. There is a tuna salad made with lettuce, vegetables, and fresh grilled tuna that you probably need to share with someone else. The menu is large and there are several fish, chicken, and beef dishes to choose from. Afterward you might want to get coffee. They’ll make it the old-fashioned way, pouring it through a “sock.”
Another good spot is Don Rufino in La Fortuna. (There’s not really an address, but it’s in the downtown area.) It’s on the pricey side for Costa Rica, and you can get some fancier Costa Rican fare here. I remember a wonderful seafood stew. Actually, a lot of restaurants in Costa Rica have become quite pricey over the years. Unless you’re eating in sodas, you can expect to pay about the same as you would in the U.S.
If you need a grocery store, we go to the Super Christian in La Fortuna. It’s a great place to stock up on coffee, Lizano sauce, or anything else you want to bring home with you. I also like to buy BioLand granola bars and fresh fruit to snack on. I’m also a big fan of BioLand soaps that they sell in the grocery store (especially the oatmeal/aveno), which are different from the ones in the airport, and I always bring several bars home with me.
As you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of Arenal / La Fortuna / San Carlos. To me it’s the heart of Costa Rica and I think everyone should see it. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the comment section.