Exploring Arenal, Costa Rica

Early morning view of volcano Arenal from Hotel Secreto la Fortuna

Arenal has a lot on offer for travellers with its national park, Costa Rica’s biggest lake, natural hot springs and abundance of water sport activities. The still active volcano looms large on all horizons, waiting patiently for it’s next eruption.

How to get to Arenal, Costa Rica?

After our first night in Costa Rica it was time to hit the road and start our road trip proper. Driving to Arenal took around 3 hours drive and was quite straight forward. Roads were mostly paved and in good condition.

What to do in Arenal, Costa Rica?

Arenal is not a beach town but for an active traveller there are plenty of things to do:

  • Coffee and Chocolate tours
  • Arenal National Park (+ guided tours)
  • La Fortuna Waterfall
  • Hot Springs
  • White water rafting
  • Kayaking and canoeing on the lake Arenal
  • Butterfly Conservatory
  • Walk over the Hanging Bridges in Arenal
  • There is a full day trip which includes Arenal National Park, Hanging Bridges and the Waterfall plus travel for around $90 p.p. (start 7.30am).

On arrival, we checked in to Hotel Secreto La Fortuna, lunched and set off on an afternoon chocolate tour at Rainforest Chocolate Tours. Tours run every day at 8am, 10am, 1pm and 3pm and cost $25 p.p. It was nice, we got to eat some delicious chocolate and learn about production methods, but I do feel the session was more tailored to the large group of school kids on what seemed to be a rather extravagant excursion. Nevertheless, our tummies full of chocolate we decided to get some caffeine into our systems next.

Early morning view of Arenal from Hotel Secreto de Fortune
Early morning view of Arenal from Hotel Secreto de Fortune

We got a coffee at “Down to Earth” next door, self-crowned best coffee roaster and barista in Costa Rica – I can’t guarantee its the best but it was very good and the host extremely welcoming.

Arenal National Park

The next day we took a stroll through the Arenal national park (entrance fee is around $20 p.p.). There are guided tours available which take you there, show you the sights and bring you back for another $25 p.p. or so. But since we had a car and don’t tend to appreciate most “tourist-trains” we just went by ourselves. The paths were dead easy to follow and we saw tonnes of wildlife.

View from the Arenal trail summit, Costa Rica
View from the Arenal trail summit

We started in the morning to avoid most of the mid-day sun and afternoon downpours alike and really enjoyed the tranquil atmosphere of the park. We met a few fellow visitors but by no means masses (another advantage of visiting Costa Rica in the rainy season). Interestingly the park itself changed ever so slightly the deeper we walked inside – from high bamboo-like walls of grass to lush rainforest in under 2 hours! There is 1 main path to a view point over lake Arenal and a few optional variations. Either way the walk will take you approximately 2-3 hours and is flat for almost all of it.

Arenal National Park - Towering grasses, Costa Rica
Arenal National Park – Towering grasses

We also spotted some wildlife: birds, a coati, many lizards, masses of caterpillars hanging from trees and our highlight, a yellow eyelash pit viper.

Yellow eyelash pit-viper, Arenal, Costa Rica
Yellow eyelash pit-viper, Arenal, Costa Rica

Lunchtime arrived and we were on the hunt for something with a view over the lake and found Hotel Castillo del ArenalThis hotel also has its stand-alone restaurant and offers amazing views (and good food)!

Lunch over Lake Arenal, Costa Rica
Lunch over Lake Arenal

Butterfly Conservatory in Arenal

As the butterfly conservatory was just up the road we decided to pay it a visit ($25 p.p.). There are 7 or so “rooms” with nets around them and butterflies everywhere! You even have to be careful not to step on them by accident. Needless to say, this was a great opportunity for taking many, many pictures. Stepping outside there is a wonderful little rainforest with 2 easy path options as well.

Hot springs in Arenal

Next, on our itinerary for the day was a visit to one of the spas. Now, there are a lot of different ones on offer and whilst I did some research here we ended up going to Baldi with slight regret, because our hotel offered a discount.

Baldi is an upper-market spa, offering 25 different pools, pool bars, 3 slides, its own kids area and is beautiful – you literally swim around a (man-made) little rainforest. The “slight regret” is for 2 reasons:

1.)    As you can imagine the 25 pools and almost equal amount of pool bars doesn’t exactly scream ‘relaxing’. In some parts there was loud music and with a lot of teens it felt a bit like a party place. Personally, and in retrospect, I think a smaller, more intimate spa or even the local free one might have been a better option for our tastes.

2.)    We opted for the “meal-deal” option – £47 p.p. with lunch or dinner included (or £35 without) with the hotel discount. We were given the impression that this would include a nice evening-meal in the resort’s 5 star Italian restaurant. We found ourselves disappointed with a sort of all-you-can eat buffet befitting of a low-end work canteen with pasta options of “white or red sauce” or dishes with simply “(mystery) meat”.

La Fortuna Waterfall

Before heading off to Monteverde Cloud Forest we decided to make the most of the rain-free morning and go to see the La Fortuna Waterfall.

Entrance is around $20-$25 p.p. and after a 10 min descent you reach the Waterfall and are free to take a refreshing dive in the water. This is not your thermal hot spring so the water is chilly! On the left next to the main waterfall pool is the main stream which provides further options for cooling down. The water there isn’t very deep so it’s a great area for kids and adults alike.

Near the entrance there are also shower/WC facilities, a restaurant and of course the obligatory tourist shop. Again there are tour buses which can drive you there and back as well.

La Fortuna waterfall and pool, Costa Rica
La Fortuna waterfall and pool

We enjoyed La Fortuna Waterfall and I think especially on a very hot day this is a great option to cool down amidst a tropical forest.

Overall, I really liked exploring Arenal and in hindsight, would’ve stayed 3 rather than our 2 nights to have another day for some white-water rafting.

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