Arenal volcano

La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano

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Located halfway between the Juan Santamaría International Airport in Alajuela (near San José) and the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia, the town of La Fortuna de San Carlos is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.  It is known as the gateway to Arenal Volcano National Park, and the majestic volcano provides a stunning backdrop to every view for miles.  Although it’s a tourist town, La Fortuna has a relaxed and laid back vibe.

Arenal volcano erupted in 1968 causing extensive damage and resulting in 82 deaths but didn’t reach the small village of La Fortuna, which lies less than 10km from the peak.  It was Costa Rica’s most active volcano until 2010, and it is still considered active.   

Getting There

If you are staying within the town of La Fortuna or prefer to arrange tours during your visit it is possible to get by without a vehicle, but this is one part of Costa Rica where it really helps to have a car rental.  There’s a lot to see and do here, but it’s a vast area around the volcano and nearby Lake Arenal.  

The route by car from SJO airport takes about 2.5 hours and the route from the LIR airport in Liberia is close to 3 hours.

If you prefer a shuttle, there is a daily service by Caribe Shuttle and Interbus from both San José and Liberia that runs around $57 and $42 US respectively.  Private shuttle options are also available.

Traveling by bus from SJO is only about $9 US but has several transfers and takes close to 5 hours.  Similarly, from the Liberia airport the cost is about $10 US but takes approximately 6 1/2 hours.

Climate 

La Fortuna has a tropical climate with wet and dry seasons, although it is an area that receives a significant amount of rainfall.  The rainy season runs from May through November, with the least amount of rain in the months of March and April and the most in July.  According to climatedata.org the average temperature ranges from a low of 20 degrees C (68 F) to a high of 30 degrees C (86 F).  It’s a good idea to bring rainwear and light, quick-dry clothing when you’re visiting the Arenal area regardless of the time of year.

La Fortuna Iglesia
La Fortuna iglesia

Where to Stay

Luxury

For the ultimate in luxury or to spend a romantic getaway look no further than Nayara Springs Relais & Chateaux, rated by Travel & Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler and Trip Advisor as one of the top luxury spa hotels in the world.  This adults-only resort has 35 villas, each with its own private plunge pool, and your stay includes a complimentary breakfast and daily yoga.

Nayara Gardens Relais & Chateaux is the sister resort to Nayara Springs and offers individual casitas, each with an outdoor shower and a garden terrace overlooking the volcano with a private, intimate Jacuzzi for two.

Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa is the most popular resort in the area for good reason.   Set on 900 acres of lush forest with naturally flowing hot spring, it offers a world-class spa, fine dining (including a vegetarian menu) and its own botanical garden.  Day passes are available if you’re staying elsewhere but want to splurge on a day of luxury.

A great option for a family stay or romantic getaway is The Springs Resort & Spa.  In addition to 5-star luxury accommodations, the 165-acre property includes the Club Rio Outdoor Center with river tubing, kayaking, horseback riding, rock climbing, hot springs and an animal sanctuary.  Day passes available.

Luxury wood cabins, each with its own plunge pool and spectacular volcano view, are waiting at the five-star rainforest lodge Amor Arenal.  The restaurants use only fresh, local and organic ingredients and the seasonal menus deliver healthy and delicious meals.   Enjoy the full-service spa or relax in the hot spring and mineral water-fed pools.

Mid-range

Eco-resort Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa is the only hotel located within Arenal Volcano National Park.  There are 48 rooms spread across several buildings, each with its own private balcony or terrace, and there are 5 fully accessible rooms for handicapped travelers (including swimming pool).  There are also 2 villas available on site.  Nestled a short distance from the base, stunning views of the majestic volcano can be seen from the panoramic windows of the restaurant to the main buildings and most of the guest rooms.  The 870 acre property has 11 km (7 miles) of well-maintained trails that wind through primary and secondary forest filled with wildlife, including 3 kinds of monkeys and over 500 bird species and past rivers and waterfalls, so there is plenty to experience.  You can also enjoy a relaxing treatment at the full-service spa surrounded by lush garden views, swim in the pool or soak in the jacuzzi.  The restaurant serves international and local Costa Rica cuisine, and also has a vegetarian menu.

Los Lagos Hotel Spa and Resort
Los Lagos Hotel Spa & Resort

 

The Volcano Lodge, Hotel & Thermal Experience has 66 rooms surrounded by lush gardens swimming pools, jacuzzis, children’s pool and on-site restaurant.  The hotel does not offer day passes to the thermal pools so they are exclusively for the use of hotel guests.  For even more privacy, the Thermal Superior Rooms and Junior Suites have their own private plunge pool with naturally heated thermal waters. 

If you want to experience the rainforest from a unique perspective, the Tree Houses Hotel has 7 private tree houses where you can truly be immersed in the sights and sounds of the jungle.  It is located 25 minutes from La Fortuna, situated on 10 acres surrounded by a 70 acre wildlife refuge with a waterfall, pools to swim and a beautiful river.

Hotel El Silencio del Campo has 23 individual cabinas with their own small patio outside facing the Arenal volcano, a swimming pool, thermal springs and spa that uses only local, natural products.  It is located just 5 km from the center of La Fortuna.  

Budget

If you’re looking for simple and affordable accommodations immersed in nature but just 1.5 km from La Fortuna, Hotel Rancho Cerro Azul is a great option and includes a restaurant on site.

A popular budget option is Selina La Fortuna hostel which is located right in the town of La Fortuna. With a co-working space, shared and private rooms, and even outdoor tee-pees, it’s a fun place for those wanting to meet other travelers. 

The Rojas Bonilla family has transformed a cattle field into the eco-friendly Arenal Oasis Wildlife Refuge where sloths, howler monkeys, toucans, hummingbirds, tree and poison dart frogs, snakes, lizards and many other species can flourish.  Just 3 km (2 miles) from La Fortuna, the site is home to 14 rustic cabins and an on-site restaurant serving local cuisine with many organic ingredients. 

What to Do

Arenal has endless opportunities for those who love an active vacation!  Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie or seeking peace and solitude you can find it all around La Fortuna.  Zipline through the canopy or rappel down a canyon, and then soothe your soul in the hot springs or have a relaxing massage.  Here are just a few of the many things you can experience during your stay:

Hiking

Arenal Volcano National Park encompasses 30,000 acres and contains both the Arenal and Chato volcanos and has a few easy hikes from the ranger station.  The Coladas Trail is a flat 1.7 km hike with views of the volcano, Lake Arenal and the Tilarán mountain range.  The Mirador is 1.5 km with views of the volcano.  There is also the La Peninsula trail which is a short 1.3 km paved trail that is wheelchair accessible and great for small children or anyone with limited mobility.  People may offer to take you to the summit but it is still considered an active volcano with the risk of falling rocks, landslides and toxic gases, so it’s best to stay on the official trails.  Don’t miss seeing the 400 year old Ceiba tree on the 2.3 km Ceiba Trail!  Check hours and rates.

The Bogarín Trail is an easy 2 km trail on private property located just a short walk from downtown La Fortuna where you can do a self-guided walk or get a guided tour.  The property used to be farmland but has been transformed by owner Giovanni Bogarín, a previous guide and trail designer at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, into a lush jungle home for many species.  Many sloths now inhabit the property so it’s a great opportunity to spot one (or several!), but they can be elusive and hard to spot – I always recommend paying for a guide because the locals are so knowledgeable and you’ll see a lot of wildlife you would miss otherwise.  They offer a morning hike that’s especially good for birding and to see sloths and other mammals, and also a night hike where you can see nocturnal species such as frogs, insects and bats.

Tree frog
Tree frog on night hike

 

Arenal 1968 Trail is located right next to the national park and offers two moderate level trails (2.5 Lava Flow Trail and 4.5 km Forest Trail) through varied terrain, crossing old lava fields and through forest, with spectacular volcano views.  Cycling enthusiasts can rent hardtail bikes and bike the dedicated 13.5 km trail that traverses through the jungle and Río Fortuna.  There is also a café where you can enjoy a meal with a great volcano view.

Arenal Observatory Lodge is about 30 minutes outside of La Fortuna and sits on 870 acres.  The property has a network of 11 km (7 miles) of well maintained trails on 870 acres where you can spot monkeys, sloths, coati and many bird species.  Most of the trails are an easy hike with just a couple moderate difficulty (Danta Waterfall Trail and Los Cangrejos Trail).   A daily free guided walk is included for guests of the lodge, and a day pass is also available for trail access.

On the edge of the long-dormant Chato volcano, the La Fortuna Waterfall (Catarata La Fortuna) is one of the most popular in the country.  This stunning, towering cascade has a 70 meter (230 ft) drop and you can even enjoy a swim in the pool at the base of the falls.  The path to the viewpoint is fully paved and wheelchair accessible, but there are steep stairs to get to the base of the falls.  

Hot Springs

La Fortuna is a top destination for travelers looking to enjoy the hot springs that surround the base of the Arenal volcano.  Many of the hotels and resorts in the area have their own spring-fed pools for guests, but also offer day passes for visitors staying at other accommodations in the area.  Here’s a look at some of the popular day-pass options:

Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa is a luxury resort with a lush, natural environment where volcanic mineral springs form waterfalls, streams, pools and ponds to relax and sooth tired muscles.  For a more romantic environment, the adults-only Shangri-La garden provides a quiet escape in this open rainforest lounge.

If you’d prefer something more intimate, EcoTermales is a small family-operated thermal experience with 5 pools set in a beautiful jungle environment.

Los Lagos Resort & Spa offers canopy zipline tours (2.8 km, 1.7 miles) and afterward you can relax and enjoy the hot springs, pools and water slides or grab a drink at the swim-up bar.  You can also purchase a day pass on site.

Los Lagos view Arenal
Los Lagos hot springs

 

A great budget option for under $30 US is Paradise Hot Springs where you can relax in the thermal pools or enjoy a hydro-massage in one of the jacuzzis surrounded by beautiful tropical gardens.

For anyone looking for a quick (or long) soak without the expense, Río Chollin is a public-access (free!) thermal river that runs beside the Tabacón resort.  Parking is available along the roadside and you’ll find attendants there who will watch your vehicle for a small charge.  Access is via a short path that leads down to the river, where thermal pools have formed as the water flows down from the volcano.

Another great (and free) place to cool down after a busy day, or just to hang out and have fun, is the El Salto swimming hole.  Two small waterfalls have formed in the Río Fortuna, creating a pool surrounded by rocky ledges where locals love to gather and throw themselves off the tarzan rope into the water below.  It is located at the bridge of Route 702, next to the Hunters & Gatherers restaurant.

Tours

If you want to fly through the jungle and experience a zipline there are several in the La Fortuna area.  SkyTrek takes you high into the jungle on a tram before ziplining down from mountain to mountain.  It is high and fast, reaching a height of 600 feet (183 m).  The Sky Adventure park also has hanging bridges for a slower pace.  EcoGlide Arenal Park has a network of 12 cables and 14 platforms that includes a 40 meter suspension bridge and the opportunity to try the ‘Tarzan swing”.

Mistico Park is a privately owned haven located about 20 minutes outside La Fortuna next to the Lake Arenal dam where you can spot wildlife and some of the many bird species that are found here.  There are a total 0f 16 bridges – 10 fixed and 6 hanging bridges – that provide a completely different perspective on the lush jungle and its inhabitants.  One great thing about this park is that there are accessible concrete trails with fixed bridges for inclusive access.  You can choose a self-guided tour or have a guided tour with a naturalist guide and learn about the rich biodiversity of plants and wildlife you will see along the way.

For something a little different, go underground to Venado caves, where caverns stretch for about 2,700 meters through the remains of ancient seabed and underground rivers.  Hike through rock formations and bristling stalactites and stalagmites, visit a bat colony and explore the network of grottoes and chambers.

If waterfall rappelling is on your bucket list, the Pure Trek Canyoning and Waterfall tour will not disappoint.  Experience the thrill as you rappel alongside a handful of waterfalls into a deep canyon, and enjoy an organic lunch and coffee afterward.

A wonderful cultural tour to do in this part of Costa Rica is an educational coffee and chocolate tour.  This tour provides an in-depth look at the bean-to-bar process of chocolate making and will also walk you through the complete process of growing, harvesting and roasting coffee.  The trails are all concrete so this tour is fully accessible and great for anyone with limited mobility.

Sanctuaries 

If you would like to make a difference during your stay and get hands-on at a wildlife rescue organization, this tour and volunteer opportunity at Proyecto Asis will give you a guided tour of the refuge and a chance to help prepare food for the animals in their care.  This organization is dedicated to wildlife protection, environmental conservation and education.

Missing your furry friend?  Want to help out a local shelter?  Costa Rica Dog Rescue center, located in La Fortuna, needs volunteers for walking, bathing, and playing with the dogs so if you have a free morning or afternoon this is a great way to give back.  They also need escorts to LA or Toronto so if you can accompany a dog please contact them for more information.

Good Eats

The little town of La Fortuna has over 100 restaurants so you’re sure to find something to suite every palate.

Regarded as one of the most popular and best restaurants in the area, Restaurante Tierra Mía serves up a wide variety of delicious food and offers a vegetarian menu with vegan options.

Organico Fortuna is a funky little café offering plenty of vegan and vegetarian meals like falafels, quinoa burgers and smoothies with gluten free options.

Organico Fortuna
Organico Fortuna restaurant

 

A great choice for a healthy meal with vegan and gluten free options is Casa Volkova.  They also serve homemade bread and pastries, coffee and cocktails.  

Chifa La Familia Feliz is a wonderful Peruvian restaurant where every meal on the menu has a vegetarian option.  It is considered one of the best restaurants in the area for serving delicious, flavorful food with excellent service.

If you’re hankering for sushi, Kappa Sushi has a great selection of vegan options in addition to the standard fare.

Yellow Bark restaurant provides good value and selection for all tastes, and the menu includes an excellent veggie sandwich and veggie burger.

For affordable local cuisine in the heart of La Fortuna check out Cafeto Chill Out, where you can find options such as the vegetarian casado and veggie sandwich.

If you’re looking for a full vegetarian experience en route to La Fortuna from San José, Lands in Love is located on Route 702 between San Ramón and La Fortuna.  It is 40 km or approximately 1 hour from La Fortuna.  They have both a vegan and vegetarian menu with local, Asian, Mexican, Israeli, Italian dishes and include gluten free options.

 

The Covid-19 pandemic is an evolving situation.  Be sure to confirm availability and health protocols with your destination prior to arrival.

 

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