The majestic gray cone of Costa Rica’s most famous volcano, Arenal, has the frustrating habit of veiling itself in thick clouds about 80% of the time. That’s why clever travelers plan to spend a few days in the region, patiently waiting for the mountain to reveal itself. Happily, Arenal’s rainforested skirts are replete with wonderful attractions.
While these adventures are all in the immediate area, there are dozens of day trips—from horseback rides to boat tours of Caño Negro National Park—that can be booked through your hotel. If you stay a week—or a month—there will still be plenty to keep you busy.
Day 1: Have a Soak and a Smile
It’s not just lava that pours from this living mountain. Arenal is famous for its hot springs, rich with healing minerals and often developed into fantastic wonderlands, most with remarkable volcano views. The most famous, and beautiful, is Tabacón, a steaming river that pours through fantastically landscaped environs. Less flush travelers could try wet-and-wild Baldí, with waterslides and a more festive feel; The Springs, built around landscaped cascades; or secluded Eco Termales, a quiet spot with five family-friendly pools. Budget travelers can ask about the free springs, but please beware of thieves, who’ll make off with absolutely anything left unguarded!
No matter which termales you choose, cool off with a drink and some healthy Tico cuisine at one of the fine restaurants in the adorably touristy town of La Fortuna, at the base of the volcano.
Day 2: Explore the National Park
The lava-strewn lunar landscape of Arenal Volcano National Park is largely off limits, what with the enormous active volcano that is its centerpiece. But it’s still well worth visiting on any number of tours. Most people do the short trails that start at the official entrance, on the road to El Castillo, spending two or three hours exploring the old flows and wildlife gradually returning to the region. You could combine the trip with one of the region’s excellent canopy or canyoning (waterfall rappelling) tours. You could continue on to the tiny town of El Castillo for dinner at Arenal Observatory, your best bet for viewing lava flows (geology and weather permitting) after sunset.
Strong hikers could spend all day in the national park, making the hike from either Arenal Observatory or La Fortuna Waterfall up to Cerro Chato, Arenal’s dormant twin, topped with a clear crater lake. Or, traverse the park; we recommend starting at the observatory, so you can finish your trip with a refreshing swim at the base of the beautiful blue waterfall.
Day 3: Take to the Lake
At the base of the volcano is Lake Arenal, an artificially dammed expanse of silvery freshwater, stocked with tasty guapote, or rainbow bass. You could book a fishing trip to catch your own, or simply enjoy the fine fish prepared at any number of gorgeous little restaurants that line the lakeshore. More adventurous lakelovers could try kayaking or even windsurfing (November through April only) on the lago, enjoying awesome volcano views doubled in reflection.
If you’ve rented a car, consider taking all day to meander around the lake, stopping to visit Arenal Hanging Bridges and some of the several art galleries, coffee shops, and other eclectic attractions en route. Please, however, don’t pet the pizotes (also called coatis), the long-tailed raccoons that accost cars in the hopes of potato chips and other snacks; as cute and tame as they seem, they do bite. Protip: Finish your visit to Arenal with a final trip to one of the hot springs.