A three-hour drive from the Costa Rican capital stands the highly active Arenal Volcano, a lonely giant whose towering peak is usually crowned with wispy clouds. But on those rare occasions when the veil of mist clears, Arenal reveals itself to be a perfect cone rising from the forest above the shores of Lake Arenal.
With whitewater rafting, horseback riding, windsurfing, bungee jumping, scrambles up the slopes of the volcano, epic zipline tours, and much more, it is little surprise that this region has become a magnet for adventure-seekers.
But even with all the adrenaline-fueled activities, the volcano remains the star of the show. Just about every hotel offers views of Arenal and every restaurants’ windows seem to face it, so that on a clear night, you can watch the amazing light show provided by lava bursts 5,000 feet overhead.
The volcano and the town of La Fortuna that sits at its base are about a three-hour drive from the capital, San José. A number of private shuttles offer travelers door-to-door service to and from the mountain for about $30 per person, and public buses make the journey three times a day. Ask your hotel or trip planner for details. We arranged our trip through Horizontes and have nothing but praise.
Given a good map, the route to Arenal is simple enough to drive on your own, but the trip can be a tad perilous. Depending on your chosen route, you will likely find yourself spending a good part of the drive on narrow highways that wind their way through mountain passes. It’s beautiful, pastoral country, but the views are obscured by the dense fog that can reduce visibility to within a few feet, and earns this region its title as a “cloud forest.”
What to Do
With just two days at our disposal, we had to choose our activities carefully. On day one, we awoke early and set out on a three-hour walk through the forest and over a series of suspension bridges high in the canopy with a guide from Sky Adventures. Next, we set out with Sky Trek on a zipline course that put all my previous zipline experiences to shame. Several of the lines run over 400 meters, and the longest is about half a mile, providing a full minute in the air to take in the breathtaking panoramic views of the volcano and the massive, man-made Lake Arenal.
The following morning, we opted to rappel down waterfalls with Pure Trek Canyoning tours. Like ziplining, the rappelling is easy, even for novices and kids. You’re strapped in, and the skill required is minimal, though it does take some real courage to step off the side of the first cliff—there were five descents in all.
For those who seek a slower pace, Arenal offers countless geothermal hotsprings and spas, the best known of which are the exclusive Tabacon, and the theme park-like Baldi. We spent our first evening at Eco Termales, a hidden gem consisting of six pools connected by waterfalls, which become successively cooler as they descend. The hot springs are fed by a river running through the property, and are remarkably not crowded. Also, unlike many natural hotsprings, the water here has none of the stinky sulfur smell.
Where to Stay
We stayed just outside the town of La Fortuna on the eastern side of Lake Arenal. The town and surrounding areas cater to tourists and offer ample accommodations in any price range, from hostels to luxury resorts. We were fortunate enough to stay in one of the latter, at Arenal Manoa, a vast, scenic property that includes a spa, restaurant, pool, and hot springs nestled amid rolling hills.
Each of the 300+ garden bungalows at Arenal Manoa provides an awe-inspiring view of Arenal, and the entire volcano-facing side of the hotel restaurant is open. While you enjoy the included breakfast buffet, you can look out over your eggs and freshly squeezed juice at the small pond that cuts through the grounds and at the horses grazing and playing on its banks, as well as the great volcano rising behind it all into the mist.