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Located in Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal,14km west of La Fortuna, Arenal Volcano is one of Costa Rica’s top natural attractions. Though still technically active, it’s been quiet since 2010, with no lava or explosions and only the occasional release of gas. It’s a spectacular sight and was given protected status in 1995. In addition, the park has several good walking trails, and the surrounding area is a hotbed of hot springs and adventure activities. Plan your trip to Arenal Volcano with our guide based on the The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, your travel guide for Costa Rica.
Arenal Volcano (Volcán Arenal) is Costa Rica’s youngest stratovolcano – that’s the technical term for a steep, conical volcano created by the eruption of thick lava flows. Geologists have determined that Arenal is no more than 2900 years old.
Arenal’s growth over the ages has been characterized by massive eruptions every few centuries. At the time of its most recent eruption in the late 1960s, Arenal seemed to be nothing but an unthreatening mountain. Indeed, locals had built small farms up its forested sides.
Then, on July 29, 1968, an earthquake shook the area, blasting off the top and to form the majestic, lethal volcano seen today. The volcano killed 78 people that day, and has been active ever since, though it’s currently in a quiet period.
While history would suggest it’s not due another major blowout for a few hundred years, and despite the recent years of slumber, Arenal is still very much an active volcano. In fact, technically everything between the volcano and the roads that run from La Fortuna to Laguna de Arenal and El Castillo lie in a high-risk area.
As a result, some safety tips are worth bearing in mind — never veer from trails or guided tours, and don’t attempt to hike anywhere near the crater. Lethal gases, ballistic boulders and molten rock can appear or change direction without warning.
Being one of Costa Rica’s top natural attractions, Arenal Volcano is certainly worth visiting during your trip.
Arenal Volcano National Park boasts a few good trails, all accessed from the main park entrance. These include the Lookout Point Trail (1.3km) and the Las Coladas Trail (2.8km), which heads southeast to a lava flow from 1992.
The Los Tucanes Trail (4km), also accessed off the road up to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, takes you to the part of the forest that was flattened by the 1968 eruption.
You may see some wildlife on these hikes — birds (including oropendolas and tanagers) and agoutis are particularly common.
Although the park has a simple café, it’s best to take a picnic lunch and plenty of water if you intend to walk extensively.
Love walking in the great outdoors? Read up on the best hikes in Costa Rica. You'll find more inspiration in our guide to Costa Rica's national parks.
A number of hikes on the fringes of Arenal Volcano National Park are worth exploring, including those at the Reserva Mirador El Silencio. You’ll find this 5km north of the park entrance.
The four trails at this reserve lead through primary forest sheltering peccaries and spider monkeys to a lookout at the foot of the volcano.
It's also a great place for bird-watching — expect to see plenty of parrots, toucans, tanagers, honeycreepers and oropendolas.
The Laguna de Arenal makes what would otherwise have been a pretty area into a very beautiful one.
Pretty as it is, it’s actually a man-made body of water created when the far smaller original lake was dammed in 1973. The resulting Arenal Dam now generates much of the country’s hydroelectricity.
The lake is an excellent fishing spot. The rainbow bass — an iridescent fish found only in freshwater lakes and rivers in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras — is particularly prolific.
Laguna de Arenal is also the country’s prime spot for windsurfing. This is done mainly out of Tilarán, on the western side of the lake.
4km southwest of La Fortuna, the dramatically sited La Catarata de La Fortuna is the epitome of a picture-book cascade. It's clear to see why it's one of the best waterfalls in Costa Rica.
A tall, thin stream plunges prettily from a narrow aperture in the rocky heights 75m above, forming a foaming pool among rocks and rainforest below.
From the ticket booth, a path leads 600m vertically down to the base of the falls, where a series of pools provide a tempting spot for a dip. Though swimming is not recommended due to flash floods, a lot of people do it anyway.
There’s a mirador (signposted) 200m along the trail for those who'd rather look from a distance. This gives great views across the steep valley and its heavily forested floor to the thin finger of the cascade.
Make sure you wear waterproof shoes, and be aware that the paths can be slippery.
Due to the volcanic activities, the area around Arenal Volcano is known for its natural hot springs. Here are some of the best.
The glitziest of the main hot springs, and the destination for most tourists is Balneario Tabacón. Fed by a magma-boiled underground thermal river, the water temperature here ranges from 27°C (80°F) to about 42°C (108°F).
The complex comprises fifteen mineral-rich pools, most of which are secluded among rich vegetation. Several are set beneath waterfalls, so you can manoeuvre yourself under the cascades for a pummelling massage.
Baldi Hot Springs is more accessible than Tabacón for those without transport. While it lacks the classy touches of its rival, it’s significantly cheaper and offers many of the same facilities.
It boasts 25 steaming pools, including Roman-style baths and waterfall-fed pools. Younger soakers will love the three waterslides.
Fronted by imposing wooden gates, the exclusive-looking Ecotermales Fortuna has five cascading thermal pools of varying temperatures set in idyllic forested surrounds.
It’s stylishly low-key, and only 100 people are allowed in during any of the allotted times, so be sure to book ahead in high season.
Termales Los Laureles is the least expensive official hot springs in the Arenal area, and popular with Ticos.
Four simple pools (one with slides) are set around a very ordinary garden, but the volcano views are sensational. Bring your own food and booze and make a night of it.
Budget travellers visiting Arsenal volcano usually stay in or around La Fortuna, while people with their own transport and/or a bit of money tend to head to the lodges surrounding town.
Though some of these are quite remote and local public transport is erratic or non-existent, many places offer a free shuttle service into town.
The nearby communities of Chachagua, 10km southeast of La Fortuna, and El Castillo are more relaxed alternatives to the main town, but still close enough to the action.
Among the top places to stay near Arenal Volcano, we recommend Arenal Observatory Lodge. It’s just 1.8km from the crater, with extensive grounds and rustic rooms looking out at Arenal.
Browse places to stay near Arenal Volcano and places to stay in La Fortuna, Costa Rica.
Arenal Volcano National Park is open daily 8am–4pm. Entry costs US$10.
You'll want to wear decent walking footwear — covered shoes or boots are preferable to sandals as some trails take you through jagged lava fields. You might also want to bring a light waterproof jacket, insect repellant and sunscreen.
To book a guided hiking tour, contact Arenal 1968. Located 1.2km north of the park entrance, and open daily 8am–6pm, the company offers taxing but highly worthwhile hikes up to the original 1968 lava flow. These cost US$25 per person.
The route includes a 3km loop that takes you past a shrine to those who lost their lives in the eruption, as well as a longer 4.5km trail that takes you through some bird-filled forested areas.
Need help planinng your trip, or want to forgo planning all together? Browse our customisable Costa Rica itineraries. Top tip — our tropical Costa Rica trip, and Beaches and Volcanoes trip both include visiting Arenal Volcano.
Coming from La Fortuna, the entrance to Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal is 14km west. Look for the well-signed driveway on the left-hand side of the road.
Taxis head from La Fortuna to the west side of the volcano for around US$15, though you’ll need to negotiate the rate if you want them to wait. Unless you’re in a large group, it’s cheaper — and easier — to take a tour.
Buses from La Fortuna to Tilarán (2–3 daily; 15min) can drop passengers off 2km from the park entrance, though the return journey can be tricky, as you’ll need to connect with the bus coming from Tilarán or Nuevo.
Although the lava-spotting night tours no longer run, many operators in La Fortuna still run day-trips. These cost around US$70.
For more general transportation tips, read our guide to getting around Costa Rica.
If you’re looking to enjoy outdoor adventures, then the dry season is the best time to visit Arenal Volcano. This runs from December to April.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the area has pretty unpredictable weather patterns in the dry season. Damp, muggy mornings might give way to bright afternoons, and vice versa. In general, though, you’ll experience less rain from January through to April — all the better for hiking.
For more on the best time to visit different destinations in Costa Rica, read our guide to when to go to Costa Rica.
Looking for more inspiration? Read up on the best things to do in Costa Rica, and get yourself a copy of The Rough Guide to Costa Rica. Our Costa Rica travel tips will also help you plan your trip.
Not keen on planning? You'll love our customisable Costa Rica itineraries.
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Header image: Arenal Volcano. Costa Rică Shutterstock