Arenal National Park is one of the most popular Costa Rican destinations for nature-seekers. The conservation area is home to many of Costa Rica’s wildlife, its most beautiful waterfalls, and its biggest volcano. From backpacker hostels and zip-lines to luxurious resorts and hot springs, the little town of La Fortuna that has sprung up around the park caters to every type of tourist looking for that famous pura vida.
We visited specifically for the hiking opportunities and the beautiful hanging bridges. But there’s plenty more to experience! All of the attractions in the area are quite spread out, which makes walking not very feasible, so be prepared to spend money on taxis or buses to get around if you’re not planning on renting a car. Here’s a list of the major attractions in the area to help you get an idea of what to expect and to help you create your own itinerary.
Arenal National ParkThe park surrounds Arenal volcano, which is still technically considered active even though it was last seen erupting in 2010. Hiking the volcano itself isn’t allowed, but there are many short nature trails that are easy to navigate within the park’s borders. Wildlife are abundant and the park is perfect for birdwatching, because most of the 850 bird species in Costa Rica can be found here.
Entry fee: $7
Allow 3-4 hours to visit
Cerro ChatoAdjacent to Arenal is the smaller, older volcano of Cerro Chato which is extinct—meaning you can hike to the top to see the lagoon in its crater! This hike is strenuous and we would only recommend it for people who are specifically looking for an adventurous hike. Read more about our hike here.
Entry fee: $7
Allow 5-6 hours to visit
Catarata La FortunaLocated on the edge of the park and managed by a local community group is the picturesque 65 meter La Fortuna Waterfall. You’ll have to descend down a series of stairs for about 15 minutes, but your work will be rewarded with a swim in the waterfall’s pool!
Entry fee: $20
Allow 1-2 hours to visit
Mistico Hanging Bridges ParkMistico Park is a well maintained, 3.2km trail that allows you to experience the rain forest with ease. The park’s 6 hanging bridges give you a better chance to see the monkeys and sloths that hang out in the treetops. We were lucky to get very close to a sloth on one of the bridges, but we may not have spotted him if someone else hadn’t pointed him out! Guides are available and are recommended if you want to be sure to see some wildlife. Please keep in mind, this trail may not be a wise choice for those who are afraid of heights, and also know that closed toe shoes are required to enter the park—no sandals allowed.
Entry fee: $24
Allow 2-3 hours to visit
Wildlife RefugeIf getting up close and personal with wildlife is on your must-do list, then check out Proyecto Asis. It has great reviews for its sincere staff who are truly making a difference in saving wounded and endangered animals. You can even volunteer with them for the day and help prepare food for the animals!
Entry: $31 for the daily tour (reservations are required)
Hours: There are 2 daily tours at 8:30am and 1pm
Hot SpringsVolcanos mean hot spring water! There are some areas within the national park where you can access hot springs for free, or you can visit any of the dozens of spas and resorts that offer day passes to access their hot spring pools. Check out Tabacon or Eco Termales to start. Additionally, most spas in the area offer volcanic mud massages and facials. Speaking from experience, this is the perfect way to end the day after hiking Cerro Chato!
Active AdventuresIf active sports adventures are your thing, you can find it in La Fortuna. Actually, you can find it no matter where you go in Costa Rica! River rafting, ziplining, canyoning, rappelling, kayaking, canoeing, ATV and off-road tours all seemed to be in abundance everywhere. Just ask your hotel or visit any of the tour shops in La Fortuna.
RestaurantsLa Fortuna has dozens of international restaurants to cater to a wide range of tastes, from pasta to chifa to vegan. It’s shocking how many places we travel that do not serve hot breakfast, but in La Fortuna they celebrate breakfast, which is certainly something I can appreciate.
Restaurante Mi Casa serves traditional Costa Rican dishes. We shared a mixed grill which was a great value because we had a ton of food and got to taste patacones and fried yucca. Try the green Lizano sauce which is a bottle that you’ll find on nearly every Costa Rican table. Ticos pour this on everything, and you should too. It’s not spicy, just flavorful.
From the outside, Lava Lounge appeared to be a place that catered to tourists, but they had big portions and great vegetarian options and this might have actually been the best meal we had in La Fortuna!
La Parrilla de María Bonita was a surprise because they serve a few Lebanese dishes in addition to their international offerings. We can highly recommend the Argentinian steak and babaganoush.
If you’re in the mood for huge brick oven pizzas, go to Cafe Mediterraneo where you can pick out toppings to your hearts content. Pair it with an Imperial, the national beer!
Costa Rica is known for its coffee, and La Fortuna has plenty of establishments that will guide you through a coffee tasting or simply brew you a cup so you can relax and enjoy a conversation. You won’t find anything fancy at Red Frog Coffee Roasters, but Roy will calmly brew you a fresh cup of delicious black coffee (and that’s coming from a latte drinker). I later got my fix at Down to Earth Coffee where Matias has perfected the cortado! Do yourself a favor and save room in your bag for your most valuable souvenir—beans.
Arenal is a perfect destination for families, honeymooners, backpackers, and adventure seekers—anyone who is looking to experience the beauty of Costa Rican nature. Make a list of your must-do Costa Rican experiences and start planning your trip!
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