Known for its jaw-dropping landscapes and adventure activities for travelers of all ages, Arenal is on many travelers' Costa Rica itinerary. With lush jungle, roaring rivers, and volcanoes, there's no denying Arenal is the adventure capital of Costa Rica.
We've rounded up a list of the best things to do in Arenal, from heart-racing adventure activities to free things to do in town to off the beaten path experiences.
We're also sharing the best places to stay in and around La Fortuna, as well as where to eat. You won't want to miss this complete guide to Arenal and La Fortuna, Costa Rica!
*Personal Note: This was our second time visiting Arenal and it was just as good as the first. We ventured here one spring break during university and had such a good time we decided to return. This time around we were able to do many of our favorite activities a second time as well as try out some new adventures. We rarely visit the same place twice, so that should tell you that Arenal is a very special place!
- How to Get to La Fortuna
- Where to Stay in and around Arenal
- Where to Eat in La Fortuna
How to get to La Fortuna
It is very simple to get to La Fortuna, and there are a few different options. Choosing the best option for you depends on your budget, timing and level of comfort you are seeking.
Note: If you are staying outside of the town of La Fortuna, this will likely be your first stop.
1. Take the public bus to La Fortuna
Best option for you if... you have a tight budget and time to spare
Taking the local bus is the cheapest way to get from San Jose to La Fortuna. We paid about $5 USD each, and after taking the "chicken buses" (old American school buses) in many other parts of Central America, we were surprised to find the buses similar to coach vehicles, with comfortable seats.
That said, we stopped every couple miles to pick up people on the side of the road, and the bus soon became packed with people in the isles and uncomfortable without good AC. It took us about 6 hours to finally arrive in La Fortuna, whereas the direct shuttles take 3 hours.
How to get to the public bus station: Take an Uber (much cheaper and more reliable than taxis) to Terminal 7-10. Head to the second floor of the shopping complex to the ticket window. Buses to La Fortuna leave at 5 a.m., 6:15 a.m., 8:40 a.m., and 11:50 a.m and takes 5 to 6 hours. We arrived 25 minutes before the bus departed and had no problem getting a seat.
2. Take a direct shuttle to La Fortuna
Best option for you if... you have a larger budget and want to get there quickly without worrying about driving.
Direct shuttles can be booked through your hotel or hostel and will usually pick you up. The price is around $54 per person ($27 per child) and the journey takes roughly 4 hours. Direct shuttles will not stop along the way like the local buses, so you will arrive more quickly. They are usually large vans with air conditioning and will stop for a restroom break along the way.
3. Drive a rental car
Best option for you if... you want freedom to explore and don't mind driving.
Renting a car in Costa Rica is much cheaper and easier than we expected. This is the best way to get from San Jose to La Fortuna, as it will be the fastest and cheaper than taking the direct shuttle.
Having a car in La Fortuna is also really nice, as it allows you to have the freedom to explore the nearby hot springs and waterfalls without overpaying for taxis.
1. Canyoning with Desafio
If you have an adventurous spirit and you want to do something really unique in La Fortuna, we couldn't recommend the Gravity Falls tour highly enough. This combination of rappelling over waterfalls, cliff jumping, hiking through pristine jungle, and a bit of rock climbing is perfect for any adrenaline junkie. Check out our video of it:
If we only had time or money to do one adventure tour in La Fortuna, we would choose Gravity Falls. It is set in a stunning river canyon, so the scenery alone is epic. And on top of that, this combination tour is really unique and it would be hard to find something similar elsewhere in the world.
We felt very safe on the Desafio tour, and there are plenty of guides watching out for your well-being. That said, there are parts of this tour that would be scary if you are afraid of heights. The final high jump is from a platform 39 feet tall, after all.
The Desafio staff is some of the best we’ve had anywhere in the world. They were fun, energetic, and professional. And every detail has been though of. After the tour, each guest gets a clean towel to dry off with, fresh fruit and water, juice or beer.
After the tour you get a delicious Costa Rican buffet style meal at their new restaurant, Hunters & Gathers. Start with homemade plantain chips and a variety of fresh salsas and salad. Then fill up with a traditional assortment of rice, beans, chicken, yucca and more. Don’t forget to try their fresh maracuya (passionfruit) juice and ginger lemonade before finishing your meal with local coffee. This was one of the best Costa Rican meals we had in the country.
Mixed in amongst all the climbing and jumping, one of the guides is taking pictures of everyone on the trip. They offer the whole CD of photos to you for $20 USD. They even let you see the photos first before you decide whether or not you’d like to purchase them.
Note: This tour has an age suggestion of 18 – 55 years. There was a large group of college students in our group, many of them just 18 years old, as well as a mom with her son who had just turned 54 years old.
What to bring:
- Swim suit and/or athletic clothes you don’t mind getting wet (you WILL get wet!). Ben wore swim trunks and Katie wore athletic shorts over a bikini.
- GoPro or cell phone in a waterproof case (optional): The guides will take photos along the way, but you can also carry your own waterproof camera if you’d like. (Just don’t bring it on the last cliff jump! The guides will remind you!)
- Chacos or other sturdy shoes: Your shoes will get wet and should have good grip. We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again: Chacos are the BEST shoes for this type of adventure! We wore them everywhere in Costa Rica, and they were perfect for this tour.
2. Go Whitewater Rafting
One of the most popular things to do in Arenal is whitewater rafting. With rapids ranging from class II to IV, there's something for everyone. Bring your whole family on the class II rapids, or get your heart pumping on class IV.
Our very first time whitewater rafting was back in 2012, and it was in La Fortuna! We've been rafting a handful of times since, and always say that we were spoiled by our first experience. The rapids are big and exciting (no sitting around and getting bored if you do class IV!).
We went with Costa Rican Descents our first visit to La Fortuna and had such a good time that we booked with them again! The river we went on was class III and IV, and it did not disappoint. You will be jerked around in the boat and will have to paddle hard, but as long as you listen to your guide you’ll have a blast.
Similar to all the other adventure activities in Arenal, there is a photographer taking pictures as you fly through the rapids. To get all the action pictures of your raft, it cost $40 USD, but the cost can be split between each person in the raft.
3. Fly through the Jungle on a ZipLine
We've been zip-lining in a few places around the world, from Cambodia to Korea, and while we have been tempted many times in the past, we know nothing can live up to zip-lining in Costa Rica.
You’ll feel like you’re flying through the jungle reaching speeds of what felt like 60 mph and when you try to smile you feel like a cartoon with your cheeks flapping in the wind!
There are many zip-lining companies to choose from, each with their own number of lines and platforms. We went with Sky Adventures because of their great reviews online and they had a half-mile zip-line that made Ben scream like a toddler.
The staff is very professional and has safety as a number one priority. They give you a briefing at the start (both in English and Spanish) and make sure you are 100% comfortable with it. (To be honest, zip-lining is not really scary compared to canyoning and whitewater rafting. We felt safe the entire time and were more thrilled than scared.)
Sky Adventures has a shuttle that runs from La Fortuna to the course so if you don't have a car be sure to book it online. If you are traveling to Sky Adventures on your own be sure to allow 45 minutes to get there and we would recommend a 4x4 car.
Read more: We put together a guide with everything you need to know about renting a car in Costa Rica.
Insider Tip: If you have a tour and need to grab a quick breakfast to go, My Coffee (south of the park in front of the main church in town) has a great option and they’re open early.
Order the croissant of the day for 3,500 colones ($6.17 USD). This comes with two croissant sandwiches (one with egg and cheese and the other lettuce, tomato and ham), and is easily sharable between two people. You can get coffee to go here as well if you need a little pick-me-up! We found it a bit difficult to find to-go breakfast options in La Fortuna.
4. Take a Leap at the Tarzan Swing
If you're looking for a way to spend the afternoon that won't break the bank, we've got you covered. Not far from town, there's a spot on the river where you can cliff jump, cool off in small pools and take a leap from a rope swing, all for free!
The jumps and rope swing aren't too high (around 4 meters, or 12 feet), but if you're not feeling like getting wet, you can always watch the locals doing crazy stunts and just relax next to waterfalls in the forest. Not a bad way to spend part of your day in La Fortuna!
Total cost: This hidden gem is totally free, and will satisfy your adventure cravings.
How to get there: You can walk or drive there from La Fortuna because it is only 1.5 km away from the church.
Take the road just past the church in town head south on road 702. After about 1.5 km, the road will bend to the right and you might see cars parked on the side of the road.
On the south side of the bridge, there is a path that leads down to the rope swing area.
Warning: If it starts raining hard while you are here, leave immediately because the river can rise fast without warning.
5. Explore El Castillo town
Tucked away just south of Lake Arenal is the cute little town of El Castillo that often times gets overlooked by the adrenaline-seeking visitors. You’ll need a 4x4 vehicle to get here (in our opinion), but cars are easy and cheap to rent in Costa Rica.
On a clear day, you can drive up the hill in town and look out over the lake for a stunning view. There is a butterfly conservatory and many small B&Bs that would be perfect for a relaxing stay to get way from the crowds in La Fortuna.
If you do go, be sure to eat lunch or dinner at La Ventanita, which has the best burritos and smoothies in Arenal (and they are reasonably priced at $5 USD for a burrito and $2 for a smoothie).
Another nice spot is the quaint La Gavilana Herbs and Art Café, which gets its name from a plant with many medicinal properties.
You can order food and try their homemade hot sauce, or you can relax with a cup of local coffee or tea while checking out the artwork on display. Open weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
6. Soak in Hot Springs
Arenal is known for hot springs, and while you're in the area you'll definitely want to try at least one!
The good news is, there are hot springs for every budget and each type of traveler. From the pristine, luxuriously-landscaped hot springs of Tabacon that'll set you back $94 USD for a day pass, to the completely free, yet rustic hot springs in the river, you'll find a hot spring that suits your budget and desires. The best way to get to these hot springs is by car. We'll help you find the cheapest rental car in Costa Rica here.
Here are descriptions of some of the Hot Springs in Arenal:
Known as one of the nicest hot springs in town, Tabacon is beautifully landscaped and has an on-site restaurant and bar. Not only is it gorgeous and you could spend all day here, Tabacon was granted a Certification for Sustainable Tourism from the Costa Rican Board of Tourism.
Baldi Hot Springs
This resort has 25 spacious pools with jungle vibes. The thermal pools vary in temperatures ranging from 60ºF to over 100ºF. You can swim up to the bar and order a cocktail or head up the restaurant and grab a bite to eat at the buffet. No outside food or beverages are allowed.
Open Everyday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Adult Entrance: $35 USD without meal, $57 USD with meal
Las Termalitas de Arenal
In the same area as the big expensive hot springs is this local hot spot (pun intended!). At only $8 USD for an all day pass, this smaller but nice hot spring allows you to bring in your own food and drinks. There are lots of picnic tables and even some grills (but you must bring your own charcoal). We saw numerous local families with crock-pots that smelled delicious.
There are 9 different pools including one with two big waterslides. And on a clear day, you can get a great view of Arenal Volcano!
Open everyday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Cost 4000 CRC and 2000 CRC for a locker.
Free Natural Hot Springs
If you're traveling in Costa Rica on a tight budget, the natural hot springs not far from town will allow you to experience one of Arenal's famous hot springs for free. And even if you go to one of the luxurious hot springs mentioned above, we would still recommend stopping here for a totally different experience.
Just a short walk from the road, you'll find a river with spots for soaking. You'll see steam billowing up from the water, as this stream is fed by natural hot springs. Depending on the time of day, you may have this place to yourself or you may be sharing it with tour groups that stop here for a half hour in the late afternoon.
We arrived to the hot springs with some new friends we met at our hostel, and after the tour groups left, we had it mostly to ourselves. It's a fun spot to relax with a couple beers as the sun sets. But beware that it gets dark quickly, so pack a headlamp. Some people bring candles, and you'll see remnants of wax on the rocks.
Responsible travel tip: If you visit these natural hot springs, please be sure to pack out all your belongings, trash and fruit peels to keep it nice for other visitors.
Warning: If it starts raining hard while you are here, leave immediately because the river can rise fast without warning.
How to the Free Natural Hot Springs: Labeled on Google Maps as "Free Natural Hot Springs River". Head west out of La Fortuna (toward Lake Arenal) on Hwy 142 for about 12 km. Right after Tabacon, there is a bridge crossing over a river. Park on the side of the road (well off the road because there is lots of traffic), and head down the trail on the south side of the bridge. It's a 1 minute walk from the road. Watch your step while in the water because it can get slippery.
7. Rio Celeste day trip
If you love a good waterfall, Rio Celeste in Tenorio Volcano National Park will surely be a favorite to add to your list. The really unique thing about this waterfall is that it happens right after the confluence of two rivers. Each river has its own minerals, and the mixture of them turns the water a brilliant milky blue.
We spend about 2 hours in the park hiking around. The trails were undergoing a facelift when we were there, so it got a little muddy at times. But by now there should be new trail steps and some paved paths.
The Rio Celeste waterfall is the main attraction of the park, but we would recommend to continue walking to the end of the trail because there is a great viewpoint and at the end there is the spot where the minerals are naturally released into the river. It's pretty cool to see the water change colors right before your eyes.
Parking cost 1000 CRC ($2 USD) and entrance to Tenorio Volcano National Park cost $12 USD for foreigners. You can also rent rain boots at the entrance for about $5 USD. The park is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with last admission at 2 p.m.
Note: If you visit during rainy season (like we did!), the water won't be nearly as bright blue as it is during dry season. The rain can cause the water to be mixed around more, churning in sludge from the riverbed and dulling the color. But despite the dull blue, the park is pretty great and has some cool spots to see.
Costa Rica Seasons: Dry season in Costa Rica is from December to April and rainy season is from May to November.
How to get to Rio Celeste:
The best way to get to Rio Celeste is if you have a rental car in Costa Rica. The drive is quite easy and very beautiful on a clear day. And the road from La Fortuna to the park is now completely paved (but there is frequent pot holes)
From La Fortuna, head east on Hwy 142 until you connect with Hwy 4 and turn left. Keep driving north on Hwy 4 for about 51 km, passing through the town of San Rafael de Guatuso until you reach Katira. Just after the town of Katira, there will be a sign pointing to the left for Rio Celeste. Turn left and drive about 6 km until a 4-way intersection. Turn right and keep following the signs until you reach the park.
Where to eat near Rio Celeste:
If you visit Rio Celeste in the morning, you'll likely arrive back in the vicinity of town around lunchtime. Before getting back to La Fortuna though, we'd recommend stopping at Restaurante Victorino’s. We ended up splitting a grilled fish, but if you're pretty hungry we'd recommend getting your own. It comes with 2 sides (we chose mixed vegetables and a baked potato), and the fish was fantastic!
Alternative to Rio Celeste Waterfall: La Fortuna Waterfall
There's another waterfall located much closer to town. So if renting a car isn't possible, visiting the La Fortuna Waterfall would be a great option.
A taxi to get to the entrance should cost around $10 to $20 USD and the entrance fee is $10 USD per person.
Unless you have lots of time to kill and aren't concerned with your budget, we'd recommend choosing just one waterfall to visit in Arenal.
8. Go Hiking around Arenal
There are a few places to go hiking around Arenal. Depending on how much time you have and how much of a sweat you want to work up, there's definitely an option for you!
Arenal Volcano National Park: With mostly flat, well-groomed trails, we wouldn't consider this truly a hike, so to speak. It's more of a nature walk amongst the lava rock formations. You can take the short loop that offers great views of Arenal Volcano, when the weather is clear, and is suitable for all ages and abilities. The long loop includes the short loop and a section around a small lake.
Cerro Chato: This used to be a popular route for hiking enthusiasts and adventure seekers, and offers a great view of a crater lake at the top. However, this trail has been recently closed for safety reasons. We try to abide by rules when traveling and decided not to do this hike, though we knew of other people who did this trek. Do some research yourself and make an informed decision. And if you choose to hike, be prepared for quite a climb and bring plenty of water.
9. View the Arenal Volcano
One of the most iconic parts sights of this area is the Arenal Volcano. Towering behind the town of La Fortuna, you will have not problem seeing it if the skies are clear. There are many different spots to view the volcano from. Here are just some of our favorites!
From the San Juan Church: The church in the center of La Fortuna is directly in front of the Arenal Volcano and is a good place to get a different perspective.
Hanging bridges: Get a view of the volcano from high above the trees at the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park.
Arenal Volcano National Park: This park will give you an unique perspective of the volcano, because you will be walking amongst the lava flows that spewed out of the volcano in 1968.
Arenal Observatory Lodge: Get up close and personal with Arenal Volcano. This lodge (which you can stay at, check prices on Booking.com) has the closest view of the volanco than another other hotel in the area. If the skies are clear, the view is breathtaking.
10. Canoe, SUP or Kayak on Lake Arenal
During the right time of year, it's refreshing to go kayaking or stand up paddle boarding on Lake Arenal. The views of the volcano from the lake are spectacular when the skies are clear.
The lake is 19 miles long so it would take all day to paddle back and forth, but it's a fun day to go splashing around for a bit. Be sure to bring sunscreen and enough water for the day.
There are several companies that will take you on a day trip tour there (like Desafio) but you could also go the boat launch and they typically have boats you can rent by the hour.
Where to Stay in and around Arenal
There are a few different areas you can stay while exploring the natural beauty of Arenal.
Which area you choose depends on your travel style and budget. You could even split your time so you can experience a little of each!
1) In La Fortuna: Budget Accommodation & Convenience
If you're on a budget, your best bet for cheap accommodation is going to be in the town of La Fortuna itself. Though the town of La Fortuna itself is quite touristy and not all that noteworthy, it is a great jumping off point for all sorts of adrenaline-pumping activities and epic journeys around the Arenal National Park.
Hotels in La Fortuna:
Luxury Hotel: Hotel Magic Mountain - Massive pool, spacious rooms, on-site bar and restaurant, this hotel has everything. Select rooms have stunning views of Arenal Volcano and the staff can help arrange all your activities in the area. Check prices on Booking.com and Agoda.com.
Mid-Range/Couple Hotel: Hotel Monte Real - Best hotel you can find right in the heart of the city. Perfect location for couples or friends looking explore during the day and go out at night. Check prices on Booking.com and Agoda.com.
Budget/Social Hostel: Arenal Backpackers Resort - Known for it's massive pool and large gathering area, this backpacker resort has nice clean rooms and good WiFi throughout the complex. Check prices on Booking.com and Agoda.com.
2) Just outside La Fortuna: Luxury Hot Spring Resorts
Just west of La Fortuna on Highway 142 are several luxurious resorts, many of them with their own hot springs. If you choose to stay in this area, you'll need a rental car, and should have a higher budget. But you'll be rewarded with a selection of plush resorts that you'll never want to leave.
Lost Iguana Resort and Spa - Situated in the lush Costa Rican jungle, the Lost Iguana has two large pools and spacious rooms with strong A/C, WiFi and stunning views of Arenal Volcano. Enjoy their breakfast buffet every morning and organize adventure day trips at the front desk. Check prices on Booking.com and Agoda.com.
Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort - Stay at the world-famous hot springs and have access to the pools anytime of the day. Swim up to the bar, eat at the delicious buffet, or get a couples massage while staying at the resort. With the best reviews in the city, this is the perfect stay. Check prices on Booking.com and Agoda.com.
Nayara Hotel Spa and Gardens - Luxury in the jungle, look no further. Nayara is has everything: private bungalows with private terrances and 2-person hot tubs, mud and coffee scrubs at the spa, and handcrafted exotic cocktails. Perfect for honeymooners or couples celebrating an anniversary. Check prices on Booking.com and Agoda.com.
3) Near Lake Arenal: Quiet B&Bs in Nature
If you really want to have a relaxing experience surrounded by nature (without the touristy feel of being based in La Fortuna) and you don't like the idea of a big hot spring resort, staying near the village of El Castillo is a great option.
In this area, you'll find affordable B&Bs as well as boutique hotels with sweeping views of the Arenal Volcano and the lake. You will be based about 45 minutes from La Fortuna, so choose a place that serves delicious food, since you won't be driving to town all that often.
Note: You will need a rental car if you plan on staying in this area. Know that some of the roads are gravel, and a few of them get quite steep. We'd recommend a 4x4 vehicle if you plan to stay in this area. This article goes over everything you need to know about renting a car in Costa Rica.
Rancho Margot - Eco-friendly accommodation set in the jungle near the town of El Castillo. Guest are served breakfast and have an opportunity to make pizza in their pizza oven. There's plenty to do around the property like hiking, kayaking, waterfalls, and biking. Check prices on Booking.com and Agoda.com.
Arenal Birdsong Villa B&B - This adorable bed and breakfast perched on the side of the volcano has stunning views and spacious rooms. You'll be in the deep jungle but still have all modern amenities including a hot tub. Check prices on Booking.com and Agoda.com.
Essence Arenal Boutique Hostel - Reasonably priced with great rooms, Essence has everything you need for a great stay like a hot tub and massages available. They have an outdoor spring fed swimming pool and vegetarian cuisine restuarant. Check prices on Booking.com and Agoda.com.
Where to Eat in La Fortuna
To be honest, we found the majority of the restaurants in La Fortuna to be overpriced (typical for a touristy town) and the food just meh.
That said, there are a few places we'd recommend:
Quick breakfast on the go: My Coffee
The only thing we had here was the "croissant of the day", which is actually a lot better than it sounds. It was an order of 2 breakfast sandwiches (each with different toppings) on freshly baked croissants topped with sunslower and poppy seeds.
As we mentioned earlier in the article, this makes a great breakfast to go if you have an early morning tour. (Bonus points because their to-go containers are biodegradable!) We also ordered coffee, which did the trick but wasn't noteworthy.
Healthy breakfast & lunch: La Fortuna Organica
Known for their fresh and healthy menu items, this is a great spot for breakfast or lunch!
Chicken Dinner: Pollo Fortuneño
This place is always packed at night, so be sure to arrive early (around 6pm if you want the roasted chicken) When we arrived around 8pm, the roasted chicken was already finished
Cheap and local: Little local stand with no name
If you’re in the mood for something fast and cheap (or it's really late), there’s a tiny stand we found that sells tacos, taquitos, and hamburgers for local prices (aka SUPER cheap). There's not a place to sit and eat, but you can take it to go or stand around and mingle with the locals who hang out around there. It's on Avenue 325 near Cabinas Jerry.
Budget friendly local food: Soda Viquez
If you want a large meal for a reasonable price, this local soda, or restaurant, is a good choice. We’d recommend the casado do pescado (fish platter). The fish is delicious. Split it between two people, as it’s a ton of food!
Healthy & cute cafe: Fresh Dayz
Okay, we can't truly report on this place since it was closed when we arrived, but it is super cute (a food truck parked in a landscaped garage!) and has a menu with items like sandwiches and salads.