Made up mostly of primary rainforest, The Arenal Volcano National Park encompasses four different life zones and harbors a tremendous amount of flora and fauna. In fact, nearly 75% of the total 850 species of birds that have been identified in Costa Rica can be found here. Other creatures include sloths, white-faced capuchin monkeys, coati, deer and snakes, including the infamous fer-de-lance, parrot snake and boa constrictor. The plants are just as varied and include guayabo de monte, laurel, cirri, palms, orchids, heliconias, ferns and bromeliads. Arenal’s smaller – and much older – sibling, the Chato Volcano (Volcán Chato), adjoins Arenal. This volcano, which resides at a height of 3,740 ft (1,140 m), has been inactive for some 3,500 years and has a crater that’s filled with aqua-blue water. The park has several walking trails and is open from 8 AM to 6 PM. The entrance fee is $6.
The quiet town of La Fortuna is 4 miles (6.4 km) from the Arenal Volcano. It’s 16 miles (26 km) from Ciudad Quesada and 75 miles (120 km) from San José. If you’re driving from San José, it’ll take around 3 hours to get here. The town itself is small, central and warm. Its location provides visitors with easy access to the Arenal area and its amenities make staying here pleasant. There are hotels both within and outside of the town, many of which stipple the countryside at the base of the volcano. La Fortuna hosts good places to eat and buy groceries, and has an assortment of banks, shops and bars.
The activities within this area are endless. Horseback rides can be made through the nearby hills and whitewater rafting can be done on the Peñas Blancas, Toro and Balsa rivers. Each river is different in both intensity and scenery – participants can choose between leisurely safari floats or exciting class IV rapids. A variety of other water sports can be enjoyed on Lake Arenal, including canoeing, fishing and kite surfing. Inland diversions include hiking and waterfall repelling, as well as canopy and hanging bridge tours. The La Fortuna Waterfall, a breathtaking 230 ft (70 m) cascade that drops into a misty pool, is just 3 miles (5 km) south of La Fortuna and makes for an easy day trip. A short hike (or horseback ride) drops visitors into the base of the pool, where they can swim, take photos and enjoy the scenery.
The volcano’s geothermal activity heats dozens of underground water flumes. Local landowners, tapping into this natural source, have created a number of beautiful hot springs. These springs are varied and indulgent (some have waterslides, wet bars and cold pools) and offer visitors a perfect way to end a day in Arenal.
Botanists, whether professional or amateur, should head to the Arenal Botanical Gardens, which are located a few miles outside of town. Here you’ll find some 2,500 species of tropical plants. Many are rare, including several types of bromeliads, orchids, ferns and roses. Butterflies and birds flit through the gardens, pausing to perch in a tree or rest on a flower.
Although somewhat close to the Arenal, the Venado Caves feel like an entirely different planet. Located just 1.9 miles (3 km) outside the town of Venado and a 45-minute drive from La Fortuna, the caves are a spelunking and adventure-seeker’s dream. The 1.5-miles of caves feature stalagmites, stalactites and subterranean streams. As you explore the caves, you may see bats hanging from the ceiling, sightless fish swimming in the streams, and colorless frogs clinging to the rocks.
Nature buffs will enjoy a day trip to the Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge, which is set near the border with Nicaragua. Exploring this vast network of wetlands and the huge Caño Negro Lake provides ample opportunities to spot bids and other tropical creatures.
Yes, there is something for everyone here. The quaint town, beautiful surroundings and ample activities make Arenal one of the cornerstone destinations of Costa Rica.