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A Guide to Arenal Volcano National Park

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A trip to Costa Rica just wouldn’t be complete without a visit to its most iconic volcano. Inspiring school science projects for years, Arenal Volcano stands majestically as a perfectly symmetrical cone puffing steam into the clouds. While the active Arenal Volcano is the most popular attraction here, Arenal Volcano National Park is actually home to two volcanoes. The other, Cerro Chato, is considered extinct and has long been a destination for the adventurous tourist.

Sightseeing around the volcanic wonders becomes all the more interesting as you discover the fascinating ecology of the park. Covered by a mixture of vibrant tropical rainforest and open grasslands, this park is rich in flora and fauna due to its fertile landscape. Plan a day trip or stay for a few days. Either way, this national park and the surrounding town of La Fortuna offer plenty of interesting areas to explore.

ARENAL VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK FACTS

Number of annual visitors 100,000
Size 121 sq. km.
Entrance fee USD 15 per person entrance into the park
Permits No overnight camping permitted in the park
Common animal sightings Monkeys, sloths, raccoons, deer, tapir, coatis, ocelots, jaguar, snakes, iguanas, snakes, dart frogs, and birds such as toucans, hummingbirds, and aracaris
Best season to visit February to April (dry season) as the heavy downpours during other months can leave the terrain saturated, muddy, and difficult to walk.

 Highlights

  • Trek over old lava fields at the base of an active volcano.
  • Swim in the emerald waters of Cerro Chato’s extinct volcanic crater.
  • Take an epic photo standing against El Ceibo, the massive 400 year old Ceiba tree.
  • Sooth your muscles after a long day of hiking by soaking in one of the many nearby hot springs.
  • 850 species of birds call the Arenal Volcano National Park home, along with other wildlife such as white-faced monkeys, jaguar, deer and snakes. 

Lowlights

  • Arenal Volcano is often obscured by clouds. Early morning is your best opportunity for viewing.
  • The park is home to some of Costa Rica’s most poisonous snakes. Take caution walking on the trails and consider hiking with an experienced guide.

ACTIVITIES IN AND NEAR THE PARK

Hiking

Hiking in Arenal Volcano is strenuous but a thrilling
While you cannot hike up the volcano, it is possible to get the best views of Arenal from the lower lava fields.

The most popular activity in the park is to tour Arenal Volcano by hiking the lower lava fields at its base. While it is not possible to hike up this volcano due to ongoing gas emissions, the scene from the lava fields is extraordinary. The hike from the main park entrance is 2 km and easy to navigate. Including the path along the lava fields, a total of 4.8 km of hiking trails are available. Head back from the fields via El Ceibo Trail for that humbling encounter with the massive historical trees. Arenal Volcano tours provide guided hikes detailing enriching history and ecological features of the park.

More challenging is the hike to Cerro Chato’s crater lake, requiring 4–6 hours of walking (round trip) through strenuous and likely muddy terrain. The high point is the spectacular emerald lagoon formed by water collecting in the extinct crater.

Just outside the park, a short, but intense hike to La Fortuna Falls is another popular day trip. The hike requires climbing several sets of stairs, but a 60 meter high waterfall cascading into a delicious turquoise natural pool awaits.

Swimming

La Fotuna waterfall within the Arenal Volcano National Park is breathtaking
The hike to La Fortuna waterfall is short but challenging.
La Fortuna waterfall is a great place to go for a swim
After a tiring hike to La Fortuna, a cool dip in the base of the waterfall awaits.

The aforementioned La Fortuna falls is a unique oasis for swimming in the tropical rainforest and is accessible to most visitors.

Cerro Chato’s crater lake is also known by thrill-seekers as a secret gem for swimming. And thankfully so, since the long strenuous hike is sure to leave any visitor dreaming of a refreshing dip. No doubt about it, this swim is not for the faint of heart. Swimming in the crater of a volcano requires a certain amount of grit.

Hot springs

The hot springs around Arenal Volcano vary in depth and temperature
You can also soak into one of many hot springs heated by the volcano just outside the national park.

A dip in a cool pool may feel exceptionally nice after a long hike in Arenal National Park. But an even better way to refresh and nourish your body is to visit any of the numerous hot springs just outside of the park. Fed by natural springs, many of the hot spring resorts offer a collection of pools with varying temperatures. Baldi Hot Springs and Tabacon are the most popular and offer resort style amenities in the lush rainforest landscape. Paradise doesn’t get much better than this.

Boating & fishing

Lake Arenal is a great place for boating and fishing
Lake Arenal is located conveniently at the base of the volcano.

Lake Arenal lies conveniently at the base of Arenal Volcano and is a popular way for many travelers to pass onward to other destinations like Monteverde. It also serves as an incredible destination for boating, offering opportunities to kayak or take a sunset birding cruise. Fly fishing enthusiasts around the world visit this gorgeous lake in search of the plentiful game fish.

Canopy adventures

Outside the park, there are many enjoyable ways to explore the rainforest canopy. Walk across expansive systems of hanging bridges, ride the sky tram, soar via zip-lines, or dare to bungee jump with the incredible scene of Volcano Arenal in front of you. While these activities can be enjoyed as a part of any itinerary, get the most bang for your buck by booking them as part of an Arenal Volcano National Park tour.

Good to know

  • La Fortuna is a popular option for nearby overnight lodging with a variety of hotels, hostels, B&Bs, and eco-lodges. Though camping is not permitted in the national park, La Fortuna hosts some options for camping and glamping experiences. 
  • Arenal Volcano was once Costa Rica’s most active volcano. From 1968 onward, it has had regular eruptions from its three craters but has been relatively quiet since 2010. On the other hand, Cerro Chato has been inactive for about 3,500 years.
  • Nearby Lake Arenal was enlarged to take advantage of the volcanic activity and winds to provide nearly 12% of Costa Rica’s electric energy supply.

While Costa Rica is a haven for endless outdoor adventuring, a trip to Arenal Volcano National Park will be one of the most unforgettable ventures of your life. It’s not every day that you can wander the paths of such captivating volcanoes surrounded by some of the lushest rainforests in the world. You don’t want to miss this remarkable destination on your Costa Rica journey.

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