Lake Arenal: A Man-Made Wonder


Picture yourself sitting on horseback, surrounded by lush green rolling hills as you gaze out across a sweeping expanse of languid blue water. In the near distance, you can see kayakers plying the water framed against the backdrop of a majestic volcano. Sounds enchanting, right? This adventure is waiting for you at Lake Arenal.

Set in Costa Rica’s northern highlands, Lake Arenal’s 85-square kilometer expanse makes it Costa Rica’s largest lake. Entirely man-made, Lake Arenal’s hydroelectric power generation was a driving force enabling Costa Rica’s green energy strategy. Its depth of between 30 and 60 meters is highly seasonal but its depths play host to two species of fish, the rainbow bass and the machaca, while 120 mammals including enigmatic jaguar and tapir and around 300 species of bird rely on its constant supply of water. From November through to April, Lake Arenal’s strong, dependable winds ushers in the annual migration of kitesurfers and windsurfers who ply its western fringes. Wakeboarders, kayakers and paddle boarders have similarly embraced Lake Arenal’s eastern area adjacent to the earthen dam.

Lake Arenal at a Glance

Lake Arenal in Costa Rica sprawls at the foot of the Arenal Volcano in its namesake Arenal Volcano National ParkLa Fortuna; Costa Rica’s rugged northern highlands region. Lake Arenal was created by the construction of a massive earthen dam on the valley’s eastern end. It took from 1972 through to 1976 for the lake to fill with water. By 1979 construction of the hydroelectric dam was complete and Lake Arenal was now three times its original size.

During the construction, the existing towns of Arenal and Tondadora, which once sat beneath the lake’s current surface, were relocated to the lake’s northeastern side. The ghostly old towns now lie abandoned at the bottom of the lake.

The lake is shallower on its far western end but plunges down to 180 feet deep at its eastern end by the volcano. As the water level of the lake fluctuates during the year, a host of islands appear and disappear, making navigation interesting during those low water level periods.

Today, Lake Arenal is a magnet for all forms of water sports, from wind and kite surfing to kayaking and boating through to sports fishing. Its lush green surrounding area is ideal for hiking, mountain biking, horse riding, bird watching and wildlife photography.

Lake Arenal spans in breadth over the landscape of Arenal Volcano NP
The view of Lake Arenal.

Things To Do At Lake Arenal

The breadth of activities on offer is what makes Lake Arenal one of the most popular regions in Costa Rica for visitors. Activities in Lake Arenal include classical activities such as windsurfing, kitesurfing, boat tours, and kayaking. If you are in search of year-round activities, Lake Arenal is for you! It is widely considered to be one of the windsurfing destinations in the world, thanks to its eternally dependable winds.

1. Take a Boatride

A boatride in the lake provides picturesque view of the famed Arenal Volcano and the Tilaran Volcanic Mountains. Taking a boatride is a great way to explore the lake and spend some serene moments in its calm waters. For all the romantics out there, book a sundown dinner cruise on the lake for views of a Lake Arenal sunset that will feature high on your list of unforgettable memories of your Costa Rica holiday. 

2. Go Fishing

Fishing is another popular drawcard for the lake. The rainbow bass is a large fighting fish known to the lake’s locals as “guapote.” Their succulent white meat makes for excellent eating. These feisty members of the cichlid family combine sharp teeth with an aggressive nature making catching them a real challenge for sport fishing aficionados. The best time to fish for rainbow bass is around sunrise or sunset.

3. Explore Arenal Volcano National Park

The Arenal Volcano National Park covers an imposing 29,692-acre (12,016-ha) set within the encompassing Arenal Conservation Area, which was established to protect a network of 16 reserves between the Tilarán and Guanacaste mountain ranges. This area contains a great wealth of geologic and biological complexity, as evidenced by the active and incredible Arenal Volcano. Near Arenal, you can go rafting down the Balsa, Toro and Peñas Blancas rivers, or combine your rafting hit with a tour combining rappelling down a waterfall or zip lining.

Lake Arenal is set within the Arenal Conservancy Area.
Arenal Volcano is set within the Arenal Conservancy Area.

4. See Costa Rica's Wildlife

If you want to see Lake Arenal’s wildlife up close and personal, there is no better way than exploring the rainforest on horseback. If your lust for wildlife sightings still isn’t satiated after that, take a natural history walk in the Arenal Volcano National Park. Here, your guide will explain how this majestic lush green rainforest ecosystem works as you enjoy a bird’s eye view from its series of hanging bridges.

5. Take an ATV Tour

Still with the adventure theme take in Arenal’s great outdoors with an ATV tour of the many trails that crisscrosses the landscape outside of La Fortuna and the Arenal River surrounds. ATV tours typically last three hours and allow you to see Arenal’s natural beauty first hand.

6. Traverse the Jungle on a Canopy Tour

Journey through the heart of a Tropical Rain Forest and try out the Vista Arenal Canopy Tour. Travel through the treeline on amazing cables that are amazingly fast with cable lengths spanning between 200 and 845 meters.

7. Experience Outdoor Adventures

The area surrounding the lake has excellent hiking, mountain biking, bird watching, and horseback riding opportunities. Hiking the Mirador El Silencio 1968 lava hiking trail in the Arenal Volcano National Park is a great outdoor adventure, afterwards revive your spirits with a long, languid bath in the nearby hot springs.

The area surrounding Lake Arenal is lush with greenery.
Lake Arenal is surrounded by lush rainforest of the Arenal Volcano National Park that provides opportunities for several activities to do around the park.

8. Go Bungee Jumping

Adrenaline seekers are catered to around Lake Arenal as well. If adrenaline is your thing, go bungee jumping with Arenal Bungee based in La Fortuna who offers a range of bungee experiences from a 40-metre jump to night jumps, through to their mighty Rocket Launcher ride, which accelerates patrons from 0 to 100 kilometres per hour in three seconds!

9. Visit La Fortuna Waterfall

For a sedate change of pace, just outside La Fortuna is the La Fortuna Waterfall, rightly considered to be one of the best waterfalls in Costa Rica. The waterfall features a spectacular drop of around 75 meters. Visitors to the waterfall can swim in the natural pool located further below the waterfall. 

Base of La Fortuna Waterfall
You can reach the waterfall through a short hike.

With the country’s largest lake, access to lush rainforest, a diverse range of bird and animal life, superb waterfalls, a seriously cool volcano and more adrenaline packed options than you could ever wish for, if you are wondering what to do around Lake Arenal, this Costa Rican adventure capital will not fail to delight you.

How To Get To Lake Arenal

La Fortuna and Neuvo Arenal are the two major towns servicing Lake Arenal. Of the two, La Fortuna is the most popular city for visitors to the Arenal Volcanic region. Route 142 is a two-lane paved highway, which runs almost all two-thirds of the way around Lake Arenal. If you opt to drive yourself in a rental car, it is an easy drive to the lake from either town; however, take your time, as the road is hilly and subject to high winds. In the wet season, a 4WD is a smart option. Taxi services, private car and drivers and daily shuttles are available from all hotels to the lake.

Lake Arenal may not be the easiest place to get to in Costa Rica but it surely repays your emotional investment. Divine views the sheer diversity of the local wildlife you encounter daily and a host of adventurous activities will make you question why you didn't make a beeline for the region the moment you landed in Costa Rica!

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  • Ellen Zoe Golden
    Ellen Zoe Golden
    Travel Expert in Costa Rica
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    Alberto Molina
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    Randall Jiménez Moreno
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