There are so many once in a lifetime things to do in Arenal that it should feature on every visitors’ Costa Rica itinerary.
This dramatic, tropical landscape offers fantastic wildlife and flora, adrenaline pumping activities as well as relaxing hot springs and pampering spas. All of which are towered over by Arenal Volcano, one of Costa Rica’s most active volcanoes. It is a must do location, especially if you are visiting Costa Rica with kids.
The nearest town to Arenal in Alajuela Province is La Fortuna de San Carlos (called La Fortuna for short). As Arenal and La Fortuna are only a short 20 minute drive from each other, you will easily be able to visit all the area’s major attractions whichever you choose as your base.
Things to do in Arenal, Costa Rica
Arenal Volcano National Park
The perfectly cone shaped Arenal volcano is 1,657 metres tall and dominates the surrounding landscape. On a clear day it is an impressive sight.
Visitors are not permitted to climb the volcano (understandably!) but are allowed to walk on well defined trails through the lava fields and forests at the base of the volcano.
This is not rugged hiking (the trails are easy to follow) so there is a trail to suit every age and ability. Trails available vary from 1 – 3 hours in length. Maps are available at the rangers station at the entrance.
There are no facilities inside the park so pack plenty of water and snacks. Plus, the area is exposed so pack sunscreen and a hat or a raincoat depending on the season. Closed toe sturdy footwear is a must.
Cost – Entrance fee is $15 USD for adults, $5 USD for children.
Soak in a hot spring
You cannot visit Arenal or La Fortuna without indulging in a rejuvenating soak in a natural hot spring.
Most Arenal hotels – especially the more expensive hotels – have their own, private hot spring for guests to use. But if your accommodation does not have a hot spring, you can buy day passes for neighbouring hotels.
However, a hot spring day pass is NOT CHEAP for families who are travelling on a budget. Be prepared to spend around $150-$200 for a family of four.
If you wish to use a hot spring everyday, it may be more cost effective to spend more on your accommodation in Arenal and La Fortuna.
Arenal hot springs day pass
The hot springs at Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort are one of the most popular in the area. The luxurious springs lie in a idyllic natural and landscaped setting. But as one of the most popular hot springs in Arenal, it gets very busy.
A Tabacon hot springs day pass with lunch costs $85 for adults and $38 USD for children.
The child friendly Baldi Hot Springs offer a children’s area and water slides. With such family friendly facilities it can get busy and noisy!
A day pass without a meal cost $36 for adults and $24 for children.
A quieter option is pretty Ecotermales which limits visitor numbers.
An Ecotermales day pass costs $44 for adults and $26 for children up to 12 years.
Kalumbu Hot Springs
One of Arenal’s newest attractions, Kalambu Hot Springs is a fun waterpark consisting of thermal pools, exhilarating water slides and interactive water play area. Kids will love it!
Costs – at $18 per adult, Kalambu is more budget friendly than a day pass to a hot spring in a hotel.
Free hot springs, La Fortuna/ Arenal
Don’t despair if a soak in Arenal’s hot springs is out of your budget.
Be budget friendly and join the locals at the free ‘Rio Chollin.’ This is a free to access section of the naturally heated Tabacon River; the river that feeds many of the neighbouring hotels’ hot springs.
Rio Chollin is not a calm, sculptured and manicured pool but it is a pretty, natural location. The shallow, flowing, hot river is popular with local families.
There are no changing facilities here so come ready dressed for the water or find the nearest big tree to change behind!
I would also recommend wearing wet shoes; the stones and rocks under foot hurt our feet. But we gave the locals some free entertainment with ouches and grimaces.
The entrance to the free hot springs can be tricky to find. Head to the Tabacon Resort entrance and look for the path on the opposite side of the road to the entrance. Taxi’s will be able to take you to the hot springs or ask a local for directions.
There are two hanging bridges to choose from in this area, Sky Adventures and Mistico Park.
Sky Walk Arenal
Sky Walk Arenal is part of the bigger Sky Adventures. There are 8 hanging bridges on the 2 1/2 mile guided Skywalk, including four suspension bridges. You will pass two pretty waterfalls on route.
The park also offers a ‘canopy tour’ (ziplining course) and an Aerial Tram Ride in an open gondola. Plus you can enjoy kayaking and tree climbing activities.
Cost – $41 for adults and $28 for children.
This park has 16 bridges including 6 suspension bridges a the self guided trail. Mistico Park also offer options for guided birdwatching tours or an after dark wildlife tour.
Costs – $26 for adults, $16 for teenagers aged between 11-18 years. Children under 10 are free to enter.
Ziplining in Arenal / La Fortuna
Most visitors to Costa Rica choose to zipline in Arenal/La Fortuna or in Monteverde.
Before booking, research each of the various options carefully in order to choose the best experience for your family.
Do you want a high or low zipline course? Through the trees of above the canopy – or both? Small or large groups? Would you prefer short or long lines?
The ziplines courses and companies vary widely and each have different age rules. Always read reviews by other families before parting with your money.
We wanted a course that offered ziplines of varying lengths through and over the forest canopy. We looked for a course that got progressively harder in order to give our kids initial confidence. Plus, we needed a company that would accept six year olds. We eventually opted for the highly recommended Selvatura in Monteverde which you can read about here.
Arenal Mundo Aventura
This course has 12 lines covering 3.8 kilometres and will take around 3 1/2 hours to complete.
Arenal Mundo Aventura offers 3 time slots every day, seven days a week.
Costs – $70 for adults and $53 for children. The minimum age is 7 years old.
Sky Adventures is also home to the Arenal Skywalk I covered earlier. There is a sister site in Monteverde.
This course has an elevated starting point which is accessed by a ride on the aerial tramway (like an open gondola). The views are spectacular.
Children aged 5 or 6 years must ride with a guide; so whether a child is accepted on the course is dependent on guide availability. These young children spaces are limited so pre-booking is essential. There are eight time slots on offer every day.
Cost – $84 for adults and $58 for children.
If you have older teens in your group, consider the thrilling Sky Limit Adventure Course.
This thrilling package offers 10 adventurous activities in one course. You will start with the aerial tramway and descend using ziplines but also attempt canyoning, rappelling, high ropes, Tibetan bridges and Tarzan swings on the way down!
Costs – $84 per person and has a minimum age of 15.
Things to do in La Fortuna
If you are visiting Costa Rica with kids, a trip to Proyecto Asis is a ‘must do.’
It is a locally run wildlife rescue and refuge which treats and rehabilitates wounded wild animals and confiscated pets. The refuge aims to release animals back into the wild wherever possible.
The refuge offers pre booked guided tours twice a day, every day except Sunday. The informative tours give visitors a valuable insight into the Costa Rica’s diverse wildlife.
Additional packages offer visitors the chance to help prepare the animals food or create toys for the animals to play with. Plus, the centre also offers overnight accommodation. Check out all the pre bookable options available here.
Cost – daily tours cost $35 USD for adults and children over 9 years of age. Children under 5 are free and children 5-9 years cost $20 USD.
La Fortuna chocolate tour
Agriculture is one of the major industries in this region due to the temperate climate and fertile volcanic soil.
As a result, Arenal and La Fortuna is an ideal location to take a ‘chocolate tour’ of a cocoa plantation.
There are several tours available from La Fortuna but I would highly recommend the Don Olivio Chocolate Tour. It is a lesser known tour that is well worth searching out when you visit La Fortuna.
We searched for a small group tour of a locally owned and run property. The Don Olivio tour met our criteria and surpassed our expectations.
Don Olivio Chocolate Tour
Our family was picked up from our hotel by ‘grandad’ in his jeep. On arrival at the family farm, we were warmly welcomed and introduced to all the members of the family.
Our small group of 7 (we were five of those!) were given a tour of the farm. But our guide, the son of the owner, also spoke about farming in Costa Rica, local flora and fauna as well as Costa Rican history. Our guide patiently answered every question asked about his country and culture and we learned so much more than just how Costa Rican chocolate is made!
We were given pieces of any fruit that was ripe; I think we tasted 13 different fruits on our tour. Plus, we squeezed sugar cane for a rejuvenating drink and saw our first sloth (sleeping of course) in a tree.
The cocoa growing/making process was explained in detail and we witnessed each step of the laborious process. Our children jumped at the chance to pick their own pods. The enormous cocoa pods looked otherworldly, like they belonged in a sci fi movie!
After grinding cocoa beans, the tour culminated in a delicious hot chocolate and chocolate tasting. Like us, you won’t be able to resist buying as much chocolate as you can carry.
We loved every minute of our fascinating and engaging tour and felt we had been given a glimpse into rural family life in Costa Rica. I think this tour is one of the best things to do in Arenal and La Fortuna.
Tours run every day at 8:00 am, 10:00 am, 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm.
Cost – $25 for adults, book directly with Don Olivio for best prices.
Check the current tour times of Don Olivio chocolate tour here.
La Fortuna Waterfall
This plunging waterfall is in an idyllic forest setting straight out of ‘Jurassic Park.’
The 70 metre high waterfall lies in a fee paying nature reserve at the base of the dormant Chato volcano. The base of the waterfall is accessed by descending 500 steps. Remember, if you go down 500 steps you have to ascend 500 steps!
The waterfall is spectacular after heavy rain and swimming is allowed in a designated area near the falls. The steps can get slippery after rain (and after lots of wet feet) so wear sturdy, good gripping shoes. Pack plenty of water and snacks.
Cost – A visit to La Fortuna Waterfall is not cheap for a family but the profits from the reserve fund a charity that supports local people. Access to the waterfall costs $18 USD for adults and $5 USD for children.
Be warned – these caves are not stand up, walk through show caves.
You must like dark, cramped spaces lit only by a head torch. Plus, you must be prepared – and able to – crawl and squeeze through narrow passages.
Venado Caves is a ‘wet’ cave and you will get very wet on your two hour adventurous trip. A change of clothes is essential for after your trip underground. The small group tour provides boots, helmets and headtorches.
The tour is led by an experienced caving guide who will point out and explain the formations you will see in the eight chambers of this cave system. This highly rated activity (a one hour drive from La Fortuna) is suitable for those without mobility problems or a fear of spiders!
Cost – $28 for a two hour tour with equipment. Your ticket also includes entry into the on site swimming pool.
La Fortuna town
It is worth allocating a couple of hours to wander around the shops and cafes of La Fortuna.
Visit the centrally located Church (Iglesia de La Fortuna de San Carlos) with its unusual image of a risen Christ rather than the traditional crucified Christ. We visited La Fortuna shortly after Christmas and the church still had its nativity display up. It was biggest nativity I have ever seen!
Watch the world go by from the pretty central gardens and fountain which is a popular rendez-vous point. Grab one of La Fortuna’s famous fruit smoothies.
Just about every cafe and restaurant in La Fortuna serves fruit smoothies and they are worthy of their reputation. I recommend a take away smoothie from Capricho.
Where to stay – Arenal hotels
If you prefer resort style accommodation in a rural setting with a hot spring on site, look for hotels in Arenal. You will have to visit La Fortuna for off site restaurants and supermarkets.
There is accommodation for every budget in Arenal from Arenal Backpackers Resort to the budget busting Tabacon, Baldi Hot Springs or Nayara tented camp. Be prepared to pay over £300 per night at one of these top hotels.
Affordable family hotels in Arenal
For families travelling on a budget, there are several fantastic options to choose from. Many include breakfast (we are all for inclusive breakfasts at Map Made Memories!), separate bedrooms and a swimming pool.
For something truly special, check out the stunning and highly rated Finca Agroforestal Rainforest.
This rural lodge is a must for nature lovers. Spectacular views are matched by excellent service and fantastic wildlife spotting opportunities. I think this place is a must stay if you are visiting Costa Rica with kids.
Prices are budget friendly from £70 for a family of four – and that includes a filling breakfast.
For an excellent value for money stay, check out the highly rated Selvita Lodge.
Families have their own bungalow with multiple bedrooms and a private terrace overlooking pretty gardens. Plus, the bungalows are fitted with a very useful fridge.
Prices start from just £65 for four including breakfast.
Families rave about Hotel Roca Negra del Arenal. Set in gorgeous gardens, Roca Negra has a swimming pool and a hot tub and is within walking distance of local restaurants.
Prices for a family of four start from £75 a night.
Find your perfect hotel in Arenal here.
Where to stay in La Fortuna
If you prefer to stay near a transport hub or in a town with all its associated facilities, choose a hotel in La Fortuna.
We chose to stay in La Fortuna as we did not have our own transport. Plus, we self catered so needed to stay near supermarkets and restaurants.
Highly rated hotels in La Fortuna include the budget friendly Arenal Xilopalo, a short walk from the town centre.
The gorgeous Hotel Secreto La Fortuna has a swimming pool, free WiFi and an enviable view of Arenal Volcano.
Prices start from £85 for a family of four including breakfast.
Disclaimer – We did not stay at these properties. I have chosen them based on their affordable price, facilities and excellent reviews from families. The basic, budget hotel we stayed at is no longer open and although the owners were lovely, I would not have recommended it anyway!
Wondering where to stay during the rest of your Costa Rica itinerary? Check out my list of the best places to stay in Costa Rica here.
Getting to and from Arenal / La Fortuna
The public bus station in La Fortuna offers connections around the local area and further afield. There is one direct bus to San Jose.
However, buses are infrequent so before booking, compare prices with a shared shuttle/transfer which are advertised around town and in local hostels. Paying a little extra may cut your journey time by hours.
San Jose is approximately four hours by bus from La Fortuna and Monteverde is around 2 1/2 hours. If you are prone to travel sickness, be prepared for your bus journey.
Bus – boat – bus
The scenic journey between Arenal and Monteverde can be shortened by crossing Lake Arenal on foot passenger boats. On a fine day, the views on this route are spectacular.
This bus/boat/bus route is aimed at tourists but don’t let this put you off booking this route. We did not experience jostling hordes of people and did not feel like herded sheep.
Numbered buses, private transfers and shared minibuses promptly depart La Fortuna/Arenal (or Monteverde) and drive to the shores of Lake Arenal. Tourists are dropped on the lake side, walk down an earthen path and board the boats via walkways. Disembarking passengers pick up your vacated buses. When you reach the other side of Lake Arenal, you find the bus with the number on your ticket, and your new driver, and away you go to your destination.
Do not expect a modern passenger terminal at Lake Arenal with catering and toilets! There are no facilities so buy everything you need before you board your departure bus.
The boats have a roof but open sides. The bench seating is basic but comfortable and there is adequate seating. No one stood on our boat and it did not feel overcrowded. The crossing was calm and pleasant on our trip with a much needed cooling breeze.
Due to the connections and schedule, the buses and boat will wait for you if you are late.
I highly recommend this trip; the scenery was stunning.
However, we did make good use of our sick bags on the bus! I would advise families to choose a small group bus or a private transfer. It will be easier for the bus to stop if you feel sick or to jump out for photographs of the incredible landscape.
I cannot recommend this diverse, friendly and beautiful area enough! There are so many fantastic things to do in Arenal and La Fortuna that, like us, you will leave planning to return.