It’s worth a quick visit to tour the town’s Catholic Church, a contemporary church designed by famous Costa Rican artist Teodorico Quirós. It features a soaring concrete front steeple and clock tower.

Experiencing the Volcano ★★★

The Arenal Volcano has been quiet since December 2010, with no loud eruptions or pyroclastic blasts. Still, the actual volcano remains a stunning sight, and the natural park and surrounding trails and activities make this a fabulous destination. That said, Arenal is surrounded by cloud forests and rainforests, and the volcano’s cone is often socked in by clouds and fog. Many people come to Arenal and never see the exposed cone. Note: Although it’s counterintuitive, the rainy season is often a better time to see the exposed cone of Arenal Volcano. For some reason, during the dry season the volcano can often be shrouded for days at a time. The bottom line is that catching a glimpse of the volcano’s cone is never a sure thing.

Despite its current state of dormancy, climbing Arenal Volcano remains illegal. Over the years, many daredevil climbers have lost their lives, and others have been severely injured. This is still a very “alive” volcano, with steam vents and a molten core.

Arenal National Park ★★ (tel. 2461-8499; daily 8am–3pm; $15/person) constitutes an area of more than 2,880 hectares (7,114 acres), which includes the viewing and parking areas closest to the volcano. The trails through forest and over old lava flows inside the park are gorgeous and fun. (Be careful climbing on those volcanic boulders, though.)

The principal trail inside the park, Sendero Coladas (Lava Flow Trail) ★★, is just under 2km (1.25 miles) long and passes through secondary forest and open savanna. At the end of the trail, a short natural stairway takes you to a broad, open lava field left in the wake of a massive 1992 eruption. Scrambling over the cooled lava is a real treat, but be careful—the rocks can be sharp in places. Many spots throughout the park offer great views of the volcano, but the closest view can be found at El Mirador (The Lookout) ★. From the parking lot near the trail head for the Lava Flow Trail, you have the option of hiking or driving the 1km (.6 mile) to El Mirador.

Taking a Soothing Soak in hot springs

Tabacón Thermal Resort and Spa ★★★ (tel. 2479-2099;  daily 10am–10pm) is the most luxurious, extensive, and expensive spot in the area to soak in hot springs. A series of variously sized pools, fed by natural springs, are spread among sumptuous gardens. One of the stronger streams flows over a sculpted waterfall, with a rock ledge underneath that provides a perfect place to sit and receive a water massage (see below). The pools and springs closest to the volcano are the hottest. The resort also has an excellent spa, offering professional massages, mud masks, and other treatments, as well as yoga classes (appointments required). Most of the treatments are conducted in pretty, open-air gazebos. The spa here also has several sweat lodges, based on a Native American traditional design. A full-service restaurant, garden grill, and several bars round out the offerings here.

Admission is $89 for adults and $39 for children 11 and under, including lunch or dinner. A range of packages, including multiple meals, are available. The pools are busiest between 2 and 6pm. After 6pm, adults can enter for $70 and children for $25, including dinner. Management enforces a policy of limiting visitors, so reservations are recommended.

Tabacon Hot Springs

Baldi Hot Springs Hotel Resort & Spa (tel. 2479-2190; $40 for adults and $27 for children) are the first hot springs you’ll come to as you drive from La Fortuna toward Tabacón. This place has grown substantially over the years, with many different pools, slides, and bars and restaurants spread around the expansive grounds. Baldi has more of a party vibe than other spots, with loud music blaring at some of the swim-up bars.

Just across the street from Baldi Hot Springs is the entrance of Eco Termales ★★★ (tel. 2479-8787; $40 adults, $30 children). Smaller and more intimate than Tabacón, this series of pools amid dense forest and gardens is almost as picturesque and luxurious, though it has far fewer pools, lacks a view of the volcano, and offers much less extensive spa services. Eco Termales runs two time periods daily—10am to 4pm and 5pm to 10pm—and reservations are highly recommended, because admissions are limited to make sure the pools don’t get crowded.

In the same general vicinity are Kalambu Hot Springs (tel. 2479-0170; C10,000 per person), sort of a hot springs waterpark with slides and games; Paradise Hot Springs (tel. 2479-1380; $28 for adults and $16 for children), with a few pools and massage facilities; and The Royal Corin Thermal Water Spa & Resort ((tel) 2479-2201; $49 adults and $35 children), with a small water circuit with waterfalls and pools of various temperatures.

Termales Los Laureles (tel. 4020-1600) is located between Baldi and Eco Termales and Tabacón. This spot has the area’s most local feel and is by far the most economical, charging just C6,000 for adults.

You can also enjoy the hot springs, pools, and facilities at the Springs Resort & Spa ★★. In addition to the main pools by the hotel, it also has a few more at a beautiful riverfront area about 1km away. The Springs is open to day visitors from 8:30am to 10pm, and admission is $79 per person for a 2-day pass. 

Finally, if you like your water hot, fast, and free, head to Río Chollín, a rushing river of hot water open to the public right next to Tabacón. Across from the main entrance to Tabacón, where you can park your car in its roadside spaces, walk downhill through some yellow barriers and you’ll find the river.


Nearby Attractions

Waterfall: Leading the list of side attractions in the area is the impressive Río Fortuna Waterfall ★★ (tel. 2479-8338; daily 7am–5pm; $18 entrance), about 5.5km (3 1/2 miles) outside of town in a dense jungle setting. A sign in town points the way to the road out to the falls. You can drive or hike to just within viewing distance. It’s another 15- to 20-minute hike down a steep and often muddy path to the pool formed by the waterfall. The hike back up will take slightly longer. You can swim, but stay away from the turbulent water at the base of the falls—several people have drowned here. Instead, check out and enjoy the calm pool just around the bend, or join the locals at the popular swimming hole under the bridge on the paved road, just after the turnoff for the road up to the falls.

It’s also possible to reach the falls by horseback. Most tour operators in town, as well as the waterfall folks themselves, offer this option for around $50. The tour generally lasts around 3 to 4 hours.

Butterfly Garden: In El Castillo in the southeast side of the lake, the Butterfly Conservatory★★ (tel. 2479-1149; daily 108am–4pm; $15 adults, $11 students) has six different domed enclosures where a vast array of local butterfly species from various ecosystems are bred and displayed. A botanical garden, a frog sanctuary, and an insect museum round out the attractions.

Cooking Classes: Tropical Cooking Class ★ (tel. 2479-1569; $75/person; advance reservations required), offered by the Lava Lounge, is a 2.5-hour class on Costa Rican cuisine. It’s held at a beautiful lookout and open-air kitchen near the Río Fortuna waterfall. They can also set up tours to area farms.

Especially for Kids

Located a couple of miles outside La Fortuna, the Ecocentro Danaus ★ (tel. 8588-9314; daily 8am–4pm; tours $30–$58) is a private biological reserve and sustainable tourism project, which offers educational and engaging tours. Among the attractions here are a butterfly garden and reproduction center, botanical and medicinal plant gardens, and a small museum honoring the local Maleku indigenous culture. Night tours ($45) are offered by reservation. Children 5 to 10 get a 50% discount, and children 4 and under are free.

Those looking for close and intimate animal encounters might want to head to Proyecto Asis ★ (tel. 4000-1533), a wildlife rescue center and volunteer project. The staff offers two types of daily tours twice daily (once in the morning and once in the afternoon). The standard tour is informative and comprehensive and takes you through the facility and introduces you to their charges and mission. This tour lasts 1 1/2 hours and costs $35 for adult and $20 for children 4 through 9. However, if you sign up for the “volunteering” addition, you get to stay on for another 2 hours and help around the center, nursing injured animals or cleaning cages. This option costs $54 for adults and $31 for children 4 through 9. Longer-term volunteer residencies and language classes are also available. Proyecto Asis is located about 30 to 40 minutes outside La Fortuna on the way to Ciudad Quesada.

Along the banks of the Arenal River, Club Río Adventure Center ★★ (tel. 954/727-8333 in the U.S., or 2401-3313 in Costa Rica; Multi-Adventure pass $119 adults, $99 for kids 12 and under) is a wonderful playground for parents and kids alike. You can go tubing on the river, ride a horse through the forest trails, visit the midsize zoo, and take a shot at the three-story climbing wall. There’s also a series of naturally fed hot springs sculpted alongside the river, as well as a restaurant. It’s part of the Springs Resort & Spa, but you don’t have to stay at the resort to enjoy the activities and facilities here. The pass gets you access to the facilities and two of the above-mentioned adventure activities, as well as a full lunch and free run of all the pools and waterslides at the resort itself. A day-pass with no tours can be purchased for $79.

Finally, the unique Kalambu Hot Springs & Water Park ★ (see above). While most of the other hot springs in the area might have a waterslide or two, this place is a true water park, with several large waterslides and a massive and very entertaining children’s play area and pools. The latter includes a giant bucket that is constantly filled and then dumped on everyone below. There are also a few quieter pool and hot spring areas.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.