Arenal is one of Costa Rica’s most popular tourist destinations. Home to stunning hikes, geothermal springs, a gorgeous lake with picturesque sunsets, caves to explore, and the popular La Fortuna waterfall, this region has seen a massive influx of visitors in recent years.
Since this region is so popular, prices tend to be higher. Yet despite the crowds (and prices), I am still a big fan of the area. Some of the best hiking in the country is here and I could spend hours upon hours relaxing at the waterfall.
Most visitors stay in nearby La Fortuna as accommodation is cheaper and it’s just a ten-minute drive away. It’s the best place to base yourself for your visit.
To help you make the most of your trip, this travel guide to Arenal will give you the low down on everything you need to know to plan your visit and save money in the process!
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Arenal
1. Explore Arenal Volcano National Park
2. Enjoy the hot springs
3. Visit Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge
4. Go bird watching
5. Relax at La Fortuna Waterfall
Other Things to See and Do in Arenal
1. Do a canopy tour
You can get an incredible bird’s eye view of the jungle via hanging suspension bridges. While in the canopy, you can really get a sense of all the biodiversity here. It’s a great way to spot wildlife too. Prices begin around 16,000 CRC, but guided tours (with the entry fee included) start from 23,400 CRC. If you’d rather do a zip-lining canopy tour, expect to pay 51,000 CRC.
2. Go ATV riding
Explore Arenal through the back roads and hidden trails around the volcano that are only accessible via an ATV. Trips usually last about three hours and allow you to see a few waterfalls along the way. You’ll get to stop to swim and have a snack as well. Prices start around 65,000 CRC. Original Arenal ATV is the best company to go with.
3. Float down the Peñas Blancas River
Take a leisurely rafting safari down the Peñas Blancas River and deep into the jungle, where you’ll have the opportunity to observe monkeys, crocodiles, sloths, tortoises, and more. The trip is super leisurely and takes half a day, with prices starting from about 37,000 CRC. Many companies also pair this with a local farm tour or cooking classes.
4. Go caving
The Venado Cave, which formed over 15 million years ago, is one of the most extensive cave systems in the country, stretching for nearly 2,000 meters. Located just one hour from La Fortuna, here you can crawl through tight spaces and shimmy through narrow rooms showcasing interesting rock formations and even fossils. Entry is 17,300 CRC and guided tours start from 52,500 CRC. Expect to spend around 2-3 hours exploring.
5. Attend Fiestas del la Fortuna
This annual festival takes place in the town of La Fortuna every February and includes two full weeks of craft fairs, horse shows, live music, carnival rides, and lots of greasy local carnival food. It’s super fun and there’s a lot to see and do. Just make sure to book your accommodation in advance as things fill up fast!
6. Go canyoning
If you don’t mind heights and want to get your blood pumping, go canyoning (rappelling). You can scale down huge 200-foot waterfalls and cliffs deep in the jungle. Tours last 4-5 hours and cost around 60,000 CRC. You need to be in good physical condition and be willing to get wet and dirty too. Desafio Adventure Company is the most popular company to go with.
For more information on specific destinations in the country, check out these other guides:
Arenal Travel Costs
The majority of accommodations around Arenal are in La Fortuna, which is a 10-minute drive from Arenal. It’s the best place to base yourself during your visit.
Hostel prices – During peak season, a bed in a 6-8-bed dorm costs 8,000-11,500 CRC per night. Off-season, prices tend to be between 5,500-9,000 CRC. Free Wi-Fi is standard but only some hostels have self-catering facilities. Private rooms start at 28,000 CRC per night in peak season. In the off-season, prices are closer 23,000 CRC.
If you’re camping, a basic tent site without electricity starts at 3,700 CRC per person at Essence Arenal.
Budget hotel prices – Budget two- and three-star hotels with a private bathroom start at 49,300 CRC in peak season. In the off-season, budget rooms start from 43,200 CRC.
There are lots of Airbnb options around Arenal. A private room costs about 40,000 CRC per night while an entire home/apartment averages closer to 55,000 CRC per night.
Average cost of food – Costa Rican cuisine is centered around rice and beans, which are usually eaten for every meal. Potatoes, plantain, pork, and beef are also popular. Gallo pinto (rice and bean stir-fry) is the national dish. You’ll find it mixed with eggs for breakfast. Other popular meals include fried plantain and chicken and rice.
You can eat cheaply here if you stick to street stalls selling foods like pupusas (corn cakes), corn on the cob, and pinchos (meat on a stick) which usually cost around 2,000 CRC. Traditional meals like casado (rice, beans, veggies, and meat) cost around 3,500 CRC while fast food (burgers, empanadas, etc.) costs between 2,000-4,000 CRC.
A three-course meal of traditional cuisine costs around 12,500 CRC. There’s a lot of restaurants that cater to foreign tourists, many of which cost double the price of smaller “local” restaurants.
Beer costs 2,500 CRC while a latte/cappuccino is 1,700 CRC. Bottled water is 925 CRC.
If you cook for yourself, expect to pay at least 21,000 CRC on groceries per week. This covers basic staples like rice, beans, veggies, fruit, and some meat.
Backpacking Arenal Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Arenal, expect to spend 31,000 CRC per day. This budget covers a hostel dorm, public buses, cooking your own meals, some street food, and free activities (like the free hot springs and hiking). If you plan on drinking, add 2,500-5,000 CRC more per day.
A mid-range budget of about 73,000 CRC covers staying in a private hostel room or Airbnb, eating out for all your meals at cheap sodas, doing some paid tours, taking the occasional taxi to get around, and having a couple of drinks at the bar.
On a “luxury” budget of around 155,000 CRC or more per day, you can stay in a hotel, take private guided tours, eat anywhere you want, drink as much as you’d like, and take private taxis everywhere or rent a vehicle. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!
If you visit during the low season, you’ll can cut these expenses significantly.
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in CRC.
Arenal Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
It’s easy to spend a lot of money in Arenal. As one of the most visited areas in Costa Rica, prices for tours and accommodation tend to be more expensive. And tours and hot spring visits can really add up if you’re not careful! Here are some suggested ways to save money in Arenal:
- Travel off-season – April-November is considered the rainy season, and as a result, prices are a lot cheaper (and it’s a lot less crowded). if you’re on a budget, consider visiting then.
- Avoid tour activities – There are a lot of great (but expensive) activities and tours in the area. Skip them, and do the free activities such as hiking, seeing the La Fortuna waterfall, and visiting the free hot springs.
- Eat at the sodas – “Sodas” are small family run restaurants which specialize in inexpensive local meals, usually costing around 3,500 CRC. These hole-in-the-wall restaurants offer the best value in the country.
- Camp – Most of the resorts and hostels in many places let you camp on their property for a small fee. This is the best way to keep your accommodation costs down.
- Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier can help you save money (and thousands of plastic bottles) by purifying the tap water for you. My preferred bottle is LifeStraw.
- Bundle your tours – If you are going to splurge on tours and excursions, see if you can get a discount by bundling activities. Some companies offer discounts if you do more than one excursion.
Where to Stay in Arenal
Arenal has no shortage of hostels and budget accommodations. Here are some of my suggested places to stay in the area:
How to Get Around Arenal
Bus – There is a bus that travels daily between La Fortuna and the national park. It leaves twice daily from La Fortuna at 8am and 2pm, though they are rarely on time. Tickets cost 3,000 CRC.
There’s also the more reliable Arenal Shuttle that can take you to many of Arenal’s key attractions. It costs 9,200 CRC for unlimited travel throughout your entire stay. Whether you’re staying for one day or five, the price remains the same.
Car Rental – You can rent a carl for as little as 24,500 CRC per day. The roads aren’t that great (there are lots of potholes) but they are driveable. Just drive cautiously and make sure you have insurance.
Bicycle – Many of the hotels and hostels around Arenal offer bicycle rentals. You can often find rentals for around 12,000 CRC per day.
Taxi – There’s a lot of taxis here and they are one of the best ways to get around — but they aren’t cheap. A taxi from La Fortuna to Arenal Volcano National Park is around 15,500 CRC. It’s 10,000 CRC to the hot springs. You can arrange a pick-up time to take you back to town too.
When to Go to Arenal
The dry season takes place from mid-December to April. This is peak season and tourism is at its highest. There’s almost non-stop sunshine and temperatures are always pleasant. If you want really hot weather, visit between February and April. The average highs then are 97°F (36°C).
The rainy season is from May to November. This is when it’s cheapest to visit the area. It doesn’t rain all the time and the days are still usually pretty sunny. However, if you plan to do a lot of hiking and outdoor adventures, the rainfall may interrupt your plans. The rain tends to lighten during June and July.
The shoulder season around from September to the end of October is an excellent time to come for cooler temperatures and consistently nice weather. Plus, you’ll avoid the crowds of travelers!
How to Stay Safe in Arenal
While Costa Rica is one of the safest countries for traveling and backpacking in Central America, you still need to exercise caution.
Petty theft (including bag snatching) is one of the most common types of crime here. There are some common scams around too, including a taxi cab scam where a driver tells you the meter is broken once the ride has already begun. Always make sure the meter is running before you take a taxi.
If you go out for the night, only bring the money and ID you need. Leave your wallet at home just to be safe.
When hiking, make sure you have a map and that you stay on the trails. Also, always check the weather before you leave so you can prepare accordingly.
If you rent a car, don’t leave any valuables in it overnight as break ins can occur. Make sure you have car insurance as well as the roads here aren’t great.
Regarding the volcano, you don’t have to worry too much about it erupting and ruining your trip. Although it’s active, scientists have no current warnings issued about any dangers.
If you experience an emergency, dial 911.
Worried about other travel scams? Read about these 14 major travel scams to avoid.
For more in-depth coverage of how to stay safe in Costa Rica, check out this post we wrote that answers some frequently asked questions and concerns.
Remember: always trust your gut instinct. Avoid isolated areas at night, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID.
And be sure to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
Arenal Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel. They consistently have the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the companies I use the most and are always the starting point in my search for travel deals.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative. They have a wide variety of unique accoomodations and they have the biggest inventory for for home and apartment rentals.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do group tours, go with Intrepid. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get exclusive discounts with them too!
- Grassroots Volunteering – For volunteering, Grassroots Volunteering compiles a list of good local volunteer organizations that keep the money within the community.
- Get Your Guide – Get Your Guide is a huge online marketplace for tours and excursions. They have tons of tour options available in cities all around the world, including everything from cooking classes, walking tours, street art lessons, and more!
- SafetyWing – Safety Wing offers convenient and affordable plans tailored to digital nomads and long-term travelers. They have cheap monthly plans, great customer service, and an easy-to-use claims process that makes it perfect for those on the road.
Arenal Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Arenal Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate: Exotic and Unseen Costa Rica, by Jack Ewing
This book gives a fascinating overview of how animals, plants, and people interact with one another in Costa Rica’s rainforests. It’s written by Jack Ewing, a naturalist and born storyteller. Here, he shares a treasure trove of observations and stories gathered for more than 30 years of living in the country. Chances are, you’re coming to Costa Rica to discover some of the country’s amazing ecosystems. This book will get you excited about it.
In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer’s Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road, by Allan Weisbecker
In 1996, Allan Weisbecker sold all his worldly possessions and set out in search of his long-time surfing friend, Patrick, who went missing somewhere in Central America. Traveling with only his dog, his surfboards, and his truck, Allan’s journey from Mexico to Costa Rica is a memorable one, filled with scarier moments (like evading bandits) and warmer ones (like befriending the locals). It’s really the tale of ultimate friendship.
Happier Than a Billionaire: Quitting My Job, Moving to Costa Rica, and Living the Zero Hour Work Week, by Nadine Hays Pisani
It’s the classic travel tale — overworked professional realizes that the 9-5 to grind isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and sets out to seek greener pastures. This is a nice, light read for when you’re just flaking out on the beach or by the pool. But along the way you’ll learn why Costa Rica is one of the happiest places on earth.
Arenal Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on Costa Rica travel and continue planning your trip: