For travelers in search of a little adrenaline, the Arenal region of Costa Rica serves up adventure any way you like it.
The area around the Arenal volcano in Costa Rica, about 80 miles north of San Jose in the center of the narrow country, is known as the adventure capital of Costa Rica. With a diverse landscape that features erupting volcanoes, rainforests full of life, and cascading waterfalls, it’s a land perfect for active explorers. Here are the top adventure activities in the area.
Just over 10 miles west of the small tourist town of La Fortuna, Arenal Volcano National Park is home to the big daddy of Costa Rican volcanoes. Those papier mâché volcanoes you made in 4th
grade, with their perfectly formed cones, were probably modeled on Arenal. It’s everything you expect a volcano to be – lush and green on the bottom, gently sloping up its black rock sides to a pointed top with a near constant wisp of smoke wafting from its mouth.
Arenal isn’t the only volcano in the area, but it is the most impressive. It’s the youngest and most active. It’s been erupting daily since 1968.
On clear days (which are never guaranteed in the rainy season from May to November) you can see it from miles around and its fiery lava lights up the night sky like a fireworks show. Guides will lead hikes into the rainforest around the base of the volcano, though you can also drive yourself to the observation deck for a day or night viewing.
Rainforests and Wildlife Park Visits
The National Park surrounding Arenal includes a cloud forest and several thousand acres of rainforest filled with greenery, tropical plants, elusive colorful birds and butterflies, chattering monkeys, and dangerous reptiles and amphibians like crocodiles and poisonous tree frogs. You could hike through through these lush jungles with a guide, but there are other ways to see the forest.
The hanging bridges
, a collection of walkways elevated above the canopy, provide a bird’s eye view of the forest. The walk is not strenuous (perhaps except for those afraid of heights) and can be done during the day or evening. An aerial SkyTram
also elevates passengers to an observation deck in the rainforest canopy. Once there, you can peer out over the jungle or dine with a view of the volcano at the restaurant. To get back down, return on the SkyTram, take a shuttle, or for a quick return to ground level, zoom down the zipline.
For wildlife sightings closer to earth, visit the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge
. The wetlands area, about an hour and a half from Arenal near the border with Nicaragua, resembles the Everglades of Florida with a few more dangerous residents. In addition to turtles, three-toed sloths, iguanas, several kinds of monkeys and thousands of species of birds, you may also see crocodiles and freshwater sharks.
You’ll find no shortage of companies that offer ziplining tours through the jungle canopy. Prices range from $30-$60 per person depending on the number of cables and other extras offered with the package. Canopy Los Cañones operates on the property of Hotel Los Lagos and is a mid-priced option for a zipline experience that includes transportation from your hotel, 15 cables, and unlimited time in the hotel’s hot spring pools post-activity.
Each cable line is different and presents a new challenge. On some, you’ll coast slowly along a nearly flat line from platform to platform as you look for glimpses of toucans and howler monkeys. Other lines are much more steep and fast, making for an exhilarating pass over the blurry green landscape.
While the rainforest is dotted with hidden waterfalls, you may have a hard time stumbling upon one on your own. Instead head to La Fortuna waterfall. It may be the area’s most famous falls, but it can still be nearly empty of other people, especially in off season. You can hike there on your own by following the signs and paying a small entrance fee, or book a trip with any one of the tour operators offering trips from La Fortuna town.
The trek down from the road to the falls is strenuous, so save your strength by riding there on horseback instead of hiking. Anywhere Costa Rica
matches riders to the appropriate horse, and then leads them on an hour-long ride to the falls, where they dismount and head down to the pools to swim before heading back.
If swimming in the runoff of a waterfall and watching it rain down from above isn’t enough, try Canyoning. Pure Trek Canyoning Adventures leads outings that combine hiking and rappelling with waterfalls – basically you rappel down the side of a cliff through the waterfall – in an activity called canyoning.
The PureTrek adventure will have you rappel down one rock wall and four waterfalls over the course of four hours. You’ll also hike through the rainforest to and from the trails, and enjoy a “Tipico” lunch, usually rice and beans with pork or chicken.
White Water Rafting
The Desafio Adventure Company
offers a variety of tours, including white-water rafting. They offer full and half-day trips on class 2-3 and 4-5 rapids near Arenal. All gear is supplied, and the river is dam-controlled so the water levels are perfect all year round.
You can also combine a half-day of rafting with other adventure activities, such as kayaking or sport-fishing on Lake Arenal, cave spelunking, mountain biking, or canyoning, or with more relaxing outings like volunteering, bird watching or wildlife refuge visits.
Arenal is also known for its hot springs and there are several options to chose from, ranging from the pricey, elaborately-landscaped pools at Tabacón Hot Springs Luxury Resort
, to the bare bones ones frequented by locals at Los Laureles
. A good middle option is Baldi
, which has over 20 hot springs of varying temperatures, a restaurant, three bars, water slides, and a spa.
Okay, relaxing in a hot pool isn’t exactly an adventure sport – unless you count dodging creepy couples at the swim-up bar – but after all that activity, you muscles will appreciate the soothing soak.