Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano Facts

Country: Costa Rica
Province: Alajuela
Coordinates: 10°27'48" N 84°42'12" W
Elevation: 1,657 m / 5,437 ft
Volcano type: stratovolcano
Typical eruption type: strombolian
Recent eruptions: 1968 - current
Activity status:Active

Arenal Volcano is situated about 3.5 hours drive from the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose. The volcano and its immediate surroundings are within a protected area of Arenal Volcano National Park. The closest town to the volcano is La Fortuna where you can find most lodging, shopping, restaurants and travel agencies. The development of La Fortuna is closely related to Arenal volcano that has been continuously active since 1968, turning the town into a 'tourist center'. There are also many hotels, lodges and resorts located in the neighborhood of the volcano, some of them providing their guests with incredible views of Arenal (like the most popular Arenal Observatory Lodge). The nearby man-made Lake Arenal is also one of Costa Rica's major tourist attractions providing opportunities for activities such as windsurfing, fishing or boating.

The view of the perfectly shaped stratovolcano is spectacular. It stands about 1,000 m (3,630 ft) above the surrounding terrain and you can notice the contrast between the lush, green rain forest at its base and volcano's gray, barren slopes. For over 30 years Arenal Volcano has had frequent eruptions, producing lava flows, gas jets and small pyroclastic flows. If the weather permits, you can often see steam escaping the volcano's crater during the day and glowing lava flowing down the flanks during the night. For those who want to see a volcano in action, Arenal is an ideal choice. Arenal is currently the most active volcano in Costa Rica and one of the most active volcanoes in the world, but it's explosions have (so far) been relatively small, making it less hazardous to watch from a safe distance.

Arenal Volcano, Arenal Volcano National Park, Costa Rica
Arenal Volcano. Photograph by bdearth

Erupting Arenal Volcano, Arenal Volcano National Park, Costa Rica
Spectacular view of erupting Arenal Volcano.
Photograph by Scott Robinson


Note that the weather many times does not cooperate in good volcano watching tours... This region of Costa Rica can be rainy and cloudy or foggy in any time of the year. Probably the best months to get a clear view of the volcano are from February to April when there is less rainfall in this region.

Hiking Arenal Volcano

Climbing to the summit of Arenal Volcano is very dangerous and currently prohibited. Although some people tried, it is definitely not recommended at this time, during the activity. There are, however, interesting trails on the lower slopes of the volcano as well as good viewing points to watch eruptions.

The currently active vent of Arenal is situated on the western side of the mountain. To get to the best viewing points from La Fortuna, which is on the eastern side, you'll need to drive to the other side of the volcano, the last part of the trip on a dirt road, from where there is an entrance to the Arenal Volcano National Park and farther down the road to the Arenal Observatory Lodge.

Arenal Volcano National Park

The Arenal Volcano National Park was established in 1991 and covers area of 2,040 sq km (790 sq mi). The park actually contains two volcanoes - the second being Volcan Chato (or Cerro Chato) - inactive for about 3,500 years. To reach the main entrance of the park, you need to drive west from La Fortuna for 15 km (9 mi) and then turn left into a dirt road for next 2 km (1.25 mi). There is a $6 admission fee to the park (for organized volcano tours the fee is normally included in the price).

From the main entrance there are two short trails that lead east to a lookout point from where you can watch the lava flows (if both the Arenal and weather cooperate). Both trails are about 1.4 km (0.8 mil) long. One of the trails, called Las Coladas Trail, continues east from the lookout point for another 2.8 km (1.75 mi) through large lava blocks up to the southernmost edge of lava flows. There it joins the Los Tucanes Trail that begins at the southern entrance of the park, near the Agua Caliente river. The Los Tucanes Trail goes mostly over flat ground and it's attractive mostly because of its flora and fauna, with most remarkable species including howler monkeys, armadillos, sloths, coatis, wild pigs and, of course, toucans.

There are also several trails into the park that start at the Arenal Observatory Lodge.

Arenal Observatory Lodge

The Observatory Lodge is undoubtedly the most famous lodge in the neighborhood of the Arenal Volcano. It's the closest to the volcano (just 2.7 km / 1.7 mi from the volcano) and offers the best views. It has 48 rooms in several buildings, many with 'volcano view', and for those without a view, there are designated observation decks from where guest can watch the lava fireworks at night. Due to the popularity of the lodge, it is recommended to book a room well in advance.

The Arenal Observatory Lodge originally started in 1987 as a Smithsonian Institute scientific research station. It is located within the Arenal Volcano National Park occupying area of over 350 hectares (870 acres) a lot of which is covered by natural rain forest and gardens. Beside being the most convenient hotel for Arenal Volcano tours, guests can also enjoy there a great dose of tropical wildlife within the lodge and its surroundings, including some 370 species of birds.

There are several hiking trails that start from the lodge, with the most interesting being the Old Lava Trail, the Cerro Chato Trail to the crater of Cerro Chato Volcano or more relaxing Waterfall Trail to the nearby waterfall (just 1 hour round trip). The lodge also offers complimentary guided walks every morning to explore flora and fauna of the tropical rain forest and gardens.

Crater Lake of the Chato Volcano, Costa Rica
Crater Lake of the Chato Volcano. Photograph by Jose Calvo

Cerro Chato

The Chato Volcano or Cerro Chato is an inactive volcano, located about 3 km (1.75 mi) to the southeast of Arenal's crater. It is estimated that its last eruption was approximately 3,500 years ago. The mountain is 1,140 (3,760 ft) high, with a picturesque summit crater about 500 m (1,650 ft) in diameter, filled with rainwater lake (swimming is not recommended). There are also nice views on the Arenal Volcano from the top of Cerro Chato.

The trail that leads to the Cerro Chato crater starts at the Arenal Observatory Lodge and ends at La Fortuna Waterfall (can be done in both directions). Allow about 4-5 hours for the round trip. Shortest option is to leave from the waterfall and return back - it would take about 3 hours for a round trip Hiking Cerro Chato is rather strenuous but rewarding. The trek also involves paying $8 fee for entering the waterfall area, if hiking without a guide.

Other Attractions near Arenal Volcano

Tabacon Hot Springs

There are several natural hot springs resorts in the Arenal Volcano area, popular with visitors. The best known is the Tabacon hot springs, located abut 12 km (7.5 mi) from La Fortuna, on the Tabacon river. The springs are set in a nice garden with many natural pools and waterfalls in the river (there are a couple of artificial swimming pools too). The water temperatures varies in different pools, making it a very interesting experience to try them one by one. The Tabacon hot springs can be visited during the day and also at night (many recommend the night time experience), when visitors can enjoy spectacular views of Arenal Volcano in clear weather. Note that the Tabacon hot springs are amongst the most 'luxurious' ones in the area, which is reflected in the admission fee (or price for drinks at the bar..).

Arenal Hanging Bridges

Arenal Hanging Bridges is a unique, interesting eco-tourist project, consisting of trails and bridges set in a natural tropical rain forests. The Hanging Bridges are located about 4 km (2.5 mi) east of Tabacón Hot Springs, right in front of Arenal Volcano, with several nice lookout points. The full circuit of trails connected by 8 standing and 6 hanging bridges takes about 2 hours of relatively easy walk to complete. It's a nice, very scenic place where you can admire the great diversity of flora and fauna of the tropical rainforest, including about 60 species of birds that can be spotted here. Guided tours are available. Regular entrance fee is $22/person.

La Fortuna Waterfall

La Fortuna Waterfall is located at the base of Chato volcano, about 5.5 km (3.4 mi) from the town of La Fortuna. The waterfall is about 70 m / 230 ft high and a pretty popular attraction for visitors to La Fortuna. There is an admission fee of $8 to visit the waterfall.

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