Arenal Expedition - 4 Days

This itinerary is one of the shortest, yet action-packed option, for travelers looking for a compact Costa Rica experience. Zip-line, rappel and horseback ride your way throughout the Arenal region and enjoy some of the best natural views the country has to offer.

Highlights

  • Drive to Arenal from San Jose and get a chance to stop by Poás Volcano or a topiary garden.
  • Ride a horse into the wilderness and zip-line across treetops.
  • Rappel down eight waterfalls and go for a dip in the pools or hot springs.
  • Spend a night in San Jose exploring local architecture, markets, and cuisine.

Overview

The Arenal region, about 56 miles (90 km) away from San Jose, is a prime destination for both accessible adventure activities as well as spectacular views of one of Costa Rica's most famous volcanos. It's convenience makes it the most ideal place for a shorter experience in Costa Rica, and can also be combined with other tours in a longer overall visit. This tour includes one full day in Arenal, with two other half days to make room for the travel time from and to San Jose.

This tour mainly focuses on activities in the rainforests and canyons of the volcano's vicinity instead of direct treks up to the crater or detailed wildlife observing. However, there are still plenty of opportunities to spot all kinds of plants and animals and appreciate a wide variety of ecosystems. This tour is best for those who are physically fit, push themselves out of their comfort zones, and want a brief taste of the adventures that Costa Rica is known for.

Brief Itinerary

Day Destination Activity
Day 1 San Jose (Arrival) / Arenal Gardens, Poas Volcano Hike (optional)
Day 2 Arenal  Horseback Riding, Zip-lining, Hot Springs
Day 3 Arenal / San Jose Rappelling
Day 4 San Jose (Departure)  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival to San José / Transfer to Arenal Volcano

Zarcero Gardens and Church

Arrive early in the capital city of San Jose and make your way to La Fortuna, the closest town to Arenal Volcano.

If you have extra time, there are plenty of side excursions along the way. Here are some worth checking out:

  • Zarcero Gardens in front of the local church are the main highlight of the quaint town of Zarcero. Originating from the 1960s, the topiary gardens feature a collection of animal cuts including a dinosaur and elephant. This is a great pit stop for some unique photos and a quick lunch.
  • Poás Volcano National Park offers a fascinating look inside a volcanic crater complete with a sulfuric lake of boiling rainwater. However, since Poás Volcano has seen plenty of activity recently and last erupted on June 6, 2017, the hike may be closed to visitors. Therefore, it's a good idea to confirm the park's status before arriving.
  • La Paz Waterfall Garden is located on the slopes of Poás Volcano and contains over 2 miles (3.5 km) of scenic trails. Follow the trails to discover five picturesque waterfalls, a butterfly observatory, hummingbird garden, and a snake and frog habitat. Private tours are also available.

Driving to Arenal is relatively straightforward and will not require a 4x4, but given the unfamiliar conditions, poor GPS and cell signal, and a shortage of road signs, it's best to arrive in Arenal before the sun sets.

Day 2: Arenal Volcano – Horseback riding / Zip lining / Hot Springs

Riding horses in the pastures around Arenal

Start your morning with some horseback riding and hiking near the plains of Arenal. Ride your horse through rolling pastures, shaded forests, and gentle hills up to a 213 ft  (65 meter) high, majestic waterfall.   From there,  you can get a fantastic view of the San Carlos Valley and the surrounding tropical forest and go for a refreshing swim.

Return by cutting through a 400-hectare private farm, where you can spot toucans, oriels, and other flora and fauna, including one of the largest trees in the region. The trip will traverse three different rivers and several grazing fields full of cattle.

Continue your adventure after lunch with a zip-line tour in the forest canopy in one of the top zip-lining destinations in the world. Starting from an 18-meter tall observation tower, 10 cables ranging from 200 to 800 meters in length will carry you across canyons, waterfalls, and treetops, each providing a different experience.

Finally, wrap up your day by soaking in the famous volcanic hot springs, enjoying a massage, and sampling some local delicacies for dinner.

Day 3: Arenal - Waterfall rappelling / Return to San José

Rappelling down a waterfall

Get ready for a waterfall rappelling tour that kicks off with a 25-meter descent down a suspended bridge. Then, continue rappelling down a quadruple waterfall series within a tropical canyon. By the end of the tour, you will have descended eight waterfalls and have experienced the thrill of the lifetime, all while being surrounded by the natural beauty of the rainforest.

Lunch in Arenal or on the road back to San Jose.

In San Jose, you can relax for the rest of the day, or attend an evening tour of the city.  The evening tour will introduce you local vendors and authentic Costa Rican flavors in the Central Market, view stunning architecture including the National Theater and enjoy a gourmet 3-course meal and wine.

Day 4: Departure

If your flight is later in the afternoon, maybe you can squeeze in a visit to one of the sights of San Jose city.  There are numerous to choose from.  

  • Mercado Central (Central Market): The central market opens early so you can explore that first thing in the morning.  It's one of the oldest and most representative places to visit in San Jose.  In the Central Market, you will see the hustle and bustle of local life, it's where folks gather and debate the local politics, and where old recipes handed down generation after generation are cooked in large steaming pots for your delight.  For tourists, it is also a great place to get that last minute souvenir for friends and families.
  • Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum): The museum is located underground, almost like a vault to protect the largest collection of pre-columbian gold in Latin America.  Don't let the facade of the building stop you from going in, once inside, it is a very modern museum, with some amazing history about Costa Rica and the pre-columbian inhabitants in the region.
  • Museo Nacional (National Museum): The Museo Nacional is hard to miss, it is in a bright yellow building that used to be a military barracks (Bellavista Fortress).   Now the building is hosting a range of exhibits that show case the country from pre-columbian times to modern day Costa Rica.  A favorite for many visitors is the butterfly garden that is inside the museum, a nice piece of serenity in the otherwise hustle and bustle of a capital city.

It's time to say goodbye to Costa Rica. Fly out from San Jose back home, or continue to explore the rest of the country and discover more of its charms.