Arenal Volcano National Park (along with the gateway town of La Fortuna) is a highlight of any Costa Rica itinerary. In an afternoon, you can get a feel for the park from one of its hiking trails or hot spring pools, but you'll need a few days to further take advantage of the views and adventure activities that make this region special. With four days or more, you can add world-class whitewater rafting and indigenous culture excursions to your itinerary.

Planning Your Trip to Arenal

La Fortuna itself is a small town geared towards tourists. There are many places to eat and drink here. The real attractions, though, are the natural wonders around the town. Volcan Arenal rises immediately behind the town and can't be missed.

As well as this major attraction, La Fortuna can be used as a convenient base for other, non-volcano related activities in northern Costa Rica. Basing yourself in La Fortuna for a few days means you'll have access to hiking trails, waterfalls, hot springs, plantations, and much more.

If you can only spend a few days in Costa Rica, then La Fortuna is a great place to focus on, as you'll be able to experience many of the country's highlights without needing to jump around to different places. Plus, it's about equidistant from San José and Liberia, two cities with major airports that travelers fly to and from, so it's a convenient place to get to.

La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano are among the most popular tourist attractions in Costa Rica, so however long you want to stay in the area for, it's a good idea to book accommodation in advance.

Check out How Many Days Should You Spend in Costa Rica for more trip planning advice. 

Arenal in an Afternoon

Rainforest of La Fortuna

If your schedule only allows for half a day in and around La Fortuna, you have lots of options, depending on your preferred level of activity and interests. But, it would be a shame to travel to this famous volcano without focusing on this beautiful attraction, so we recommend hiking to Arenal 1968. This privately owned reserve references the year in which Arenal erupted.

Moderately challenging trails wind through lava fields and forests, giving great views and a varied sense of the topography and geology of the region. If you'd prefer a less challenging hike, head out into the jungle canopy instead. Well-marked trails and bridges and platforms through the treetops give you a great view of the volcano as well as the lush rainforest. 

Alternatively, if you'd prefer a more relaxing option, head to one of the area's famous hot springs pools. The thermally heated waters are great for the body, so are ideal if you're at the end of an active vacation in Costa Rica and want to treat your body and unwind.

Arenal in 24 Hours

Waterfalls near La Fortuna

If you have a full day and/or an overnight stop in La Fortuna, start with the hiking itinerary mentioned above. Later in the day, head to the La Fortuna Waterfall. This is one of the most famous waterfalls in Costa Rica, and for good reason. The falls are 210 feet (64 m) high, and are best seen from below, via a 500-step downhill hike. The plunge pool at the bottom is a great place to cool off with a swim. Visit a hot spring bath in the late afternoon or evening.

Arenal in 2-3 Days

Canopy walkway through the forest

With 2-3 days in La Fortuna, you can enjoy the above-mentioned activities, and add some more active or cultural adventures into the mix (or both, if you have three days).

On your second day, begin with a morning of kayaking, mountain biking, or horseback riding. Kayaking on Lake Arenal is a fun way of getting different views of the volcano. Mountain biking or horseback riding are also great ways of experiencing the cool, shady jungle and farmland areas.

In the afternoon, try one of Costa Rica's most famous adventure activities: ziplining through the canopies. Get a bird's-eye view of the forest and its inhabitants on a series of platforms, towers, and ziplines. They vary in height, and most courses will start you off on the more "tame" runs so you can build up your confidence, and then end with the more dramatic ones over high gorges or waterfalls.

If you have a third day in the area, or if you'd prefer to swap out these active adventures for some more sedate excursions, there are also plenty of choices. Chocolate and coffee are two of Costa Rica's most important exports, and by visiting cacao and coffee plantations around La Fortuna you can see where your favorite snacks or beverages come from, and how it's prepared Costa Rica style. And, of course, enjoy some samples! Other plantations that can be visited include sugar cane and fruits like bananas.

Foodies won't want to miss the chance to learn to cook some Tico dishes at an authentic cooking class. Learn about the ingredients and preparation methods required for traditional Costa Rican cuisine, and then sit down to enjoy your creations afterward. 

This quick itinerary includes three action-packed days in Arenal. Zip-line, rappel, and raft your way through the region and enjoy some of the best volcano views the country has to offer. Or, combine three nights in Arenal with time in Manuel Antonio National Park and San José with this nine-day trip.

Arenal in 4-5 Days

Volcan Arenal as seen from Monteverde

As La Fortuna is a great place to base yourself when visiting Costa Rica, there are many day-trip destinations that are easily accessible from here.

Costa Rica is famous for its river rafting, and is often called one of the best destinations in the world to go on a whitewater trip. The Río Balsa runs through the Arenal area and is ideal for families with younger kids (minimum age of 8) as the class II and III rapids here aren't too challenging, but still exciting. You'll see lots of beautiful scenery along the way, much of it inaccessible any other way. 

If you're a more experienced rafter or don't have young kids, the Río Pacuare is another great river that can be reached on a day trip from Arenal. It's a bit further away, starting near the Caribbean coast, but the warm waters and lush canyons make this one of the best white-water trips in the country.

Travelers interested in learning more about Costa Rica's indigenous people should take a day tour to the village of an indigenous tribe. See their traditional homes and farming techniques, as well as their distinctive arts and crafts If you've spent any time in San José you may have seen the colorful wooden masks that are made for ceremonial use. See where these beautiful artifacts are made.

This Arenal-focused expedition packs a lot of outdoor adventure in five days. You'll experience the greatest hits of Arenal Volcano National Park, including swimming in a waterfall lagoon, hiking above misty cloud forests, and soaking in hot springs. 

For more Arenal trip ideas, see this roundup of great weeklong Costa Rica itineraries.