Arenal Volcano Guide 2024

In this guide for 2024, I invite you on a visual journey to the majestic Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica to explore its fascinating geological evolution, historical eruptions, and the diverse range of activities the region offers as a leader in eco-tourism.

Soft sunrise sidelight on Arenal volcano in Costa Rica with a large tree in the foreground.
'Arenal', Limited Edition of 50. © Dean McLeod Photography Timeless Fine Art

This iconic natural wonder attracts travelers and nature lovers from around the world with its inspiring beauty and captivating history, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in Central America.

Whether you are seeking to hike its trails, zip-line through the treetops, or simply relax and unwind in the soothing hot springs nearby, Arenal has something to offer every kind of traveler.

Panoramic aerial image of Arenal volcano in Costa Rica around sunrise.
Dormant since 2010, the lush vegetation slowly returns to the slopes of Arenal.

From its towering presence dominating the skyline to the lush reserve surrounding it, the beauty of Arenal Volcano is undeniable. Join me in uncovering the secrets of this breathtaking destination, and discover why it's a must-visit for anyone seeking an unforgettable adventure in Costa Rica.

The geology and formation of Arenal Volcano

Arenal is a stratovolcano (meaning conical in shape) located in the north central Alajuela Province of Costa Rica. It dwarfs the bordering landscape at a height of 1,633 meters (5,358 feet) and is considered one of the most active volcanoes in the country.

Interestingly, Arenal is also the youngest of Costa Rica's volcanoes, its origins traced back to less than 7,500 years, and was formed by an intriguing geological process called subduction.

Infographic illustrating the process of tectonic plate subduction and volcano formation.
Tectonic plate subduction causes friction, heat, and pressure to melt rock and form magma, which rises and ejects through the earth's surface in the form of a volcano. Main graphic by KDS4444 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=49035989

Subduction occurs when an oceanic plate collides with a continental plate and slides beneath it. This geological process west of Costa Rica can be traced back two to three million years, when the Cocos oceanic plate began to move northeast underneath the Caribbean plate, which led to the creation of the Central American Volcanic Arc.

The rocks of the subducting Cocos plate contain water transported deep underground where it is superheated under great pressure, causing magma to form from melting rock. The hot, buoyant magma then rises up and ejects through the earth's surface, forming chains of volcanoes.

A map showing the Central American Volcanic Arc from Panama to Guatemala.
The Central American Volcanic Arc exists as a direct result of tectonic plate subduction.

As a result, to the northeast of the subducting Cocos plate edge lies a continuous arc of volcanos, stretching over 1,100 kilometres (680 miles) long from Panama to Guatemala. Arenal is but one of over 70 volcanoes and hundreds of volcanic formations in this fascinating geological area.

Before and After Arenal's historical eruptions

Arenal Volcano has a long history of volcanic activity, with its first known eruptions dating back over 7000 years. Throughout the centuries, the volcano has experienced numerous eruptions, but the most significant event in recent history occurred in the summer of 1968.

For several hundred years the entire volcano, including the solitary summit crater (now known as Crater D) was covered in lush rainforest. Locals had named it 'Cerro Arenal' (Arenal Mountain), as most perceived it as a benign feature of the landscape.

The forested summit of Arenal volcano in 1968 before the eruption.
The only known aerial photograph of Arenal's summit before the 1968 eruption. Photo by Y. Monestel, 1968

The surrounding rural area was populated by small communities who sustained themselves through agriculture and cattle ranching. Very few tourists ever visited the area, and Arenal was virtually unknown to the rest of the world.

All of that changed when locals noticed a strange increase in temperatures of the local hot springs, while noticeable fumarolic activity began to appear on the 'mountain'. After a sequence of local earthquakes overnight, at 7:30am on Monday, July 29th after lying dormant for over 500 years, Arenal suddenly and violently erupted with fury.

Two images of the western flank of Arenal in 1968 after the volcanic eruption.
Photos by William Melson, 1968.

Three new craters opened up on the western slope at the time of the eruption. Crater A was the source of the initial explosions on July 29, expelling rocks, ash, gases, and lava. Crater B effuses gas in the image above, while lava began to emerge from Crater C in September and continued intermittently for many years.

At the height of the enormous Vulcanian explosions, giant ballistic rocks, some weighing several tons, were hurtled over a kilometre away (1/2 mile) at up to 800 mph, while pyroclastic flows of gases and lava effused down the western slopes, and Plinian columns of ash extended up to 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) into the stratosphere.

Two different images of Arenal volcano in Costa Rica at night with red lava erupting and flowing down the slopes.
Top left; Arenal in November, 2006. Photo by Matthew G. Landry. Top right; photo by Olger Aragón, 15 June, 1997.

After several days of continuous and fierce activity, over 15 square kilometers (5.8 sq. miles) on Arenal's west flanks were completely entombed under rocks, lava, and ash. In total, 232 square kilometres of land was affected, burying the villages of Tabacón, Pueblo Nuevo, and San Luís while claiming the lives of 87 people. The eruption destroyed property, spoiled crops, and killed an estimated 30,000 head of cattle.

Aerial view of the impact crater field of the July 29, 1968 eruption of Arenal volcano on the west flank near Pueblo Nuevo.
A small portion of the massive crater field formed by falling rocks ejected during the eruption. Photo courtesy of Tom Simkin, 1968.

Above, an aerial photograph overlooks a portion of the impact crater field caused by the eruption on July 29, 1968. Close inspection shows rainfall that partially filled most of the craters, formed by the high-velocity impact of rocks expelled from a newly opened crater on the west side of the volcano. The massive field stretched approximately 5 kilometers from the vent.

The historical event attracted the attention of scientists from around the world, many who travelled to study Arenal in its erupting state. Adventurers and tourists followed soon after, spawning a new era of tourism for those wishing to witness the spectacle of the volcano in action. The town of La Fortuna, just northeast of Arenal, grew from a sleepy community into a bustling tourist hub that now hosts over 1.5 million people per year.

Aerial view of Arenal volcano in Costa Rica at sunrise on a clear morning looking west with Lake Arenal in the distance.
Arenal at sunrise looking west, with Lake Arenal in the distance. In the left portion of the image, the extinct Chato Volcano flanks Arenal to the south, last erupting 3,500 years ago. Crater C is the tallest and most recently active, while the shorter Crater D, the original summit of Arenal, is inactive.

After the fateful event in the summer of 1968, Arenal remained continuously active for over 42 years with smaller eruptions, explosions, and lava effusion occurring regularly, before once again growing quiet and falling into dormancy in October, 2010. Nevertheless, tourism remains at an all-time high with endless accommodations and activities for all ages in the surrounding area.

With its unpredictable nature and potential for revival at any time, the volcano is now closely monitored with safety measures in place to ensure the well-being of citizens and visitors.

Exploring the Trails in Arenal Volcano National Park

Arenal Volcano National Park is a protected area surrounding the volcano, covering approximately 29,692 acres. Established in 1991 by the Costa Rica government, the park offers visitors the opportunity to explore the diverse ecosystems that thrive in the shadow of the volcano. From lush rainforests to volcanic landscapes, the park is a haven for nature enthusiasts.

One of the best ways to experience the beauty of Arenal Volcano is by exploring the trails that wind through the national park. The park offers four main areas with hiking opportunities, catering to both beginners and experienced hikers.

Some signs in the parking lot of Arenal 1968, a trail system for tourists that showcases lava flows from the 1968 eruption of Arenal volcano.
The Arenal 1968 trail system takes you over some of the original lava flows from the 1968 eruption.

We walked the trails at Arenal 1968 when we visited in 2022, which was an enjoyable way to experience the remnants of the original lava flows from the 1968 eruption. Now being reclaimed by forest and vegetation, the trail contains an excellent viewpoint to admire the volcano.

Arenal Observatory Lodge and Trails is the only hotel within the park boundary, offering 11 kilometres (7 miles) of trails, hanging bridges, and spectacular viewpoints including a 28 metre high tower called 'The Nest'. From this exhilarating perch you can view wildlife and incredible panoramic views of the Arenal Volcano, Arenal Lake, Cerro Chato Volcano and the Tilarán Mountain Range.

Lava fields below Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica.
Many trails pass through forested areas while opening up occasionally with viewpoints like these on the hikes around Arenal.

The Arenal Volcano National Park Visitor Centre features two different trail sections. 'Sector Volcan' contains two main trails; Las Coladas, which has an Arenal viewpoint at the end, and El Ceibo, a rainforest side trail off Las Coladas which features a giant Ceiba tree that is hundreds of years old. The second 'Sector Peninsula' trail is in a completely different area, closer to Lake Arenal. This trail is easier for visitors who are less mobile, and also features an observation tower for views of the volcano and lake.

Finally, Mirador el Silencio is considered one of the best areas to hike near Arenal, with six trails totaling 14 kilometres (8.5 miles) from easy to moderate, some of the best volcano views, the cheapest entry fee, and the least amount of people.

A map of Arenal Volcano and area, highlighting some of the hiking trails and nearby attractions.
This map shows the locations of hiking trails around Arenal Volcano.

Regardless of the trails you choose, it is wise to arrive early before it gets too hot and to avoid the crowds. Bring water, snacks, your camera, closed toed shoes, a rain jacket just in case, sunscreen, and insect repellant. Entry fees vary depending on location.

It is also common for the volcano summit to be cloaked in clouds, so consider yourself lucky if you arrive on a clear day for unabated views. Sometimes waiting for a few minutes at the viewpoints will reward you with better views, as the clouds can move rapidly.

Wildlife and Biodiversity in the Arenal Region

The Arenal Volcano region is known for its rich biodiversity and diverse ecosystems, ranging from rainforests to wetlands which provides habitat for a wide array of wildlife. As you explore the area, you may encounter unique species such as the keel-billed toucan, the red-eyed tree frog, and the white-faced capuchin monkey.

Thirty-five species of fish, 135 species of reptiles, and 131 known species of mammals can be found here. 850 species of birds are also found in the park, making Arenal and the surrounding area a paradise for birdwatching.

A collage of images of flora and fauna found around Arenal Volcano.
A small sample of the beautiful flora and amazing wildlife I was able to photograph around Arenal.

We took a guided tour at Bogarin Trail in La Fortuna and saw sloths, poison dart frogs, and incredible bird life. I highly recommend using a guide if you are searching for wildlife, as they are experts finding them in the forest. I would have surely missed many photo opportunities otherwise.

A search of the area will reveal many guided tours where you can experience the incredible biodiversity of Arenal.

Hot Springs and Thermal Baths

Of the 170 cubic kilometres of rain that Costa Rica receives per year, over one quarter of it ends up in natural underground aquifers. The geothermal activity beneath Arenal Volcano heats the local aquifer, giving rise to a large number of mineral-rich hot springs and streams in the region. Travelers come from all over the world to experience the famous thermal baths and resorts around Arenal.

A portion of the grounds at Tabacón Thermal Resort and Spa in Costa Rica.
Tabacón Thermal Resort and Spa is one of the most popular hot spring experiences in the Arenal region.

These natural hot springs offer a unique and therapeutic experience, allowing you to unwind while surrounded by the beauty of nature. Whether you choose to soak in the warm waters or indulge in a spa treatment, the hot springs near Arenal Volcano provide the perfect opportunity to relax and soak up the tranquility of your surroundings.

A thermal swimming pool inside The Springs Resort and Spa in Costa Rica.
A pool in The Springs Resort and Spa.

Below is a list of the top ten hot spring experiences around Arenal, from first-class resorts to budget-minded family options. It should be noted that Tabacón Resort holds a distinction among the rest of the resorts; it is the only one with a natural river flowing through it that originates above ground. Although there are some man-made pools and structures, much of the river is natural.

Each of the other resorts also have natural thermal water, but it is piped in to manmade pools. Click any of the resorts below to study their websites and amenities.

1. Tabacón Thermal Resort and Spa

2. Baldi Hot Springs Hotel, Resort, and Spa

3. EcoTermales Hot Springs and Wellness Temple

4. The Springs Resort and Spa

5. Paradise Hot Springs Resort

6. Titoku Hot Springs

7. Los Lagos at Hot Springs Village

8. Kalambu Hot Springs Water Park

9. Los Laureles Family Camp and Hot Springs

10. Termalitas del Arenal

11. Bonus! Rio Chollin free hot spring river near Tabacón

Other Activities near Arenal Volcano

For the adrenaline junkies, Arenal Volcano offers a wide range of adventure activities that will get your heart racing. From zip-lining through the treetops to white-water rafting in the nearby rivers, there's no shortage of thrills to be had.

A hanging bridge in Mistico Hanging Bridges Park near Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica.
One of the many bridges among the forest canopy at Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park.

Walking or flying high amidst the rainforest canopy are popular activities with many nearby adventure experiences. These are but a few of the available options.

1. Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park (hanging bridges, horseback riding)

2. Sky Adventures (hanging bridges, zip-lines, aerial tram, canyoning, rappelling)

3. Arenal Mundo Adventura (zip-lines, rappelling, rafting)

4. Pure Trek Canyoning (canyoning, waterfall rappelling, zip-lines, rafting)

5. Ecoglide Arenal Park (zip-lines)

Man on a zipline in the forest canopy of Costa Rica.
Zip-lining is a fun way to fly through the forest canopy around Arenal.

Many of these companies offer a multitude of combo tours which allow you to partake in multiple activities with one ticket, so it's best to research and find the ones that offer your favourite activities.

Another must-see is the La Fortuna Waterfall, where you can witness the powerful 240 foot cascade amidst a lush green landscape and even take a swim in the cool waters. The facility features locker rooms, showers, a souvenir shop, viewpoints, an Orchid Garden, and a restaurant.

La Fortuna waterfall in Costa Rica shown from two different angles.
Left; the swimming area beneath the falls. Right; I waded downstream into the river to capture this image, 'La Fortuna', Limited Edition of 150. © Dean McLeod Photography Timeless Fine Art

The self-guided tour takes you down 530 steps to the base of these incredible falls, which you will hear long before you see them. A reasonable level of fitness is an advantage, as of course, you must reclimb all of the steps to return. I took my swimsuit, water shoes, and camera where I was able to carefully wade into the river among giant boulders to capture the photo (above right).

Planning your visit

When planning your visit to Arenal Volcano, it's important to consider accommodation options, transportation, and the activities that you would like to experience. For our one month Costa Rica vacation, we decided on a rough itinerary then booked everything six months in advance to be sure we had a rental vehicle and hotels reserved in different regions as we travelled the country.

A rental SUV in a parking lot; views from a hotel balcony near Arenal Volcano.
Left; our SUV rental. Right; the view from our balcony at Arenal Kioro with ever-changing cloud formations around the summit.

We spent two days at Arenal, and reserved a hotel room as close to the volcano as possible to take advantage of the sunrise and sunset photo opportunities. We stayed at Hotel Arenal Kioro Suites and Spa on the north side of the volcano, which provided spectacular views right from our balcony.

Collage of food and coffee pictures from Costa Rica.
We loved the cuisine in Costa Rica, and their coffee is world renowned.

The entire area around the volcano stretching from the northwest all the way to the east in the town of La Fortuna offers a wide range of accommodation choices, from lavish five-star luxury resorts, to budget-friendly hostels, and everything in between. While most hotels have their own dining options, La Fortuna is also loaded with great restaurants, coffee houses, watering holes, and nearby activities.

In terms of transportation, renting a car is the most popular option, as it allows you to explore at your own pace. We rented a small 4x4 SUV from Jumbo Car in San Jose, which was perfect for travelling the country. It is recommended to book well in advance, especially in high season from November to April.

If you prefer not to drive, there are also a multitude of companies offering bus and shuttle services around the region.

In Conclusion

Arenal Volcano stands not only as a geological marvel but also as a testament to the dynamic forces that shape our planet. Its rich history, marked by both awe-inspiring eruptions and periods of dormancy, has captivated the imagination of locals and visitors from around the world.

Arenal volcano during a colorful sunrise with beautiful orange clouds.
Arenal Sunrise, © Dean McLeod Photography Timeless Fine Art

The surrounding area, with its lush landscapes and diverse ecosystems, offers a myriad of activities for nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers. Arenal is also a story of resilience and adaptation, as communities in its vicinity have learned to coexist with the unpredictable nature of volcanic activity.

Today, the volcano remains an iconic symbol of their country, and is not just a geological phenomenon; it is a living, breathing part of the Costa Rica identity.

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