If I can make one recommendation about visiting La Fortuna and El Arenal volcano, it is: don’t. Arenal’s claim to fame used to be that it was Costa Rica’s last active volcano. You could see its red lava glowing in the night. However, since 2010 the volcano has become dormant, and now it isn’t much more than most other volcanoes: just a mountain with a hole in it.
While that in itself isn’t too bad, the area offers poor value for money. It is hard to reach, and impossible to get around without private transportation. Even if you visit the national park, you can’t really get up on the volcano and get to the crater rim (like you can on volcano Póas). Often El Arenal is shrouded in clouds, and you won’t get to see it altogether. In the three days that I was there, I got one twenty-second glimpse at the top of the mountain. It really isn’t worth the cost and the effort in my opinion.
Visiting El Arenal Volcano on a Budget
Ok, so you’ve been warned. If you decide that you want to visit Arenal / La Fortuna after all, I will help you to do so on a budget. You can get some nice outdoors experience out of the visit even if you don’t see any lava. Doing so without spending a fortune isn’t easy, as most things are priced for American tourists. But there are still some options to do La Fortuna on the cheap.
First of all, La Fortuna is the town on the East side of the volcano where almost everyone stays. While there are some resorts on all sides of El Arenal, those are expensive and not suitable for a budget traveller. Also, if you don’t have your own rental car or private shuttle, you may have a hard time getting there. (If money is no object, you should just stay at the Arenal Observatory Lodge and Spa. It has by far the best view of the volcano, and good access to some trails surrounding it.)
There are also a couple of hotels in El Castillo, but that place is harder to reach and offers fewer amenities than La Fortuna. I did notice a sign advertising a campsite along the La Fortuna – El Castillo road, but I didn’t check it out. This may be interesting if you’re into camping. For all intents and purposes I will assume that you’re staying in La Fortuna.
How to get to La Fortuna / El Arenal cheaply
Getting to La Fortuna from San José cheaply is not hard, but it’s not very comfortable either. There is a public bus that leaves three or four times in the morning from Terminal 7-10. You buy the tickets at the office on the third floor of the terminal, and you wait in line on the ground floor by the leftmost turnstile. The bus costs only about $5. Unfortunately the seats are cramped, there is no air conditioning, and the total drive takes around five hours. Along the way many more passengers will be picked up, which leads to overcrowding.
The alternative is to take a private bus or shuttle from Gray Lines or Interbus, but those cost $50. There is no middle ground. Either you go on the cheap and suffer, or you pay through the nose for a little comfort. You can also catch the public bus from Alajuela bus station, which is closer to the airport. But because it is further down the line, you risk not having a seat and standing for the next four-and-a-half hours.
If you come from Monteverde, you have three defensible options:
- You take the cheap public bus via San José (see above) or via Tilarán, each of which takes around eight hours and is far from comfortable;
- You arrange private transportation around the lake, which takes around five hours and is expensive;
- You take the ‘bus-boat-bus’ connection (also, inaccurately, called ‘jeep-boat-jeep’) which picks you up and drops you off at your hotel for $20-25.
I found the bus-boat-bus to be the best value for money. The trip is available in either direction, and from what I’ve seen in La Fortuna, Red Lava Tours offers it five dollars less than most other travel agencies. At their local office in La Fortuna you can book the trip at a lower price than on their website, but this isn’t very helpful if you’re coming from Monteverde. Instead, try to ask at your Monteverde hostel if they can offer you the trip for $20 or less.
Where to stay in La Fortuna on a budget
There are quite a few affordable hostels in La Fortuna. Especially if you book in advance, you should have no trouble securing a bed for less than $12 per night. Budget private rooms are in shorter supply, but not impossible to find. I stayed at the reasonable Hotel FAS for $30 per night in a double room with private bathroom.
The town itself is small, so everything is within walking distance. That means that the location where you stay doesn’t matter a whole lot (but the five-star backpackers resort is about as far out as you want to go). La Fortuna has a pleasant and lively central plaza in front of the church. Unfortunately all accommodations and restaurants overlooking it are way overpriced. Go one or two blocks out to find something more reasonable.
Cheap eats in La Fortuna
The best cheap eats in La Fortuna are the sodas: small family-owned restaurants that serve filling and tasty Costa-Rican fare. The one I liked the most was Soda Viquez, located next to the Rainforest Cafe, a block from the plaza. Another well-rated soda is La Hormiga, around the corner from the bus station, but unfortunately it was closed during my visit. My non-indigenous go-to place for food was Tacos Don Carlos, which sells Mexican fast food at prices just slightly above those of the sodas.
It helps keep the price of your Arenal trip down if breakfast is included in your hotel or hostel booking. If not, the sodas are again a good place to go. Expect to pay around $4 for a typical Costa Rican breakfast of Gallo Pinto and another dollar for a coffee. To eat even cheaper than that, Musmanni is your friend. This ubiquitous Costa Rican bakery chain has an outlet one block North-East of the plaza. Most sweet or savoury breakfast pastries cost just a dollar each, as does a coffee. They are not the most amazing-tasting pastries you’ll have had, but they are ok, filling, and most of all cheap.
Visiting the Arenal Volcano on a Budget
The thing that really makes a trip to Arenal expensive are the tours. You may think that you can just walk out into the jungle and onto the volcano, but you’d be disappointed. First of all, La Fortuna is a good 6km from the closest entrance to the park area. A taxi there will cost around $8. The entrance on the other side is 20km away from town. Second, if you want to enter any part of the volcano, you always have to pay, sometimes twice.
The national park costs $15 to enter, and the entrance is on the far side of the volcano from La Fortuna. That gives you access to a few trails, including the possibility to walk on solidified lava. But then there are various private grounds carved out on national parkland where the land owners (illegally) charge you another hefty entrance fee to enter. In some cases it’s just a tiny strip of land which you can’t avoid passing from one side to the other side of the park.
One challenging and seemingly attractive option would be:
- Take a taxi to the closest entrance by road Diagonal 301 (6km). Share the taxi with other travellers to save on the cost if you can.
- Hike up to the Cerro Chato (small volcano, a steep 2.5 km hike).
- Hike onwards to the Observatory Lodge (5km). Enjoy a somewhat expensive ($10-20) but good lunch while admiring the view.
- Descend the trail leading down to the highway (9km).
- Try to hitchhike back to La Fortuna, or catch the 14:15 public bus if you’re super early.
Unfortunately the land owner for the Cerro Chato trail charges $15 to enter. Then once you are almost at the lodge, another land owner will extort you for another $10 to cross his field. This makes it a pretty expensive excursion.
If you go the other way, the taxi ride will be much more expensive. To enter the national park will cost you the official $15. If you decide to go to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, you’re asked to pay $10 just to enter their grounds. Do not fall for the trap of paying for access to the “hiking trail” advertised at a large parking lot just before the Lodge grounds entrance. There are no hiking trails on the volcano side that are accessible for free.
Booking a Tour to Visit El Arenal Volcano
That pretty much leaves you with going with one of the official tours. Yes, they do provide you with a tour guide, but from what I’ve heard from other travellers this isn’t quite worth the price of admission. And that is a steep price: expect to pay $40-90 for an excursion to the volcano, depending on which excursion you book, which agency you use, and where you are staying. On the other hand, for that price you do get transportation, entry to all the trails, and usually a simple lunch.
If you do decide to go with a tour, Red Lava Tours is a decent choice. When I was shopping around they were one of the cheapest, asking $50 for the ‘two volcanoes hike’ (which is just slightly less than what you’d pay if you organized it all by yourself). You may get a slightly better offer from your hostel if you get along with the owner, but this is no guarantee. Usually booking anything through your accommodation costs more, not less.
Definitely try to avoid the travel agencies around town. They do not operate any tours themselves, and charge a markup for the tours they sell. Aside from that I’ve noticed that they always asked me where I was staying before they quoted me a price. That might have been just to assess how much I’d be willing to spend. Or it might be that they have an arrangement with all the hotels, to cut them in on the deal. If anyone in the travel business in La Fortuna asks you where you are staying, answer that you don’t know yet.
The absolute cheapest way to visit El Arenal
Visiting the parks around El Arenal volcano by yourself is difficult and incurs high admission and transportation costs. Booking a guided tour is easy but expensive. Staying in La Fortuna is boring, as there isn’t much to do in the town itself. Isn’t there any way to see the volcano on a low budget?
What I ended up doing was rent a bike and cycle around the volcano. There is a small shop below the Arenal Hostel Resort that rents bikes for $10 a day. The bikes are not the best, but they are maintained well enough and run ok. The Canadian guy who runs the shop is friendly and can offer you some helpful advice. From the resort you can cycle all the way around the volcano to the Observatory Lodge, which is about 22km. The road is steep and shared with reckless car drivers, but you do get some nice views and the feeling of being out in nature.
Once you get to the junction in the road, you can take a left to cycle to the national park entrance or all the way to the Observatory Lodge. Both will cost money to access ($15 and $10 respectively), but it will get you onto the side of the volcano. Alternatively you can go straight ahead to the dam, from where you can overlook the lake and get a free view of the volcano in the distance.
Other free or cheap things to do around El Arenal
Aside from visiting the volcano, there isn’t a whole lot to do in La Fortuna. The town has a few nice cafés where you can taste some good Costa Rican coffee, but I wouldn’t call them cheap. Near the starting point of the Cerro Chato hike there is the Rio Fortuna Waterfall. You can spend some pleasant hours there, but unfortunately the area costs $15 to enter. There is a small waterfall called ‘El Salto’ on the way to the Catarata Rio Fortuna, which you can visit for free. It isn’t very impressive.
Another popular activity are the hot springs that line the road between La Fortuna and the dam. They are all pricey, with admission starting at $35 for Baldi Hot Springs, going up to $94 for the Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort (in the high season, including a meal). Two other well-known hot springs are Ecotermales and The Springs Resort, but there are around a dozen in total ‘spa hotels’ along the road.
Just past the Tabacón Grand Spa you can visit the ‘Tabaconcito’ free hot springs. From the access point on the main road you have to walk down the hill a bit, cross a flooded tunnel, and climb through a hole in the fence. Then you’ll be amazed by how many people have gone through the same ordeal to sit in the warm water stream for free. Is it worth it? I’ll leave that up to you (but I wouldn’t visit the place again if I had the opportunity).
In conclusion, I would say that there is no way to visit El Arenal volcano that is both cheap and worthwhile. And since the volcano is no longer spewing lava, there just isn’t that much to see even if you pay. For the more generic ‘jungle experience’ there are better places to visit in Costa Rica.