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Why You Should (And Shouldn’t) Visit The Arenal Volcano National Park

Why You Should (And Shouldn’t) Visit The Arenal Volcano National Park

Last updated on May 23rd, 2020 at 10:56 am EST

Know this first before visiting the Arenal Volcano National Park

You won’t get to scale the Arenal Volcano, peer into a crater, or witness lava flow while you visit Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano National Park.

To explain why we opened this article with the aforementioned blunt and arguably negative statement we’ll need to rewind a few years.

La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano circa 2010

As we mention in our related blog post Must-Know Info About La Fortuna From Longtime Residents, La Fortuna is our favorite Costa Rica destination. We’re biased, of course, because we’ve lived in La Fortuna (off and on) since 2007. Back when we first moved to the town, the activity of the Arenal Volcano and tourism in the region was very different. The volcano was La Fortuna’s main attraction; it erupted on the regular and drew in hundreds of camera-ready travelers daily, each hoping to see big, grey billows of smoke rising up from the crater during daytime pyroclastic flow and fantastic displays of fireball-red lava rocks tumbling down the volcano’s slopes at night.

From the front porch of our residence in a small community on the foothills of the volcano, we witnessed these sights on the regular but never tired of their thrill. I’ve lost count of how many nights I was awakened by the sound of a grumbling volcano and ran to the front window of our home to make sure lava rocks weren’t headed in our direction. I wondered if the thousands of tourists holed up in La Fortuna-area hotel rooms with a volcano view were doing the same. The volcano’s eruptions, though unpredictable, were consistent enough to delight most visitors. La Fortuna became known as the place to go in Costa Rica if you dreamed of seeing an active volcano. Unless you happened to visit on a cloudy day, the majestic Arenal Volcano was that dream come true.

La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano post-2010

Fast-forward to today and you’ll find that the town of La Fortuna is more popular than it ever was, no thanks to volcanic eruptions. Residents like Ricky and I bid adieu to those spectacles after the Arenal Volcano suddenly stopped erupting in 2010. If you were lucky enough to see the volcano while it was noticeably active, you witnessed a piece of history. Volcanologists don’t anticipate it will erupt again for several more years, possibly generations. Today, only a small amount of smoke can be seen escaping from the volcano’s crater, if any. This means you’ll need to find a different reason to warrant spending time and money in La Fortuna, especially if you plan to visit the Arenal Volcano National Park.

Though there’s no shortage of tourism in La Fortuna today, reasons to visit the town have shifted away from “to see an active volcano” toward experiences that include ziplining, canyoning, touring hanging bridges, soaking in hot springs, and many other activities. The Arenal Volcano National Park, which houses the Arenal Volcano, is still open for touring, though it’s important to realize you won’t witness an eruption during your visit. If seeing an eruption is your main reason for visiting the Arenal Volcano National Park, perhaps this particular Costa Rica national park isn’t for you. If you’re curious to know why some visitors (and locals like us) choose to visit the Arenal Volcano National Park despite the Arenal Volcano not having as much appeal as it used to, continue reading below.

Why we like visiting the Arenal Volcano National Park

The Arenal Volcano is a beautiful sight and La Fortuna, as a tourist destination, has plenty to offer. That being said, in our opinion, visiting the Arenal Volcano National Park nowadays isn’t a must-have Costa Rica experience. It’s a great experience that appeals to many people (us included), but because it no longer offers an opportunity to witness an eruption, it fails to impress everyone. Though the attraction may have lost some of its allure, here’s why we continue to visit the Arenal Volcano National Park.

  • The Arenal Volcano National Park invites exploration of rainforest ecosystems
  • The Arenal Volcano National Park provides great bird-watching opportunities year-round (resident and migratory species between January and April; mainly resident species between May and December)
  • The Arenal Volcano National Park provides a few volcano viewpoints, one of which invites you to climb over a hill of lava rocks
  • The Arenal Volcano National Park can be toured with or without a guide
  • The Arenal Volcano National Park‘s trails are well maintained
  • The Arenal Volcano National Park entrance fee is relatively inexpensive and, with a paying adult, children up to the age of 2 enter for free
  • The Arenal Volcano National Park can be experienced in a short amount of time
  • From downtown La Fortuna to the Arenal Volcano National Parktravel is quick, easy, and doesn’t require a 4×4 vehicle

Arenal Volcano National Park sectors

If you choose to visit the Arenal Volcano National Park, you’ll also need to decide whether you’ll visit one of the park’s two sectors or both. Both sectors are located on the west side of the Arenal Volcano where the volcano appears rocky and grey (in contrast, the east side of the volcano is lush and green). The west side of the Arenal Volcano, which is sometimes referred to as the “active side”, is where lava rocks once tumbled down the volcano when it would erupt. Today, the large collections of lava rocks that form mounds around the foothills of the volcano can be explored on foot within the Arenal Volcano National Park‘s Main Sector. The Arenal Volcano National Park‘s Peninsula Sector, which is located off-site (approximately 2 kilometers west of the Main Sector; yellow arrows placed along the road provide direction) doesn’t near the lava rocks but instead provides panoramic views of Lake Arenal.

Arenal Volcano National Park Main Sector map

Arenal Volcano National Park Peninsula Sector map

A note about the Arenal Volcano National Park entrance fee

Both sectors of the Arenal Volcano National Park charge the same entrance fee which is valid for one full day (for entrance fee information, don’t miss our related blog post A List Of 50+ Costa Rica Entrance Fees: How Much It Costs To Enter National Parks, Reserves, And Refuges). If you decide to explore both sectors, plan to do so during the same day to avoid paying the entrance fee twice. Simply pay the entrance fee at the first sector you visit, save your entrance ticket, then show the ticket upon arrival at the second sector to gain complimentary access.

Arenal Volcano National Park Main Sector

Main Sector trails

The Arenal Volcano National Park‘s Main Sector has 3 trail systems (senderos) that can be explored on foot: the Coladas trail, the Ceiba trail, and the Heliconias trail. The Arenal Volcano National Park also has a roadway trail (dubbed the “vehicle trail”) that permits travel though a section of the park by car. The roadway trail leads to one of the park’s 2 volcano viewpoints that’s known as the Mirador Principal. The other volcano viewpoint (unnamed) is accessed via the Coladas trail.

Coladas trail

The Coladas trail is the Main Sector’s most popular hiking trail. It’s a flat, linear, forest trail that’s easy to walk. Branching off from this trail is a set of steps that lead a short but steep uphill climb to a volcano viewpoint. If you choose to make the climb, you’ll find yourself standing atop a mound of lava rocks referred to as Colada Lava 1992 (continue reading below for details). If you’d rather not ascend and descend the steps, you can either turn back and retrace your steps to the start of the Coladas trail, or else take the Ceiba trail which branches off the Coladas trail to the south.

Ceiba trail

In order to reach the Ceiba trail you must first hike part of the Coladas trail. You’ll find the start of the Ceiba trail at the back of the Arenal Volcano National Park near the set of steps that leads up to Colada Lava 1992. This half-circle forest trail is primarily flat and easy to walk. Along the way you’ll encounter the trail’s namesake tree: a giant, photo-worthy Ceiba tree. If you hike the entire Ceiba trail, you’ll find it ends where it reconnects with the Coladas trail. At this point, in order to exit, you’ll follow the Coladas trail back to the Main Sector’s entrance.

Heliconias trail

The flat, looped, and usually unoccupied Heliconias trail, which is accessed just beyond the entrance to the park, is the Arenal Volcano National Park‘s shortest trail. It can be fully explored in less than 30 minutes. Note that the Heliconia trail does not connect with the Coladas trail and/or the Ceiba trail. It also does not provide access to a volcano viewpoint or lava rocks. Hike this quick and easy trail only if your time and/or mobility is limited. Otherwise, stick to the Coladas and Ceiba trails.

Main Sector lava rocks

Arguably the best feature you’ll find inside the Arenal Volcano National Park‘s Main Sector is the field of lava rocks that you’re welcome to climb around. This field is called Coladas Lava 1992. It’s comprised of thousands of volcanic rocks that once spewed out of the Arenal Volcano and currently form mounds around the volcano’s foothills. Standing atop the mounds not only provides an opportunity to see the grey, ashy side of the Arenal Volcano up close, but to also see a calm Lake Arenal at a distance.

A cautionary note: Please pay attention to the warning signs around the lava rocks and watch your footing while you climb. The rocks are large, sharp, and slippery when wet. It isn’t difficult to twist an ankle or slip and scrape your leg while hiking around this part of the park.

Arenal Volcano National Park Peninsula Sector

The Arenal Volcano National Park‘s Peninsula Sector (short for the “Arenal Peninsula Sector”) is less frequented than the Arenal Volcano National Park‘s Main Sector though it remains a popular attraction. If you enjoy bird-watching and/or you wish to see Lake Arenal up close, the Peninsula Sector is for you.

Peninsula Sector trails

The Arenal Volcano National Park‘s Peninsula Sector has 2 trail systems (senderos), the Miradores trail and the Tororoi trail, that can be explored on foot. There are no vehicular trails.

Miradores trail

The Miradores trail is the Peninsula Sector’s main hiking trail. It’s a flat, concrete, linear trail that cuts through forest on a peninsula comprised of parkland. From the sector’s entrance to the peninsula’s tip (where the Miradores trail ends), the trail follows a downward slope which is steep in places. Along the way you’ll hear plenty of bird songs as the Peninsula Sector is the best area of the Arenal Volcano National Park for bird-watching. You’ll also pass 2 clearings in the forest that expose a distant Lake Arenal. Shortly before reaching the peninsula’s tip you’ll encounter an observation tower (continue reading below for details). Once you reach the peninsula’s tip and spend a few moments taking in the view (continue reading below for details), you’ll turn back and retrace your steps to the start of the Miradores trail just beyond the Peninsula Sector’s entrance.

Tororoi trail

Just beyond the entrance to the Peninsula Sector you’ll encounter the start of the Miradores trail (to the right) and the Tororoi trail (to the left). If you choose to follow the Tororoi trail, you’ll find that it deviates from the Miradores trail to the east and declines steeply into the forest for roughly half a kilometer before reconnecting with the Miradores trail further down the peninsula. Though it isn’t necessary to hike this trail (you can travel to the peninsula’s tip and back via the Miradores trail alone), if you want a physical challenge, the Tororoi trail is the most difficult trail you’ll find in the Peninsula Sector.

Note that if you take the Tororoi trail, you’ll miss the Lake Arenal viewpoints that sit along the Miradores trail. You’ll still get to visit the observation tower and the tip of the peninsula, however, as both of these features are encountered after the Tororoi trail reconnects with the Miradores trail. If you don’t want to miss any of the Peninsula Sector’s features, hike the Tororoi trail from the sector’s entrance to where it meets the Miradores trail and continue on the Miradores trail to the peninsula’s tip. Then, when it comes time to exit, hike the full length of the Miradores trail from the peninsula’s tip back to the sector’s entrance.

Peninsula Sector tower

If you’re not scared of heights or sets of steep staircases, you may wish to climb to the top of the 12-meter observation tower that overlooks part of the Arenal Volcano National Park. Though there isn’t anything to do at the top of the tower other than take in a beautiful view, it’s worth the ascent/descent if you want to see the Arenal Volcano and part of Lake Arenal at a distance.

The peninsula’s tip

The furthest you can hike inside the Peninsula Sector is to the peninsula’s tip, which juts out into Lake Arenal. At the tip, you can get close enough to the water to touch but doing so isn’t recommended as there may be crocodiles in the area. Swimming is prohibited. A lovely, lakeside, raised platform built around a tree provides a safe place to take in a beautiful panoramic view.

Arenal Volcano National Park wildlife

There’s plenty of wildlife to see inside the Arenal Volcano National Park, but like wildlife-viewing elsewhere in Costa Rica, spotting several species requires some luck. The fact that the Arenal Volcano National Park is a popular attraction in the La Fortuna region means that visitor flow is constant. To increase your chances of seeing wildlife in this park, walk slowly and quietly (talk quietly too, if you must converse) and scan the forest floor and treetops regularly. Some of the wildlife that we’ve seen during our visits include coatis, peccaries, monkeys, sloths, snakes, frogs, spiders, ants, and many, many types of birds.

Which sector is better? The Main Sector or the Peninsula Sector

As noted above, if you plan to explore both sectors of the Arenal Volcano National Park over the course of one calendar day, you’ll only pay the park entrance fee once. But if your time (or interest) is limited and you need to choose one sector over the other, here are some defining points that may help you decide whether it’s best to visit the Main Sector or the Peninsula Sector.

Arenal Volcano National Park Main SectorArenal Volcano National Park Peninsula Sector
Great bird-watching opportunitiesFantastic bird-watching opportunities
Opportunity to climb over and stand atop lava rocksNo opportunity to climb over or stand atop lava rocks
Easy, flat, forest trailsEasy, flat, concrete trails
Volcano viewpoints that showcase the Arenal Volcano at close proximityVolcano viewpoints that showcase the Arenal Volcano at a further distance than the view obtained from within the Main Sector
Lake Arenal can be seen at a distance from one of the volcano viewpointsLake viewpoints that showcase Lake Arenal at a distance; Access to the peninsula’s tip where Lake Arenal is close enough to touch
Opportunity to see a giant ceiba treeNo ceiba tree
No observation towerOpportunity to climb to the top of an observation tower
This sector is the most popular and busiestThis sector is less popular and less busy than the Main Sector

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you been to the Arenal Volcano National Park? If so, which sector(s) did you visit and why?

Pura vida!

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Why You Should (And Shouldn't) Visit The Arenal Volcano National Park
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Why You Should (And Shouldn't) Visit The Arenal Volcano National Park
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We’ve visited both sectors of the Arenal Volcano National Park in Costa Rica several times. Here’s everything you need to know, plus free Arenal Volcano tour discounts!
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The Official Costa Rica Travel Blog
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