If you’re traveling to Costa Rica, you need to visit Arenal Volcano. It’s the most active volcano in Costa Rica and it’s very accessible with a variety of exciting activities located nearby: hot springs, waterfalls, butterfly gardens, animal sanctuaries, hiking, bird-watching, horseback riding, canopy tours, fun on the lake, and more!
I’ve been to Arenal Volcano many times now, in a myriad of styles — I’ve stayed in hostels, fancy resorts, and everything in between.
The nicest place I’ve stayed so far is definitely The Springs Resort (before it gained fame on ABC’s The Bachelor), but I became deathly ill on the drive up there, so it turned into the nicest place to be sick in. Hopefully I will make it back one day to enjoy their fantastic springs and lush accommodations!
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My favorite place to stay to see Arenal Volcano is one of the in betweens: Arenal Observatory Lodge. The fairly priced hotel is the closest you can get to the volcano and offers the best views for the nightly lava shows. It was originally built in 1987 as a Smithsonian Institute scientific research station and is the only observatory situated within Arenal National Park. You can rent a room called The Smithsonian that has a glass wall, so you can lay in bed at night and watch the lava flowing down the volcano. Awesome!
The grounds surrounding the Observatory Lodge are amazingly manicured and landscaped to make you feel as if you are walking in a tropical fairy wonderland. The plants have been specifically chosen to attract wildlife, so if you walk outside early in the morning you will be surrounded by thousands of colorful butterflies and hummingbirds dipping and diving into the gorgeous flowers that encircle you on the tropical garden’s pathways.
A stay at Arenal Observatory Lodge includes access to the spring-fed pool and jacuzzi (both with a view of the volcano), and access to the walking trails, one of which goes by a lava field that still emits steam. It also includes a guided tour through the rainforest with monkeys, frogs, and more wildlife on the way to a waterfall then back to the hotel, as well as a huge breakfast buffet.
When walking around the pathways at the Observatory Lodge, I could hear the thunder-like rumbles as well as feel the vibrations of Arenal Volcano while tropical birds flew overhead and howler monkeys hollered from the treetops.
Read reviews and see prices for Arenal Observatory Lodge on TripAdvisor.
Arenal can be quite cloudy at night. To increase your chances of seeing the lava flow at night, plan to stay in the area for at least two nights. There certainly are enough activities to keep you busy for more time than that!
The Smithsonian room rents for $100 – $160 a night and sleep 4 (2 beds). There are other options available — 48 rooms in total that are less as well as more expensive, ranging from $53 – $452 per room/villa. The restaurant is great and breakfast is free, but lunch and dinner are pricey at $22 and $31.
Arenal Observatory Lodge is not in La Fortuna — it is an almost 30 minute drive ($25 taxi trip) up the mountain from La Fortuna. This is not the place to go if you do not have your own transportation and want to party at the local bars, unless you don’t mind forking over the money for the round trip taxi fee.
Arenal and La Fortuna are accessible by car, public bus, semi-private shuttle, and private shuttle. Coming from SJO International Airport, the least expensive way to get there is by Costa Rica’s public bus system.
Remember that if you are going to the Observatory Lodge, you will need to pay the extra fee to get up the mountain with all modes of transportation unless you are driving your car or a rental. I’m always on a tight budget and the first time I went I thought that the extra fee was well worth it just to get that close to the volcano. All subsequent times I have had my own car 🙂
Do you have a favorite place in Arenal?
* Please note: I was not paid anything to write this post. I actually like these places and the businesses mentioned herein were also unaware of this review. Check out more reviews and availability below or through the TripAdvisor affiliate links and if you purchase your stay through them I will receive compensation yay.
Yikes — lunch and dinner are pricey! But looks like a great place — especially if those cute little pizotes are roaming around… 🙂
The cute little pizotes are everywhere and very friendly, as you can see they will come right up to you.
Arenal looks like a must see in Costa Rica to me! Beautiful pictures. Will make it some day 🙂
It is a must see, definitely in my top 5 things to do in Costa Rica 🙂
OMG I want to hug the coati!!! SOOOO cute! I got to watch Arenal erupt while drinking champagne in a jacuzzi. Incredible!
They are cute! And some of the animal sanctuaries in Costa Rica have little baby coatis that you can play with 🙂
Seeing Arenal while sipping on champagne in a jacuzzi – gotta love your style!
That looks like a really interesting place. I love all the photos – especially the one one of the coatis. He’s so cute – I assume they’re not dangerous?
Thanks Julia. The coatis aren’t dangerous as far as I know. They will come right up to people and are gentle when taking offered food. The little babies like to play and nibble a lot just like puppies – it’s actually dangerous for them because they can get sick if they lick sunblock or bug spray off your feet or hands.
love the panoramic shot!! didnt get to arenal while i was in costa rica. dont ask me why. the glass wall room sounds amazing!
Thanks! The panoramic is something I stitched together from like 5 photos 🙂
You prob missed Arenal because there are so many options in Costa Rica. Just plan to go next time!
An active volcano, hot springs, waterfalls, animal sanctuaries, hiking … I’m sold. 😀
You should make a trip down south after your move. Shoot, Mexico is huge – where exactly are you moving to in Mexico?
Thanks for these tips – I’m visiting Arenal in a few days so this is really timely 🙂
YAY you are coming to Costa Rica!! I hope you enjoy it. Hit me up any time w questions or to say Hi!
What a cute animal! I love that picture of the coatis! Arenal volcano looks spectacular.
It really is – you should put it on the To Do List for Costa Rica 🙂
This Volcano looks awesome and so does the pizotes! I can’t wait to travel to Costa Rica.
According to Kim’s comment, there are cheaper meal options now, so maybe you can stay at the observatory for cheap. If not, there are certainly hostels and cheaper hotels in the area. This is all assuming that you are coming here on the cheap like in your other guides 🙂 There are free hot springs which you will have to check out, too!
I have stayed at the Arenal Observatory Lodge several times and loved it! I was just there two weeks ago. I agree that you need to stay a minimum of two nights to ensure you get a clear view. Currently the lava rock are not coming down so you may want to ask in advance. Even so the views are stunning and there were tons of things to do. There is a guide named Christian working at the lodge. He does the free morning hike around the property. I would highly recommend doing this walk and/or having a private guided hike with him. This time we had family members with limited mobility with us, so we had him take us on a 6am walk. We saw many birds and animals including tucans, spider monkeys and howler monkeys. Definitely a highlight of our whole trip!
As for the comments on the meal prices… They didn’t have the lunch and dinner buffets operating so we just ordered off the menu. It worked out to about 1/2 price of what I expected to spend.
Hi Kim, thanks for the great comment! I loved the guided tour – the guide showed us so much more than I would have ever spotted on my own. You bring up an important point, too – the observatory lodge is friendly to those with limited mobility which is really hard to find in Costa Rica.
I appreciate the update on the meal prices, I wasn’t even aware there was another option besides the buffet, that is great!
Those pizontes are adorable!
Beautiful photos of the Volcano. I wonder if they let people climb it? It’s slopes look like it has had a recent eruption. Maybe no climbing. I just got done hiking up the volcano on St. Kitt, great experience.
Oh my goodness please do NOT climb Arenal – you will burn! People have died attempting to get closer. You are correct – it is HOT! The closest you can get is the Observatory Lodge, so stay on those trails and don’t venture closer.
I bet the volcano on St Kitt was an awesome experience. I’d love to hike a volcano on a smaller island!
I hiked (or drove up to) some of the other volcanos here in Costa Rica: Poas, Irazu, and the park near Turrialba. From Irazu, you can see the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea at the same time on a clear day.
I was reading a tour guide, mentioned an Orchid Garden nearby. have you been? I love Orchids!
There are quite a few orchid gardens in the Arenal area and I have been to a couple. I love orchids, too! The best time of year to see orchids in Costa Rica is in March 🙂
It looks so grand. The imposing view of the volcano is awe inspiring. I have never before seen one. The rainbow eucalyptus seems like art of nature.
Have a fabulous day Erin:)
Rainbow eucalyptus are amazing 🙂 Hope you are having a great day too!
It looks like I’m a little late to the party, but this is just awesome. We went to an active volcano for the first time in July of this year.
It was Yasur Volcano in Vanuatu.
It was absolutely amazing. I still just can’t believe it. It was the coolest things that I have ever done.
Yasur was super active when we were there. It was very scary. I was shaking at times.
Loved every minute of it.
I want to go to another active volcano next year.
Being close to an active volcano is amazing, you can really feel the power of the earth. There is one in Nicaragua in a lake that I’m gong to try and visit this year. Where is Vanuatu?
In a lake? That sounds really cool.
Vanuatu is in the South Pacific, near Fiji. It’s a beautiful country. I just love it there.
I will definitely go again.
Oooo and talking about fun on the lake have you heard about the new and exciting water sport? It is known as Stand Up Paddle (SUP) Surfing and boy is it a barrel of laughs! I tried it out and it was so much fun.
Hope you have fun SUP Surfing the day away like I did 🙂
My favorite place to stay at Arenal is Hotel Los Lagos. ( google it, they have a website ). I have so many wonderful memories there. They are also very close to the volcano with a 4×4 trail that goes up about a kilometer to get you even closer. Hot water swim up bar and water slide. Beautiful gardens. Horses. Zip lines. crocodiles, fish, butterflies and frogs. large gazebo jacuzzi. gigantic rooms. and all at a very reasonable price.
Imagine sitting on a bar stool in a swimming pool filled just hours before with hot thermal waters sipping a tropical drink with your sweetheart and watching glowing hot rocks tumbling down the mountain in front of you and the earth trembling and growling beneath you.
When I lived in CR, hotel los lagos is always where I took my friends and family visiting and the place never disappointed.
One thing though… plan to stay 2-3 days, or there is a good chance you won’t get to see the volcano in action.
( no, I’m not affiliated with the hotel in any way either. It is just my “happy place” like in Happy Gilmore. )
Yeah you have to stay 2-3 days! That place sounds awesome, I’ll have to check it out. 🙂
Yes Yes YESSSSSSS… I’m heading to Costa Rica on Monday and I can’t WAIT to see volcanoes! BOOYA!
Awesome – hey FYI Arenal is not spewing any lava right now. You can still go to Poas or Irazu to see the craters… and Arenal for hot springs / jungle fun.
Thank for the info. My husband and I are headed down in April and we definitely want to check out Arenal. The lodge sounds amazing; hopefully, we can swing staying there.
It is amazing. fyi, Arenal is not spewing any lava right now, so go ahead and prepare for that. You can’t get very close to it either. You can, however, go to Poas or Irazu to get real close to the crater lakes.
Would you recommend this as a “must-see” place to visit in Costa Rica?
THat depends on how much time you have and whether you would be disappointed in not seeing lava. There is no lava flowing out of Arenal right now.
Oh Costa Rica… let’s get married. Why can’t Canada have sweet volcano times?
I remember showing this volcano to my students last year… along with that one I can’t pronounce or spell in Iceland lol. I’ve thought about checking out Costa Rica as a honeymoon spot – any thoughts?
Any one of the romantic hot springs resorts would be amazing for a honeymoon. Only problem is that right now Arenal is not producing lava, so you would miss out on that. THere is still a lot to do in the area as far as activities are concerned – ziplining, hiking, tropical wildlife tours/gardens/zoos… or just stay in the resort with the hot springs the whole time. 🙂
Anther option is the beach. Depends on what type of people you are – there are options to suit every type of person: Resorts, rustic cabins, tons of hotels in the middle, adventure, relaxing etc etc. Plus Costa Rica is easy to get to. Don’t come in Sept or Oct though unless you are going to the Caribbean side.
Thanks for the tip on the Arenal Observatory Lodge. It’s really quite a spot, once you get there along those rocky roads! We were only able to spend one night and most of two days, but we managed Bandi Hot Springs and canyoning, which was amazing! No lava; you were right, but we did love the nearby waterfall, the hummingbirds and the hanging bridge. Erika
Cool, glad you enjoyed it!
Nice article, there are many other spectacular views of the Arenal Volcano that you may want to experience before choosing the best. I have had the joy of living in Paradise for the last 12 years, 6 of which have been around Lake Arenal and its active volcano and getting up close to the marvel is a must if your in the area, one of my all time favorite views of spectacle is by water, available in comfort on board a real boat with PACR. more details @ http://wakeboardcr.com/
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