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Five of the best adventures around Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano

Located three hours’ drive north west of the capital, San José, the town of La Fortuna offers a springboard to explore the landscape around the inactive Arenal Volcano.

A turkey vulture swoops in front of Arenal Volcano.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty
photographs by Jamie Lafferty
Published 27 Mar 2022, 15:00 BST

1. Hiking in Arenal National Park

There are dozens of trails in the region but hiking Arenal National Park on the lake side of the volcano offers the chance to lose oneself in nature. There are newly improved steps leading to viewing platforms of the volcano — you’re in the right place when you find other people taking photos of the peak and resting on the black lava from the massive and deadly 1968 eruption, the volcano’s first in over 400 years. Out on the trail there are scores of bird species to spot. The path is uneven in places, but with trekking up the volcano an impossibility, this makes for a fine alternative. Guided tour and hot-spring visit with Anywhere from $131 (£97). 

2. Whitewater rafting

As well as its volcanic centrepiece, the remarkable topography of the Arenal region offers optimal conditions for whitewater rafting. A number of tours are bookable in La Fortuna, the most adventurous of which takes you to nine-mile sections of the Balsa River, where you’ll battle Class IV rapids. It’s theoretically possible to spot sloths from the water, but good luck having the Zen to pick out those docile tree-dwellers while the river thunders around you. If this sounds a little intimidating, the Sarapiquí River is a much gentler option often used to train first-time rafters, or to give kids an introductory experience. Tours from $68 (£50).

 A rufous-tailed hummingbird takes a rare break on a branch in the Arenal region.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

3. La Fortuna Waterfall

The steep hike down to the base of La Fortuna Waterfall will inspire a sense of foreboding in some travellers. There are about 500 newly refurbished steps, each reinforcing the grim knowledge that they will be much harder on the way back up. The good news is that the sweaty trip offers a 230ft waterfall — one of the most beautiful in the country — as a reward. It’s so picture-perfect that locals are often spotted in or around the plunge pool posing for wedding photos. Expect to see toucans and howler monkeys during the hike, too. Entry $18 (£13). 

4. Watersports on Lake Arenal

Costa Rica’s largest lake is also a vast reservoir, but for most visitors the focus will be on watersports. Paddleboarding is popular in the calmer waters close to the dammed bank, but the altitude and funnelling of wind by the surrounding mountains has made the lake especially popular with windsurfers and kitesurfers. There are much more sedate cruises around the lake, too, with several specialising in birdwatching or simply enjoying the sunset. Private kitesurfing lessons from $245 (£181). 

The 230ft-high La Fortuna Waterfall.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

5. Hanging bridges of Mistico Park

This cleverly designed forest walk at Mistico Park uses a combination of six suspension bridges and hairpin bends to offer continuous surprises and great access to jungle wildlife, including toucans and hummingbirds. Crossing the vertiginous bridges may be a little traumatic for anyone lacking a head for heights (some are nearly 150ft above the forest floor). But looking out rather than down is rarely more rewarding — the park has great views of waterfalls, canyons and the Arenal Volcano. Head out to explore solo or book onto a natural history or nighttime tour. Entry from $26 (£19). 

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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