On the map, the Arenal National Park is located in the lower central part of our northern plains. The 7,413 acres (3,000 hector) Arenal National Park is settled within the 501,623 acres (203,000 hector) Arenal Conservation Area, which is protecting 8 of Costa Rica's 12 life zones and 16 reserves in the region between the Guanacaste and Tilarán mountain ranges. The park contains two volcanoes, the very active Arenal Volcano and the very dormant Cerro Chato, and is located near the 25 mile long Lake Arenal. The lake was extended to 3 times its original size in 1979 to house Costa Rica’s largest hydroelectric dam that produces 70% of the country’s electricity.
The lake is very famous among local fishermen and travelers, because its waters are loaded with rainbow bass. This fish is known by the locals as Guapote (handsome one). It is not only beautiful, but very flavorful as well. Lake Arenal is also one of the world's top destinations for travelers to enjoy windsurfing and sail boarding, due to its year-round steady and strong winds. There is a small but bustling windsurfing community, containing schools for amateur travelers, at the northwest end of the lake. Although, the winds are year around, the prime time of year for the serious windsurfers to visit is during the windy season which is from November to April.
Costa Rica's Arenal National Park gets its name from the Arenal Volcano, one of the world's ten most active volcanoes, and the most active volcano in Costa Rica. Arenal Volcano has been spewing lava regularly since breaking its 400-year dormancy from a fateful earthquake on July 29, 1968. As a result of the colossal blast, that was felt as far away as Boulder, Colorado, two of the local villages (Tabacón and Pueblo Nuevo) were wiped out, along with their entire populations. Catching a glimpse of the ever erupting Volcan Areanl, is never a sure thing. Catching a glimpse of the ever erupting Volcan Areanl, is never a sure thing.
Arenal Volcano is a near picture-perfect cone shape, and a must-see for anyone visiting Costa Rica. In fact, it is one of Costa Rica’s biggest tourist attractions. The picturesque Arenal Volcano is the major highlight of this new national park that opened its doors in September of 1991. Lava discharge and eruptions have been regular, and on virtually any day tourist can see smoky columns of ash and blocks of rocks from eruptions, known as strombolian activity, descending down the elevated slope (provided it isn’t clouded over). Some days the volcano blows numerous times in an hour, ejecting car-size rocks, chloride gases, sulfur dioxide, ash, and red-hot lava. Located on the western side of the volcano is its active vent, and with the normal easterly wind, it blows most of the effects westward. Eruptions and explosions, however, happen on all sides of the volcano. On nights where Arenal Volcano is not surrounded by clouds, vacationers can enjoy fiery firework displays of lava and red illuminated boulders. Along with the lake, the Arenal National Park is surrounded by a plethora of hot springs heated by the peak of the volcano.
The weather can be erratic with clouds covering the volcano at a moment's notice, hiding any view travelers could have had. This is truer during the wet season. Visitors stand a reasonable chance in the dry season, although, clear nights are still possible at this time. Morning hours seem to be a better time to witness the top before the afternoon clouds arrive. Travelers should know that viewing Volcan Arenal is never a sure thing and in all actuality, the worse time for viewing Volcan Arenal is during December and January. We know, we live here.
The Arenal National Park will get travelers the closest (legal) viewing of Volcan Arenal, and trust me, it's close enough. Hiking is only permitted on the marked trails that are within the park. Due to safety concerns from the ever erupting volcano, visitors are not allowed to hike near the crater at the top of the volcano. In the past, a number of visitors and unauthorized tour guides have died from hiking too close to the summit.
The park has a small mirador (lookout) which offers spectacular panoramic views of the volcano, Areanl Lake and the Tileran Mountain Range, although you may need to catch it on a sunny, clear day for optimum viewing. The park also has three hiking trails that cover 2.1 miles (3.4 kilometers). The hiking trails in the park will take you through rainforest, secondary rainforest, savanna and over old lava flows, with the mighty volcano rumbling at your feet. Most of the hiking in this area is fairly easy, so there's not too much climbing involved, although you need to be careful traversing the lava field.
Trail #1: The Heliconias Trail - this is a .6214 mile (1 kilometer) loop around hike. Travelers can access the .93 mile (1.5 kilometer) hiking path to the main lookout from this trail.
Trail #2: The Las Coladas Trail - this is a mostly flat hike and is a 1.242 mile (2 kilometer) hike that snakes around the base of the Arenal Volcano and has views of old lava flows from the last major eruption in 1992.
Trail #3: The Los Tucanes Trail - this trail starts with the Las Coladas Trail and continues for another 1.864 miles (3 kilometers) through lush forest, ending around the old lava beds from previous eruptions.
The Main Lookout is located at the base of the volcano where visitors can view the 1968 and 1992 lava flows.
It is worth mentioning that the old lava flows are pleasant to trek, but the flows are made up of enormous rocks and visitors should climb with caution. It's easy to lose your footing when you don't want to miss the huge fiery-red boulders and volcanic ash flowing from the Arenal Volcano. That said, viewing the volcano from inside the park is no better than on the road just outside the park that goes towards Observatory Lodge, SkyTram, and El Castillo. (In fact, we recommend saving your money from park entrance fees and use this road for viewing the volcano.)
The park contains a second volcano, located 1.864 miles (3 kilometers) southeast of the Arenal Volcano. This volcano is called Cerro Chato (Mount Chato), and has been inactive for around 3500 years. This time line coincides with the creation and growth of the Arenal Volcano itself. The Cerro Chato volcano contains a collapsed crater that is now home to an amazing emerald green color lagoon surrounded by dense forest. The area surrounding the volcano has a few different microclimates including low montane rainforest and pre-montane forest which are abundant in biodiversity. There is access to two hiking trails leading to Cerro Chato for a small fee of $10. These trails are not your everyday trails and require some sort of physical fitness. These trails can be accessed near the La Fortuna Waterfall. A taxi ride from downtown La Fortuna should cost $6.
If you don't have a rental car and are staying in the La Fortuna area, just about any hotel or tour operator offers night tours to the volcano. Most of these tours do NOT go into the park; they stop on the outlining road (really the only one) that heads to the Arenal Observatory Lodge. A taxi will also take you there, but it's often not as cost effective as taking a tour.
Park Rangers are available to advise visitors on current safety concerns, and will close the park down if they feel that conditions are becoming too dangerous. . The visitor’s center near the entrance of the park has an exhibition hall, an auditorium, a souvenir store, a mirador (look out), restrooms, and a museum that is currently under construction, but should be opening soon.
Getting to Arenal National Park
Arenal National Park is most quickly reached from San José by taking the PanAmerican Highway west to the town of San Ramón and the road north through Angeles, La Tigra, and Chachagua to La Fortuna. If you were to drive west going out of the town of La Fortuna, the road will take you 180 degrees around the Arenal Volcano. The turnoff to the entrance is 3.5 km east of the lake and 7.5 km west of La Fortuna. The dirt road leads 1.5 km to the park ranger station.
You can get to the park by public bus service which runs from San José and Ciudad Quesada to the town of La Fortuna.
Another route, and just as scenic, for those coming from the Guanacaste Province, is to take the PanAmerican Highway to Cañas, and then proceed to the town of Tilarán, then continue around the northern shores of Lake Arenal till you get to the base of the Arenal Volcano.
A dirt road leads north 1.5 km to a parking lot and hiking trails.
Video: Arenal National Park