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Visiting the Arenal Volcano Area in Costa Rica

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This was our most adventurous and ambitious excursion of our Costa Rican vacation, requiring a full day trip from our Guanacaste resort. We left at 5 am and returned at 10 pm. Preparing for our family trip to Costa Rica at home, I was smitten by images of the famous Arenal Volcano, one the most active volcanoes in the world, and one of seven active volcanoes in Costa Rica.

The area surrounding Arenal Volcano is also known for its lake, famous hanging bridges, world renowned zip lining and an abundance of hot mineral springs. Our family decided we simply must pay a visit to the area during our time in Costa Rica. Note that many people visiting Guanacaste choose to visit the closer Rincon de la Vieja region, another beautiful area with an active volcano, which is also a place to consider, especially with younger children.

The Arenal region is packed with so many natural wonders and there is so much to do and see that it is hard to prioritize the many different choices if you are only going for a day trip like our family. Many tourists choose to stay in this area for one or several nights. We ended up deciding to focus on a few key experiences and leave the rest for our next visit. Here are the main elements of our itinerary, which made for an exhilarating daylong excursion:

The Guanacaste Region

Our trip started by driving through the Guanacaste countryside, which was just beautiful in the rising morning sun. Think dewy green pastures with drowsy cows and horses and majestic Guanacaste trees (the national trees of Costa Rica for which the province was named), stately teak tree plantations, and bright green sugar cane fields. After passing through the town of Liberia, part of our route took us on the famous Pan-American Highway 1, which runs from Alaska, all the way to southernmost tip of South America, its 47,000 miles making it the longest motorable road in the World!

Sun rises over the Guanacaste province in Costa Rica

Sunrise over Guanacaste Province.

Lake Arenal

As we approached the area around the Arenal Volcano, we noticed much cooler weather compared to the beach/coastal regions and lots of wind. No wonder this area has an abundance of windmills, which supply eco-friendly energy to much of Guanacaste and beyond.It is also known for its macadamia nut and coffee plantations. There are many places along the road offering refreshments or souvenirs related to these two crops.

But the real treat was the view of the beautiful Lake Arenal, the largest man made lake in Central America, rich with history. When we pulled off the road to take a picture, we spotted a collard aracari toucan, one of six different toucan species that reside in Costa Rica, in the trees along the dirt road. What a remarkable bird, especially when observed in its natural habitat!

Lake Arenal, Costa Rica

An early morning view of Lake Arenal.

Arenal Hanging Bridges

Our first activity was a visit to the Arenal Hanging Bridges, a complex of trails and foot-bridges (some static and some suspended) weaving through a spectacular rain forest with an incredible diversity of plant and animal species. We embarked on a fantastic nature walk, an approximately two mile long loop that took us about 2 ½ hours to complete, though you could easily spend more time here.

Our knowledgeable guide held our attention by pointing out interesting things at every turn and providing fascinating and entertaining facts. Did you know that cecropia leaves, a favorite food of sloths, contain a mild narcotic which makes sloths sluggish? Or that wandering palm trees move several inches every year in search of nutrients and moisture? We certainly did not know that the spectacular blue color of the famous and endangered morpho butterfly, which we were lucky to see briefly, is an illusion created by the microscopic scales on top, which reflect the light.

I can’t emphasize enough how much our family loved this interactive nature lecture! Aside from seeing an amazing array of plants and animals (like the highly elusive sloth and the super poisonous eyelash viper!), we enjoyed breathtaking views of the rain forest canopy and the Arenal Volcano from the highest hanging bridges.

Arenal Hanging Bridges, Costa Rica

Our family loved our tour of the rainforest at the Arenal Hanging Bridges!

Zip Lining

Our senses now fully awake after the canopy tour, we were ready for the ultimate adventure of the day, zip lining! Having never zip lined before, why not debut at one of the best places in the world for zip lining? We chose Sky Adventures’ Sky Trek tour.

After being fitted with our equipment, we took a sky tram up the mountain. The ride provided us with yet more amazing views of the Arenal Volcano, the cloud forest canopy and the shimmering Lake Arenal at the bottom of the basin.  Many tourists, especially those with small children and those who do not want to zip line, opt to partake in only the sky tram.

While some of us (ahem!) were a bit nervous at first (especially after the guides zipped off with each of our children into what looked like the rainforest abyss), we loved the experience. Zipping through the rain forest and enjoying spectacular views, our family was periodically reunited at several platforms along the course. At the end, we were all beaming, our hearts pumping from the adventure, the beautiful surroundings and being on one of our best vacations ever.

Zip lining at Arenal in Costa Rica

Here we are, ready for our first zip lining adventure!

Hot Springs

We concluded our day by visiting one of the hot springs, which are abundant in the area. There are many different choices and many of these are actually resorts, but you can purchase a day pass to use their facilities (if you are taking a tour all this details will be taken care of for you).

We decided to make a stop at Los Lagos, which could be best described as a mini hot springs water park with several different pools (some with hot and some with cold water), slides and other fun activities. Our two children simply loved it! (OK, I might have preferred a more spa-like ambiance for myself, but it was worth seeing their happy faces.) The water, coming from underground was incredible, almost too hot at first and offered a great way to relax after our busy, active day and before our long drive back to the resort.

Hot Springs by Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Hot mineral springs are abundant in the Arenal area due to the substantial underground volcanic activity. We even found a hot springs water park!

Things to keep in mind:

  • Because this excursion is rather long, do bring snacks and travel pillows/blankets, if you have them, along for the ride. Our kids happily and comfortably slept in the car on the way there and back.
  • Also, the Arenal area can be much cooler than the beach, so make sure to bring sweaters or jackets. You may also consider bringing rain ponchos if you have them. Because of the climate, rain showers (or at least misting) are a common occurrence in this area.
  • Finally, this is a trip with quite extensive driving and part of it was on curvy dirt roads with plenty of potholes. I highly recommend a dose of Dramamine for your children (and yourself if you are prone to car sickness) before you leave your hotel in the morning and then again at the end of the day before you embark on your journey home.

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A native of Slovenia, Vera moved to the U.S. 20+ years ago after meeting her American husband. Together with their two children they live on the North…

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