10 Best Things to Do in La Fortuna and Arenal, Costa Rica for First-Time Visitors

Planning your trip to La Fortuna / Arenal in Costa Rica? Then check out this list of the best things to do in La Fortuna for first time visitors!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase through these links, I earn a small commission on qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support.

The La Fortuna area (oftentimes called Arenal, thanks to the volcano by the same name) is pretty much on every visitor’s itinerary and with good reason: it’s a unique area to visit. There are things to do in La Fortuna for every kind of traveler: everything from thermal hot springs to hiking to zip-lining.

When I started building my weeklong Costa Rica itinerary, I knew I had to visit La Fortuna. The city itself may be small, but it’s a popular destination for tourists who, like me, are eager to do some adventure activities and most importantly – soak in (literally) the benefits of volcanic thermal water. So without further ado, here are the best things to do in La Fortuna in two days – and beyond.

About La Fortuna, Costa Rica

La Fortuna is a small town in Costa Rica, about 90 miles Northwest of San Jose. It’s an incredibly popular tourist destination, thanks to its two volcanos – the still-active Arenal Volcano and the dormant Chato Volcano. This is where you can experience some of the best thermal spas in the country, visit a beautiful waterfall, and do plenty of hiking and adventure activities. Time to get your adrenaline pumping!

Getting to La Fortuna

If you’re following my one-week Costa Rica itinerary, it’s likely you’re driving or taking the shuttle to La Fortuna from San Jose. The drive itself isn’t too bad in terms of road conditions, but it does get pretty crowded. Plan to spend around four hours or so getting to La Fortuna. If you’re basing yourself in San Jose with no plans to shuttle or drive to La Fortuna, you can at least experience the highlights with an organized day trip like this one. If you’re driving, head to La Fortuna upon arrival at the airport or wake up very early, eat a hearty breakfast, and hit the road.

Rather do an organized Costa Rica tour instead of planning it independently? Check out this tour with my favorite travel company!


The Best Things to do in La Fortuna / Arenal in 2 days

To best enjoy this area, you need at least two days here to experience the top things to do in Arenal and La Fortuna. I’ve included a comprehensive list of some of the best things to do in La Fortuna below but a lot depends on what you plan to do in both Monteverde and Manuel Antonio (assuming you’re following my Costa Rica itinerary). At the very least, be sure not to miss Arenal National Park, the Baldi Hot Springs, and La Fortuna Waterfall.


Hike in Arenal National Park

You can pretty much see the famous Arenal Volcano no matter where you are in the Arenal area – it looms largely over the town and is surrounded by beautiful green hills. It’s Costa Rica’s most active volcano, and the closest point you can get to it is by hiking the trail at Arenal National Park (get tickets ahead of time HERE). Note that there’s still volcanic activity so you can’t get that close.

The full 3-mile hike is relatively low impact and although there’s the opportunity to spot cool wildlife in the park, we didn’t see much. There were really interesting looking plants though, including a very impressive Ceiba tree. Either way, if you’re looking to get close to the volcano and enjoy a mild hike, I definitely recommend the park! I suggest you get there early because 1) it gets hot really quickly and 2) the clouds can obscure your view of the volcano later in the day. Apparently there are also some hidden and hard-to-reach hot springs nearby if you’re up for exploring. Check out this post for a full guide to the park.


Soak at the Baldi Hot Springs

Although I would have loved nothing more than to try to find those local hot springs, my sister and I decided that we would all enjoy spending the day at a nicer spa instead. The Baldi Hot Springs are the most affordable in the area and are totally family friendly. The thermal pools are all natural and filled with minerals, and there are plenty of them to enjoy. We spent the entire afternoon here, but they open early and don’t close until late, so come whenever.


Swim Under La Fortuna Waterfall


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by EF Ultimate Break (@efultimatebreak) on

The La Fortuna waterfall is located just outside the main town and has a deep pool that is perfect for swimming. You can reach it by hiking or on horseback if you feel like channeling your inner ranchero. Like all sites in Costa Rica, it likely gets crowded as the day goes on so come early. Although this isn’t a thermal pool, it’s a good budget alternative to the hot spring resorts and just spectacular overall. Totally worth the visit if you have the time. There’s not that many places where you can swim under a waterfall! Get your entrance ticket ahead of time HERE.


Walk through Canopies on Hanging Bridges

If you’re heading to Costa Rica then don’t miss a trip to La Fortuna. These are the best things to do in La Fortuna for first time visitors!
Hanging bridges, La Fortuna

Walking the hanging bridges is a popular activity to do in both La Fortuna and Monteverde, although it seems to be more popular in Monteverde (that’s where we went). Essentially these bridges hang high above the forest in line with the canopy (remember learning all the parts of the rainforest in science class?). The bridges allow for excellent views of the forest and of course, epic photos for Instagram ;). There are a couple of popular ones in La Fortuna but this one comes highly recommended. It’s seriously the best way to experience Costa Rica’s diverse ecosystem, so be sure to do it in either La Fortuna or Monteverde!


Delight Your Tastebuds on the Rainforest Chocolate Tour


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Louisa Mairlot (@louisamairlot) on

Unearth the secrets of local chocolate production with this rainforest chocolate tour! This tour is every chocolate lover’s dream – not only does it include plenty of chocolate tasting (YUM), but you also get a chance to learn about the production, history, and harvesting of cacao. I personally really enjoyed learning about the process from start to finish, and getting to eat a bunch of chocolate was definitely an added bonus.


Go White-water Rafting 


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Janna Wenz ? (@jannawenz) on

Go out for a wild rafting adventure on the Balsa River in this 9-mile white-water rafting adventure. White-water rafting is such an adrenaline boost but definitely not for the faint-hearted. It’s a fun and alternative way to experience the rainforest and this tour in particular takes you to some of the best white-water rafting rivers in the country. The guides are well-trained to help you navigate the river no matter what your level (even if you’re a ‘fraidy cat like me), so this is the perfect adventure for those looking to get a bit out of their comfort zone.


Take a Day Trip to Rio Celeste


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Stéfan (@stefan_tisseyre) on

If I had to recommend one day trip from La Fortuna / Arenal, it would be Rio Celeste, the spectacular place where two mineral-rich rivers meet to create bright blue water. It’s seriously magical. Rio Celeste is located around 2 hours from La Fortuna and is part of Tenorio Volcano National Park. The park itself limits the number of people visiting to 1000 per day, so be sure to go early if you’re driving or book a guided tour to the park. The hike to the waterfall is on the easier side but the trail does get difficult after the waterfall, if you’d like to do the whole thing. Note that the river might not be as blue during rainy season and no swimming is allowed in the park. Still though, this is an awesome place to do a hiking day trip.


SUP or Kayak at Lake Arenal 


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by GreenSpotTravel? (@greenspottravel) on

Lake Arenal is the biggest lake in Costa Rica – it’s also man-made. Despite the fact that it was initially created to produce hydroelectric power, it now has the added bonus of being used for recreational purposes as well. Not only is it a great place to relax and see plenty of wildlife and plants, but it’s also a popular place to kayak or SUP (stand-up paddle board). You can even take a lesson if you’re interested in learning! This a fun place to visit if you have some extra time in La Fortuna but is by no means a “must-do.”


Rappel Down Waterfalls


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Yared Vazquez (@yaredvaz) on

By far one of the most thrilling activities you can do in La Fortuna is canyoning and waterfall jumping. I’ll be the first to admit that I am utterly terrified by canyoning because I’m a huge wuss but I had a blast doing it when I visited Argentina a few years ago. It’s probably even more fun in Costa Rica since there are so many waterfalls. This tour is definitely for the adventure-lover and adrenaline junkie as it involves rappelling down cliffs, jumping across waterfalls, and hiking through some crazy terrain. You’ll definitely get wet but this is truly a wild Costa Rican adventure. Book the tour HERE.


Zipline through the Forest

The Perfect Costa Rica Itinerary: 7 Days of Pura Vida: Planning a week long trip to Costa Rica? Look no further - this is the perfect one week costa rica itinerary that includes adventure, beaches, and wildlife. Click to read and start planning your trip! | https://passportandplates.com

I actually went ziplining in Monteverde and had SO much fun. If you don’t get a chance to do it in Monteverde, consider booking a ziplining adventure in La Fortuna instead. Just don’t leave Costa Rica without ziplining at least once – they have so many long ziplines that you can do. One of the coolest things about ziplines in La Fortuna specifically is that there are a ton of tours that offer ziplining in combination with other activities such as white-water rafting, rappelling, canyoning and more. If you’re short on time, be sure to check out the myriad of options available to you!


Go Spelunking at the Venado Caves


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Costa Rica Experts (@costaricaexperts) on

Located just 45 minutes from La Fortuna, the Venado Caves are these fascinating underground caves you can explore. You’ll get to climb down passages and walk through tunnels to see a variety of stalactites, stalagmites, bats, insects and more. Plus, you’ll learn all about the history and importance of the caves as well. It’s on the moist and muddy side, but you’ll get all the equipment you need on the tour. Be prepared to squeeze yourself into small passages and wear clothes you don’t mind getting muddy. You also have the additional option to go spelunking! If you’re looking for what to do in La Fortuna that isn’t overly touristy – definitely consider a visit to the Venado Caves! Check out the tour to the caves HERE.


Where to Eat in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

If you're wondering which cities to add to your Costa Rica itinerary, don't miss La Fortuna and Monteverde! CLICK to read the Costa Rica Travel Guide: La Fortuna and Monteverde edition and start planning your trip! | https://passportandplates.com
My meal from the Rainforest Cafe. NOM.
  • Rainforest Café (not the chain): an excellent local spot located in downtown La Fortuna, this is a good choice for local Costa Rican cuisine. I recommend a casado (typical plate), but everything we ordered was spectacular. Be sure to order one of their giant, tasty empanadas as well!
  • Chifa La Familia Feliz: a small Peruvian-Chinese fusion restaurant, which isn’t as weird as it sounds if you know the history of Peruvian food. There was actually an hour long wait when we went, but the large portions and delicious food made it totally worth it.
  • Soda Viquez: For delicious and reasonably-priced Costa Rican fare, look no further than Soda Viquez. You can always order the casado, which is delicious or try one of the many other options on their menu.
  • My Coffee: This is a great breakfast / lunch spot for some quicker meals. They offer a mix of Costa Rican and American food but the real highlight is that they have iced coffee. That is such a rare find in Costa Rica and made a visit to My Coffee well-worth it.


Where to Stay in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

There are plenty of great places to stay in La Fortuna / Arenal, depending on your budget and desired amenities. See below for my picks for every budget!

See below for other accommodation options in the area!


What to Pack for La Fortuna, Costa Rica

I was surprised to find that traveling to an outdoorsy tropical destination requires some specialty items, which I’ve included below. Also, click here to see which items are always in my suitcase, no matter the destination!

Check out the complete Costa Rica packing list here!

  • Hiking sandals: they may be ugly, but they’re certainly versatile! Not only did I wear them for every hike I took in Costa Rica, but I also wore them at the beach as well.
  • Waterproof jacket: It rains a lot in Costa Rica – especially if you’re there during rainy season. This jacket is lightweight and breathable but keeps you dry. It also fits into its own pouch to make packing lightly that much easier.
  • Temperature regulating t-shirts: No matter what the season, you’ll want at least one basic temperature regulating shirt, like this one. This T is specially made to be moisture-wicking, anti-odor, and offer SPF protection. Plus, it doesn’t look like an exercise top but still offers a lot of the benefits of high-performance clothing. It’s cute enough to be dressed up with a cardigan or nice scarf. If you decide you love these shirts and want more, try this one.
  • Moisture-wicking pants: Costa Rica is tropical which means it’s humid AF and there are tons of mosquitos. The best pants to get for this kind of weather are both quick-dry and lightweight. I recommend these that are great for both hiking and just regular traveling but you can also browse all your options at REI.
  • Sunscreen: The kind that is both lightweight AND doesn’t sweat off your face! For everyday use, I use Neutrogena Clear Face Sunscreen because my skin is prone to acne. The original Neutrogena sunscreen is just as good if acne is a non-issue. Neither will leave your skin feeling gross and greasy. For the rest of me, I use the solid body stick, which works well. My friends who dive told me that the chemicals in sunscreen are really bad for the ocean though, so if you’re going swimming, they recommend All Good Sunscreen, which is safe for reefs and the planet. The more you know!
  • Insect repelling clothing: YEAH, that’s a thing! I wish I’d known before I went to Costa Rica. Honestly, you might think you won’t need it but this is a purchase I wish I’d made. Check out this men’s shirt and this women’s shirt.
  • Insect repellent: Don’t think you can get away with wimpy insect repellent…the mosquitos in Costa Rica are vicious! THIS is the best ones to ward off those bites.
  • Permethrin insect spray: Before you go to Costa Rica, treat all your clothing with Permethrin, a magical spray that makes your clothing repel insects (and doesn’t stick to your skin!).
  • Trip Insurance: A lot can go wrong when you travel which is why I always recommend getting trip insurance. World Nomads is my go-to company.
  • Power bank: I don’t know if I’m a phone addict or what (jk, the answer to that is an unfortunate but resounding yes) but I legit don’t understand how people can travel without a power bank. You’re out and about all day and using your phone to navigate, take photos, and who knows what else. I always carry my Anker PowerCore while I’m out. It’s light, holds multiple charges, and charges phones quickly. Win!
  • An eSIM: Once upon a time, I used to collect SIM cards like 90’s kids collected Beanie Babies. I had one for each country I visited and multiple phone numbers I could never remember. Why? So I could always have internet (I’m an addict and I know it). Nowadays, I use an eSIM. I get internet pretty much everywhere and can use it for multiple devices. Plus, I get to keep my actual number and contacts in my phone. Win!
  • Waterproof dry bag or day pack (water resistant): Not only does it rain a lot, but Costa Rica is notoriously humid. Keep your valuables in a waterproof bag to avoid any kind of water damage. These are especially useful for hiking or water activities.
  • Waterproof phone pouch: If you want to take photos of your excursions underwater or just generally keep your phone dry and handy, this a must-have item!
  • Waterproof camera: Costa Rica is all about outdoor activities in the elements, and having a device that can capture your moments no matter the weather is a must! GoPro is the go-to camera for adventure enthusiasts and the best in the market. Plus, it’s waterproof without a case!
  • Insulated water bottle: Keep your liquids colder for longer. Nothing beats a cold drink of water after trekking through the national park!
  • Microfiber towel: Microfiber towels are a must-have for any outdoorsy trip. They dry significantly faster than regular towels are much more lightweight, too. Plus, this one comes with a bonus hand towel, which is perfect for hikes!
  • Portable clothesline: This is super handy for hanging swimwear, towels, and other gear to dry. Not only does it come with built-in clothespins, but it’s also easy to hook both indoors and outdoors.
  • Hand Sanitizer and face wipes: Costa Rica is hot and humid, which means you’ll be sweaty and gross pretty much the whole time. Fun! Face wipes or baby wipes will help you stay refreshed and cleanish, while hand sanitizer is useful for general…er, sanitizing. Especially if a bathroom isn’t handy.
  • Travel First Aid Kit: I love that this travel first aid kit is small enough to stick in your bag but still has tons of items in it. I’d remove the scissors if you aren’t planning to check your luggage, but otherwise, this is incredibly handy, especially if you’re going to be doing outdoorsy things.
  • Carry on backpack: Of course, no packing list is complete without a carry on to keep all your essentials. The Tortuga Outbreaker Backpack is hands down the best backpack I’ve ever used for travel. Not only is it carry-on sized, but it’s also incredibly comfortable and easy to carry, even for a small-framed person like me. It has tons of pockets and compartments for organization, lockable zippers, and it’s weather resistant. If you don’t think you can handle packing in a carry-on, the Osprey Fairview 70 Backpack is just as comfortable but a lot larger. Costa Rica is not really conducive to wheeled suitcases.

Don’t forget to rent a eSIM for the road. It’s much easier than buying a local SIM, and it means you don’t have to worry about bad WiFi. Get 15% off your rental with code PASSPORT&PLATES! | Read my review here.

Other Practical Tips


U.S. passport holders don’t need a visa to visit Costa Rica but they do need a return ticket out of the country. Note: you may need to pay a departure tax at the airport when you’re leaving if the fee isn’t included in your ticket. The cost is $29 per person, payable in USD or colones.

Renting a Car in Costa Rica

If you aren’t taking a tour, the best way to get around Costa Rica is to rent a car, especially if you’re planning on visiting more than just one city.

Renting a car in Costa Rica isn’t cheap because there’s mandatory in-country car insurance and other fees, which can oftentimes cost more than renting the car itself. I like using Expedia to compare costs before renting. In the case of Costa Rica, read the fine print carefully when booking online. If you’d like to know more about the policies and fees regarding car rental in Costa Rica, I recommend this article.


The official Costa Rican currency is colones. At the time of this post (May 2019), USD $1 equals about ₡596. US dollars are widely accepted in Costa Rica, but often at a fixed rate of about $1 to ₡500, so you lose a little money by using USD exclusively. This is not the case in restaurants, large grocery stores, or hotels that use exact rates but it’s true for smaller shops, cabs, etc. Credit cards are widely accepted, so I recommend bringing a no-fee travel card and some USD with you for smaller purchases. Make sure you bring your patience and your passport with you to the bank to exchange money: it’s where you’ll get the best exchange rate but the lines are long.

The Best Time to Visit La Fortuna

Mid-December to April is the dry season, so that’s the best time to visit if you want good weather. The downside of visiting then is that it’s when Costa Rica is the most crowded and the most expensive.  If a little rain doesn’t bother you, traveling during rainy season (May – November) can save you money on accommodation and tours.

How Long to Stay in La Fortuna

The answer to this one isn’t as straightforward as some of the other towns. I recommend anywhere between 2-5 days. It totally depends on which activities you want to do. I spent two days here and I thought it was good but there are definitely plenty of things to do for those who want to stay longer.

No matter how long you decide to stay in La Fortuna, it’s definitely a city not to be missed. No matter what your interests, I’m confident you’ll find plenty of things to keep you relishing that pura vida lifestyle.

More Costa Rica Resources

Planning a trip to Costa Rica soon? Check out ALL my posts on Costa Rica below:  


Have you ever been to La Fortuna? What was your experience like? Share in the comments below!


Like this post? Pin it for later!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *