Arenal Volcano is one of the top landmarks in Costa Rica. The entry point to Arenal Volcano National Park is the town of La Fortuna. You can get there from San Jose via a direct bus that costs about $5. The trip lasts around 4 hours, slowly going up and down the typical Costa Rican rolling hills landscape.
Most travelers stay in La Fortuna, as it’s the most convenient option. If you’d like to splurge (and I’m talking about hundreds of USD per night), there are a ton of spas and resorts scattered throughout the area. For our $60 per night we got a nice room with AC, breakfast and a small pool we barely used.
We only had one full day there, so we spent it in turbo mode. Started with a visit to the volcano. Entry ticket: $15. You can’t climb the volcano or even get close. Instead, you’ll get a few kilometers of trails up to a couple of viewpoints and some lava flows from past eruptions.
We were lucky to see some wildlife: toucans, Montezuma oropendolas (the Wiki article very accurately describes their mating call: “tic-tic-glik-glak-GLUUuuuuu”) and even a cute little eyelash viper.
Continued with a short stop at the thermal springs. There are a lot of hot spring resorts in the area, most famous being Tabacon. Entry is about $50-70. But just across the road from Tabacon there’s a short trail that takes you to a free natural hot stream where you can sit and relax. There are no locker rooms, but who cares? You’re in the middle of a lush beautiful rain forest, enjoying hot water flowing down an active volcano. Pura vida!
Our final stop of the day was El Catarata Fortuna. Entry ticket: $11. You’ll have to go down some stairs (about 150 vertical meters, I’d guess). The waterfall is pretty spectacular and worth the effort.
As you might assume, these landmarks are pretty spread around and you’ll have to cover some kilometers. If you’re not relying on a rental car, then you can do it our way: public bus, lots of walking, some hitchhiking, a taxi, some more hitchhiking.