Complete with rainforest trekking, white-water rafting, waterfall swimming, hot springs soaking, horseback-riding fun--here's our top, budget-friendly picks for the Arenal region of Costa Rican adventure!
1. Horseback Riding with Hotel Los Lagos
You don't have to be a guest with the hotel to take advantage of their reasonable horseback-riding trips. Head towards Los Lagos hotel, and across the street from the hotel entrance, you will find their adventure headquarters. The stables are nearby. You can simply walk-in an ask about the horseback-riding trips. They can run about $45 each for two hours. We were sure to tell them upon signing up that we were intermediate riders so we weren't stuck with "ride-in-a-straight-line-pony-ride" trip, but were able to get the horse up to galloping speed, which is a treat for us because most of the time it's not allowed in the U.S! We ended up getting a private ride with the guide.
Lucky us, Jet speaks Spanish, so we made friends with our guide and he happily showed us a private waterfall and a river in which to swim! Keep an eye out for monkeys, sloths, coati, and poisonous frogs along your ride!
2. FREE Public Hot Springs
Sure, you could pay $75 a person to experience the fancy, hotel-run, hot springs that pack in the hotel-buses of tourists everyday. Or, you could relax with the locals in the FREE hot springs that uses the same volcano-fueled, naturally warm water running through the forest just under the highway across from the Tabacon Hot Springs Hotel and Spa.
Keep in mind that it's FREE, so it's not going to be glamorous. But it gets pretty crowded on the weekends and a party-atmosphere takes over some nights, so it can be fun. Unfortunately, the local secret is out, so it won't be private. You can even find reviews and photos on TripAdvisor!
To get there, park across from Tabacon Hotel and look for the yellow gate with a pedestrian-only walkway that takes you down under the road. If you go at night, take a flashlight. You can either walk under the highway, through the tunnels, and access a bunch of smaller pools, or just jump into the pool to your right upon entering! Enjoy!
3. Swim in the Catarata la Fortuna
For a $14 park entrance, you can swim in the magnificent La Fortuna Waterfall. The park fee gains you entry to their newly-renovated stairway into the valley of the Rio Fortuna.
The hike starts with some spectacular views of the waterfall disappearing into the lush rainforest below. Follow the path to begin your descent. The hike can be tough on your calves, but it is well-worth it. Don't forget to wear your swimsuit and bring some towels! You can dip in the cold water nearby the waterfall, although you won't be able to swim directly under the powerful descending water. You can also swim a bit downstream. The water turns a magnificent turquoise blue and small fish can be felt swimming around you.
3. FREE Spectacular Views of Volcan Arenal
The best view of the volcano was from a pricey, hanging-bridges eco park called Mistico. We originally drove up here just to check the place out and we were rewarded with some stunning views of Arenal. Grabbing a coffee from the nearby cafe, and watching the flurry of coati, hummingbirds, howler monkeys, and other animals in the rainforest below, was superb! The next day we went back and took the hanging bridges tour, but it was pretty dull and would recommend you skip it. However, the view is worth the drive over there!
5. Whitewater Rafting Class IV
For some white-knuckle action, head to one of the numerous rafting companies in town. Specify that you'd like a Class IV rapid for a truly adrenaline-pumping experience.
For about $60 each, the company will transport you to the river, provide you with an overview of the rafting experience, pair you up with five other people plus a guide, and thrill you with a two-hour long ride down the river! But it doesn't stop there. For that price, you also get a stop along the river with a fresh fruit snack, an incredible late lunch/early dinner after the trip at their organic farm, a tour of the working farm and explanation of local flora, AND a tutorial and tasting of their homemade rum! You can't beat that price for a full-day experience!
We used Costa Rica Descents for the adventure described above, and were very happy with this company!
Just a heads up: we did not expect this to be so intense! We've never done rafting before, but we are both in our 20's and healthy and fit, so we didn't think anything of doing a class IV. In the end, we are glad we did, but at the time it was a bit scary. One girl had scraped up her shoulder and another messed up his leg pretty badly. Another man lost his go-pro to that was attached to his helmet on one rapid when his boat flipped. And near the end, one boat flipped and two passengers went drifting away down the river. While scary, it was certainly an unforgettable day! Just be ready for an intense ride if you go on a class IV rapid!
6. FREE Hiking in the Rainforest
The good news is, you don't need a guide to do some serious hiking in the Arenal region.
For an easy hike, explore Arenal Volcano National Park. It's only a few bucks to enter the park, and the paths are all marked. You can even hike at the base of the volcano and walk over some of its old lava flows. We did the hike in about 2.5 hours.
For a more challenging hike, check out the hike to Cerro Chato, a lagoon on the top of a sunken volcano just next to Volcan Arenal. It's an intense, five-hour hike, but well-worth the veiws of the secret lagoon at the top.