As a couple of the best destinations in Costa Rica, Arenal and Monteverde are a must for those looking for outdoor adventure and nature during their Costa Rica trip. Although many people assume they are similar, they are very different. For one thing, Arenal is the rain forest and volcano and Monteverde is the cloud forest!
We highly recommend visiting both if you have the time as they both have so much to offer and they are excellent destinations for every type of traveler.
You don’t need to spend a more than a few days in each place to get a well rounded experience so if you’re looking for ideas of things to do in Arenal and Monteverde, check out this sample itinerary. Perfect for the nature and adventure lover!
What to Know About This 5 Day Arenal and Monteverde Itinerary
Doesn’t matter which one you visit first
Whether you’re flying into San Jose Airport or Liberia Airport, driving times are very similar. San Jose and Liberia to La Fortuna is about 3.5 hours and about 4 hours to Monteverde. For the purpose of this itinerary, I’m going to start with La Fortuna since most people visit there first.
Arenal is hot, Monteverde is cooler
The average temperature in the La Fortuna/Arenal area is around high 80s F (~31 C). Monteverde is considerably cooler as it’s around 1500 meters (~5000 feet) in elevation. The average temperature is low 80s F (27 C) during the day and gets as cold as the 60s F (15) at night. Make sure to pack appropriately. If you’re visiting in rainy season, you need to pack a rain jacket and a waterproof backpack. Read our Costa Rica rainy season packing list for more tips.
Arenal and La Fortuna, Monteverde and Santa Elena
Some people get mixed up on what is what. La Fortuna is the town near Arenal Volcano but a lot of people call the whole area around the volcano and La Fortuna “Arenal”. Monteverde is the name of the entire area consisting of the cloud forests, Santa Elena (the tourism hub and town) and the small community of Cerro Plano.
How to get to Arenal and Monteverde
If you’re renting a car, we do recommend a high car as the roads to Monteverde are not in good condition (check Monteverde road conditions here). A 4×4 is highly recommended in rainy season but you can also rent a Hyundai Creta if the car isn’t super loaded. All the roads to La Fortuna and in the area are in good shape. Also remember there are no car rental agencies in Monteverde, if you want a car you will have to pay to have one delivered from La Fortuna which can cost around $200.
Renting a car? Check out our Costa Rica car rental discount!
From San Jose: The quickest way to La Fortuna is via San Ramon by way of Route 702 passing the small towns of Chachagua and a few others. You can also go through Naranjo and Ciudad Quesada but it’s a little longer. See what the San Jose to Arenal drive is like.
From Liberia: You will have to get onto the Interamericana highway 1 heading south, exit at Canas, continue to Tilaran and go around Lake Arenal to reach La Fortuna. See what this drive from Guanacaste to Arenal is like here.
From San Jose
To Monteverde: 6:30 AM and 2:30 PM. Takes 5 hours. To La Fortuna: 6:15 AM, 8:40 AM and 11:30 PM. Takes 4 hours.
To Monteverde: You need to take a bus from Liberia to Canas, Canas to Tilaran, Tilaran to Monteverde. The bus from Liberia to Canas takes 2 hours and there is one every half an hour from 8:30 – 3 PM. Canas to Tilaran buses are at 6, 730, 815, 9, 1030, 12, 1 PM, 1:50 PM, 2:35 PM, 3:15 PM, 4PM and 6 PM. From Tilaran to Monteverde there are 4 buses: 4 AM, 8:30 AM, 12:30 PM and 5 PM.
To La Fortuna: Take the same buses as above except at Tilaran, take the bus to La Fortuna. There are buses at 7 AM and 12:30 PM.
There are plenty of shared shuttles from both San Jose and Liberia. There is usually one in the morning and one in the afternoon and costs around $55 per person. Read more about Costa Rica shuttles here.
Days 1-3: Arenal
For the first day, I recommend arriving at Arenal and La Fortuna as early as possible. That way you can spend the rest of the day exploring La Fortuna town and you can spend two full days doing activities. You can read our La Fortuna guide for more information on the town.
Where to stay in Arenal
There are over 100 hotels to choose from in the Arenal area so it depends on your budget. If you’re renting a car, you have the freedom to stay anywhere. If you’re not, I recommend staying in La Fortuna for convenience. Here are hotels we’ve stayed at and recommend but there are many more for all budgets and travelers.
- Selina La Fortuna
- Arenal Container Hostel
- Hotel Las Colinas
- Arenal History Inn
- Hotel Montana de Fuego
- Hotel Magic Mountain
- Arenal Springs
- Springs Resort & Spa
- Arenal Observatory Lodge
- Arenal Kioro
- Los Lagos
If budget is not much of an issue, you can find some of the nicest hotels in the Arenal area. Check our list of luxury hotels in Arenal for recommendations.
What to do in Arenal
With 2 full days in Arenal, you can do a lot. Since many of the activities take only a couple hours, you can do a combo tour to do multiple things in one day. Here are our recommendations.
Combo Tour (Hanging bridges, La Fortuna waterfall, Arenal Volcano hike and hot springs)
This is the best way to experience the highlights of Arenal. First is a visit to the Arenal Hanging Bridges, then La Fortuna waterfall, lunch, a hike around Arenal Volcano and you end the day at the hot springs. Best tour to hit all of the main attractions of Arenal!
If that sounds like a bit too much for you, you can do other combo tours like Arenal hanging bridges + La Fortuna waterfall, Arenal Volcano Hike and hot springs, or La Fortuna waterfall, volcano hike and hot springs.
Hot springs are a must in Arenal as this area is famous for them. They are best at night when the temperature is cooler and it’s a great way to end a fun day. You can book hot springs as part of a tour like the combo tour above or go on your own. Some popular ones are Tabacon, Ecotermales, Baldi or Termalitos.
We love the horseback riding tours in Arenal because the views are spectacular and the horses are very well taken care of. Trot through the valleys and around Arenal Volcano on your trusty steed. Read more about horseback riding in Arenal.
White Water Rafting
Near La Fortuna/Arenal are a couple of excellent rivers for white water rafting. Some are Balsa (great for families and first time rafters), Sarapiqui (Class 3 and 4 rapids) and Pacuare (Class 3, 4 and 4+ rapids).
For leisurely wildlife watching, the safari floats are the best. All you have to do is relax and enjoy as you float down a calm river surrounded by a lush rain forest. See monkeys, caimans, iguanas, sloths and other animals. Plus your guide does all the paddling! The most popular river for the safari float is Penas Blancas.
The magical sky blue river in Costa Rica is an incredible sight to see and only about a 1 hour drive from La Fortuna. Hike through the Tenorio Volcano National Park to see a stunning blue waterfall and learn how Rio Celeste gets its astonishing color.
Jump down 200 foot waterfalls deep in the rainforest on this canyoning tour right outside La Fortuna. Perfect for thrill seekers and families looking for some excitement. Read more about canyoning in Arenal.
To decide what to do, first I advise setting a budget as tours are costly. The all day combination tour is around $180-240 per person, Rio Celeste is around $140 per person, canyoning is around $100 per person and the safari floats are $60-75 per person so you will be spending a good chunk if you want to do several tours.
If you have a limited budget, I recommend doing at least one or two activities you really want to do. For cheap activities, you can do a self guided hike at Arenal Volcano National Park ($15 entrance fee), visit one of the cheap hot springs ($25for Hotel Los Lagos adult day pass) or go to the free area of Tabacon river or La Fortuna waterfall.
When we did this my itinerary with my brother, we did canyoning + hot springs one day and hiked the Arenal Volcano the other.
We have a partnership with Jacamar Naturalist tours to give 10-15% off tours in Arenal. Please check here for more information!
Should I go ziplining in Arenal or Monteverde?
You’re probably wondering why I didn’t include ziplining in the list. Even though ziplining in both Arenal and Monteverde are excellent, they are very different. Here is why you should:
Go ziplining in Monteverde – If you’re looking for an extreme zipline. Even though Monteverde doesn’t have as many canopy tours as Arenal, it makes up for it in excitement. You will find the longest ziplines and craziest canopy tours in Monteverde (bungee jumping, tarzan swing).
Go ziplining in Arenal – If you’re not looking for an extreme zipline. Arenal has over 10 canopy tours, most of which are perfect for first timers, families with little kids, those scared of heights or not looking for intense ziplines. The most exciting one is Sky Trek in Arenal which has magnificent views of Arenal Volcano and the lake.
Additionally, since you only have 1 full day in Monteverde, you may want to spend that day hiking the cloud forest instead. If so, then I do recommend going ziplining in Arenal and saving your day in Monteverde for hiking.
Day 4: Travel to Monteverde
Drive or take the taxi-boat-taxi to Monteverde. The taxi boat across Lake Arenal is the most fun way since you get to see the lake and enjoy a nice boat ride instead of sitting on a bus or shuttle for 3 hours.
I recommend leaving early in the morning since it’s usually sunnier in the morning and you’ll have more time to enjoy Monteverde.
Where to stay in Monteverde
Monteverde has more rustic lodges and inns, you won’t find super luxury hotels here but that is the cloud forest charm. Our favorite hotels are Hotel El Establo, Monteverde Country Lodge and Hotel Poco a Poco. Another very nice one is Hotel Belmar.
For budget options, there are plenty of hostels in town such as Pension, Santa Elena Backpackers and Hotel Sloth Backpackers.
Day 5: Monteverde
Monteverde is famous for the cloud forests and ziplining and most people only spend 1-2 full days there. Santa Elena is very small and you can easily explore the whole town on day 4 after you arrive. You can read our Monteverde travel guide for more information on the area.
What to do in Monteverde
If exciting ziplines are what you’re looking for, then you must do it in Monteverde. Selvatura Park and Sky Trek are the only two canopy tours that actually go over the cloud forest so those two have amazing views. But for excitement, 100% Aventura takes the cake with a rappel, superman ziplines and a 45 meter tarzan swing. They also have a 600 meter and 2 km zipline! These cost around $45-75 per adult.
Hiking cloud forest reserves
The other option is to hike the cloud forests. We recommend either Monteverde or Santa Elena but you can read our guide to the 3 cloud forest reserves in Monteverde. The cloud forests are an extremely vulnerable ecosystem and can only be found in a few places in the world, Costa Rica being one of them. The trails in the cloud forest reserves lead to beautiful view points and you can see hundreds of unique trees and plants.
Bird watching at Curi-Cancha
If you want to see birds like hummingbirds, toucans or Resplendant Quetzals, take an early morning bird watching tour at Curi-Cancha Wildlife Reserve. When we visited in March, we saw 5 Quetzals in a tree! Tours are 2 hours and the walk is very easy so you can even do it the morning you leave Monteverde.
You can also do an all day combo tour in Monteverde. Selvatura Park also has hanging bridges, a hummingbird garden and insect & reptile exhibit. Sky Trek has hanging bridges and an aerial tram. 100% Aventura also has hanging bridges, ATV’s and horseback riding. These cost anywhere from $100-180 depending on what activities you do.
And there you have it, the perfect 5 day Arenal and Monteverde itinerary. With these suggestions, you’ll be able to experience the best of both destinations in Costa Rica. You get some volcano, rain forest and cloud forest and a ton of fun outdoor adventure! On day 6, you can head to the beach, find another rain forest or even volcano!
I have an itinerary that includes Arenal and Monteverde if you want more ideas for places to visit. Read the 2 week Costa Rica itinerary here.
Or you can check out these other itineraries.