Costa Rica– the land of volcanoes, lush rainforests, and endless entry fees to private “reserves”. If you have ever visited this beautiful country, you probably experienced the entry-fee fatigue that many outdoor enthusiasts start to feel a few days into their stay.
We are currently spending three weeks in the beautiful Monteverde region, and have already begun to dread that constant nickel and diming that happens when trying to access any hiking trails. For those of you who have not yet visited this country, here’s a heads up– all reserves and parks cost at least $10 per a person to access, with many as high as $25. This doesn’t seem bad (especially when compared to the high rates of the US National Parks), but after five or six days of paying every time you want to walk around a jungle, it becomes rather exhausting.
Last weekend, we decided to mix things up and head to the Arenal region for three days. Already dreading the high fees to famous areas such as Mystic Bridges and Arenal National Park, I decided to do some digging into options for free hiking.
Spoiler Alert: There is NO free hiking in Arenal. Sorry for baiting and switching you!
However, there are options to combine your lodging with unlimited access to a preserve, allowing for you to enjoy nature at your leisure.
Enter: Arenal Observatory Lodge and Preserve
The Arenal Observatory and Lodge is the only hotel inside of Arenal Volcano National Park. Situated at the base of the Arenal Volcano, guests who stay at the lodge have access to over 900-acres of land, which spans from secondary forests to primary rainforest. Two rivers and a frog pond also add a variety of wildlife and diversity to this property.
A standard room at the lodge averages around $120-160 a night. Options are also available for multiple-room villas, in case you are traveling with a group. When compared to budget hotels in Fortuna (the nearest town to the Arenal Volcano), these rooms are quite a bit more expensive. For reference, a 3-star hotel in the town will run about $60 a night, and Airbnb options are even less.
However, once you start adding up the expense of visiting the park and other reserves, the price of this lodge versus a cheaper hotel in town starts to even out. For example, entrance to Mystic Bridges Reserve is $27 per person, with reservations required. For two people, that is $54 just to access one reserve, one time.
But the difference in price doesn’t stop there. If you are visiting this area for multiple days, chances are high that you will be hiking everyday. Entrance to Arenal Volcano National Park is $15 per person, and the various shorter waterfall hikes around town average around $10-$15 per person per a visit.
Beyond the high entrance fees, all of these reserves close by 4pm. If you want to night hike (which you should, because this is when most of the wildlife comes out to play), then expect to pay an additional $45-80 per person for a guided night hike. By the time you have spent three days in Arenal, you could easily spend an additional $200 just to access the hiking areas.
By opting to pay more up front by staying at the Arenal Observatory and Lodge, you have access to free hiking whenever you want. This includes any night hiking you may want to do around the property on your own (just be sure to bring multiple flashlights). The property also offers a free, guided morning hike where you can tour the frog pond and surrounding area with an expert wildlife spotter for an hour each morning. We enjoyed hiking the trails at our own pace, and revisiting some of our favorite spots. Because we weren’t paying an entrance fee, we didn’t have the pressure to “see it all” in one day. Another perk? Because this area is off the beaten path, we had all the trails to ourselves. No waiting for that perfect selfie pic at the waterfall!
Worried you might miss out on cool scenery or wildlife by not visiting the other reserves? Don’t be! The Arenal Lodge property hosts four different waterfalls, two accessible rivers, a perimeter trail with views of the volcano, multiple hanging bridges, an observatory tower, a bird-viewing balcony with views of Lake Arenal, and beautiful gardens throughout the property. There is also a free visitor center and museum on site, so you can learn more about the ecological diversity and volcanic activity of the area. The lodge also has a pool, hot tub, and full-service spa (for #treatyoself days). There is also restaurant on location. Oh, and breakfast is included.
While staying on the property, we spotted a troop of spider monkeys, toucans, parrots, eyelash vipers, red-eyed tree frogs, other snakes I don’t know the name of, hummingbirds, motmots, a baby tarantula, and an anteater (ok, we actually didn’t see the anteater because we were napping, but our hotel neighbor said it was right outside our window).
I know I’m starting to sound like a marketing campaign, so let’s consider some downsides to staying at this lodge. The first concern (and the biggest for budget-minded adventurers) is that Arenal Observatory is remote in a good and bad way. It is over 30 minutes from La Fortuna, with part of the road still dirt and full of potholes. Our 2×4 sedan was able to make the journey just fine, but it doesn’t make it easy to pop into town for a quick lunch or dinner. There are no fridges or microwaves in the standard hotel rooms, so that leaves the only option for food the lodge restaurant.
Food here is delicious, but the average plate is about $15 and the meal portions are just average (meaning you might walk away still hungry if you just order an entree). In comparison, a meal in town can be as low as $6, or lower depending on where you eat. If you’re only staying a few days, this isn’t a deal breaker, but it is something to keep in mind for longer stays or for individuals who would like options when it comes to eating. We went into town to buy supplies for sandwiches so we could have our own picnics during the day, but still opted for the lodge’s restaurant at night.
This also means you are at least 30 minutes to the other attractions in the La Fortuna area, including white water rafting, zip lining, bars/clubs, and water tours of the lake. While the lodge does have horseback riding available, for those with serious FOMO, the extra distance might be too inconvenient.
Another point to consider is using this property to access Cerro Chato (the other volcano in this area which many people will hike). Many hiking guides will still state that there is an access trail on this property, but this trail was closed permanently a few years ago. This is true for the entire area of Cerro Chato, but some some hiking sites may not have updated information. Access to this area might open in the future, so it’s smart to check with the hotel if this is on your bucket list.
The standard rooms at Arenal Observatory Lodge do not have air conditioning. While this lodge is situated at a higher elevation than the town, it can still get hot here. The rooms come with screens, high ceilings, and a very powerful ceiling fan, but for those of us who are used to climate-controlled rooms, this should be a consideration. I loved sleeping with the sounds of the jungle around me, but the humidity did get sticky at night.
If you don’t want to stay at the lodge, you can pay a daily entrance fee to hike the grounds ($8 as of 2021). This still makes it quite a bit cheaper than the surrounding reserves, and you can easily spend an entire day here and still not see everything.
If you do find yourself here and would like more information on all the trails, check out our upcoming article on “Top Places to Spot Wildlife in Arenal”.
While the cost of hiking in Costa Rica is a major downside, this country is incredibly beautiful and still a very affordable destination. It is easy to focus on the individual prices of lodging when booking, but a little research and planning can make this country even more enjoyable.
We loved Arenal Observatory Lodge simply because it allowed us to enjoy nature at our own pace, whenever we wanted. The staff, grounds, and rooms were all incredibly fantastic, and I’m already planning my return trip there (where I’ll probably opt for one of those amazing villas).
Follow-up Tip: Be sure to check out similar lodges and preserves in your other Costa Rican destinations!