Welcome to Arenal | Tilaran
With its spectacular conical volcano looming over the landscape like a smoky sentinel, Arenal is the adventure tourism capital of Costa Rica and one of its most beloved places.
The 5,358-foot Volcán Arenal catastrophically erupted in 1968, destroying two villages and killing 88 people. It remained famously explosive for an astonishing 42 years, spewing avalanches of bright red lava down its now-abandoned hillsides. In 2010, it finally stopped erupting, though it remains active to this day.
It was actually this volcanic activity that put the Arenal region on the global tourism map. At first, it was mostly backpackers who arrived, poking around La Fortuna looking for a place to sleep in a ranching town that had no tourism infrastructure. But the curious visitors arrived in such numbers that the locals soon figured out they were more valuable than cows.
People started opening hotels, hostels, restaurants, shops, tour agencies, hot springs, ziplines, hanging bridges, rafting operations — and the more they built, the more people came.
In 2022, some 127,000 people visited Arenal Volcano National Park, which has a network of excellent hiking trails at the base of the mountain. Arenal is also famous for its extensive hot springs, fed by a huge aquifer heated by magma. La Fortuna Waterfall, a 230-foot beauty that thunders into a swimmable pool, is visited by 100,000 people a year.
With the possible exception of Monteverde, Arenal has the best ziplining operations in the country, and the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges are second to none.
Arenal means “place of sand,” from the appearance of the lava flows down the sides of the volcano. The name is applied to the entire region, though many Ticos call it San Carlos, after the canton where it’s located.
La Fortuna is the perfect capital for this region — fun, funky, and chock full of things to do. There isn’t a better place anywhere to meet friendly fellow adventurers.
Laguna Arenal, created by damming rivers to generate hydroelectric power, is the second-largest lake in Central America after Lake Nicaragua. Offering fabulous views of the volcano, it’s a popular spot for fishing, windsurfing, kiteboarding, kayaking, stand-up paddling, and pleasure cruises with food, drink and karaoke. Sometimes you even see pontoon planes land and take off from the water.
The shores of this lake, with inspiring views of both the bucolic water and the broccoli-green mountains, are where most foreigners buy homes.
Tilarán is one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful towns and one of its best-kept secrets. It’s well off the beaten tourist path yet very close to two of the country’s greatest attractions, Arenal and Monteverde.
At 1,850 feet above sea level, Tilarán is a hilly town with crisp, cool air and a 360° view of beautiful green mountains topped with white windmills.
Driving around this quaint but bustling town of 9,500 people, you notice two things that are different from almost every other town in Costa Rica. One is that it has amazingly wide streets, with plenty of room for all the cars, trucks, buses, and bikes, plus parking space and even sidewalks.
The other notable detail about Tilarán is that the houses are all brightly painted, and recently, with pretty gardens and other touches, showing that people here really care about maintaining attractive homes.
Tilarán is just 10 minutes from the shores of Lake Arenal. It’s an hour and 45 minutes from La Fortuna, and an hour and 15 minutes from Santa Elena, the heart of the Monteverde cloud forest. It’s less than two hours from several other national parks, including Tenorio, Rincón de la Vieja, Palo Verde and Santa Rosa.
Tilarán (from a Nahuatl word meaning “place of heavy rain”) has a picturesque downtown park surrounded by restaurants, churches, banks, and bakeries. The town has all the conveniences: grocery stores, doctors, gas stations, clothing shops, post office, print shops.
It’s a thoroughly Tico town, not even remotely “touristy,” yet many foreigners live here and love it. There are farmers markets, pickleball matches, and other lively gatherings.
Finally, the highway between Cañas and Tilarán - a black ribbon climbing into the hills through green pastures dotted with huge boulders and contented cows -- is possibly the most beautiful road in Costa Rica.