In La Fortuna, Costa Rica, the Arenal Volcano is an unmissable site, quite literally, towering 1,600 meters (5,200 feet!) over the town. Getting up close and personal with this active volcano is a must when you’re visiting the area, but Arenal Volcano National Park is usually packed to the gills with tourists, making it challenging to see wildlife- or even really enjoy those volcano views.
But right next to the park is a severely underrated ecological reserve, Arenal 1968, which offers just as spectacular views of the volcano- and even a chance to see some cute monkey friends! So if you’re looking for the best way to see the Arenal Volcano, throw on your hiking boots and let’s go- here’s everything you need to know about Arenal 1968.
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Pssst… visiting La Fortuna? We have a ton of information-packed content to help you plan your trip to this area, including:
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About Arenal 1968
While this is commonly called the “Arenal 1968 hike”, Arenal 1968 is actually an ecological reserve with two trails in it:
Lava Flow 1968 trail:
- Length: 2.5 km (1.5 miles)
- Difficulty: easy
Forest 1968 trail (a.k.a. “Arenal 1968 hike”):
- Length: 4.5 km (2.8 miles)
- Difficulty: Moderate
Beyond the trails, there’s also a handful of viewpoints with breathtaking views of the volcano and Lake Arenal and a small cafeteria, where you can gaze upon the volcano while nomming down on some French fries or a smoothie.
It’s $19 for adults to enter as of December 2022 (for up-to-date pricing and hours, check here).
What’s with the name Arenal 1968?
For centuries, the Arenal Volcano loomed silently over the surrounding town and was believed by many to be completely dormant. On July 29, 1968, though, the Arenal Volcano unexpectedly exploded, spewing lava, ash, and rocks for the next several days. Once the eruption abated, the resulting lava flows had covered 15 square kilometers (a little over 9 square miles), killed 87 people, and destroyed three villages.
The lava fields from that eruption now sit within the Arenal 1968 ecological reserve. While most visitors come to enjoy the trails for their unencumbered vistas of the volcano and abundant wildlife, these hikes also serve as a somber reminder of the potential power and destruction bubbling beneath Arenal.
How to Get to Arenal 1968
Arenal 1968 is located here, about 20 minutes west of downtown La Fortuna and just north of Arenal Volcano National Park. There is no public transit that goes here so you’ll have to drive or get an Uber or taxi (it should run you about $15). I’d strongly recommend getting a rental car while you’re visiting Costa Rica- it’s definitely the best way to get around this beautiful country.
The road to get to the parking lot is well-maintained and passable with any passenger vehicle. You’ll pay your fee at the admission office and be on your merry way!
What to Expect Along Arenal 1968 Trails
So we’ve established there’s two trails here- which one should you hike?
Both loop trails start and end at the same place, overlap the same path for 2.1 km (1.3 miles) of the trail, and offer similar landscapes (rainforest and volcano). Really, the most significant difference between the two trails is that the Lava Flow trail is shorter.
I personally think the Forest trail is a better choice- due to its length, this hike is less heavily trafficked than the Lava Flow trail and this trail uniquely passes by a beautiful lake, as well as through a dense jungle. And while spotting wildlife is largely a game of luck, 100% of the animals we spotted along the trail were all within the Forest’s rainforest section– perhaps because it’s less populated than the Lava Flow trail.
So if beautiful rainforest views and spotting new furry friends is what you’re after, I’d highly recommend trying the Forest trail. If, however, you struggle with mobility or are just looking for a short and easy hike, the Lava Flow trail is an excellent option.
So you’ve picked your trail of choice. Next question- do you hike the trail clockwise or counterclockwise?
Given they’re both loops, you can theoretically hike the trails either counterclockwise or clockwise. When we visited recently, we hiked counter-clockwise, as instructed by the attendant at the ticket counter, as did almost all of the other hikers we passed on the trail.
However, it looks like, from maps of the trails I’ve seen online, the park has asked that guests hike clockwise. Since we did it counterclockwise (and loved it!), that’s how I’m going to describe it, but be prepared for a switcheroo when you visit!
The trails start off through patches of rainforest and comically tall grass (like, well over 3 meters (or 10 feet) tall!) for the first 0.8 km (0.5 miles). The rainforest will then give way to rocky lava fields, with impressive volcanic boulders and beautiful tropical flowers lining the trail.
The climb here can be steep in some places, but at about 1.8 km (1.1 miles) in, you’ll reach a platform with incredible panoramic vistas, with Arenal Volcano right in front of you and Lake Arenal behind you. Take a breather here (you earned it!) and soak in those incredible views!
Shortly after this platform, the two trails diverge- the Lava Flow trail cuts west and loops approximately 0.7 km (0.4 miles) back through a rainforest..
Alternatively, the Forest trail continues north, with the hardened lava flow trail turning to a dirt path, littered with volcanic rock, and eventually, back into a rainforest. As you make your way downhill, you’ll eventually run into Lago Los Patos, a 22 meter (72 feet) deep lake that was formed by the 1968 eruption.
If the lake’s murky nature doesn’t scare you off from jumping in, hopefully this will- there’s caimans (i.e., a type of reptile very similar to an alligator) that live here! The trail continues to loop around the lake through the rainforest- most of the wildlife we saw was in this section of the hike, so keep your voice down and your eyes peeled here.
The trail gradually starts climbing uphill, with some sections made of rock staircases. About 4.1 km (2.5 miles) in, the Lava and Forest trails will converge again and pass by a grassy clearing, where some cute cows (with some very scary looking horns) graze in the shadow of the volcano. From here, there’s one last climb uphill to the final lookout of the volcano- and ends at that aforementioned glorious cafeteria!
Tips for Arenal 1968
There’s a good chance that Arenal may be at least partially covered with clouds during your visit. If you read TripAdvisor or AllTrail reviews for the various Arenal Volcano hikes, you’ll find one common theme amongst the negative reviews- people are extremely disappointed that the volcano is frequently obscured by clouds.
And while I’m not sure that it’s fair for this to result in negative reviews of the trails themselves, it is totally fair to say that that the volcano is almost always shrouded by clouds (especially up by its vent)– in fact, my husband, Justin, and I stayed in La Fortuna for four days and never once saw the volcano in its entirety. So have realistic expectations when you’re headed to La Fortuna about this to avoid disappointment.
Bring boots and bug spray:
The trails here can get quite muddy (what with all of that rain associated with the rainforest and all) and have very stabby volcanic rock along the majority of the path. So please wear shoes that properly protect your feet and provide support, like hiking boots (check out these for women and these for men) or hiking sandals (Justin has these and I have these).
And did I mention the trails are in a literal rainforest? Fortunately, we didn’t have issues with biting insects on most of the trails we hiked throughout Costa Rica, but that was not the case near this swampy lake. Come armed with bug spray or be ready to be carried away by a swarm of mosquitoes.
Take plenty of water:
Between the warm Costa Rican sun, the high humidity, and the fact that you’ll be climbing up literal lava fields, you’ll surely work up quite a bit of a sweat along the trail.
So bring along plenty of water and stay hydrated. Justin and I each have a giant Nalgene bottle that we take everywhere. It’s better for the planet than single use plastic and also easier on your wallet. Plus, as another bonus of having a refillable water bottle, the water in La Fortuna is safe to drink (unlike almost all of Central America!).
Consider a guide for a better chance of spotting wildlife:
By no means do you need a guide on these hikes (or really, any of the trails we went on in Costa Rica)- they’re well-signed and next to impossible to get lost on. But spotting wildlife in the dense rainforest is incredibly tough- in fact, almost all of the wildlife we saw were pointed out to us by other people.
So if you want to learn more about the incredible plants and wildlife here, consider going on a tour, like this one, with a guide, who’s a literal expert in using their laser-like vision to see animals through even the thickest greenery.
Should I go to Arenal Volcano National Park or Arenal 1968?
As mentioned above, the national park and Arenal 1968 are literally right next to each other and offer similar landscapes and views. So which one should you pick?
As with everything, it really depends.
Arenal Volcano National Park is notoriously overcrowded, so come prepared to wait in ticket queues and dodge a bunch of other tourists along its trails. Arenal 1968, on the other hand, is quiet- we visited La Fortuna during its busiest period and saw about ten or so people on the entire length of the trail.
The national park, though, offers more trails to choose from and has two separate areas- the main sector, with similar volcano views to Arenal 1968, and the peninsula sector, which is closer to Lake Arenal. And the park is actually cheaper than Arenal 1968 (at $15 per adult).
So if you’re on a tighter budget or you want to devote a whole day to exploring Arenal, the national park may be the right choice for you. Otherwise, I personally think that Arenal 1968 is one of the most awesome things to do in La Fortuna.
Where to stay in La Fortuna
If you’re looking for someplace to stay near Arenal 1968, you’re in luck- La Fortuna has awesome accommodations for every type of traveler, from backpacker to bougie:
- Nice Place Hostel: For a budget stay, check out this place, which takes all the best parts of hostels and hotels and mushes them together- you’ll share a kitchen and living space with other travelers, but get a bedroom and bathroom to yourself. With its awesome proximity to La Fortuna’s downtown and the friendly service, this place is an excellent budget stay near Arenal.
- Hotel Sierra Arenal: For a more mid-range stay, check out this hotel, which is where Justin and I stayed while we were in La Fortuna. We loved it- the rooms are simple, but clean, there’s free tasty breakfast every morning, and a relaxing pool area to cool off in the midday sun.
Also, there’s an adorable french bulldog named Bruno that keeps watch of the property (between copious naps), so be sure to say thanks and give him some head scratches when you see him.
- Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa: For a luxe experience, Tabacon, offering the most beautiful and romantic hot springs in Arenal, is the way to go. Everything here feels premium- from your private balcony in each room to the tranquil Shangri-la Gardens, an exclusive perk reserved for hotel guests.
And with that, I hope you have the best time exploring Arenal 1968. Do you have any questions about either hike? Let me know in the comments below!