Arenal Volcano is an active volcano located in north-western Costa Rica. Roughly 3-hours by car from San Jose, the Arenal area is surrounded by rainforest so chances are you may not ever see a clear view of the Volcano. The result though is that the area is lusciously green and filled with exotic flowers, waterfalls, and wildlife. The Volcano also offers natural hot springs that are featured in many of the area hotels and resorts. Skip the high entrance fees at the hotels and instead hang out with locals at the free public access areas nearby. We recommend also skipping the expensive resorts and staying at a homestay called Parrot Hill Ranch. You will need a 4X4 or high-clearance rental vehicle to access this 50-acre location that is 30 minutes from town. Here, this rustic setting is a memorable experience in and of itself. Children have the option of helping feed this working ranch's animals in the mornings; horseback riding, hiking, and archery are just some of the activities available to guests. Meals are available as well, though the residence also has a full kitchen. What you trade in luxury amenities, you gain in unforgettable experiences. We highly recommend staying at Parrot Hill Ranch.
Activities at Parrot Hill Ranch: The grounds at this working ranch are expansive. Hiking, archery, rope swings, hammocks, and more are available to guests. Other activities like horseback riding are available for at most additional fees. This safe and secluded ranch is especially great for families with kids, where children can roam free and are also invited to help care for the farm animals that live here.
Butterfly Conservatory: This guided tour takes you through several butterfly habitats created by this conservatory. Our guide was a high school teacher with a wealth of knowledge about the different species, habitats, and growth cycles of the butterfly. This is a great, hands-on experience for kids. We definitely recommend this Conservatory. Current prices are not posted but when we visited it was $15/adult, $10/child.
Chocolate Tour: Take a tour of a chocolate plantation and learn how chocolate is made from plant, to harvesting, to powder. At $26/adult and $18/child, this experience was a bit overpriced so if you are on the fence, this could be one to skip. That being said, it was fun and informational for the kids. The tour guide was knowledgeable and the staff worked with kids well.
Proyecto Asis Wildlife Rescue Center & La Fortuna Waterfalls: Proyecto Asis is non-profit organization that houses injured, sick, abandoned, or abused wildlife with the goal of releasing them back to the wild. Take a tour to learn about their amazing work and also see Costa Rica's wildlife up close. Reservations are required. $35/adult and child 10 & up; while pricey it is worth the cost. We really enjoyed our time here.
La Fortuna Waterfalls is an area managed by a non-profit organization. In order to pay for upkeep of the grounds, tickets must be purchase to take the short hike to the falls and go swimming. Kids 9 and older and adults are $18/person; Kids 8 and younger are free. There's nothing quite like the power of the waterfalls by swimming (safely) nearby.
Where We Stayed
Air BnB Listing: Lodging costs at the Parrot Hill Ranch ranges from $175/night to $350/night depending on which space you rent. We stayed in the least expensive space which is slightly dark as it is on the ground floor. Other than that, the space worked well. If it's within your price range, we recommend the upstairs space at $250/night. Either way, it is worth the cost in light of all of the activities this ranch offers.
Where We Ate
Tico Roadside Cuisine: Throughout Costa Rica, there are little road-side restaurants where the family that owns the place lives in the back, with their front porch serving as the dining area. We found that these super inexpensive meals were much more delicious than the meals in the tourist-friendly restaurants. Typical dishes like Casado and Gallo Pinto involve rice, beans, and chicken.