Costa Rica’s Arenal region is famous for its iconic volcano, lush rainforest, hot springs — and celeb-loved luxury hotels. Luckily, for every posh Arenal resort, there are a number of budget-oriented cabin properties, hostels, and roadside motels. After traveling extensively throughout La Fortuna/Arenal, we found the best properties to make sure you get the most for your money.
Set inside its own 864-acre chunk of rainforest, the Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa gives you the feeling of having stepped inside the movie Jurassic Park, from the King King-lettered archway you enter through at the foot of the property to the rainforest towering above as you climb into the hotel area proper. It's an ideal spot for, well, observing -- birds, monkeys, jungle life, or that volcano, and there are 11 trails of varying lengths. The rooms, restaurant, and a deck are perched over the rainforest, and the property has terrific views of the lake and peak. The five hostel-like La Casona rooms (which share bathrooms) have a shared terrace with views of both. All rooms are homey and reasonably roomy, but fitted out with an eye to function rather than style. Certain creature comforts, like AC and TV, aren't included.
Inside and out, Arenal Hostel Resort feels faintly upmarket for a hostel. Teak wood paneling, lush garden landscaping, and a surprisingly nice grotto-like pool area all seem a step above most typical hostels. Every minimal (but air-conditioned) room on the two-story property overlooks the secluded center courtyard that includes a relaxed garden area with hammocks. However, many guests congregate around the tiny pool, waterfall, and swim-up tiki bar. As the clientele skews younger, the atmosphere varies between lively and downright raucous day and night. Guests are typically 20- and 30-something backpackers and budget travelers seeking barebones accommodations near one of Costa Rica’s most famous volcanoes. Hostel Backpackers La Fortuna offers similarly priced and appointed accommodations with a larger pool.
A 10-minute drive south of La Fortuna, Hotel Cerro Azul Arenal is a tiny roadside motel with value prices, rustic charm, and commanding views of the volcano and rainforest. The six wooden-shack-style rooms are clean and have porches overlooking the rainforest, as well as AC and cable TV, but the fact that the front doors look right onto the parking lot makes it impossible to escape the feeling of a roadside motel. The hotel has an essentially private path to a rainforest trail that leads to a clearing by the river -- it's a short, pleasant hike for all but the most challenged walker. In the morning and at sunset you can often spot toucans hanging out in the trees in the backyard. There is no pool on the property -- if that's a priority, the similarly priced Hotel Vista del Cerro has one.
This 10-room roadside motel is a decent place to stay for a night or two for budget travelers who don't need frills but still want to be close to La Fortuna. Its spare but clean rooms have views of the volcano (though they are somewhat marred by a neighboring souvenir shop) and frequently experience noise from passing traffic -- but all at a price that can't be beat. Hotel Cerro Azul has similar prices and rooms with a bit more rustic charm, but no pool. Those who want the hot springs, spas, and bungalow-style lodgings can try the string of hotels to the north on Route 142 -- though they start at two to three times the price.
While this hotel won't win any style awards, the three-floor structure -- built in the 1980s, before La Fortuna's boom of tourist development -- is one of the taller buildings in the neighborhood, and that advantage is used to great effect. From the hotel's open-air terrace there are some truly stunning views of Arenal. The cheerful hotel includes nice perks like a free hot breakfast and available spa treatments (for a fee) -- surprising for this pearl class. Each of the 19 rooms are basic, but clean and bright, with free Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, and small flat-screen TVs. Upgraded rooms have mini-fridges and small, private balconies. Those seeking something even more budget friendly should check out the nearby Arenal Hostel Resort, a two-pearl alternative with many of the same amenities.
While hotels throughout La Fortuna are all within a short drive of Arenal Volcano, few offer such picture-perfect views as Hotel Arenal Montechiari. The central walkways connecting the cabins are intentionally overgrown -- yet perfectly manicured -- with lush tropical plants and trees that attract birds, butterflies, and the occasional sloth. The rows of squat, wood cabins lining the paths create a subtle feeling of walking among a small village. With two beds in each room, the property draws equal numbers of couples and families, anyone traveling on a budget. Beyond the pool, there’s little to keep guests on the grounds. As a result, the social scene is consistently quiet (read: almost nonexistent) day and night.
The yoga-friendly Hotel Kokoro Arenal is a simple, rustic property that allows guests to connect with nature -- so those who mind encountering harmless fauna (such as lizards) should consider a more typical hotel. It's also not the place for those who need constant connectivity, as the rooms lack Wi-Fi. The 24 rooms are attractively rustic with bamboo ceilings, but rather dark; the squeamish may have problems sharing their cabins with lizards and millipedes. Amenities include AC, mini-fridges, and TVs, and all units have outdoor space, usually with at least one chair (some porches, chairs, and views are better than others). The property spans 15 acres, and about half of that space is preserved as a forested area with trails.