The Arenal Volcano and the surrounding activities (rafting, hiking, ziplining, hot springs-ing) are tier 1 tourist destinations in Costa Rica, along with the Monteverde Cloud Forest, the Pacific Coast beaches, Manuel Antonio, and Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side.
Arenal is an active volcano (last erupted in 2000) and as such you can’t walk up and around it (like Stan and I did in Rincon de Vieja). But, it’s more stunning to look at from afar — a perfect cone, with visible "scars" on the upward steep towards the peak, which I assume resulted from lava flows.
La Fortuna is the town at the base of Arenal and is very touristy but contains a wide mix of restaurants and activities. You have to hunt for the local prices (look for where the locals are eating!) but it’s possible.
Our first full day in Arenal my new traveling companion Laura and I took a taxi to the lake area adjacent the volcano. We were told there was a good hike up and around the lake. The taxi driver dropped us off at the beginning of a path. It was a wide, well marked road/path. Easy walking surrounded by endless green — trees, brush, nature, etc. After about an hour of walking we realized we were walking away from the lake and there was no turn off or fork in the road that would suggest we missed an exit. We nevertheless kept walking, stopped to rest at a river for a bit, then continued on, following signs for a restaurant about 2km ahead of us. The uphill was a bit tiring but as we ascended a more mountainous part the view of the volcano and lake behind us (so much for walking around the lake) grew only more spectacular.
By the time we reached the restaurant on a small mountain, the view of the volcano and lake was the best we’ve had the whole trip. We grabbed a table by the window and ate lunch with a one-of-a-kind backdrop. After lunch we sat in the lounge chairs smartly assembled facing the volcano and forest and lake. A terrific sight.
As usual here in Costa Rican green season, the threat of rain was omnipresent. Dark clouds started hovering. We had no car, there were no taxis where we were, and to hike back the way we came would take a couple hours. We would surely get soaked. We decided to start walking about at around 2pm and hope to hitchhike back to town.
The moment we got back on the road trail it started pouring. 10 seconds later a car passed us, we looked longingly (but did not actively hitchhike). The car pulled off the side, a Canadian man popped his head out, looked back, and asked if we wanted a ride. Before we knew it we were in their car, driving toward La Fortuna, and torrential rain beat down over our protected heads.