We drove from San Jose to the small town of El Castillo near La Fortuna and stayed a few nights. It is definitely a lot easier to visit this area with a rental car. The town of La Fortuna is a good base for doing activities in the area but I am really happy we stayed further out in El Castillo; La Fortuna definitely felt very touristy and more like a little city. Where we stayed was much more comfortable and closer to nature. We stayed at a small hotel and farm called Essence Arenal. For the three of us, the cost came out to about $25USD per person per night. The hotel is part of a working farm so you can tour the land on your own or with someone from the hotel. Also, most of the food that is served at the hotel is from the farm. They offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner at $6USD, $7.50USD, and $12.50USD respectively and all meals are vegetarian. We really enjoyed the views and the hospitality.
There’s also a small restaurant just up the road called Comidas rapidas la pequeña that was more affordable and very delicious; some of the best food we had while in the area. Definitely get the fried chicken and the patacones. We also drove down into the town of El Castillo for lunch one day and ate at Restaurante Amigos and Pizza John’s. At Restaurante Amigos, the food was very delicious, though the portions were small. Pizza John’s was surprisingly good. Three of us ordered two pizza’s and had more than enough to share. The owner makes the dough (and the mojitos!) from scratch every day. It’s a lovely place to sit upstairs and take in the view.
While in the area we, rented kayaks on Lake Arenal. Our hotel arranged it with someone in town and we drove down to one of the two boat launches. We paid $20USD per person for the day and were gone about 3 hours.
We also hiked Cerro Chato from the El Castillo side. When doing research, some websites and blogs said that this hike to the volcano lake at the top had been closed, but we did not find that to be true. We drove towards the Volcano Arenal Observatory but right before the entrance to the observatory is another parking lot with a sign that says “Hike Cerro Chato.” We asked a lot of questions at the entrance as we had heard this could be the wrong trail, but, in fact, it was the correct trail. It cost about $10USD per person and we were given a map which was not very helpful. We were also told that the hike would take about 2 hours up and 2 hours down but it definitely took us closer to 3 each way. I am definitely a slow hiker and this was by far the most difficult hike I have ever done but it was very invigorating and getting to the lake in the crater was pretty amazing. There are definitely spots on the hike where you are climbing over large rocks. I am only 5’3″ and do not have a lot of upper body strength so this was definitely difficult for me and I would have had a very hard time if I would have been by myself. I would also note that when we hiked Cerro Chato, it was the end of the dry season (early April) and it had not rained in at least four or five days. This definitely made it easier as I cannot imagine being able to complete the hike if it had rained recently as everything would be so slick and muddy.
We also drove down to the river that runs just east of El Castillo. This is technically a road crossing when the river is low and we watched a handful of SUVs cross the river, but we were just there to bask in its cold water to help out our sore muscles. We read that there are some free hot springs in one of the rivers nearby but due to sunburn we did not partake.
Overall I really enjoyed our time in El Castillo. It was very relaxing but there are lots of options of things to do nearby including hiking trails that you can do on your own or with a guide. This area was definitely much easier to visit with a rental car. The roads are very bumpy and it would be very strenuous to walk to and from the town of El Castillo from where we stayed, and the public transportation was spotty at best.