When an active volcano like Arenal, erupting almost continuously since 1968, meets a moist and well-watered rainforest, things can get a little steamy. Welcome to one of the most geothermal regions on the planet.
There are perhaps a dozen developed hot springs in the Arenal/La Fortuna region, but be aware that not all are entirely natural. If you ask, owners might admit to drilling for water, and/or using tricks like “thermal transfer” (read: heating regular water) to keep temperatures as high as Arenal’s older, more established thermal spas built close to the source. Or not. It’s really buyer beware, but either way you’ll enjoy a fine soak.
Backpackers may be offered a guided trip to the free hot springs (actually runoff from Tabacon), but be aware that petty thieves patrol the area; leave nothing unattended. A better bet for budget travelers might be hot springs hotels in less-visited regions, geared to Tico tourists.
For instance, Volcan Miravalles, just north of Arenal, has dozens of springs, most still simple pools that owners charge a few dollars to visit. Two have been developed into full service hotel-spas: Yoko Termales has hotter water, grassy lawns and romantic little cabins, while wonderful Termomania has tiny cabins, a pleasant spa and lots of kid-friendly cascading pools. Just southeast of Arenal, near Ciudad Quesada, you’ll find pleasantly forested, family-run Termales del Bosque and Recreo Verde, both offering natural thermal springs and inexpensive lodging.
Of course, these don’t offer the volcanic views for which the Arenal region is so well known, or the level of service that comes from catering to an international crowd. If you’re set on Arenal, here are a few of your choices.
Tabacon Grand Spa and Thermal Resort
The gold standard by which all other Central American hot springs are judged, Tabacon surrounds a natural thermal river that pours through an impossibly beautiful landscape of lush vegetation, steaming waterfalls, secret poolsand one of the most beautiful spa complexes in Costa Rica. Rooms are luxurious, dining romantic, service spectacular and prices high. Worth it if you can splash out.
Baldi Hot Springs Hotel and Spa
This enormous complex of totally natural springs has always been the more festive, accessible choice for travelers, with epic waterslides, good music, a Mayan pyramid and a fun, family-friendly atmosphere. Though they’ve finally opened a rather upmarket hotel in the midst of it all, Baldi still offers great rates for daytrippers.
Titoku Hot Springs
Operated by Hotel Kioro, an upscale option known for its fantastic volcano views, this sliver of eight cascading thermal springs is squished into a strip of land right next to Baldi.
The Springs Resort and Spa
A bit off the beaten path, this newish thermal resort is the dramatically landscaped, creatively constructed brainchild of the fine folks who operate the similarly whimsical, equally luxurious Peace Lodge. A great escape with some of the finest rooms on the mountain.
For many years, Ecotermales has been the more modest alternative to the mega hot springs resorts, offering four pretty pools and a quiet, understated experience in the rainforest. Only 100 people are allowed into the shaded springs at any one time, and the kitchen’s traditional Costa Rican cuisine gets raves.
Hotel Los Lagos
This sprawling compound is a local landmark, and offers acceptable, reasonably priced rooms on a property that not only offers hot springs, but also water slides, a canopy tour, crocodile pond, hiking trails, horseback rides and much, much more. A great place for active families.
Another resort that has sprung up on the volcano’s flanks in recent years is Arenal Paraiso, offering pretty springs, great views and relatively inexpensive lodging close to the water.
Hotel El Silencio del Campo
With its smallish, attractively ensconced springs, quiet and comfortable cabins and family-friendly atmosphere, it’s no wonder that “The Silence of the Countryside” hotel has won all sorts of awards. Reasonable prices make this a good bet.
The least expensive springs (US$8 all day!) on the mountain offer daytrippers several steamy cement pools, a small waterfall, and covered picnic tables to enjoy with the family. This is the local option and definitely geared to a Costa Rican crowd; snacks are available but BYOB.