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In Costa Rica’s highlands, just a three-hour drive from the capital city of San Jose, lies one of the country’s most impressive landmarks. Lake Arenal, which covers a total of 33 square miles, is a man-made lake that delivers big on natural beauty.

Enlarged to its present size in 1979 as a means of providing energy, the dam that created it once provided 70% of the country’s electricity. As such, the lake has played a major role in Costa Rica’s journey to become the eco-friendly nation that it is today.

Inhabited mostly by locals until recent decades, Lake Arenal has increasingly grown in popularity among expats from all over the globe. Here are a few things they’ll tell you about all there is to love about this lesser-known tropical hotspot.

Lake Arenal Costa Rica

Ralph Kränzlein

1. Its scenery is unparalleled.

Costa Rica is known for its natural beauty. Its rocky coasts and sandy beaches, exotic flora and fauna, towering cliffs and lush valleys. Perhaps nowhere are these elements in more beautiful display than surrounding the pristine Lake Arenal.

While the late itself is already quite spectacular, its surroundings are even more impressive. Rolling hills cascade down into the water’s edge. While out on the lake you’ll pass forests, fields, and the occasional village. And it’s all situated in the shadow of the majestic Arenal Volcano.

The lake’s shoreline is sparsely developed, due in part to regulations prohibiting any building on the water’s edge. As a result, the views are unspoiled by crowded resorts, busy marinas, or high-rise condos.

While the regulations are largely to thank for the virgin shoreline, it’s widely known that the breathtaking views of and from the lake are the area’s big draw. No developer would dare mess with that.

Lake Arenal Costa Rica

La Zona Verde

2. Lake Arenal real estate is surprisingly affordable.

After hearing the description of the lake and all it has to offer, you might be surprised to learn that many Lake Arenal properties (even those with a lake view) come with a shockingly low price tag. The truth is that, while interest in the area has increased in recent years, Lake Arenal hasn’t seen the massive boom that other parts of the country have experienced.

As a result, prices for real estate in Lake Arenal, Costa Rica, have risen. But not to the point that they’re no longer a good value. Rather, homes in the area are quite affordable.

Because so much of the area around Lake Arenal is undeveloped, there are also large parcels of land for anyone who wants a secluded home in the jungle with its own private hot spring. It’s also a perfect place for someone looking to build a development or open an expat business.

For those merely looking for their own personal home in paradise, there are a number of options available. There are individual homes dotting the hillsides, homes directly along the shoreline, and even a few gated communities located along the narrow two-lane road that circles the lake.

3. Time there is best spent outdoors.

The awe-inspiring views of Lake Arenal are one of the reasons its residents long to spend every waking minute outside. Another is the weather. Lake Arenal enjoys a moderate tropical climate, so mild that it’s unnecessary for most homes to even have air conditioning.

Many homes in Lake Arenal boast plenty of outdoor spaces for dining, entertaining, or enjoying a swim. Most have large covered patios with much smaller interior living spaces. Another big plus of most lake-view homes are large windows overlooking the water.

That’s not to say that Lake Arenal residents just lie around all day and enjoy the views. Quite the contrary. Thanks to the lake itself and the surrounding topography, there’s a lot to do outside for those who live in the area.

Bill Beard

Bill Beard

4. The opportunities for aquatic adventure are endless.

Don’t let the fact that it’s a lake fool you into thinking Arenal offers less opportunities for adventure than, say, a town along the country’s coast. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Sure, the lake is great for boating, with numerous boat ramps and several small marinas.

But there’s plenty more to see and do here.

For example, thanks to the consistent high winds that sweep across the northwest end of the lake from late October to early May, Lake Arenal has emerged as one of the world’s prime destinations for windsurfing.

Fishing is another popular activity, with plenty of rainbow bass and guapote for catching. Many people kayak or just cruise around for fun. But the lake is far from being overcrowded, with usually only a dozen or so boats on the water.

Another popular water attraction is the many hot springs that abound. These mineral-rich pools are heated by the volcano to temperatures of 100+ degrees Fahrenheit and are rumored to have medicinal properties that can help arthritis and other ailments.

5. There’s also plenty to do on land.

For anyone willing to come ashore, there are plenty of land adventures to experience. One of the more obvious being a trip to Arenal National Park where visitors can see howler monkeys, parrots, exotic snakes, and a variety of plants.

You can also see the red hot lava that pours down from the volcano’s active vent on its western slope. (Don’t worry. Park rangers monitor the volcano closely and close down portions of the park, if needed, to ensure visitors’ safety.)

The nature of a lake’s shore can often complicate transportation and accessibility. As a result, many residents of Lake Arenal choose to navigate its perimeter by bicycle or horseback. These are both popular activities in the area.

Ziplining canopy tours and waterfall excursions round out the list of Lake Arenal’s land adventures.

Lake Arenal Costa Rica

Anita Gould

6. Lake Arenal’s best kept secret is its people.

There’s a lot to love about Lake Arenal and its surrounding areas. It may sound like a great place to live a secluded existence in harmony with nature. And you could if you wanted to.

But what happy expats know about life in Lake Arenal, Costa Rica, is that it’s better shared.

Costa Rica natives, “ticos” and “ticas” as they’re known, are famous for their friendly, welcoming presence. And the small, close-knit community of expats who’ve decided to call Lake Arenal home echo this same attitude.

They frequent local family-owned restaurants and local bars. They gather for card games, cookouts, gardening and book clubs, and more. It’s a place where everybody knows everybody, and they welcome those they don’t with open arms.

The people are warm and inviting. The pace of life is slow. It’s no wonder residents of Costa Rica and, specifically Lake Arenal, are among the happiest in the world.

They know these truths about Lake Arenal and many, many more. Go ahead. Pay them a visit. You’ll be glad you did.

If living by a tropical lake surrounded by lush greenery sounds like your idea of paradise, Lake Arenal is the location for you. Nestled in the shadow of the majestic Arenal Volcano, Lake Arenal and its surrounding communities is rapidly becoming an expat magnet for retirees and investors alike.

Lake Arenal

Lake Arenal

Lake Arenal – A Brief History

Lake Arenal is a manmade lake that was enlarged to its present size as part of a massive hydroelectric project in 1979. The old towns of Arenal and Tonadora were abandoned and now lie at the bottom of the lake. The town of Arenal was relocated to a point northeast of the lake itself.

The lake has played a major role in helping Costa Rica become the eco-friendly nation that is known and loved today. At one time, the dam which helped enlarge the lake to its current size (33 square miles) was responsible for 70% of the nation’s electrical energy.

Lake Arenal Costa Rica

Anita Gould

Lakeside Living – Many Communities, Many Choices

The Lake Arenal area has a number of towns and residential areas that offer a wide selection of properties and options for investment or retirement. With a growing number of expats discovering the attractiveness of living close to the largest lake in Costa Rica, the real estate market is experiencing a resurgence from the decline of recent years

La Fortuna is the largest of the lake communities and prior to 1968 was known as El Borio. When the Arenal Volcano erupted on July 29th 1968, it destroyed three towns on its western flank. El Borio, on the eastern side was spared and, from that day forward, was renamed “La Fortuna”-the fortunate.

El Castillo has the best views of the volcano and is close to the park entrance and Lake Arenal. The village was created as a result of the 1968 eruption of Arenal that required mass relocation of the towns destroyed by the volcano.  Recently, it has become popular with artisans and expats seeking a more bohemian lifestyle.

Rio Chiquito is located on the southern end of the lake and is known as the major transfer point for tours from the many hotels around the volcano to the Monteverde Cloud Forest.  There is a real potential for investment as much of the land is not yet developed.

The Arenal region offers many opportunities for fun and exploration

In addition to the serenity of lakeside living, the area around Arenal is filled with opportunities for exploration and enjoyment of the rich natural diversity of the region. Having some of the finest and most unique hotels, bed and breakfasts, and lodges in Costa Rica, this location is ideal for tourists and expats who want to take advantage of the wide choice of activities available.

For nature and hiking enthusiasts, there are many options that will let participants immerse themselves in the beauty and diversity of the land. Tours of the Arenal Volcano, jungle canopy and horseback tours of various lengths and difficulty, and white water and rappelling tours are available for all interests and tastes–from mild to wild.

Water sports and therapeutic baths

Lake Arenal has become one of the foremost windsurfing locations in the world. The consistent high winds that sweep across the western end of the lake from November through April has made Arenal a magnet for followers of this exciting and adrenaline-filled sport. For those seeking more sedate water sports, bass fishing and kayaking are popular choices.

One of the special features of this area is the abundance of hot springs that are easily accessible to those seeking the healing properties that these natural baths offer. There are also a number of waterfalls that further enhance the eco-experience for visitors and locals alike.

Lakeside Living Offers Many Advantages

Living by a lake may not be the first thought when considering a move to Central America. The advantages that exist in and around Arenal are certainly worth a second look when deciding on a place to retire or invest in.

The climate in the Lake Arenal region is moderate with temperatures in the low to mid 80s during the day and comfortable mid to low 60s in the evening. For those concerned about the cost of air conditioning, this will come as welcome news.

The cost of renting property in the Arenal area can range from $250-$750 per month depending on location and size. Utility prices can range from $26 to $50 per month depending on usage. Overall the cost of living in the lake area is less expensive than other more established parts of the country.

The thriving expat community continues to grow which makes becoming part of the local scene that much easier. Many expats have opened businesses and, combined with industrious locals, have made the transition to expat life an easy one.

Things to consider before moving to the lake region

For all the positives aspects of living in the Arenal area, there some things to consider before making a financial commitment. It is important to remember that living in a foreign country is much different than vacationing there.

To begin with, the drive to the Arenal area from San Jose can run up to four hours. La Fortuna does have a small regional airport that is serviced by Nature Air (a domestic Costa Rican carrier) although cost and convenience may weigh against this option.

Shopping for food or other domestic items is going to be limited to the local mercados, or markets. If having access to more westernized items is important, this may be an issue as well.

Although the region is experiencing continued growth, internet and cable access may differ widely from one part of the area to the next. Once again, if having these conveniences is an essential item on your “must-have” list, then lakeside living may not be the best choice for you.

Lastly, remember that the lake region is not near the ocean. If having a beach lifestyle is the goal of becoming an expat, the Arenal area is not for you.

What is the best way to decide whether Lake Arenal is your tropical dream?

There is no substitute for visiting Arenal and the surrounding area and immersing yourself as much as possible in order to envision what life would be like there. Ask questions, look at expat boards and blogs, do the research, and discover what Lake Arenal holds for you.

Map of Lake Arenal, Costa Rica

Lake Arenal, Costa Rica Fast Facts

  • Population: 8,291
  • Typical temperature: Average temperature 65° to 90° F
  • Nearest airport with U.S. flights: San Jose’s Juan Santamaría International Airport
  • Nearest U.S. consulate: San Jose, Costa Rica

When planning a visit to or an excursion from your home in Central America, there are probably a lot of activities that come to mind. You could relax by the beach, visit an ancient colonial city, sail out for some great fishing or scuba diving opportunities, or a whole host of other adventures.

But for a truly one-of-a-kind experience, we recommend you give one of Central America’s many volcanoes a go. Hiking to the peak of some of these amazing natural landmarks is a great way to see the region from a whole new vantage point, get your adrenaline rushing, and build your collection of tropical expat bragging rights.

Due to its high concentration of active and dormant volcanoes, you won’t have to travel far from where you live or plan to visit in order to find a volcano to climb. Here are a few of our favorites and the features that make each of them so intriguing.

central america volcanos

Jono Hey

Tajumulco, Guatemala

For travelers that are just starting to explore the wilder side of traveling with volcano tours, Tajumulco is a great place to start. As one of the highest mountains in Guatemala, it is a great hike. Although it is a high mountain, it is not nearly as high as many of the other volcanoes throughout Central America.

This volcano is also a great option for travelers who are wary of hiking a volcano. It has not erupted in many years, and has had the least amount of eruptions out of all of the volcanoes in Central America.

This volcano is a great place to start because it has not erupted in years, it is a lower height mountain and it is an easy hike even for beginners. The altitude adjustment is the worst part of the hike, and it will often be started overnight to ease the complications of altitude adjustment.

Hikers can even expect to take a bus up the volcano for a small part of the hike. This is a great volcano to visit for first-time volcano hikers and experienced volcano travelers alike.

central america volcano


Massaya, Nicaragua

If you are a traveler who wants a more unique volcanic experience, the Massaya volcano is the place to be. It is one of the only active volcanoes in Central America that is safe for visitors to view. It is not a typical volcano – it does not spew lava, but is constantly spitting out fumes from the top.

Visitors can drive to the very top of the volcano to look into the top of the volcano. The most popular place to see in is the largest of the volcanic craters. While it is a somewhat safe journey, it is still a good idea for novice volcano viewers to take someone who is more experienced. There are various tour services that help people get the most out of their Massaya experience.

One thing to note when it comes to the Massaya volcano is that it may not be what visitors have expected. When people picture a volcano, they picture a cone shaped mountain figure. The Massaya is not cone shaped, but has a flat top to it. It is more of a mound than a mountain.

Many visitors also expect to see molten lava in the volcano when they look in. Visitors who are expecting lava may be disappointed if they go during the daytime. Due to the fumes that are constantly rising from the volcano, lava can usually only be seen at night.

central america volcano

The Rohit

Arenal, Costa Rica

The national park located in Arenal has plenty to offer its visitors. With everything from ATV rides to canopy rides high above the park and tours through the relaxing hot springs, there is something for everyone. All of this is possible due to the volcano that stands above the park and is a constant reminder of why these things are there.

This volcano is an active one and was one of the only active volcanoes in Central America for many years. Due to the fact that it is an active volcano, visitors are not able to access the rim of the volcano.

While it is not possible to visit the rim of the volcano, visitors will not be disappointed with the amount of activities they can do from the base of the volcano. The park offers daily tours around the base, offers canopy rides to get a unique view of the volcano and guided tours into the geothermal springs where guests can soak after a day filled with activity.

central america volcano

Monty VanderBilt

Cerro Negro, Nicaragua

For the more adventurous volcano explorer, Cerro Negro offers the ultimate volcano experience. The lower elevation of this volcano, which stands right at 2,000 feet, makes it much easier to hike. Cerro Negro is also made up of volcanic sand on one side, making it the ideal volcano for volcano boarding.

This extreme sport is done through the use of a wooden board and can only be accomplished when on volcanic sand. Boarders start toward the top of the volcano and ride their volcano board down to the base of Cerro Negro. This can only be accomplished on volcanoes that have lower elevations, and on ones that do not have steep incline.

While this volcano may not be the most popular one in Nicaragua, it has a very different offering than the Massaya. It is a newer volcano that does not have quite the same history as the others in Central America – it’s only around 150 years old.

Although it is not as old as some of the others in the area, it is possibly one of the most active. Since it was discovered until the turn of the century, it erupted 20 times. It has not erupted since 1999 and is considered to be moderately safe.

Pacaya, Guatemala

Travelers that are looking for some of the best views from a volcano can greatly benefit from the Pacaya in Guatemala. It is an active volcano that hikers can enjoy. It is a taller volcano, at 8,000 feet. While the Pacaya is tall, it is a somewhat easy hike.

It will take most of the day to hike and hikers must be sure that the volcano is at a safe point when they are deciding to hike. Since it is active, there are many things that could compromise the safety of hikers. It last erupted 2 years ago, but there has not been much lava seen in between its eruptions. Choosing to visit this volcano may be for some of the most daring hikers, but it is sure to give some of the best views possible.

Whether you choose one of these or any number of other volcanoes to climb in Central America, make sure your adventure is one that’s well-suited for your health and fitness level. Hire a guide where recommended, and make sure to always use common sense for the sake of your safety.

Oh, and take lots of photos! Anyone can snap a great pic of a Pacific Coast sunset while vacationing in the tropics. Not everyone can say they took that photo from 8,000 feet atop an active volcano!