These 2 quite different regions, northwest of San José, are deservedly popular among visitors. Close on the map but up to 4 hours’ drive from each other in reality, they're often visited together.
Arenal is the country’s most active volcano, providing constant drama through plumes of smoke by day and cascades of red-hot lava by night. Bask in hot springs at its feet, then fly through the surrounding forest canopy along zip-wires.
Monteverde cloudforest offers spectacular wildlife in 2 mist-shrouded reserves set atop steep mountains. Go bird-watching before breakfast to spot the aptly named resplendent quetzal, and let your expert guide reveal the jungle's secrets as you wander along hanging bridges on a level with the treetops.
Watch the spurting, smoking volcano from bed at elegant hotel Nayara or jungle lodge Leaves and Lizards, then hike in the surrounding national park to see lava formations from previous eruptions. Access is restricted but hotels and local agencies run tours, which tend to leave at 8am and 3pm daily; it’s only in the evening that you’ll see the glowing red streams flowing down the volcano’s northwestern slopes. Note, you’ll see nothing in rain or low cloud.
Wander amid the jungle canopy at Arenal Hanging Bridges, set in 600 acres of protected rainforest. You’ll spot fantastic wildlife that's invisible from the ground. Or see the trees from a silent cable car on the Sky Tram, which whisks you to a 1,300m-high platform with stunning views of Lake Arenal. Descend via a gentle walk with a naturalist guide, or a thrilling zip-line along 3km of wires with Sky Trek. The latter option isn’t for the fainthearted, and shouldn’t be attempted on wet days when lightning might turn excitement into fear, but this is the only zip company in the area to use proper brakes (rather than giving you a glove to brake manually).
The volcanically heated waters of the Tabacón springs gush out of the base of a mountain amid lush gardens. There are several hot pools, one with a chute and a swim-up bar, plus waterfalls to wallow under, a restaurant, and a spa offering volcanic-themed treatments. Entry to the springs includes uses of lockers, showers, towels and changing facilities; it’s worth coming early in the day to avoid the crowds.
Hidden in jungle, the waterfalls at La Fortuna are impressive yet far less touristy than other sights around Arenal. The path to reach them is long and slippery, so consider horse-riding instead (local agencies offer 4-hour return trips). If you’re feeling adventurous, you can carry on for another 2 hours or so to see the crater of the neighbouring Chato volcano.
Explore the rainforest with expert guides, bookable through most lodges. Sighting a quetzal is the holy grail of Monteverde, but other species are just as amazing: the blue grey tanager, the elegant euphonia and the scarlet thighed dacnis. The sound of birdsong all around you is unforgettable. If you want to get up close, there are hanging bridges among the treetops here, too.
The Santa Elena Cloudforest Reserve is less visited than the main reserve at Monteverde, but just as interesting. There are 12km of trails to walk, with an observation tower, and guides on offer for tours if you want them.
Don Juan is a small family business with bilingual and knowledgeable guides. See the whole process, and the infrastructure that the coffee industry created (generating the wealth which built the San José theatre). There’s also a tasting at the end, and a free sample to take home.