Location 8: Arenal (Costa Rica)
"Volcano and forest with colourful birds."
I recommend the Costa Rica Birdwatching Bingo (premium link) activity.
When I visited in 2013 my favourite place to go birdwatching was the forest at the Circular Walk near Arenal (premium link). If you prefer birdwatching in a bit more comfort, the Arenal Observatory (premium link) is an ecolodge where I saw very similar birds.
Arenal Volcano rises to 1,600m and is surrounded by lowlands at 300m including the local town of La Fortuna. The birds are Caribbean-side species and the wide range of elevations increases the total number of species that can be seen.
Many commercial birdwatching tours will stop here for a couple of days, often staying at Arenal Observatory. This is also a popular general tourist destination with the volcano, hot springs and beautiful forest. This location description is based on my visit in 2013 when I really enjoyed the combination of the landscape and the birdwatching.
- Cerro Chato (site 1) (premium link) has a fun walk to a lake in an old volcano. (GPS coords 10.4431N 84.6672W)
- The Walk North of La Fortuna (site 2) (premium link) has some good rural birdwatching. (GPS coords 10.4686N 84.6630W)
- I think that the Circular Walk near Arenal (site 3) (premium link) is great for all birdwatchers including those reliant on public transport. (GPS coords 10.4784N 84.7386W)
- Arenal Observatory (site 4) (premium link) is a famous destination for birdwatching. In 2013 you could get a $10 day pass to explore the trails. (GPS coords 10.4362N 84.7092W)
- Parque Nacional Arenal (site 5) offers a chance to walk closer to the volcano and reach old lava flows. The rangers can tell you good places to see wildlife. (GPS coords 10.4617N 84.7398W)
- Many species of hummingbird, kingfisher, warbler and tanager were just some of the birds that I saw in 1 week at Arenal in winter (premium link).
Transportation in Arenal
Arenal is a popular destination and with convenient buses from many places including San Jose and Sarapiqui.
If you are coming from Monteverde without a hire car then a fast option (that is only slightly more expensive than the public bus) is to take the "bus-ferry-bus" that goes across the lake. Additionally, I have found that many operators will upgrade this to include a visit to Cano Negro. In 2017 it cost approximately $30 direct or $80 via Cano Negro.
There is a bus station in the centre of La Fortuna which is a great place to catch an early bus for wildlife watching that avoids the risk of the bus missing you as it drives past. In 2014 Arenal was $20 by taxi meaning you could use this to extend one of your days by not having to catch the (early in the afternoon) bus back. For example, you could have a full day that finishes with a good chunk of time at Arenal Observatory and then catch a taxi back late in the afternoon (the Observatory should be able to arrange a taxi).
Arenal is a very popular birdwatching destination. I managed to get two lifts with other birdwatchers (both generously offered) helping me explore a bit more.
Accommodation in Arenal
La Fortuna has a wide range of accommodation. For the budget traveller it has lots of hostels and hotels. If your budget can stretch to it then Arenal Observatory http://www.arenalobservatorylodge.com has accommodation in the heart of the good wildlife-watching area.
I have also discovered (but have not tried) a locally-run hotel on the edge of Lake Arenal. It is just 7km from the entrance to Parque Nacional Arenal and a similar distance from Arenal Observatory. The hotel is called "Essence Arenal" and the phone number (on the advert I saw on the road near Parque Nacional Arenal) is (506) 2479 1131.
Birds of Arenal
- possible birds: 375 species (of which 70 are likely)
- birds possible at this location but not in many other places in Costa Rica: (2 species) Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner (Philydor rufus), Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora pinus)
- resident birds: 325 species (in addition there are 11 passage, 37 winter and 2 summer species)
- birds seen on a 1 week visit (winter): 107 species
- birds most often seen on a 1 week visit (winter): (starting with the most common) House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) 10x2 (m3), Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) 9x2 (m3), Passerini's Tanager (Ramphocelus passerinii) 9x3 (m4), Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) 8x2 (m3), Blue-gray Tanager (Thraupis episcopus) 8x2 (m2), Yellow-faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivaceus) 7x2 (m2), White-collared Seedeater (Sporophila torqueola) 6x2 (m3), Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) 5x3 (m8), Ruddy Ground-Dove (Columbina talpacoti) 5x2 (m3), Clay-colored Robin (Turdus grayi) 5x2 (m2), Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) 5x11 (m20), Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) 5x4 (m7), Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl) 4x2 (m5), Grey-capped Flycatcher (Myiozetetes granadensis) 4x2 (m2), Buff-throated Saltator (Saltator maximus) 4x2 (m4), Short-billed Pigeon (Patagioenas nigrirostris) 3x2 (m2), Hoffmann's Woodpecker (Melanerpes hoffmannii) 3x1 (m1), Social Flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis) 3x1 (m1), Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) 3x10 (m19), Southern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx ruficollis) 3x12 (m20), Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) 3x1 (m1), Chestnut-sided Warbler (Dendroica pensylvanica) 3x1 (m1), Melodious Blackbird (Dives dives) 3x2 (m2)
- average birds seen in 1 day (winter): 45 species
The forests here are not as high as at Monteverde. This is one of the reasons that the two locations (Monteverde and Arenal) can work well together. Additionally, Monteverde is on the Pacific side and Arenal is on the Caribbean side.
Although it is technically high enough (in places) for Black-faced Solitaire I did not hear very many when I visited in 2013. I generally saw mixed flocks of birds characteristic of lower elevations in the forests. I recommend keeping a look out for tanagers, warblers and other birds feeding in the tops of the trees.
Arenal offers some excellent open habitats, particularly fields with scattered trees and patches of woodland. The entrance road to Parque Nacional Arenal, the start of the walk up Cerro Chato Volcano and the "Walk North of La Fortuna" all offer very good open-habitat birdwatching. Characteristic birds of the open habitats on my 2013 visit included flycatchers, grackles, parrots/parakeets and mixed flocks of woodland birds (which I have mainly saw working along hedgerows near to woodland/forest).
This article is part of the Nature Travel Guide and was published on June 2017.
Even more articles including detailed site descriptions, illustrated wildlife-watching activities, self-guided walks, itinerary recommendations, birdwatching overviews and mammal-watching overviews are available in the premium eBooks.