Set on a hill overlooking Costa Rica’s largest lake is the village of Nuevo Arenal. This quiet lakeside town has an interesting history. And while not a major tourist destination, it has some fun things to do either on the lake or nearby. In this post, we’ll share what you need to know about visiting Nuevo Arenal.
Nuevo Arenal is nestled into the north-central part of Costa Rica. It overlooks the giant Lake Arenal. This is Costa Rica’s largest freshwater lake at around 85-square kilometers (33-square miles).
Notably, the town sits between some other more popular tourist destinations.
From Guanacaste’s Liberia International Airport (LIR), Nuevo Arenal is about a two-hour drive. From San Jose’s International Airport (SJO), the ride is around 3.5 hours.
About Nuevo Arenal
Set atop a hill with peaceful lake views, Nuevo Arenal has a humble downtown.
One main street has a small grocery store, shops, hardware stores, a bank, and pharmacy. Spread out along other side roads are several restaurants, a school, church, community center, and rodeo ring.
Other important landmarks are a boat ramp and recreational space next to the lake. Like most Costa Rican towns, there’s a park and soccer field in the center.
Outside the main area, small neighborhoods have been developed off the road that goes around the lake (Route 142).
Overall, the feeling in Nuevo Arenal is very rural, with patchworks of forest and farm fields surrounding the town.
As the name suggests, Nuevo Arenal is the “new” Arenal. This is because in the 1970s, the townspeople of the original town (Arenal) were relocated to make way for a large hydroelectric project. This project would eventually dam the Arenal River and create a massive reservoir, now known as Lake Arenal.
With the completion of the Lake Arenal dam in the late 70s, the former town of Arenal is now underwater. There are still homes, a church, and a cemetery at the bottom of the lake. Most of the local people were moved to Nuevo Arenal to start afresh.
This wasn’t without controversy, however. From the stories we have been told, most citizens did not want to give up their homes and farms in the old town. However, after the violent eruption of Arenal Volcano in 1968, people became more willing to move.
Costa Rica’s government-run electric company (ICE) also made the move more appealing by building modern infrastructure for the new town. This included a reliable electric grid and streets with sidewalks, drainage systems, etc. These were big improvements for those who lived in old Arenal.
Because of Nuevo Arenal’s position on the northern side of Lake Arenal and at the foot of a mountain range, the climate is quite unique.
One minute, it can be sunny and warm, while another minute, it can change to misty or rainy. These patterns are caused by micro weather systems coming from the lake. This keeps things fresh and springlike in Nuevo Arenal.
From November continuing through April, there is a strong westerly wind that crosses the lake. The wind can make Lake Arenal choppy, but calmer coves always offer some respite.
Activities in Nuevo Arenal
Fishing on Lake Arenal
One of the most popular activities to do in Nuevo Arenal is fishing on the lake. Lake Arenal is an excellent place to catch the hard fighting fish known as the guapote or rainbow bass.
Guided fishing charters are available on small bass-fishing style boats. Read more about the experience we had in our post, Fishing on Lake Arenal.
Kayaking & SUP
Another popular activity on the lake is kayaking or stand up paddleboard. There are a few small tour operators along the lake that will rent equipment and guide you around calmer coves, river inlets, and secret spots.
Other Water Sports
Some other water sports nearby include windsurfing and wakeboarding. These activities usually start on the western edge of the lake near the town of San Luis and Tronadora (about 30-40 minutes away).
Lake Arenal is a well-known windsurfing destination because of the consistent seasonal winds (November through April).
Another fun water activity that we have done is a sunset lake boat cruise. This tour starts on the eastern edge of the lake, closer to La Fortuna. We had great views of Arenal Volcano to the east and sunset to the west.
La Fortuna Activities
With Arenal Volcano towering in the distance, many people who stay in Nuevo Arenal want to visit some attractions around the volcano.
Keep in mind, though, that these tours are about a one-hour drive from Nuevo Arenal.
An easy activity right in Nuevo Arenal is a visit to Lake Cote. This lake is somewhat hidden next to Lake Arenal but is actually Costa Rica’s largest naturally formed freshwater lake.
Lake Cote was made famous when an aerial survey done by the Costa Rican government captured what appeared to be a flying saucer (UFO) in a photo.
Read more about this mystery and see the 1970s picture in our post, Nuevo Arenal’s Cote Lake: A Historic UFO Site.
El Jilguero Ecotourism Project
For an off-the-beaten path hike and nature experience, there is El Jilguero Ecotourism Project.
This small rural tourism project about 45 minutes west of Nuevo Arenal offers guided hikes through the cloud forest. There are also a few volcanic steam vents.
Read our post, El Jilguero Ecotourism Project: Hiking and Fumaroles, for all the information you need to plan a visit.
Restaurants in Nuevo Arenal
For such a small town, Nuevo Arenal has a good selection of restaurants. Here are a handful of our favorites.
This is our top pick in Nuevo Arenal. During a recent one-week stay, we visited four times! Casa Italia serves homemade specialties like pasta alla Norma, pasta Bolognese, pasta carbonara, gnocchi, ravioli, and lasagna. Everything is crafted from scratch by the Sicilian owner and his staff then finished in a wood-fired oven for an extra touch. The pizzas and desserts are also delicious.
For a casual meal in an upbeat environment, there is Moya’s Place. Located at the corner entrance to town, Moya’s has a large menu. From burgers, wraps, salads, and pizzas to salmon and beef tenderloin, there is something for everyone. Moya’s also has a fun drink menu with cocktails, craft beer, smoothies, and kombucha.
Tom’s Pan German Bakery
For authentic German treats like apple strudel, pretzels, breads, sausages, and much more, check out Tom’s Pan German Bakery. This establishment has been around for 25+ years and is worth a stop, even if you are just passing through. Located on the steep hill near the town center on the main road (Route 142).
Los Platillos Voladores
With funky decor in an alien theme, Los Platillos Voladores (the Flying Saucers) is a fun stop when visiting Nuevo Arenal. The Italian food is very good and the location, right next to a playground and the town soccer field, make it a family-friendly choice.
Soda La Parada
Situated right at the bus stop in town is Soda La Parada (the Stop). This small local restaurant serves tasty traditional plates like casados (rice, beans, side salads, and your choice of meat/fish), rice dishes like arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), and soups. The quality is excellent for the price.
One of the most well-known restaurants in Nuevo Arenal is Gingerbread. The charismatic chef and his staff aim to create a memorable dining experience that will leave you coming back for more. Food is often prepared off-menu to suit your individual tastes. The vibe is upbeat and fun.
Hotels & Accommodations in Nuevo Arenal
Nuevo Arenal has a good selection of smaller hotels and bed and breakfasts. Vacation rentals are also popular in the area. Here are a few accommodation options.
Lucky Bug Bed & Breakfast
Set on a small lagoon, Lucky Bug Bed & Breakfast has a handful of spacious colorful rooms. Some rooms have balconies. The grounds have beautiful gardens and feeders that attract a lot of hummingbirds. $85-175/night, depending on configuration. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Gingerbread Hotel & Restaurant
Gingerbread Hotel has a few rooms and two freestanding bungalows. Each of the cozy spaces is decorated in a unique theme. Guests love the friendly, attentive staff as well as the onsite restaurant, mentioned above. Around $130/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Casa Donna Rosa B&B
Casa Donna Rosa B&B is a great lodging option right in town. Rooms are simple, but nicely decorated, spacious, and well-equipped. Wildlife can often be spotted from the balconies. The property has a nice garden, small pool, and relaxing lounging area. $115-175/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel Los Heroes
After being closed for several years, this local landmark has recently reopened. In its heyday, the property, which resembles a Swiss village, had a working train, chapel, and two restaurants. Today, Hotel Los Heroes offers simple rooms with old-world decor for around $80-100/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Nuevo Arenal may not be a major tourist destination but that doesn’t stop it from being a charming Costa Rican town to visit. With lake views, friendly locals, a thriving expat community, and fun attractions nearby, it has all the makings for a relaxing tropical vacation.
Have a question about visiting Nuevo Arenal? Leave a comment below.
Looking for more off-the-tourist-trail destinations? Check out these posts:
San Ramon: Close to Culture – This small city west of San Jose has a real locals’ feel. Visit the church and town park, go on a coffee tour, hike, or visit the local brewery.
Bajos del Toro: Costa Rica’s Land of Waterfalls – On the back side of Poas Volcano, this town features some of the country’s most beautiful waterfalls.
Curubande de Liberia: A Country Town in Rincon de la Vieja – This small village is close to Rincon de la Vieja National Park, gorgeous waterfalls, and volcanic hot springs. It’s the perfect destination for an authentic stay.