Posted in North American Travel

How to Access Free Hiking in Arenal, Costa Rica

Costa Rica– the land of volcanoes, lush rainforests, and endless entry fees to private “reserves”. If you have ever visited this beautiful country, you probably experienced the entry-fee fatigue that many outdoor enthusiasts start to feel a few days into their stay.

We are currently spending three weeks in the beautiful Monteverde region, and have already begun to dread that constant nickel and diming that happens when trying to access any hiking trails. For those of you who have not yet visited this country, here’s a heads up– all reserves and parks cost at least $10 per a person to access, with many as high as $25. This doesn’t seem bad (especially when compared to the high rates of the US National Parks), but after five or six days of paying every time you want to walk around a jungle, it becomes rather exhausting.

The trails are worth the entry fee, but it does quickly add up.

Last weekend, we decided to mix things up and head to the Arenal region for three days. Already dreading the high fees to famous areas such as Mystic Bridges and Arenal National Park, I decided to do some digging into options for free hiking. 

The Arenal Volcano on a rare clear day. Photo credit: (because we never got such a clear day)

Spoiler Alert: There is NO free hiking in Arenal. Sorry for baiting and switching you!

However, there are options to combine your lodging with unlimited access to a preserve, allowing for you to enjoy nature at your leisure. 

Enter: Arenal Observatory Lodge and Preserve 

It’s fancy and adventure-friendly. Something this budget traveler loves! Photo credit:

The Arenal Observatory and Lodge is the only hotel inside of Arenal Volcano National Park. Situated at the base of the Arenal Volcano, guests who stay at the lodge have access to over 900-acres of land, which spans from secondary forests to primary rainforest. Two rivers and a frog pond also add a variety of wildlife and diversity to this property. 

Just look at all that hiking! Hint: the map is definitely not to scale.

A standard room at the lodge averages around $120-160 a night. Options are also available for multiple-room villas, in case you are traveling with a group. When compared to budget hotels in Fortuna (the nearest town to the Arenal Volcano), these rooms are quite a bit more expensive. For reference, a 3-star hotel in the town will run about $60 a night, and Airbnb options are even less. 

However, once you start adding up the expense of visiting the park and other reserves, the price of this lodge versus a cheaper hotel in town starts to even out. For example, entrance to Mystic Bridges Reserve is $27 per person, with reservations required. For two people, that is $54 just to access one reserve, one time. 

But the difference in price doesn’t stop there. If you are visiting this area for multiple days, chances are high that you will be hiking everyday. Entrance to Arenal Volcano National Park is $15 per person, and the various shorter waterfall hikes around town average around $10-$15 per person per a visit. 

Beyond the high entrance fees, all of these reserves close by 4pm. If you want to night hike (which you should, because this is when most of the wildlife comes out to play), then expect to pay an additional $45-80 per person for a guided night hike. By the time you have spent three days in Arenal, you could easily spend an additional $200 just to access the hiking areas. 

By opting to pay more up front by staying at the Arenal Observatory and Lodge, you have access to free hiking whenever you want. This includes any night hiking you may want to do around the property on your own (just be sure to bring multiple flashlights). The property also offers a free, guided morning hike where you can tour the frog pond and surrounding area with an expert wildlife spotter for an hour each morning. We enjoyed hiking the trails at our own pace, and revisiting some of our favorite spots. Because we weren’t paying an entrance fee, we didn’t have the pressure to “see it all” in one day. Another perk? Because this area is off the beaten path, we had all the trails to ourselves. No waiting for that perfect selfie pic at the waterfall!

Standard selfie moment at the Dante Waterfall at Arenal Observatory Lodge.

Worried you might miss out on cool scenery or wildlife by not visiting the other reserves? Don’t be! The Arenal Lodge property hosts four different waterfalls, two accessible rivers, a perimeter trail with views of the volcano, multiple hanging bridges, an observatory tower, a bird-viewing balcony with views of Lake Arenal, and beautiful gardens throughout the property. There is also a free visitor center and museum on site, so you can learn more about the ecological diversity and volcanic activity of the area. The lodge also has a pool, hot tub, and full-service spa (for #treatyoself days). There is also restaurant on location. Oh, and breakfast is included. 

While staying on the property, we spotted a troop of spider monkeys, toucans, parrots, eyelash vipers, red-eyed tree frogs, other snakes I don’t know the name of, hummingbirds, motmots, a baby tarantula, and an anteater (ok, we actually didn’t see the anteater because we were napping, but our hotel neighbor said it was right outside our window). 

This mom and baby were hanging out just past the reception area on the hanging bridge. Photo credit: @nlarghi

I know I’m starting to sound like a marketing campaign, so let’s consider some downsides to staying at this lodge. The first concern (and the biggest for budget-minded adventurers) is that Arenal Observatory is remote in a good and bad way. It is over 30 minutes from La Fortuna, with part of the road still dirt and full of potholes. Our 2×4 sedan was able to make the journey just fine, but it doesn’t make it easy to pop into town for a quick lunch or dinner. There are no fridges or microwaves in the standard hotel rooms, so that leaves the only option for food the lodge restaurant.  

View from the restaurant. While is is pricey, it does have great views.

Food here is delicious, but the average plate is about $15 and the meal portions are just average (meaning you might walk away still hungry if you just order an entree). In comparison, a meal in town can be as low as $6, or lower depending on where you eat. If you’re only staying a few days, this isn’t a deal breaker, but it is something to keep in mind for longer stays or for individuals who would like options when it comes to eating. We went into town to buy supplies for sandwiches so we could have our own picnics during the day, but still opted for the lodge’s restaurant at night. 

This also means you are at least 30 minutes to the other attractions in the La Fortuna area, including white water rafting, zip lining, bars/clubs, and water tours of the lake. While the lodge does have horseback riding available, for those with serious FOMO, the extra distance might be too inconvenient.

A sloth we spotted on the Bogarin Trail, down in La Fortuna. While there are sloths on the property, they may be harder to spot. Photo credit: @nlarghi

Another point to consider is using this property to access Cerro Chato (the other volcano in this area which many people will hike). Many hiking guides will still state that there is an access trail on this property, but this trail was closed permanently a few years ago. This is true for the entire area of Cerro Chato, but some some hiking sites may not have updated information. Access to this area might open in the future, so it’s smart to check with the hotel if this is on your bucket list.

There is a beautiful waterfall that you can enjoy at the trailhead. Photo credit @nlarghi

The standard rooms at Arenal Observatory Lodge do not have air conditioning. While this lodge is situated at a higher elevation than the town, it can still get hot here. The rooms come with screens, high ceilings, and a very powerful ceiling fan, but for those of us who are used to climate-controlled rooms, this should be a consideration. I loved sleeping with the sounds of the jungle around me, but the humidity did get sticky at night. 

As added incentive, this is the view. We were staying in room 19 to get this view. The wifi was also great throughout the property for remote working.

If you don’t want to stay at the lodge, you can pay a daily entrance fee to hike the grounds ($8 as of 2021). This still makes it quite a bit cheaper than the surrounding reserves, and you can easily spend an entire day here and still not see everything. 

If you do find yourself here and would like more information on all the trails, check out our upcoming article on “Top Places to Spot Wildlife in Arenal”.

While the cost of hiking in Costa Rica is a major downside, this country is incredibly beautiful and still a very affordable destination. It is easy to focus on the individual prices of lodging when booking, but a little research and planning can make this country even more enjoyable. 

All that land. Free to access. It’s beautiful. View from the observatory tower.

We loved Arenal Observatory Lodge simply because it allowed us to enjoy nature at our own pace, whenever we wanted. The staff, grounds, and rooms were all incredibly fantastic, and I’m already planning my return trip there (where I’ll probably opt for one of those amazing villas). 

Follow-up Tip: Be sure to check out similar lodges and preserves in your other Costa Rican destinations!

Posted in North American Travel

How to Have a Romantic and Affordable Weekend in Key West

“Affordable” is not a word that’s usually associated with the Florida star of drunken nights and steamy days (prepare for an endless amount of romance puns in this one). I debated calling this weekend “affordable”, because, compared to my other adventures, this was definitely not on the cheaper end.

One of the most expensive parts of visiting Key West is the steep cost of accommodations. Even during the off-season, a weekend in a hotel within walking distance of Duval Street will run about $300-500 a night. But if you’re willing to accept that most of your expenses will come from where you sleep (or at least rest between bar hopping), then the rest of the weekend can be easy on your wallet without skimping on the romance or experience.

Cheers to going big for the weekend!

So, join me, your self-appointed Romance Connoisseur, on my top tips for How To Have a Romantic and Affordable Weekend in Key West, Florida.

Tip 1: Drive

Nothing says romance more than driving past palm trees and blue water with the windows down, especially when you get to hear that motor purr at 45 mph (the top speed on the US 1 from Key Largo to Key West).

Two lanes, the whole way. Photo credit:

I currently live in Fort Myers, so driving to Key West is usually the easiest option for me. However, even if you’re visiting from the Great North, flying into Miami or Fort Lauderdale and renting a car is still your best bet. The Florida Keys are scattered with small airports, including a commercial airport located in Key West. While this may seem convenient, a quick Google Flights search shows that not only is Key West airport typically very expensive to fly into, it is also coupled with multiple layovers and connections. (If you’re located near a major airport hub for Frontier, Spirit, or JetBlue, you have much better prices and connections. These airlines provide multiple nonstop services to Key West at a reasonable rate, but are very limited.)

Nonstop flight options for a random weekend in November.

Opting to drive Highway 1 through the Keys comes with additional bonuses. As mentioned above, accommodation in Key West is extremely pricey, regardless of the season. If you’re looking to book an extended weekend with that special someone (or yourself! #treatyoself), renting a car gives you the option of staying in the Upper Keys for some of your stay. While they aren’t cheap, the Upper Keys offer a wider area of hotels, Airbnbs, and campgrounds, bringing costs down to as low at $100 a night, depending on where you stay. The Upper Keys are also less crowded than Key West, granting you a bit more serenity and privacy if you want to take a dip into the ocean with your lady lover under a full moon (just don’t watch Jaws before this trip).

Bahia Honda is a great stop to spend a half a day enjoying the “beach”. Heads up, if you’re looking for the typical white sand beaches, these don’t exist in the Keys. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

The Upper Keys also provide some great stops for sightseeing along the way that shouldn’t be skipped over. Some of my favorites include:

  • Keys Chocolate and Ice Cream on Key Largo- Best stop for key lime pie on a stick, ice cream, and gourmet sweets. If you go at night, you get the added bonus of enjoying their delicacies under a patio of twinkle lights, and what says romance more than twinkle lights? Nothing.
Aw, sweet diabetes.
  • The History of Diving Museum on Islamorada- Okay, so this one may not get you a lot of romance points, but history can be sexy, right? Regardless, this is a great stop for any dive, ocean, or history enthusiasts, and is also a great option to escape the rain. Tickets are $15 a person, but you can easily spend a couple hours here.
Gotta love that 60’s vibe. Photo credit:
  • Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key- You can think me later when this stop pays off in your favor (insert winky face). This park is definitely a major reason for driving. Located just under a hour from Key West, this park provides one of the best beaches in the Keys, as well as a great place for snorkeling, boat tours, paddle boarding, and kayaking. The old railroad bridge at the park also offers one of the highest vantage points in this area, so you can get sweeping views of the ocean as a backdrop for the cute couple photo that will be your phone’s background for the next 7-10 months. You can also reserve a campsite here if you want to see the bridge under the Milky Way. Nothing says “eternal love” like 10,000 no-see-ums and 10 billion stars.
Insert cheesy romance line here. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography
  • Florida Keys Cafe on Big Pine Key- If you’re driving into Key West in the morning, this is a definite stop to grab a much needed coffee and delicious breakfast. Not only is the food divine, but this family-owned and operated restaurant is also very affordable (under $15 a plate, which is affordable in this territory). It’s not much to look at on the outside, but the inside is full of charm, sweet servers, and the nice aroma of salty fishermen. No one is feeling very loving when they’re hangry, so be sure to stop in here, pack in some grub, and continue on to the Southern Capitol of Debauchery.
Beauty is on the inside for this one.

Tip 2: Opt for the Nice Hotel

Now that you’ve made it to your destination, picking out the perfect place to call home for the weekend is going to impact the rest of this lovecation. Hotels in Key West are pricey (if I haven’t said this enough), but if you’re smart in your selection, then the cost will be worth the experience. Hotels are the most expensive close to Duval Street; however, if you’re banking on getting your plus one hammered with frozen cocktails, it works in you favor to stay within walking distance of the bars and attractions. Anything over half a mile from Sloppy Joe’s, and you’re officially too far to stumble your way home.

The Old Town Manor. This used to be a doctor’s residence and office. If you stay inside the house, it is supposedly haunted. I did not stay in the house.

We stayed at the Old Town Manor, just around the corner from the main road. At $400 a night, this hotel was one of the most expensive I’ve ever stayed in, but it was more than worth the price (and still on the cheaper end of Key West accommodations). This B&B offered everything required for a weekend of romance, and relaxation. A converted residence from 1886, we had the option to stay inside the main house or in the converted carriage house outside (we chose the carriage house). Because we weren’t right on Duval, we were able to enjoy the party scene, but retreat to the quiet serenity of our own garden. Breakfast included a buffet of salmon, homemade jams, fruits, and a variety of bagels and freshly-pressed orange juice (with the added bonus of baby chicks running around). We stayed in the Jarcada Room, and we had our own patio overlooking the beautiful gardens and breakfast area. The house was also available if we wanted to pop in for some refreshing fruit-infused water, chat with the incredibly helpful staff, or escape the heat in the charming parlor or on the front porch. If you’re trying to convince your significant other that you need a trip here pronto, I will provide some extra photos to seal the deal.

Tip 3: Find Free Activities for the Day Time

Because you might be experiencing sticker shock over the price of your hotel, spend the day enjoying the town without opting for the expensive excursions. Key West has a lot of offer to the hardy traveler who isn’t afraid to brave the heat and put some miles on their shoes. The neighborhoods spanning out from Duval Street are filled with colorful, historic homes and Spanish-moss draped avenues. You can easily spend a lazy morning strolling down the sidewalks and just taking in the sights.

Just don’t check Zillow. It will make you feel poor.

If you’re more of a destination person, check out the West Martello Tower and Garden. This Civil-War era fort turned botanical garden is free to the public (open 9:30am-5:00pm, 7 days a week).

Not featured: the hoards of chickens running around. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

Ferns, trees, flowers, butterflies, chickens, and beautiful views of the ocean make this a great place to spend an hour or two. Most of the paths are shady, so it is also a good place to escape Florida’s oppressive heat. Pack your sunhat, sunscreen, and skip the cute shoes for something more comfortable as this spot is about a 30 minute walk from Duval Street. However, it brings you closer to the Southernmost Point of the US marker, so you can knock off two things on your “must-see” list.

Just a small sample of all the beautiful flowers to see here. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

From here, you can make the short 10-minute walk to the Southernmost Point of the US. This marker is a fan-favorite for all visitors, and your trip wouldn’t be complete without a quick selfie. Try to get here early, as a line does form for pictures and the heat can be rather dreadful. There’s a great little grocery story just across the street where you can pick up some key lime pie on a stick or a cold drink to make up for the long jaunt.

This is not a diet-friendly destination.

At the end of the day, head over to Mallory Square for the daily sunset celebration, courtesy of the more colorful residents of Key West. An hour or so before sunset, this square starts to fill up with visitors, exhibitionists, and the occasional chicken. This is one of the better places on the island to catch the sunset over the ocean, and there’s plenty of places to grab a delicious cocktail to sip on while you wait. (While a lot of people watch the sunset right at Mallory Square, if you walk Harbour Place Condos, you can get a better view and a bit more privacy).

I like pretty views next to boats I can’t afford.

The real attraction though comes from the assortment of freelance performers who put on free shows around the square. You can catch everything from an old guy walking a tightrope to a kid spinning fire– it just depends on the day. Be sure to bring some cash to show your appreciation for your favorite performers.

Be careful. You might be volun-told to join the show.

Tip 4: Splurge on Food and Drinks

If you’re in Key West, chances are very high that you’re here to have a drink or two. Since you’ve opted for a hotel with breakfast and skipped the expensive tours, you have a bit more room in your budget to splurge on some yummy drinks and food. Restaurants can get pricey here, so it helps to do a bit of research if you want to be more strategic in your approach. One of our favorites was Garbo’s Grill at Hank’s Bar. This low-key, outdoor bar offers free, live music and an affordable happy hour ($5 beer in Key West, anyone?).

Nothing like beer in a plastic cup to get the romance flowing.

The best part of this place though is the food truck behind the bar, named Garbo’s Grill. They feature a variety of bar food, including fish tacos, beef tacos, hamburgers, hotdogs, and poke bowls. However, the true winner of the show (and the reason we kept coming back to it the entire weekend) is the Korean Bulgogi Burrito. Unless you’re a monster, you love Korean Bulgogi as much as the rest of the world, and this place does not disappoint. Food costs $10-$15 a plate, which is much cheaper than many of the sit-down restaurants in the area.

Marry me, sweet burrito from heaven.

Spend your evening checking out the colorful and unique bars that fill Duval Street. Like everything else here, drinks aren’t cheap in Key West (most cocktails will cost around $10-$15, depending on how fancy you are), but you’re here for the experience. To save some money, check with your hotel to see if they have coupon cards for some of the bars. We were able to snag a couple Buy One, Get One coupons for some places, which saved us about $10 for each order.

Nighttime, when Duval comes alive. Just remember to hydrate.

Tip 5: Opt for the Off-Season

Key West shines when the rest of the country is buried under ten feet of snow. December through April is peak tourist season for this tiny town, meaning prices for hotels skyrocket and everything gets a bit too crowded for comfort. Remember, there is only one road leading down to the keys, and it can quickly turn into a traffic nightmare on a busy Friday evening.

Starting in May, the tourists start to disappear, as temperatures in the rest of the country start to rise and those poor, pale Northerners get to peak out their front doors and see the sun for the first time in months. While it is hotter and way more humid in the summer, hotels get to be a bit more reasonable and you won’t feel like you’re fighting crowds everywhere you go.

If you are visiting during the summer months, be sure to pack clothes that breathe easily, a good sun hat, and lots of sunscreen. It is also smart to do most of your exploring in the early morning and late afternoon, spending the hottest part of the day by the pool of that adorable hotel you opted for.

I come, I insta, I leave.

Final Thoughts

Key West is definitely one of America’s more unique destinations, but it is also definitely not for everyone. I’m spinning this to be a weekend for couples, because this really isn’t the best destination for kids. Girls weekend, Lonely Boys Days Out, and romantic escapades are all great fits for this colorful destination, but Key West lacks the beaches and kid-friendly attractions that are typical in the rest of Southern Florida. Not to mention the hoards of drunken debauchery that descends upon this town once the sun goes down…

The face of drunken debauchery.

While it doesn’t fit the tune of our normal, budget-friendly destinations, Key West can still be done on a rather affordable budget. It is a great destination for a long weekend with your amore of the hour (or life, whatever floats your boat). Just be smart in your planning, be willing to cough up a bit more for a nice hotel, and most of all, get drunk, make-out in public, and have a great time.

Happy trails, everyone!