You know those weekends where everything is just perfect? You set out without an official plan, but everything falls into place just as it should? Well, this is typically how I travel, and that’s exactly how the weekend went when I recently made my way to Arenal and La Fortuna, Costa Rica.
I set off with my friend, Bryan, and we made our way from Santa Ana of San Jose, to the town of La Fortuna near the famous Arenal Volcano. We used a GPS application called Waze to direct us, and the trip took around 3 hours. The roads are in good condition, albeit quite curvy and mountainous at times. On this route, you pass by the airport, and shortly afterwards you will see signs from several years ago that point you right towards “Arenal”, but there is a new route which goes straight past these signs and shaves off a few hours, and this is what we took.
Along the way, we had a few fun pit stops to explore and stretch our legs. One place we visited was called “Lands in Love”, and if you’re looking for lodging that is in the middle of no where, but encompasses the best of Costa Rica, this could be a cool option for you. This mountain resort had access to white water rafting, rappelling, zip lining, hanging bridges, gardens, and much more. They are also know for their restaurant, which can be accessed right off the road, with mannequins hanging right over the road to call attention to their zip lining offers.
After walking around the grounds for a bit and enjoying the beautiful surroundings, we were off again, on the road for another hour or so, until we saw a group of tourists stopped alongside the road, looking up into a tree. Sure enough, there were two sloths in the tree, and both were fairly active. You never know what type of wildlife you will see along the roads of Costa Rica, so drive with caution and with your eyes wide open!
Just before entering the town of La Fortuna, we passed over Rio Fortuna, and my friend told me there was a swimming hole and rope swing, so we decided to stop for a swim and a picnic. It was SO much fun, and 100% free! When we arrived, there were some local boys already swimming and jumping from the rocks, and when they saw we were interested in using the rope swing, they used one of the nearby sticks to grab it for us, and then demonstrated where to jump in. It’s quite self-explanatory: let go when you’re as far out as possible! Sometimes the river can be quite strong, so swim with caution and always have a buddy. Once you’re in the river, you can climb up the steep rocks to get out, or drift down a bit and climb out on a less rugged path.
While there, we made friends with these boys, and they told us how to find the free natural hot springs, and also how to access Cerro Chato without paying. Both the hot springs and climbing Cerro Chato were on my list for the weekend, so it was excellent to receive the inside scoop of how to get to them. After our swinging and swimming, we decided to walk the path down into the jungle, which brought us to a beautiful area where we enjoyed our picnic. Moments like thees are why I love Costa Rica. There we were, literally just off the side of the road, enjoying the most lush vegetation and pure, clean river, eating our picnic in peace and harmony with the nature around us. This is Pura Vida!
From Rio Fortuna, we decided to continue on to the hot springs, as this was the reason we had come to La Fortuna! We drove towards Tabacon Hot Springs, a beautiful and ritzy resort with access to the natural hot springs as well, and once we passed the main entry and the curve, we parked on the side of the road in front of a yellow triangle off-road gate. There were quite a few cars there, as this place is not exactly “‘secret”, and although the river is free, you will be expected to pay 1,000 colones ($2) to park your car and have the guys watch over it for you. Along the road, they are typically selling pipa fria for 500 colones (cold coconuts for $1) and sometimes sandwiches and other drinks. Enter through the yellow fence and walk down a few hundred feet until you reach the river. As soon as you step in, you will delight in the luxuriously warm water!
If you have hiking sandals, or waterproof shoes, you will probably be happier using them as you navigate the rocky river, but it is not a “must”. Once at the river, make your way under and through the bridge tunnel, and when you reach the rocky opening, you can either fight the current and climb right through, or you can walk off to the right and hop through a hole in a chain link fence.
In this direction, you will find many people sitting and relaxing in the river. Despite the fact that there is typically a crowd, it isn’t a bother, because the rushing sounds of the water drown out the conversations of those around you, and there are tons of places to choose from where you can sit and enjoy a bubbling, hot water massage. If you want to find your own private oasis, simply walk in the opposite direction of the bridge when you enter the river. It is by no means an easy trail, but you will find beautiful areas with the same hot water and have it all to yourself.
We left the hot springs just before dark, and as we were leaving I spotted a hand painted red tomato sign advertising rooms for 10,000 Colones ($20) at a place called Cabinas Arsol and vegetarian food at a place called Flying Tomatoes. It was located 200m North of Banco Popular, so we decided to check it out. The road that Cabinas Arsol is on looks practically abandoned when you approach it from Banco Popular, and when we pulled up, it had conflicting signs saying “Cerrado” (Closed) and “Abierto” (Open). It had funky cat sculptures on the roof, and other animal cut outs on the walls, and there were two little dogs in the front yard as well as a young child.
My friend laughed and then looked at me, “You said you wanted a ‘Mom and Pop’ type place!”
We went in to ask about rooms, and they had one for us. 10,000 Colones each ($20) for a private room with a shower and even a kitchen! It was a bit dark and shabby, but with perfect Costa Rican charm, and a toucan painting over the bed whose eyes followed you anywhere you went in the room- we called it TucaLisa.
The hotel was one block away from the main street, so we changed out of our wet bathing suits, hung our clothes on the line to dry, and made our way over to a fantastic restaurant called Restaurant Los Nenes. It’s down the street from the Musamanni, and you an see a big sign for it on the road, even though it’s up a tiny side street. There were quite sophisticated displays of food, with more than one entree coming out on fire. My favorite part of the restaurant was the back wall which was painted with all sorts of Costa Rican birds. After dinner, we made a little ice-cream stop, mistakenly stopping at a Pops, when right up the street there is an excellent gelato place, with much more savory and sweet flavors. You won’t be disappointed.
The next morning we were up early, and made our way out. I had slept well, but my friend had not. He said he was attacked by mosquitoes and that the bed wasn’t good on his lower back. I’m guess I’m lucky I can sleep anywhere, because it was fine by me! We had breakfast at a great little restaurant called Soda Mima, right off the main street in La Fortuna. There were two options, one of which was a “typical” breakfast, including eggs, gallo pinto, and coffee. We had a fun time reading the signs drawn by people from all over the world, and I even found one from some Michiganders!
From Soda Mima we made our way back to the road which leads to the La Fortuna waterfall. The boys from the rope swing had told us that we could find a free trail to Cerro Chato about 3 km up the road, but alas, after driving around and asking around, we could not find it. We settled for entering the hike via a hotel called Green Lagoon. It was 5,000 Colones ($10) for locals and 6,000 Colones ($12) for foreigners, and the hike was quite steep. Other options for arriving to Cerro Chato are to enter from the La Fortuna waterfall site (perhaps a good option if you want to see the waterfall as well), or entering from Arenal Observatory. From the Green Lagoon entrance, we made our way up a rough cow pasture, and then up an intense hike through the forest to arrive at the top. It was a cloudy day, and the mist hung close to the trees, making the forest damp and enchanting. We saw a brown snake coiled up on a tree trunk, and we marveled at all the life growing thick on each tree. We arrived to the top in about an hour, but I would say to allow yourself up to two hours to make the climb, because we didn’t really stop and take breaks.
Once at the top, we wanted to get down to the green lagoon. The first route we encountered was incredibly steep and muddy, but we took it anyway. On our way down, we saw a young girl and her mother climbing back up, and they told us we had about 10 more minutes until the bottom. We figured if they could do it, we could do it, and we did, but this portion of the hike is not for the faint of heart. We were literally swinging down muddy ruts using tree roots, ropes, and vines, and my friend sat down and slid half the way, as did many others.
Whether you take this route down to the lagoon, or not, good, sturdy hiking shoes are highly recommended for anyone who embarks on this Cerro Chato trek, as well as lots of water, snacks, and potentially a towel to wipe your muddy hands off. People do go swimming in the lagoon as well, so you could bring a bathing suit. We opted out of a swim, as it was grey and rainy that day, but on a hot sunny day I can see how it would be the perfect reward to this serious hike.
Upon returning from Cerro Chato, we made our way back to the hot river near Tabacon for Round 2 of relaxation. It was just as wonderful as the first time, and again we sat in the warm water for hours, talking, listening, and enjoying the partial submersion in the natural pools.
When we left the hot springs, we asked the coconut salesman where we could find a good but inexpensive place to stay, and he recommend a place called Cabinas El Buho. We searched it via Waze, but before we got to it we found a place called La Choza Inn, which was 10,000 Colones ($10) each for a private room, and included a breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit and coffee. Sold. We took it and slept like babies. Dinner that night was at a place called La Choza de Laurel, which makes great typical meals and drinks, and was right up the road from where we stayed.
Our final day in the La Fortuna area, we decided to go kayaking on Lago Arenal. We set off around the lake, in the same direction as the hot river and Tabacon Hot Springs, and just after the dam/bridge of Lake Arenal you will find people along the road renting kayaks. We rented two kayaks for two-ish hours for 15,000 Colones, ($30 total for two kayaks). The lake is a wonderful temperature for swimming, and from the point where you enter the water it takes about 30 minutes to curve around a bend and get a good view of Volcan Arenal. You can see where lava had run down the sides in the past, and it’s cone-shape is quite exquisite, even on a cloudy day.
After kayaking around, exploring the island and the coastline, we called it good and returned the kayaks. The coconut salesman here told us about a great little restaurant called La Mesa de Mama in a town called El Castillo, which was on the way to the Arenal Observatory. We decided to go check it out, and once we were there we had quite a laugh at the “customer service” provided by this small town operation. At one point the waitress knocked off our water bottle and just left it on the floor, but she was so sweet and smiley it was obvious she didn’t think twice about it.
After lunch, we continued around the lake in opposite direction, until we came to a sustainable hotel / farm called Rancho Margot. This place was completely remote, with bungalows and bunk houses, yoga, cow-milking, farm-to-table meals, and gardens galore. We took a little tour to enjoy the grounds before making our way back to La Fortuna, with one last pit-stop at the hot river, to say goodbye.
Overall, the weekend was magnificent. We experienced the best of what La Fortuna had to offer, on a budget of less than $40/ day, proving that Costa Rica doesn’t have to be super expensive to have a great time.
Although we didn’t take any official tours, we did find a place on the main drag called “Travel Costa Rica Now” and their prices blew the others out of the water. You can look them up at www.travelcostaricanow.com.
From La Fortuna, a great option is to continue along the lake and make your way through Nueva Fortuna to Tilaran and up to Monteverde. Around Tilaran, you will see a sign advertising waterfalls, and this private farmland is spectacular. When I went back in 2012 it was $20 to enter, and there are at least four amazing waterfalls on the property, as well as great flora and fauna. While there I found two hummingbird nests- one with eggs, and one with babies. Be sure to check it out if you have the luxury of driving yourself.