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Costa Rica: La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano | The Time to Go Is Now

Costa Rica: La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano

Costa Rica: La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano

We haven’t even been in Costa Rica for two weeks and our first few days in the Arenal area seem like a distant memory. I’ll chalk that up to how relaxing things are right now in Quepos. More on that later.

On our second day we left San Jose and headed north to La Fortuna. We were glad to board the bus at the terminal since it was a local bus and made frequent stops. There were passengers in the aisle during most of the four hour trip. It was very hot and I considered complaining about it but before the words made it to my lips I decided that it was better than subzero temperatures and six inches of snow.

Image of La Fortuna Town Square and Church
La Fortuna Town Square and Church. Arenal Volcano in the background.

After arriving in La Fortuna we hoisted our backpacks and headed to the hostel dodging the tour operators working the hard sell on arriving bus passengers. The hostel was a welcome site as it was the first hostel I’ve ever been to that had a pool. Not something I ever saw 19 years ago while traveling in Europe. Not that anyone would want to go swimming in Scotland in March.

Image of La Fortuna Backpackers Hostel
A hostel with a pool. How can you go wrong?

La Fortuna was only a small town of a few buildings in 1968 before the nearby mountain decided to blow its top. Since then the Arenal Volcano and its surrounding park as well as the many hot springs in the area have morphed it into a tourist destination. It isn’t quite the Wisconsin Dells though there is one mini-golf establishment. No go-kart tracks though, so it is safe for now.

We spent the day relaxing around the hostel and wandering around Fortuna checking out the various grocery stores and markets for the best products and prices. This has already become our habit when entering a new town. There wasn’t a kitchen at the hostel so it was more for snacking supplies while hiking.

At the base of Arenal Volcano.
At the base of Arenal Volcano.

On our second day we were finally able to get out and do something. The problem with La Fortuna is that once you get there public transportation is non-existent. There are a lot of tours available from hikes around the base of the volcano to whitewater rafting. The problem is that tours cost money and when you are trying to maintain a budget you have to be very selective. Since we didn’t really have a concept of the distances between various places we decided to take a tour on our first day out to help get orientated with the surrounding area. For $62 a person Julie and I as well as our first group of temporary hostel friends were picked up by our guide Eduardo and his brother Carlos who drove the boxy, silver tour van with the big yellow Tourismo sticker slapped on the back. We were going to go on a short hike around the base of Arenal Volcano followed by a trip to one of the local hot springs.

Arenal Volcano

We showed up in our long hiking pants and boots. The others did not. One couple was in shorts and sandals. Julie looked at them and then at me as if to say, “Are we over dressed for this?” As it turned out, no, no we weren’t. Once we entered the denser part of the forest the sun slipped behind the clouds, and as it was late in the day the mosquitos came out for dinner. The pants helped but our full flavored Deet helped more. We decided to share it with the group. “Do not spray down with this. Put it on like it is perfume.” Travel tip: Having Deet is a great way to make friends.

We hiked to a spot that gave us a great view of the volcano above and of Lake Arenal below. Eduardo shared a brief history of the volcano. We took lots of photos and then headed back down the hill to the van and the hot springs.

I’ve only been to one hot springs in my life. A small public “hobo” springs in a small Wyoming town somewhere west of Laramie. Baldi Hot Springs Resort was the exact opposite of that. A sprawling complex built into the side of the hill at the base of the volcano, it featured multiple pools of increasingly higher temperature water. There were massive marble cocktail bars built into many of the pools but since they were charging close to sporting event prices we decided to wait until we were back at the hostel for a cold beer.

La Fortuna Cataract
La Fortuna Cataract. Note the two people in the lower right hand corner for a sense of scale.

The next day after seeing some of the distances we decided that walking the 3-4 miles to the Fortuna Cataract would save us some cab fare and give us some exercise. While the distance was fine we definitely didn’t take the elevation change into account. I really should have spent more time getting into shape prior to our trip. The road to the waterfall had several steep inclines that gave both of us trouble. Feeling your heart pound in your chest is one thing. Hearing it pounding in your ears while you’re sucking wind is something else. After collecting ourselves at the top of the hill and having sandwiches made from items we picked up at the supermercado along the way we descended into the waterfall valley. Since this isn’t the United States there aren’t signs that say “No Swimming”. The water was clear, cold and refreshing. Not quite Lake Ontario cold, but after several minutes my feet began to go numb. Our return trip was much easier. Once we climbed out of the valley it was an all downhill walk back to town.

Mark and Julie at the Cataract
Here we are at the cataract.

Our original plan for our last day in La Fortuna was to hike up to the Cerro Chato volcano crater lake. After assessing our various aches and pains that morning and debating for well over thirty minutes we decided that going into town for lunch and spending the rest of the day by the hostel pool was a far better use of our time. Julie wanted to try a soda down the street from the bus stop. Ten dollars got each of us a large platter of food that included the grilled meat of our choice, rice, beans, cabbage salad, some kind of noodle and cheese dish, fried plantains, and a drink. After our day at the pool we got some carry out pizza to take back to the hostel. Just because we are out of the country doesn’t mean we stop observing Pizza Sunday. Many of the other hostel dwellers were watching Django Unchained on the TV in the common area. We had never seen it before so we got sucked into watching it. The Spanish subtitles certainly raised the entertainment value. The next morning we set off for Santa Elena and the cloud forests.

Julie at the Soda
Julie at the soda. Big plate of food and a drink for $5 US.

Even with the tour we were able to stay very close to our budget for the four days. I will provide more detailed information on budget and accommodations in our post Costa Rica wrap up once we have moved on to Peru.

13 Responses to Costa Rica: La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano

  1. There are definitely positives about living in a country that isn’t overrun with over-ambitious members of the bar.

    Where are the other folks in the hostel from? Any interesting characters?

    • There was a Canadian couple who kept ending up on the same buses we were on. Thankfully they never stayed where we stayed because they were driving me crazy.

      There was a very enthusiastic Uruguayan gentleman on our tour. Everything was the coolest thing he’d every seen and he made sure to shake every guys’ hand and air kiss every woman when the tour was over.

  2. The hobo springs are in Saratoga, WY I bet. Did we take you there when you came out to visit us? (It was one of our favorite places to go while we were in grad school) If you get the chance, you should check out Thermopolis, WY, too.

  3. Sounds amazing and that plate of food is making my mouth water! You guys look (and sound) like you are having a great time. Cannot wait to hear about Peru. My grandparents went there many, many years ago and still talk about the trip. Take care!

  4. Love the updates so far. You guys need a Interactive Travel Map so we can see where you are! I have to Google it, every time you move! Might be a little dull now but in 3 months it will have lot’s of content and it will let new visitors catch up! And since I used three ! in this post here are two more!!

  5. Elevation. In 2012, Jess and I went to Yosemite. On day one from Napa at about 5 feet elevation to over a mile high, we decided to hike a trail. Didn’t last long. Went back down and took the tram. A few days later was better after some acclimation. Good look in the Andes. Wish we would have done some in Chile.

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We quit our jobs at the end of 2013 to backpack around the world. We're sharing our stories, travel advice and hopefully some inspiration. Read more...

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