Costa Rica’s motto is pura vida, or pure life, and the town of La Fortuna exemplifies this expression in every form. From its eco-friendly lodges to locally grown produce to handmade crafts, La Fortuna is an adventurous, nature-filled vacation spot that is fun for all ages. Welcoming tour guides and helpful locals make it a family-friendly location, while zip-lining and erupting volcanoes make it ideal for thrill-seekers. Bring your camera and your rain poncho and get ready for howling monkeys, flowing lava and the time of your life.
Located 150 miles northwest of the capital city of San Jose, La Fortuna is a popular rainforest destination for tourists seeking both adventure and relaxation. The main attraction of this otherwise quiet area is the Arenal volcano. Presumed extinct until 1968, Arenal is again an active volcano that sits amidst 29,960 acres in the Arenal Volcano National Park. On any given day, you can watch steam rise from the open crater and hear the low rumble of lava rocks tumbling down the mountainside.
The best view of this magnificent wonder is from the Arenal Observatory Lodge (website), located only 1.7 miles from the crater. As the closest structure to the volcano, this 100% eco-friendly lodge boasts the best nighttime viewing of lava flows and is located in its own section of rainforest. It’s also the home of an observation post for the Smithsonian.
Among the many free activities offered by the lodge, the most worthwhile is the three-hour “Morning Hike” that takes visitors to a spot in the National Park with breathtaking views. Tour guides lead guests through a secondary forest filled with hundreds of species of animals and wildlife: howler and capuchin monkeys, toucans, coatis, lizards, and more. Bring your hiking boots and a set of binoculars, because this tour will take you across streams, up hills, and across lava trails from the 1968 eruption of the volcano. Spectacular views of the steaming Arenal crater and Lake Arenal greet you at the hike’s halfway point. While the lodge does not charge for this tour, there is a $6 fee upon entering the National Park grounds.
The Observatory Lodge isn’t the only place to take a hiking tour of the park grounds. The Arenal Volcano National Park offers a plethora of maps and information about hiking trails, canoe tours in the Arenal Lake, hot spring tours and much more. Please note that all tours within the park are subject to closure depending on volcanic activity. Park rangers keep a close eye on eruption patterns and will not hesitate to evacuate the park. According to the Arenal Observatory Lodge website, their 3-hour Morning Hike is “temporarily closed,” most likely due to volcanic activity. It is best to check with your tour provider and/or online before embarking on activities within and around the park.
Rainforest Tours & Zip-lining
La Fortuna is known for much more than the conical volcano. With hundreds of miles of rainforest surrounding the volcano, there are dozens of activities to enjoy. One worthwhile way to spend three hours is the Arenal Hanging Bridges tour. Located just a short drive from the volcano, this project offers a very unique view of the Costa Rican rainforest. Visitors embark on a two-mile self-guided tour across 15 hanging bridges in the canopy of the rainforest. Below are gushing waterfalls, winding streams, and lush greenery. Above you’ll see centuries old trees, dozens of bird species and the occasional monkey that has grown accustomed to poncho-clad hikers snapping pictures of its habitat. Those with a fear of heights may balk at bridges that sway dozens of feet above running water, but rest assured, all of the bridges are secured with concrete and there are plenty of walking trails that break up the hanging walkways. This eco-friendly park charges an entrance fee of $22, but students with ID only pay $12. In addition to the self-guided tour, the park also offers a Natural History walk, as well as a Bird Watching tour for a few extra dollars.
A trip to any area of Costa Rica would not be complete without participating in one of its most popular activities: zip-lining. Zip-lining consists of being harnessed to a pulley system that is mounted on a steel wire, usually over an incline. The harnessed zip-liner is propelled across the steel cable from one platform to the next at relatively low speeds. The activity is perfectly safe, but nothing if not adrenaline-inducing. The most popular professional zip-lining company in the area is the Sky Trek Adventure in the town of Monteverde, just a few miles south of La Fortuna. The tour offers eight different cables to traverse, some as long as 2,500 feet, and as high as 640 feet. The adventure begins with a Sky Tram that brings you 5,249 feet up into the Cloud Forest of Monteverde. Suspended in four-person cars, you ride to the top of the Forest and across the Continental Divide. Views of the Arenal Volcano, Lake Arenal, and the surrounding areas are absolutely breathtaking. And fear not: those a little nervous about zip-lining have the option of paying a reduced rate just to ride the tram while their more adventurous companions fly through the rainforest. The tram (Sky Tram) and zip-lining (Sky Trek) is $60 for adults, $48 for students and $38 for children over 8. Just the Sky Tram and walk is $50 for adults, $40 for students and $26 for children. Those who choose not to zip-line can take a guided Sky Walk across the hanging bridges of the rain forest canopy, and meet their companions down at the main Sky Adventure building.
Once atop the Cloud Forest, zip-liners receive a harness, helmet, gloves and all the necessary safety equipment to begin their flight. Professional tour guides give tutorials on how to operate the equipment, and participants take two short “practice runs” to get accustomed to the activity. The professional guide then stays with you throughout the entire eight-cable adventure. One note of caution to those whose bravery oscillates: once you start that first practice run, there’s no going back. Stopping halfway through is not an option.
Guests are propelled from platform to platform across cables hanging hundreds of feet in the air. As you jump off the wooden platform, views of the rainforest surround you and the wet air hits your face as you fly through the clouds. Don’t close your eyes unless you want to miss views of enormous waterfalls and lush green flora. While guests are coached on how to position their bodies on the first seven cables, the last run is referred to as the “freefall.” With the steepest incline and at 2,650 feet, guests are encouraged to let go of the handlebars and splay their legs to achieve maximum excitement. Dangle in the air, do a little dance, and scream your head off, because it is one of the most hair-raising, adrenaline-pumping thrills you will ever experience.
After a long day of traversing bridges and flying across the rainforest canopy, a great way to relax is to visit the Tabacón Hot Springs (website) in the town of La Fortuna. Located just seven miles south of the volcano, this resort boasts several pools of mineral-rich water of varying temperatures and depths. Rainwater enters the earth’s surface and is then heated by underground volcanic magma from the Arenal Volcano. Because the water is naturally hot, the best time to visit the hot springs is after dark. You can enjoy a drink at one of several outdoor restaurants and poolside bars, or just sit back and enjoy the live music. Admission varies from season to season, and is lower for guests of the hotel. You can choose from a variety of packages, some that include lunch. Group rates are available, and guests are urged to book in advance.
If you haven’t had your share of adventure after all of these activities, there are still plenty of things to do in the La Fortuna area. Lake Arenal, located just west of the volcano, is Costa Rica’s largest lake. After the 1968 eruption of Arenal, it nearly tripled in size to an astounding 33 square miles. Because of its proximity to the volcano, the water temperature is 76 degrees year-round, so a dive into its refreshing water won’t be a shock. Many tour companies offer a variety of water activities on the lake, including windsurfing, kayaking, fishing and scenic tours. Those traveling to Monteverde can traverse the lake by taxi boat, but keep in mind that a one-way trek takes about 2 ½ – 3 hours.
The most popular activity on Lake Arenal is rainbow bass fishing. Fishing tours range in price from $100 for half a day to $350 for a full day, and often include lunch. There are also several ranches and stables around the lake that offer horseback riding tours of the National Park and surrounding areas. If terra firma is what you prefer, the Butterfly Gardenlocated in Monteverde is one of the area’s most visited attractions. With hands-on exhibits and educational tours, it is a quiet and beautiful way to spend an afternoon. Admission is $9 for adults with discounts for students and children. Open daily 9:30am – 4pm.
Eat & Drink
The Lava Lounge Bar & Grill (La Fortuna, website) in the town center is one of the most popular eateries in the area. Its laidback, California-style atmosphere, along with amazing views of the volcano, make for a relaxing dining experience. The vegetable are fresh, the beef is local, and their Guanabana fruit smoothies are a refreshing end to a long day. Rustic and tropical, the ambience fits right into La Fortuna’s relaxed vibe. Prices are reasonable and they’re open until midnight.
Every travel guide for the La Fortuna area recommends Don Rufino (La Fortuna, across from the gas station, website) as the best restaurant in town, and for good reason. The food is delicious and the prices are more than reasonable. The filet mignon is only 10,570 Colons, or about $19. Appetizers are all under 6,000 Colons, or about $11.
Some other places to try are Las Nenes, which offers Italian cuisine and delicious steaks, and Down To Earth (website), an organic restaurant where you can satisfy your early-morning cravings with granola and yogurt and light sandwiches for lunch. They grow their own coffee beans and even sell them by the bag. Just a tip: whether you purchase it here or at the airport, do not leave Costa Rica without a bag of coffee. If you didn’t come to the country with a taste for coffee, there’s a good chance you will leave with it.
Expect to pay 13% tax (impuesto) plus a service charge of 10%. Additional tips are not expected though you can leave extra if the service was outstanding.
Where to Stay
Lodging in La Fortuna is relatively inexpensive when compared to the seaside resorts. Choosing where to stay depends on what you are most interested in doing: if the volcano is what interests you most, consider staying in one of the many hotels and lodges located to its north. They offer the best views of the smoky mountain, as well as guided tours of the National Park. Be forewarned that many of these lodges are of the minimalist variety and don’t offer all of the amenities of a resort hotel – don’t expect a TV or phone in your room, and be open to the occasional visit from a spider or lizard. Prices range from as little as $79 per night up to $350, depending on the season and hotel. Check websites for seasonal rates and take advantage of online offers, as they can save you a lot of money.
The Arenal Observatory Lodge (website) is just one of dozens of eco-friendly lodges in the area. With several different buildings on the property, you can choose from a myriad of views: volcano, mountain, or rainforest. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, but closes early. The property offers a pool and jacuzzi, a short hike to a gorgeous waterfall and a variety of other activities. Be prepared to be woken up at sunrise not by crowing roosters, but by howler monkeys. And if exotic birds are your passion, then this hotel is definitely for you. Twice a day, groundskeepers place a variety of fruits atop high perches around the observatory deck, which attract dozens of species of birds.
If you encounter a raccoon-like creature on the property with a narrow face and long tail, do not be alarmed. You are likely coming face to face with a harmless coati, one of many animals you are sure to see while in the La Fortuna area. Rates at the Arenal Observatory Lodge are as low as $48 per night during the off season and $61 during the high season. And don’t forget, with only 1.7 miles separating it from the smoldering lava, the Observatory Lodge is the closest lodging to the Arenal Volcano.
If relaxation is your objective, then you may want to stay at one of the spa resorts. The Tabacon Grand Spa (La Fortuna, 877-277-8291, website) is one of the more expensive resorts in the area, with rates starting at $250 during the high season.
Los Lagos Hotel & Spa (506-2479-1000, website) is a more practical option, with standard rooms during the high season starting at $138.
Hotels such as these offer all of the comforts of home, and many have restaurants and gift shops on site. Smaller, less expensive hotels can be found in the La Fortuna town center and are closer to shops and restaurants. Rates at these smaller motel-like establishments can be found for as little as $39 per night.
When to Go: The high season in Costa Rica is late November to late April. Tourism during this time is at its peak, especially during the holidays, so expect prices to be at their highest during this time. Locals call the rainy season (May to November) the “green season,” and prices are oftentimes lower during this time. Temperatures in La Fortuna during the high season hover at around 70-75, with highs in the 80’s. Nights are cool, so bring a jacket.
Getting There: Costa Rica has two major airports: one located in the capital of San Jose, about 150 miles from La Fortuna, and the other in Liberia, which is about the same distance from the Arenal area. Regardless of which airport you fly into, you will need to rent a car. All major rental car agencies can be found in and around both airports. The drive from San Jose to La Fortuna is admittedly a treacherous one, with unpaved roads and bridges that consist of wooden planks placed across metal cross-beams. An SUV is preferable, as potholes and livestock are plentiful. The drive will take you 3-3 ½ hours, but give yourself plenty of extra time to stop along the way. The best time to embark on this journey is early in the morning, as heavy fog settles across the mountain area in the afternoon and early evening. Driving at night is extremely tricky and not recommended for long distances. Airport personnel can provide you with maps and directions, and it is also a good idea to call your hotel shortly before arriving in Costa Rica for directions and special instructions. The area of La Fortuna is usually marked on maps and road signs with a triangle or a picture of a volcano, so following signs to the area is relatively easy. If you get stuck in traffic or behind livestock, consider pulling over in the next town to stretch your legs; because the main roads are often the best-paved, they are usually the busiest and take the longest to clear.
What to Bring: If you expect to do a lot of physical activities, bring hiking boots or a sturdy pair of sneakers. Pants that convert into shorts (aka zip-off pants) are ideal for changes in temperature or sudden rain, but Capri-type pants will suffice. A lightweight, rainproof jacket is a must, as rain is unpredictable in the rainforest. A bathing suit will come in handy if you plan on swimming or visiting the hot springs, as will your own beach towel (if you have room in your suitcase; it’s not necessary.) Bug spray, sunscreen and an ointment that eases the discomfort of bug bites are all good ideas.
Safety: Incidents of violent crimes have been known to occur against tourists and robbery is the most often crimes reported against tourists, so keep a close eye on your belongings and travel in groups. Only hire reputable tour guides and companies, and beware of strangers, especially in the capital of San Jose. Never accept goods from anyone without first paying.
Language: The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish, but many proprietors in tourist areas speak English.
Currency: The national currency is the Colon but dollars are accepted everywhere, so you can easily avoid exchange fees. Credit cards are widely accepted all over Costa Rica, especially at hotels, restaurants and tour companies. ATMs are sporadic so bring spare dollars.
One word of caution: unlike in the U.S., credit card receipts in Costa Rica oftentimes contain the cardholder’s full information–card number, name, expiration date, etc. Rip up or store in a safe place all of your receipts and make sure to check your statement upon returning home to avoid fraudulent activity.