Our unexpected trial retirement in Costa Rica continued north, a 3-hour drive from San Jose. Still getting used to driving in the highways and country roads, we headed out to the mountains to see the magnificent Arenal Volcano.
We allotted 12 days to explore the area and chose to stay in La Fortuna. On a clear day, we were greeted by amazing views of the volcano every day. Aside from agriculture, the town capitalizes on tourism as a major income source, and so you can find hostels, cabins, car rentals, laundry services, trails, tours and activities guide at every corner.
1. La Fortuna Falls
Cost: $18 (all day access)
Time Spent: 3 – 4 hours
Background: This waterfall, which is catarata in Spanish, lies at the base of the Chato volcano. It plunges down a cliff from the Arenal river that winds in the rain forest of the Arenal mountain ranges. This powerful waterfall is about 250 feet (75 meters) in height. It pours down the cliff and into the river with a light blue color, but on a rainy day, particles in the riverbanks wash into the river making it appear muddy.
What to Expect: Parking is available right next to the ticketing office. Before entering the trail to the falls, you can see it from a viewpoint (mirador) to have an idea of the water conditions. To the left are the stairs that will take you down to the waterfall. It consists of 500 even steps with rails on both sides, bridges and a few landings dispersed in between.
It will take about 10-15 minutes to hike down to the falls and swimming hole and 20-30 minutes to hike back up. Take your time to enjoy the feeling of being inside the forest, appreciate the sounds and be on the lookout for beautiful birds and wildlife that may come your way.
There will be another viewpoint to the right of the bridge at the base of La Fortuna waterfall that will allow you to see it’s might closer. There is always a lifeguard on duty at the base of the falls that advises visitors, if the water currents allow for taking a dip.
La Fortuna Falls is open from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm so come and go as you please with your ticket. During our visit it rained in the morning, so we decided to come back in the afternoon to enjoy the park better.
We were able to get closer to the falls, take great pictures and swim around when we got back. The water is cold but is surprisingly refreshing. There is an area where you can leave your belongings but secure them well.
The Park also offers two other trails. The Orchid Garden and the Butterfly trail. We did a quick walk-by during our visit because there’s really nothing to see in the rainy season.
2. Bogarin Trail
Cost: $15 access to trail only (Cash Only)
$35 access to trail and Guided Tour (Cash Only), reservations needed.
Time Spent: 2 hours
Background: The area was previously a grazing land back in 2000. The Bogarins, wanting to create a wildlife sanctuary, got rid of the cattle that feeds on the area. The trees steadily grew to the small forest that we have today. It is now home to different species of mammals, reptiles, insects, and birds. The trail is about 1.5 miles around a flat terrain that takes you inside a forest preserve.
What to Expect: You would be greeted by the nicest tour guides upon entering the receiving area. Before or after the tour, you can sit around the pond where they have feeders for birds and other wildlife.
Tour guides are equipped with telescopes and binoculars so that you could use to see the animals better. With those you could also take great pictures and videos. Aside from the equipment they carry, the guides also have years of experience spotting wildlife that are difficult to find.
We enjoyed the hike because we saw what we came there for. Sloths! We even spotted a baby sloth and different kinds of birds. One of which came to us because our guide Geovanni knows how to make birdcalls.
We recommend doing the guided tours because it is difficult to see the animals as they blend well with the surroundings. It will be worth your money and time.
Come see the video of our visit in La Fortuna Falls and Bogarin Trail (where we saw a baby sloth!).
3. Arenal Volcano National Park
Time Spent: 3 – 5 hours
Background: The Park offers trails that winds in the forest to viewpoints where you can admire the volcano. There is also a spot where you could see lava flows “colada” that formed in 1992 and an impressive ceiba tree that is over 400 years old. It is divided into two sectors, Volcan Arenal and Sector Peninsula, both park is included with the admission ticket.
What to Expect: The ticketing office is located right at the gate. Upon purchase of the ticket, you will be introduced to the trails and will be asked to take a photo of the map. Keep the ticket if you plan to visit Sector Peninsula. Restrooms are located right after the gate. There are two parking lots close to the trails. The first parking is close to the trailhead leading to the lava flows and 400-year-old ceiba tree and the second parking is right at the viewpoint in front of the volcano.
The trail is unpaved but flat towards the mirador. There are seating areas where you can take pictures of the perfectly conical Arenal volcano.
From the first parking area, the trailhead for the longer hikes is at the right side. This trail is flat and unpaved. From the sign showing directions to the coladas (lava flows) and the ceiba tree, the trail is a loop. It is just a matter of which one you will see first.
The hike to the coladas and the old tree is a combination of stairs, steep steps, tree roots and rocks. Aside from the view of the volcano the viewpoints also offer a view of Arenal Lake.
Arenal Peninsula Sector
This is a 12-minute drive on dirt roads from the Arenal Volcano Visitor Center. If visiting same day as Arenal National Park, just show your ticket from visitor center at the booth. This trail leads to the tip of the peninsula and on the way are viewpoints of Arenal Lake and Arenal Volcano. It is easy, flat, and clearly marked. There are restrooms, towers, and resting areas thru the trail.
4. Arenal Observatory Lodge
Cost: $12 – Entrance and Access to Hiking Trails
$32 – Entrance, Access to Hiking Trails, Pool, Jacuzzi, and Lunch (includes Entrée, Dessert, Juice and Coffee)
Time Spent: 1 or 2 days
Background: This is the only hotel that lies within the boundaries of Arenal Volcano National Park. They originally built these cabins in 1987 to house scientist doing research on the Arenal’s eruption in 1968.
The property offers lodging, a restaurant, a museum, spa, pool & jacuzzi with excellent views of the volcano and Arenal Lake. They have hiking trails that winds thru the rainforest where you can see gardens, farms, hanging bridges, streams, and waterfalls.
What to Expect: The cabins are under trees that are transit points for monkeys and birds. So expect to see and hear them early morning and late afternoon. Of course, nothing beats taking a dip in the jacuzzi and doing a few laps in the pool with the great view of the Arenal Volcano.
Hiking trails are easy to difficult, as marked in the maps. The trails are marked by colors so you would not get lost. The hike towards Danta Waterfall and Hanging Bridge is a combination of rugged terrain and steep steps. Going to the stream, the farm and back to the reception is flat and mostly paved.
During the hike and stay, we saw spider-monkeys, couatis, agoutis and beautiful birds like the Great Curassow, hummingbirds, toucans and Oropendola Montezuma.
We recommend that you book a room in the lodge if you want to enjoy the facilities more. On our first trip we got in using the $32 Day Pass. We checked the room rates after, and it turned out to be very close to the sum of both our Day Passes, so we went again.
You can arrive ahead of check-in and stay a few hours after check-out at the resort so you can enjoy the lodge longer. This is more value for your money because you would be able to access the resort for two days.
5. Rainforest Chocolate Tour
Cost: $26 (Reservation needed)
Time Spent: 2 hours
Background: This is a small cacao farm that seeks to provide authentic and unique experiences to visitors while preserving the local culture and biodiversity. It is a short hike that is fully guided.
What to Expect: The tour starts out in the reception where they give you a quick background on what real chocolate is and the truths on chocolate trade that goes on around the world.
Then you walk in the cacao plantation to be introduce to the cacao trees and fruits, before being let alone to walk around the plantation for 15 to 20 minutes. This is an opportunity to find wildlife that roam within the forest.
You meet up with your guide in a small hut to experience the process of making chocolate from cracking open the cacao fruit to grinding and melting the cacao seeds. At the end you get to taste the chocolate in various ways
Here is a video of what you will expect to see in the tour.
La Fortuna offers tons of chocolate tours, but this is one of the more affordable ones. We learned so much about what real chocolate is and the processes it took to make a good bar. The tasting part was our favorite. Our faces would just light up when we tasted spoonful of melted chocolate with assortment of flavors from salt and caramel to vodka, chili, and lime. Ask your guide to make you their favorite combinations, it will blow your mind.
6. Free Hot Springs
Time Spent: 2 – 3 hours
Background: This is the same hot springs that runs thru the resorts nearby, but there are no facilities around it, so it is free. But if there are “parking attendants” at the side of the road, they would want to get paid 3,000 colones ($5 US) to watch your car.
You can stay there for as long as there is daylight. The entrance to the river is right at the side of the road thru a wire fence. Locate your own spot in the entire length of the river. Make sure you secure your personal items.
The water is warm and relaxing. Families often bring food and stay for the whole day. Even tour companies take their customers here to do mud baths. Rocks are slippery and currents are strong in some area so navigate the river carefully. If you just want to experience hot springs without the fancy service, this is the place to go.
La Fortuna Costa Rica and the areas surrounding Arenal volcano is a must see for travelers wanting to explore the natural beauty of Costa Rica. There are lots of attractions at every corner, but these are the places and activities we recommend for travelers who want to make the most out of their stay without spending much of their vacation funds. We hope you enjoy your stay in La Fortuna. Pura Vida!