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It’s 6:45 am and my arm is stretched as far as it can go over my head. I can hear the birds chirping, laughing at me as I attempt to follow the instructions of the smallest, meanest yoga teacher with the cutest accent ever. Maybe 6:30 am yoga my first morning in Costa Rica wasn’t the best idea of my life, I think to myself as the sweat that the middle-aged goddess behind me can definitely see drips down my back. But I’m here now, so it’s time to suck it up.
I meet the rest of my party later that morning for breakfast—8:30 am, a much more human time of day. What Daniel’s family was thinking when they offered to take me to Costa Rica for a week, I don’t know (likely that they love me more than him), but I’m not one to complain about free trips to the tropics. Especially when there’s yoga involved (or so I thought).
Two Days in La Fortuna, Costa Rica // Day One
We don’t have much of a plan for the morning, but as it’s our first full day in La Fortuna we decide it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to explore the town and grab some lunch at one of the much cheaper and more authentic sodas (cafeterias) than at the hotel restaurant like we had the previous night.
So off into a taxi we go, and ten minutes later find ourselves smack dab in the middle of La Fortuna, Costa Rica.
Exploring Downtown La Fortuna
La Fortuna, located at the base of Arenal Volcano, is named the way it is because it was lucky enough to be on the opposite side of the lava flow the last time the volcano erupted in 1969. Get it? Because Fortuna means lucky?
There’s not much to the town besides tourism, but the tourism industry is booming, so no one seems to mind.
Our cab drops us off at La Fortuna’s central park, the perfect base for exploring the town. We walk for a good while with the unshielded sun beating down on us without much of a destination in mind. Most of us forgot to put on sunscreen that morning.
One thing I learned while I was in Panama last winter is that towns in Central America aren’t exactly meant for wandering. Especially in tourist towns, which seem to consist mostly of tourist operators and the odd fruit stand. Unlike in Europe, where I have most of my traveling experience, there aren’t classically beautiful buildings for staring at or lovely alleyways that you want to get lost down. Instead, you should turn your attention to the mountains jutting up at the edge of town and the beaches with vast expanses of perfect white sand, where unbridled adventure lies.
Costa Rica seems to confirm these suspicions. While we pop our heads into a few souvenir shops and stop by the town’s church, it isn’t long before we are searching for something to do.
An ATM Adventure (Including A Dog!)
Turns out that something to do is to go on an adventure. An adventure to find an ATM that accepts chip cards.
Costa Rica is one of those places that accepts both American dollars and the local currency: colones. Especially in the tourist towns it’s easy enough to get by on just dollars, but it’s not a bad idea to have a couple thousand colones on hand, just in case (as of January 2018, the exchange rate is 565 colones to 1 American dollar). Hence the adventure to find the one ATM in La Fortuna that accepts chip cards.
When we get there, it’s pretty clear we’ve found the right place: there’s line of our fellow sunburnt gringas standing against the wall. Daniel (aka the one without foreign transaction fees on his debit card) takes his spot in line and the rest of us stand to the side, trying our best to find a patch of shade in the dead-noon sun.
The next gringo couple that rocks up is followed by possibly the cutest dog of all time. While Daniel stands in the sun, we stand in our sliver of shade, petting the cutest dog of all time. She really likes Isabel’s hair. It’s a trade I’ll gladly make again.
Soda at a Soda
Colones firmly in hand, we make our way to one of the sodas down the street: XXX, ready for our first proper taste of Costa Rican food. Daniel, his sister Isabel (the one who we should have listened to about motion sickness pills in Panama last year), and I all order a side of patacones (twice fried plantains), knowing the magical powers they hold.
The patacones in Costa Rica are much bigger than the ones in Panama. Rather than a bunch of small slices, like the plantain was chopped up before being smashed and twice-fried, these ones look as if an entire plantain was smashed at once; they’re about as big as my hand, maybe bigger.
They taste just as good as I remember.
The arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) I ordered is everything, too, although far too big for me to finish. Anything we can’t finish that’s even vaguely transportable, Isabel stuffs into her Mary Poppins-esque bag. Anything untransportable gets slipped to the cutest old black lab who’s lurking at the entrance.
The dog from the bank doesn’t seem to have any problem with coming inside the restaurant, though. With no doors in the doorways, it’s not like it’s a hard thing to do, but the reluctance of the lab tells us that perhaps she has some sort of special relationship with the owners. We do remember the couple from earlier saying that she came from the restaurant down the street — maybe this is it. Either way, I count myself lucky that the cutest dog of all time has returned to us. If she wasn’t clean, and therefore definitely not a street dog, it would take everything I have not to hide her in my suitcase and take her home with me.
Finding the best views of Arenal Volcano
We head back to our hotel after lunch for a quick nap before our guide for the afternoon picks us up.
We’re picked up on what we later learn is called “Tico Time”—quite possibly the best explanation for Central Americans’ tendency to be a little bit more relaxed than people in other parts of the world about getting places “on time”, by Danny and the second best driver in La Fortuna. The best driver is in the hospital, he tells us.
About five minutes into the drive to the trail we are going to be hiking, the van pulls over. “You guys wanna see a sloth?” Danny asks.
My jaw just about drops off. We’re at the side of the road. Are we for real about to see our first sloth in Costa Rica? I can barely contain my excitement. Daniel isn’t even trying to contain his.
A few other tourist vans have pulled over on the side of the road as well, so clearly, the sloth isn’t very well hidden. And yup, there she was, just hanging out in a tree on the side of the road. The trick to spotting a sloth? It doesn’t move as much as the tree branches do.
“How did you know she was here?” Daniel’s mom asks as we climb back in the van.
“I put her there this morning,” Danny replies.
Hiking the Lava Trail
Soon enough, we’re headed up a steep and bumpy road and are dropped off at the trailhead of the Sendora de Lava Erupción 1968— The Lava Trail, Eruption 1968, aka the last time Arenal Volcano erupted. If it erupts while we’re on this trail, we’re in the prime spot to be d e a d.
But even from the trailhead, the views are crazy, so no one is going to stop us from taking this trail, especially because Danny promises that we’re going to see some really cool wildlife.
And sure enough, like two steps in, we almost all squash the first wildlife spot of the day: leaf-cutter ants, marching along their merry way, each carrying a piece of leaf about five times their size.
Then, Danny points out just how far they’ve gone. The thin line of trodden down vegetation stretches practically to the horizon. Holy shit. That’s, like, 20 miles in leaf-cutter ant world.
As it turns out, leaf-cutter ants can travel up to 100 meters a day from their colony—and they probably go back and forth more than once in a day. Once they’ve harvested a plant once, they can’t harvest from it again, so this explains why they stray so far from their homes. But damn, if that’s not impressive.
We also spot some wild turkeys hopping around the treetops. Not what you expect to see in Costa Rica, but pretty dang cool all the same.
And before we know it, we’re at the top of the trail, gazing out at some of the best views of Arenal Volcano we’ve seen yet. If only the clouds would move out of the way…
The sunset when you face away from the volcano is the real star of the show, though. The clouds only add to the beauty here. The light shining through them reflects stunning blues, purples, and pinks off of Lake Arenal. I’ve found my new happy place.
My Second New Happy Place
I find my second new happy place at the base of the trail, where our new driver greets us with fresh cantaloupe slices. The juice drips down our chins as the sounds of the night start to come out and he and Danny explain the strange Costa Rican bullfighting we had seen on TV the night before. Rather than hurting the bull, apparently, the goal is to run away from the bull. Oh, and there’s no limit to how many people can be in the ring at once—or how much experience the improvisados can have.
For more information on bullfighting in Costa Rica, check out this article by Culture Trip.
We all pile into the van after finishing off the cantaloupe. Before we climb out again at the hotel, our driver offers to take us to dinner in town in about an hour. He has to drop off another tour group then and would be happy to give us a ride.
“Tico Time, though,” he warns us. We laugh and agree to see him then.
Maybe the Best Dinner of All Time
An hour (in Tico Time) later, he asks us where we want to go. We say we have no clue. Just take us somewhere good. And boy, does he deliver.
We stop at an open-air bar and grill just outside of town. “Rancho Perla,” the sign reads. I can tell we’re in for a treat.
He makes a beeline for the bar, where some of his friends are already gathered, while we take a seat at one of the tables. I order a seafood medley and it is quite possibly the best seafood I’ve ever had.
We return a good while later, stomachs stuffed. Isabel shows off her master handshake/money hand-off while we say goodbye to our new friend. Then, we all collapse into bed.
Two Days in La Fortuna, Costa Rica // Day Two
An Early Start
The following morning requires an early start—something my post-yoga, post-hike body isn’t exactly happy about. We rock up to breakfast at 6:45 am, which is, apparently, THE time to see and be seen at Arenal Springs Resort. Who would have guessed?
I, stupidly, have not brought my backpack with me, so I run back after breakfast to grab it. I am, as it turns out, the one holding the group up: our van is already there by the time I’m back. So much for Tico Time.
Our driver, named Paulo, is apparently the best driver in La Fortuna. I guess he got out of the hospital just in time to pick us up that morning!
The last time I stood face to face with a van with inflatable rafts on top of it, I was ready to pee my pants. This time, however, I couldn’t be more excited. Because, instead of rushing down rapids, we’re going to take a lazy float down the Rio Peñas Blancas and try to spot some wildlife. Or as I like to call it: whitewater rafting for sissies.
Whitewater Rafting for Sissies
A half hour or so after we depart, we arrive at the push-off point for our river rafting wildlife safari. We divide into two rafts, our group of five in one with guide Ignacio, and the family of four from Ukraine in another with guide Martin. We lather on as much sunscreen as we can manage and then we’re off!
It feels almost otherworldly as we begin or float down the river. Trees line the banks and their branches cover the sky almost entirely, bending over the river as if they are all trying to reach the other side. So much for the sunscreen.
Every once and a while, everyone has to pull out their paddles to steer us in the right direction, but for the most part, our ride is completely effort free.
It’s not long before we see our first piece of wildlife. Birds are everywhere, and Ignacio is pointing out each and every one of them. Before we know it, he’s howling up at a band of howler monkeys in the trees. They howl back at him, and it is simultaneously the most startling and most amazing thing any of us have ever experienced.
A Stop at Don Pedro’s
About halfway through our float down the river, we pull to the side and get out. It’s time for a coffee break, Costa Rican style.
We clamber up the river bank and find ourselves in a farmhouse/makeshift restaurant, coffee and snacks already laid out for us and chickens wandering all around. This is Don Pedro’s, Ignacio tells us. I feel like we have stepped straight into a legend.
I had heard whisperings of Don Pedro before, but I can’t remember where. Now, somehow, we have found ourselves on his property, sipping coffee, eating homemade cheese, and listening to his life story.
And believe me, if you live to be 102, you have a pretty interesting life story. It’s no wonder I definitely feel like I’ve heard of him before. He seems to be somewhat of a living legend in La Fortuna: a man who built himself up from nothing and bought this farm, which he has now passed down to two of his four children.
After finishing our coffee, we are allowed to explore for a few minutes. My favorite find? The nativity scene still left up from Christmas with an inexplicably large number of sheep. All of them have their eyes trained on the baby Jesus.
Finally, it is time to say goodbye to Don Pedro’s daughter, who is now running his farm, and we head back down to our rafts and push off once more, ready to see some more wildlife.
Baby Crocodiles and the Rest of our Rafting Safari
We drift along the river for about another hour, during which we spot turtles lying out on the banks to catch some sun, a completely unexpected river otter playing in the water, and our second sloth of the trip.
Ignacio explains to us that there are three types of sloths in Costa Rica: the two-toed, and three-toed, and the five-toed. It takes us a second to realize that the five-toed sloths are the humans, but we all erupt in laughter when we do. Daniel thinks that this assessment is completely accurate, especially when it comes to himself.
Also on the docket for that morning? Crocodiles.
We thought Danny had been joking yesterday when, after what we told him what we were doing today, he said we would see lots of crocodiles. Turned out he wasn’t lying. There are, in fact, crocodiles. We will see a grand total of eight that morning, including two babies with no mother in sight (and we will have no interest in finding her).
Mostly, they are sunning themselves on the banks of the river, just like the completely harmless turtles. But every once and a while, we see what Ignacio lovingly calls a “trunk-o-dile” that looks just a little bit too real. Daniel is perhaps the most scared out of all of us.
A Toast to Our Success
Unfortunately, our safari river float has to end at some point, and we reach the pull-out far before any of us would like to. On the plus side, however, we are greeted by Martin and his raft, who were ahead of us, and coconuts, just fallen off the palm trees above us and cut open before our eyes.
We drink the rich coconut milk and toast to our success. And I, of course, insist on a photo shoot.
An Afternoon at the Hot Springs
Although we think for a moment about trying to visit La Fortuna Waterfall that afternoon, which everyone and their mother has told us is a must-see, we find ourselves too worn out to make it. So instead, we spend our afternoon lazing around the hotel’s natural hot springs. And it is pure heaven.
We say goodbye to La Fortuna the following morning, taking a land-boat-land transfer to Monteverde—but more on that another time.
A Mini Guide to La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Things to do in La Fortuna, Costa Rica in Two Days// Suggested Itinerary
La Fortuna, Costa Rica, home to Arenal Volcano (which is active!!!) is a must-visit while you are in Costa Rica.
Although two days may not seem like a lot (especially because there are so many things to do in La Fortuna, Costa Rica), you can still see and do a lot in that amount of time. My suggestion when it comes to itinerary planning for La Fortuna is to pick one major thing to do each day and have a second, less strenuous activity for the other half of the day that you won’t be too bummed out about missing if you end up being too exhausted (the heat and humidity in La Fortuna can seriously tire you out).
Here’s my suggested itinerary for two days, chock full of things to do in La Fortuna, Costa Rica!
Go Hiking in La Fortuna
Start your time in La Fortuna, Costa Rica off right with a hike. We did the Sendora de Lava Erupción 1968 (Eruption of 1968 Lava Trail) and loved it. This trail offers great views of Arenal Volcano (as long as the cloud cover isn’t too bad) and was short and un-strenuous, making it easy enough for even the less-fit members of our group (aka me).
We went on a guided hike and found it to be invaluable. Although the trail is perfectly doable without a guide, the information that we learned from our guide, Danny, about the eruption of 1968 and all the wildlife around us made the extra price totally worth it.
Alternatively, if you want to get up close and personal with Arenal Volcano itself, consider doing your hike in Arenal Volcano National Park itself. Day passes are $15 and there are several short hikes (think, under 2 km) that you can complete.
Here is a short guide by Viator that details hikes in Arenal Volcano National Park.
Additionally, you can take a guided tour of Arenal Volcano National Park. Although not necessary, having a guide may help you spot more wildlife!
Visit the Hot Springs in La Fortuna
After a long and strenuous hike (or a short and easy one), all you really want to do is relax. Luckily, thanks to the active Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna has the perfect solution to your woes: hot springs!
There are absolutely l o a d s of hot springs around La Fortuna, so you’re certainly spoiled for choice. Our hotel, Arenal Springs Resort & Spa, had their own, so I didn’t do too much exploring of La Fortuna’s hot springs offerings, but here is a small guide to your options:
La Fortuna Hot Springs at Resorts & Hotels
Even if you are traveling Costa Rica on a budget and aren’t staying somewhere with their very own hot springs, there are loads of resorts in hotels in the La Fortuna area with hot springs that sell day passes. This is the perfect solution to experiencing a bit of hot spring luxury on a budget!
This awesome guide by Costa Rica Travel Blog lists out some of the best hotel and resort-based hot springs in La Fortuna and gives you advice on which one to choose. They even offer several discounts on entry!
Free La Fortuna Hot Springs
If you’re on a major budget (which I certainly would have been if I hadn’t been traveling with Daniel’s family), then there are also free hot springs in La Fortuna! They are best known as “Rio Chollin” and can be found near the entrance to Tabacon Hot Springs. Ask a taxi to take you there (brings some friends along and split the cost) and then follow the gravel path down to the hot springs.
Once again, Costa Rica Travel Blog has an awesome guide on how to find the free hot springs in La Fortuna—be sure to check it out!
La Fortuna Hike & Hot Springs Tours
Want to combine your hiking experience with a trip to the hot springs? There’s an easy way to do this! Many guided hiking tours in La Fortuna include a visit to hot springs at the end of the hike. Here are a few I’ve found online that look awesome!
Take a Rafting Wildlife Safari on the Peñas Blancas
Costa Rica is an amazing place to spot wildlife, and by far one of the best ways to see wildlife in La Fortuna is by taking a Rafting Wildlife Safari on the Rio Peñas Blancas, about a half hour van ride away from La Fortuna.
We went with Canoa Aventura and couldn’t have been happier with how amazing our experience was. For $59/person we were picked up from our hotel, brought to the push off point, and were guided through a two hour float down the river with an expert guide pointing out l o a d s of wildlife as we went. We also got to stop at Don Pedro’s for coffee and homemade bread and cheese.
If you’re considering doing a rafting wildlife safari in La Fortuna, definitely go with Canoa Aventura!
Visit La Fortuna Waterfall
Your rafting wildlife safari shouldn’t have been too physically strenuous (the Rio Peñas Blancas is about the calmest river I’ve ever seen), so if you’re feeling up for more adventure you should try to squeeze in a visit to La Fortuna Waterfall before you leave tomorrow morning.
We, unfortunately, didn’t have time to visit La Fortuna Waterfall, but everyone we spoke to told us that it was can’t miss. From the pictures online, I see why.
The trailhead to La Fortuna Waterfall is about a 12 minute taxi right from the center of La Fortuna, where you’ll pay the $15 entrance fee (as of January 2018). From there, it’s an easy twenty minute walk down to the waterfall, with amazing views the whole way. Be sure to bring your swim gear, as you can swim at the base of the waterfall as well! How’s that for some Insta-worthy photos???
Where to Stay in La Fortuna
Since I was traveling with Daniel’s family, my digs were a fair bit more expensive than I’m used to, and I can’t give first-hand advice about the best hostels in La Fortuna, but there are loads of hostels in the area.
Howler Monkey Hostel
Howler Monkey Hostel is the most highly rated on Hostelworld and is located just outside of La Fortuna, about a 15-minute walk. The hostel is home to a pool and is also five-minute walk to a natural swimming hole with a rope swing! There is also a kitchen, so you can cook your own food to save some money. Dorm rooms start from $12.
Arenal Hostel Resort
If you’re looking for ultimate convenience and are traveling around Costa Rica by bus, then Arenal Hostel Resort might be for you. Arenal Hostel Resort seems to have something for every type of traveler, from the budget backpacker to the person who prefers a few extra amenities—and a great view of Arenal Volcano. There is also a swimming pool (basically a necessity in Costa Rica) and you can book tours and activities straight from the hostel. Dorms start from $17 and private rooms from $58.
Selina Hostel La Fortuna
If you’re a fan of the popular Central American chain of hostels, Selina, then you’ll be happy to know there’s a location in La Fortuna as well! Dorm beds start from $15, or if you’re feeling like a bit of a splurge, why not try your hand at glamping in one of their teepees? They look to die for and start from $69 for 2 people.
What to Pack for La Fortuna
La Fortuna is all about adventure, so you’re going to want to pack accordingly. Here are my recommendations for things to pack for La Fortuna!
- Hiking Boots — You can’t visit La Fortuna, Costa Rica without taking a hike—it’s one of the best things to do there. Although you can easily get by with tennis shoes, but if you’ve been thinking about investing in a pair of hiking boots now is the time to do so! I am absolutely in love with my Ahnu Sugarpine Boots. They’re waterproof, have awesome ankle support, are super comfortable, AND they’re cute. I know, cute hiking boots??? I thought it was impossible too. For the guys, try out the Ahnu Men’s Insulated Waterproof Hiking Boot, which has AWESOME reviews on Amazon.
- Athletic Leggings — keeping with the hiking theme, you’re going to want some clothes to hike in. I suggest athletic leggings like these or these because La Fortuna is surprisingly not 100°F all the time. You’ll be glad for a little extra warmth!
- Lightweight Fabrics — When you’re packing, try to stick to lightweight, breathable fabrics like cotton or linen, which will help you stay cool on the warmer days and warm on the colder days.
- Rain Jacket — La Fortuna is firmly in rainforest territory, so you’ll definitely want to bring your rain jacket along. If you’re looking for one you won’t get too hot in, I love my Columbia Switchback. It’s also super travel-friendly because it can pack down SUPER small!
- Swimsuit — For swimming in the hot springs and the base of La Fortuna waterfall, a swimsuit is absolutely essential!
- Daypack — La Fortuna isn’t the place for your trendiest handbag. Instead, it’s all about adventure, so you’ll want to have a good daypack around that can carry everything you need without getting in your way.
- Reusable Water Bottle — the tap water in La Fortuna is perfectly safe to drink, so bring along a reusable water bottle like this one to save a bit of money on bottled water!
- Sunglasses — Sun protection is important, kids, so bring along a pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes! Don’t know where you put your last pair? Shop Amazon for men’s and women’s sunglasses.
- Hat — Keeping in line with the sun protection theme, bring along a hat as well. Putting sunscreen on your part is hard to do without getting your hair super oily, so a hat is a great way to avoid pain and flaky skin later on.
- Sunscreen — You just can’t go to the tropics without bringing sunscreen. My absolute favorite is Hawaiian Tropics because it smells great and doesn’t feel like sunscreen.
- Bug Spray — Bug spray isn’t a bad idea either. Although we didn’t run into too many problems with bugs, it’s always better to be safe than sorry!
- Travel Towel — If you’re staying in a hostel, it’s likely to cost extra to rent a towel. Solve all your problems by bringing a travel towel with you! You can also take it along to the free hot springs and La Fortuna Waterfall when you go!
- Dry Bag — A dry bag like this one is a great way to keep your valuables safe in situations where they might get wet, like a wildlife rafting safari or at the hot springs!
Do you have any more questions about things to do in La Fortuna, Costa Rica or want advice on traveling there? Let me know in the comments down below and I’ll be sure to answer!