Tandem Travel Tales: La Fortuna, Costa Rica

GETTING TO LA FORTUNA

La Fortuna is the perfect place to explore. With things like chocolate, hot springs, volcanoes, teepee tents, waterfalls, and wildlife, keep in mind that it also has the potential to squash your budget if you don’t pay attention. On our way from Heredia, we decided to slow our journey for treats and investigate the unique landscape around us.

Roadside, farm-fresh eggs on the way to La Fortuna. December 2017

The roads were smooth and the mountains were green and lush with fog always on the horizon. We stopped to purchase pineapples, farm fresh eggs, and an abundance of plantains all roadside. Everywhere we looked there were farms and fields filled with an infinite number of lilies and other export crops.
Arriving at dinner time, we were ready to unload our car and make a few friends off the bat. Our hostel was Selina La Fortuna. We ended up here because I fell victim to social media marketing. I follow a few travel blogs and Instagram accounts, and another traveling couple recommended Selina with a picture of their free-standing teepee-esque rooms. Retrospectively, remember that marketing has a purpose.

These are our excited faces. La Fortuna Waterfall, December 2017.

Everything there, for the most part, felt inauthentic and contrived. The front desk attendant was kind but distrusting right off the bat. We were accused of not paying for our stay ahead of time and were told that we owed $211. Nope, sorry, already paid my friend. They proceeded to have us jump through a number of unnecessary hoops to prove our payment before the manager finally gave us approval.
Upon wandering through the hostel one of the first things we noticed was that there were a ton of people there and no one was interacting. It was kind of chilling. A tropical paradise, infinite opportunities, zombies siphoned to their screens. I felt similar to the first time I saw an entire public park full of people in Kalamazoo, Michigan, close to midnight, nose-deep in Pokemon Go. Ahg. I needed caffeine at this point so I’m sure I was a little salty.

Our private accommodations at Selina La Fortuna

For coffee, someone recommended the Rainforest Cafe. This was not the chain we have in the states, but a local spot. The espresso was tasty, but we didn’t have much luck on the interaction side. We decided we would make dinner with some of the goodies we acquired during our drive and pair it with some market finds. Mainly rice, beans, cilantro, and lime, otherwise known as Gallo Pinto in Costa Rica. Mmmm, delicious. We fried the plantains, diced the pineapple, and tried to make friends by sharing.
We eventually made a friend named Sebastian from Cannes, France whom we spent a fair amount of time chatting with that evening. He was really inspiring to talk to because he has scheduled his life to function on a 6-months-on, 6-months-off calendar. He returns to Cannes for high season to work and save money, and then he spends the subsequent 6 months traveling. Sounds like my kind of gig.

Our friend, Sebastian. December 2017.

MEETING A LOCAL

We popped into the hostel bar that night to see what was going on a give Cacique a try, the local sugarcane liquor. Whew, let’s just say it isn’t for the faint of heart or for those who need a trigger warning before seeing Skull vodka. The sippable shot took me at least 20 minutes to drink, and the fellow next to us, Louis, a local from La Fortuna, got a total kick out of the whole thing. We went on to pick his brain about what to do in La Fortuna. Louis shared that hiking to the top of Arenal is illegal, but there are some black market tour companies that can make it happen if you pay enough.
Personally, after all of our research on Nepal and the ethical obligation that you have as a traveler to keep the people that you employ safe, this made me a little sad. Money talks. He also went on to share that the La Fortuna Waterfall was beautiful but overrun by tourists and that we’d be doing ourselves an injustice if we didn’t visit Tabacon.
Tabacon had been on our list as an option for weeks, but I had a hard time justifying the expense. The options ranged from $77-$115 because we were visiting in peak season and Tabacon is the creme de la creme of hot springs. Something I’m sure you’ll notice if you continue to follow our blog is that Steve is much more likely to jump on these opportunities than I am. I’m the more frugal of the two, but he’s a hard one to say no to.
So fast-forwarding through the next few days, we were able to experience a lot with little time.

A RECAP OF OUR TIME IN LA FORTUNA:

LaFortuna Waterfall: Tickets were $15. Be sure to arrive first thing in the morning to beat the crowds because it was busy on our way out. This is also not an activity for someone with limited mobility. There are hundreds of steps down to the base of the waterfall. However, there is an orchid walk to admire at the top. There are so many that they actually flag those that are in bloom. If you want to learn all things orchids you should check out the orchid episode of Stuff You Should Know. I have no idea how they aren’t extinct.

Our GoPro selfie at La Fortuna Waterfall.

The waterfall was beautiful and the water was rapid and chilly. It’s a great place to put a GoPro to work or just relax and enjoy the mist rising off of the cool pools.
Volcan Arenal National Park: I’ll admit that I was not impressed when we initially entered the park. The entrance fee was $15 and we were arriving at 2:30 PM, so we only had 90 minutes to hike until they closed the park. The ranger was adamant that we would only be able to do the short in-and-out trail. We hopped in the car and drove about ¾ mile to the back of the park to see the viewing area. The volcano was hiding in the clouds almost the entire time we were in La Fortuna, but it did allow us small glimpses here and there. I’ve been told that the best time to see it is first thing in the morning when the sun is rising and the clouds aren’t as dense.

Volcan Arenal through the hazy clouds. December 2017.

We opted for the longer trail to the east, Las Coladas, which connects to another trail passing a 500-year-old ceiba tree and also crosses the remains of the 1992 lava flow. The rainforest is where you can really begin to appreciate this place. With the exception of one other couple and a tour group that was somewhere way ahead of us, we were the only ones on the trails. It was incredible and maybe one of the only places that I’ve ever been that I can picture walking off the trail, sitting on the ground, and just meditating.

Steve’s favorite, La Ceiba. December 2017

There wasn’t extensive wildlife, likely as a result of the extended volcanic activity from 1968 through 2010. However, we did see a toucan, crax, a number of other unnamed bird and fowl, and cute little ground paca. And La Ceiba, what a sight. This tree survived the 42 years of volcanic eruptions and is easily 120 feet tall. It spans outwards to embody and protect the forest within a 300-foot radius. I think it was one of Steve’s favorite things.

A map of Volcan Arenal National Park available at the trail head. December 2017.

Rainforest Chocolate Tour: I honestly don’t think we’ve ever participated in something so touristy, but it was adorable. Our guide, a sweet man name Kevin, felt initially awkward giving his large-scale formal spiel to a group of two at 8 AM, but he eventually found some comfort and we really enjoyed his commentary. At $25/person, this tour was set up to teach history, show a small scale growth operation, and show the process of fermenting and processing cacao. He also showed us wild vanilla. Did you know that a vanilla bean comes from an orchid that only produces one pod at a time? Talk about patience.

Cocoa pods thriving on the Rainforest Chocolate Tour land. December 2017.

We got to participate in the entire process. This included opening the pods, prepping the beans for fermentation, roasting, drying, cracking, grinding, conching, and tasting. Mmmm. Jenni, who was doing all of the physical preparation, told us that there was no limit to the amount of chocolate that we could taste and that a teenage competitive eater once ate 55 spoonfuls. Yes, he was American. Yes, I was instantly ashamed.
When all is said and done they have plenty of chocolate goodies for purchase in the gift shop. You’ll also find a cute pup who wants all of your attention. It’s really a little gem in La Fortuna.
Tabacon Hot Springs: Luxurious. As mentioned above, visiting the hot springs was a total indulgence for us. We opted for the $77/person evening package beginning at 6 PM that included a buffet dinner and time in the hot springs until 10 PM. I realize this is a steep fee, so know that there are a number of other hot spring options in La Fortuna. Also, be advised that this is a hot spot so parking can be a bit difficult at times. A lot of people were parking their cars on the side of the highway, but we were thankful to find a spot in their gated lot. Petty theft and car break-ins are a thing.
We arrived at 5:15 PM an expected to be asked to wait until 6 PM, but instead, they seated us right away. Travel tip, arriving early sometimes has its perks. We were one of the only people eating at this time so we didn’t have to wait in lines and were able to take our time and enjoy ourselves. I’m normally not a huge fan of buffets, but this one took the cake. Everything was clean, fresh, well maintained, and there were fresh vegetables in the form of a salad. Don’t get me wrong, I am a lover of all food, but we’d been in high-carb paradise all week.

Steve’s reaction when we decided to visit Tabacon. December 2017.

Now the hot springs. You get a locker and a number of bougie amenities, like exchanging your damp towel for a fresh one at any time. I will admit that we used this perk when our towel fell in the water. Whoops. We decided that this place had to be the direct result of someone’s life dream. Tabacon is special because it is the only hot springs in La Fortuna that directly feeds from a thermal river. The waters warm, there are 25+ pools, plenty of waterfalls, and the paths between each pool are lined with native plants and trees. Honestly, without being too gushy, it could be the scene for a romantic fairytale. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any footage here because our GoPro was not a fan of the low light setting.
If you want a drink there is a bar in the main pool. However, be advised that like any other tropical bar, it’s a frozen drink paradise. This means that even with 5 bartenders, the wait is extensive. We spent a good 40 minutes waiting for two drinks because when in Rome, right? Honestly, not worth it. I would shamelessly take a few Imperial in with me next time. There’s probably a no outside alcohol rule somewhere, but sometimes rules can be broken. No one was hurt in the process and There is no way that place will ever be hurting for money.
Back in the silence and comfort of the empty pools, we decided that our internal body temperature were high enough. Thinking back on it I’m honestly not sure how someone could sit in those pools all day. The sun in Costa Rica can be blazing hot. Night time hot springs were the right choice for us.

A fearless little coati hanging out in the middle of the highway. December 2017.

LA FORTUNA BLOOPERS:

  • Birds who have eaten only tropical fruit will produce neon poop.
  • Sometimes it’s absolutely necessary to drink a beer and wash your clothing in an outdoor sink. The sink may be attached to a roadhouse/travel agency. Said travel agency may be on your way to the hot springs. You also may look like a hot mess.
  • It’s not always the best idea to pick up that giant bug because sometimes it’s a dung beetle.
  • There will be times when you don’t know if you’re frying a banana or a plantain. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
  • Bands of coati are cute enough to pull your car over and sit on the highway to watch. Be shameless.
  • Don your bathing suit before descending hundreds of stairs to the waterfall. There are really no places to change in public at a tourist destination. You will make people around you very uncomfortable.
I think that’s about it for La Fortuna. I’ll leave you with this, take your sunscreen and bug spray everywhere.
Happy Planning!
Brittany
Next: Jaco Beach

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