During our visit in 2011, we focused on Costa Rica’s beaches, visiting Montezuma, Playa del Coco, Samara, Santa Teresa, Manuel Antonio, Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, Punta Uva, and Manzanillo. Our trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest was our one trip into the mountains, and yet, not 100kms from Monteverde was La Fortuna and its famous Arenal Volcano. Luckily this time Dani pushed for us to visit the area. What we discovered is that Arenal is a perfect Costa Rican escape.
Arriving under the cover of night, we had no idea of the massive volcano looming over the town. While sussing out tour options at a local travel agency, a dreaded, bearded Argentine flirting with the tour guide told us that it would be impossible for us to miss Arenal in the morning, and he was not just boasting in front of his girl. He was right. The volcano is the focal point of the area, from the town of La Fortuna across to the national park, and it is the inspiration for the name of nearly every hotel and restaurant in the area.
There are complaints that the town of La Fortuna is ‘too touristy’ but it almost has to be. In 1968, after lying dormant for hundreds of years, Arenal unexpectedly exploded and decimated the small town of Tabacón. For years after that first eruption there were several explosions – some major, some minor – that left the volcano glowing red with lava. Although recent years have seen no activity or signs of it, the warning signs around town about the possibility of life-threatening volcanic activity should be taken fairly seriously.
When the girl in the tour agency heard we had a car, she encouraged us to visit the sights in town independently instead of signing up for a tour. Thankful for her tip, we combined a morning hike in the national park at the base of the volcano 15kms outside of town with an afternoon trip to the incredible La Fortuna waterfall. Colorful toucans and other wild birds soared overhead as we descended over 400 steps into a ravine to the base of the massive waterfall. The pounding water was intense, but the resulting river was lazy, cool and perfect for swimming on a hot day. As we were there later in the day it was too chilly, though by the time we clambered back up those 400 steps we would have appreciated a quick swim. The imposing, mystical volcano, the powerful, pounding waterfall and hundreds of shades of green trees flooded us with an overwhelming sense of the natural splendor Costa Rica has to offer more than anywhere we had visited in the country before.
After a day of hiking and climbing we couldn’t wait to spend the next day relaxing submerged in the steaming hot pools. Because of the geothermal activity of this volcanic region, La Fortuna is rife with options for hot springs, but the absolute best place to experience this is the Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort. Also a five star hotel, Tabacón is consistently listed as one of the best spa properties in the world, and often listed as one of the top ten hot springs in the world. Readers of Travel + Leisure voted is the #4 Hotel Spa in Latin America 2011.
There is no question as to why this is. Tapping into streaming water from the Tabacón river, there are five natural mineral pools ranging from 25-38 degrees Celcius (71-100 F), with a river rushing through the center of the property. Each of the pools and their steamy offshoots along winding pathways are set in lush gardens so that many areas feel semi-private, others downright hidden. The Shangri-La adults only area is incredibly relaxing, with chairs and plush beds spread throughout and meditational music playing just loud enough to hear over the rapids. We dipped in pool after pool and then massaged our shoulders under gorgeous waterfalls looking out at the Costa Rican rainforest, with Blue Morpho butterflies and what look like dinosaurs but are most likely only lizards sunbathe nearby.
In addition to the restaurant, pool area and three bars (one of which is a swim-up bar) is the Grand Spa, the true showcase piece of the Tabacón resort. Clients here have an even higher level of seclusion and connection to nature with open-air treatment rooms set among gardens. Treatments include volcanic mud wraps, coconut skin exfoliation, meditation trails, even a traditional temezcal area where guests can experience an ancient Indian steam treatment process.
No matter how you spend your Spa day, when you get here you will want to stay for a long, long time, so make sure to go ahead and pay the full $95 per person, which gets you unlimited time in the hot springs plus a set lunch and buffet dinner (its $85 for lunch or dinner only, or $65 just for the Hot Springs). Guests of the hotel receive one complimentary Spa treatment, otherwise all Grand Spa activities are charged separately.
Rent a car
We rented a car and drove over from Samara Beach, meaning we spent the afternoon meandering the road around Lake Arenal, a magical sight that reminded us of the lochs of Scotland more than the primary rainforest that lay just ahead of us.
Once in the La Fortuna area, the town is fairly compact, but sites, restaurants and hotels are spread out along the road, which couldn’t be easier to navigate. Renting the car made the trip to Arenal as easy, comfortable and relaxing as possible. Luckily, we were able to drop off the car near the airport without any additional drop-off fees as well.
Create exactly the trip that you want
Because tourism in this region is well established, visitors here can choose from a full five-star holiday to bare bones basic backpacker hostels and everything in between. For us this meant we were able to travel exactly the way we prefer – choosing to visit sites independently and eating in the many local ‘sodas’, or Costa Rican restaurants, while staying in the excellent four-star Mountain Paradise Lodge and splurging on the spa day at Tabacón. For those looking for a full tour package or budget travelers looking for hostels and other budget travel ideas, this part of Costa Rica offers options for every budget.