Back in 2020/2021, Dan and I spent Christmas and New Year’s in Costa Rica, starting in San Jose and moving to La Fortuna for the New Year. I have been meaning to post about this forever, so this article details what we got up to in La Fortuna.
LA FORTUNA, COSTA RICA
La Fortuna is a small town in the Alajuela Province of Costa Rica, a couple hours via car from San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica). While small and not on one of Costa Rica’s famous coasts, La Fortuna is popular with tourists, as its the main city for visiting Arenal Volcano National Park and its related hot springs (i.e., the reason we went!). La Fortuna also has other outdoorsy tourist attractions, including a Disney-esque waterfall and numerous hiking trails through the jungle. We found the tourist infrastructure in La Fortuna to be well developed – meaning the town is prepared for and used to tourists. Almost everyone spoke good English (although knowing Spanish will definitely help) and there are plenty of hotels and tour companies ready to assist. I’d recommend La Fortuna to almost all types of tourists looking for outdoor activities.
WHAT WE DID IN LA FORTUNA, COSTA RICA
As mentioned, La Fortuna has lots to occupy one’s time. We spent five days in La Fortuna, and honestly could have spent a few more. On the other hand, we also could have spent one day less had we wanted to cover more ground in Costa Rica on this trip. In planning, I suggesting researching and making a list of must-do activities, and then deciding how long to stay and what to do.
La Fortuna (the town): La Fortuna is a small town that is incredibly tourist friendly, with lots of restaurants, shops, grocery stores, tour agencies, etc. within walking distance. La Fortuna is walkable and safe, and the town itself only takes about an hour to stroll through. La Fortuna is a great place for inexpensive dinners and picking up staples from grocery stores (think water, sunscreen, snacks, etc.). I would not allot more than a couple hours to see the “town”; its more of a convenience than a destination.
Arenal Hanging Bridges: Visiting the Arenal Hanging Bridges (which I believe is now called the Mistico Hanging Bridges) is an extremely popular activity to do in La Fortuna. Actually located about a half-hour from the town center, many tour companies will pick up in La Fortuna and drive to the Hanging Bridges, which is what we did. The Arenal Hanging Bridges tour is basically an easy, flat walk through a rain forest that has a number of “tree bridges,” which are swinging bridges connecting tall trees in the rain forest. Yes, they do move when you walk – especially if other people are walking at the same time – but they are not too, too scary (and for the record, I’m terrified of heights!). We found this pretty cool and we felt very accomplished when we finished. For those looking to visit, a few tips: 1) you can visit without a guide, but our guide added a lot of information about the rain forest and pointed out tiny animals and plants we would never have seen, 2) once you start the trek, you can’t really turn back, so be sure you are willing to cross several of these before starting, 3) while flat, the rain forest can be humid and rainy so wear clothing you can get dirty, 4) the welcome center where you buy tickets has fabulous views of Arenal. Per the website and my experience, I’d allow between 3 and 4 hours at the Arenal Hanging Bridges.
1968 Arenal Lava Trail and Forest Hike: Dan and I also took a guided hike in the 1968 Arenal Volcano Park. Again, this is a popular tour in the area that gets tourists close to the Arenal Volcano and lets tourists walk on a “lava trail” – AKA hardened lava from a previous eruption of the Arenal volcano. This was a pretty interesting and relatively easy hike. The second half of the hike walked us through a pretty dense forest for about an hour, while our guide pointed out particular plants and animals. I was TERRIFIED that we would see a (or worse, step on a) poisonous snake, but we only saw one very tiny snake … at least that our guide pointed out. I was very happy to have a guide for the reason of pointing out poisonous things and ensuring that we stayed on the right trail, although we did see people hiking on their own. Those doing this hike should wear sturdy hiking shoes and bring water and sunscreen.
La Fortuna Waterfall: We further did the La Fortuna Waterfall hikt want to walk up 500 steps in a wet bathing suit. I would emphasize that those doing this activitye. La Fortuna Waterfall is a beautiful waterfall that looks like it should be in a Disney movie, at least from far away (up close its far less magical IMHO). Those wanting to visit can pay an entrance fee and walk down 500 steps to the waterfall, and 500 steps back back up. At the bottom, guests can swim in the water, but we skipped because we did not want to walk back up in wet clothing. If you do the hike, know that you must be able to walk all the stairs – there is no elevator or substitute, and be sure to bring water and everything for swimming if you plan to do so. There are no facilities once you start down the stairs. La Fortuna Waterfall is a short drive from town, and the welcome center has a restaurant and a cute gift shop.
La Fortuna Hot Springs: Saving the best for last, the best thing to do in La Fortuna, by far IMHO, is to visit the hot springs! La Fortuna’s hot springs are natural waters heated by the Arenal Volcano that locals and guests use for swimming, lounging and for health purposes. Tourists have numerous options in visiting such springs in La Fortuna. First, many hotels have access to their own springs, which are often well kept and the easiest way to visit hot springs in La Fortuna. We stayed at the Tabacón hotel, which has a lovely complex of natural and man made hot springs, which we used daily. If you stay at the Tabacón, entry to the hot springs is free. Non-guests can also use the Tabacón springs for a fee of around $75 USD per half day (which is on the higher end). While high, the Tabacon facility is very nice and clean. Alternatively, there are free springs just down the road from the Tabacon that many locals, as well as tourists in the know, use. We did not visit these but locals were raving about them. I suggest setting aside at least a half day for hot springs, if not a full day.
Things we missed: As always, we couldn’t hit everything in La Fortuna, as there are just so many options. Some things we missed and would (maybe) try next time are the Sloth Watching Train, a chocolate tour, rafting, canyoning, zip lining or a night walk on the hanging bridges. Honestly, I probably would never do the later four, but they are an option!
WHERE WE ATE IN LA FORTUNA
Nowhere is perfect, and we found the food in La Fortuna to be lacking in fabulousness. This may be an unpopular opinion, because we have numerous friends who really enjoyed their food in Costa Rica, or perhaps we were just unlucky and had bad experiences. In any case, here are a few places that we really enjoyed.
Spectacoular Cantina: Spectacoular is an outdoor taco and margarita restaurant in the heart of La Fortuna. Its super causal and inexpensive. We ate here multiple days, as the food was quite good and so were the drinks. Of note, I loved a banana smoothie (non alcoholic) that I drank daily. This was the best food we had in Costa Rica in our opinion.
Chifa La Familia Feliz: Chifa is a cute restaurant Peruvian restaurant specializing in chifa cuisine, which in general is a mix of Chinese and Andean cuisine. We’ve had chifa in Peru and really enjoyed it, so we tried it again in Costa Rica. We enjoyed our meal here very much and would have returned had we not visited on our last night!
La Parrilla de Maria Bonita: La Parrilla de Maria Bonita is the restaurant inside Fortuna Downtown Boutique Hotel, but its open to non-guests. La Parrilla de Maria Bonita can get rowdy at night when live music is often played, but during the morning and day it’s pretty tranquil. We had breakfast and a snack here at both were really good and inexpensive. We should have returned for dinner.
WHERE WE STAYED IN LA FORTUNA
Fortuna Downtown Boutique. We spent our first night right in the heart of La Fortuna at Fortuna Downtown Boutique Hotel. This was honestly more of a “private room hostel” than a hotel, but it was clean and comfortable, and we even had our own little balcony. It also included a delicious free breakfast from La Parilla de Maria Bonita (attached to the hotel) for $72/night. I would absolutely stay here again. There was also a pool and live music at night. Many restaurants, parks, stores, bars, etc. are within a short walk of this hotel.
Tabacón Thermal Resort and Spa. The second hotel that was stayed at was the Tabacón Thermal Resort and Spa. Located about 15 minutes outside of La Fortuna town by car, Tabacón is a proper resort with multiple pools, restaurants and activities. Guests could spend a week here without ever going into La Fortuna. The best part of Tabacón, however, is its thermal springs, which I mentioned above. Hotel guests get free access to the hot springs, including an hour before they open to the public and an hour after they close to the public. Hotel guests also receive access to a special part of the springs reserved only for hotel guests. We LOVED the hot springs, but the resort could have used some improvement in certain areas, including the food. A separate post is forthcoming.
WHEN WE WENT TO LA FORTUNA, COSTA RICA
This trip took place over New Years 2020/2021. The weather in Arenal was warm – shorts and t-shirts weather, and it only rained for a small bit each day. We got really, really lucky and even saw Arenal volcano with no cloud cover (apparently very rare)! That being said, the Arenal viewing is not guaranteed and I think there may be better times to go for viewing Arenal.
HOW WE CELEBRATED NEW YEARS IN LA FORTUNA, COSTA RICA
We celebrated New Year’s Eve with a party hosted by our hotel, the Tabacón, which ended at 11 PM…and didn’t really do anything different than usual on New Year’s Day. Most things seemed to be operating as usual during this time. I would note that we were a little disapointed with our NYE party at the Tabacón – it ended early and the food was mediocre at best.
WHAT I PACKED FOR LA FORTUNA, COSTA RICA IN DECEMBER
While you should certainly check the weather before your trip, here are some must-haves that I brought with me.
- Bathing suits for the hot springs that you don’t mind possibly ruining (the Sulfur in the water could discolor certain bathing suits, especially lighter ones).
- Sturdy shoes for outdoor activities. Hiking shoes worked well for me.
- Sunscreen and bug spray if you have the weight in your luggage. Otherwise, this was readily available at grocery stores in La Fortuna at a normal price. You’ll want both in La Fortuna.
- Athletic wear sufficient for hikes in the jungle, including long pants and socks. There are serious creepy crawlies here that you do not want biting you.
- Casual wear for in and around La Fortuna.
- Sunglasses and a hat to protect from the sun.
- Packable rain gear (meaning you can carry it around with you during the day in case a shower pops up!).
- Ear plugs if you are staying right in La Fortuna. La Fortuna can be a bit party-y and loud.
- A first aid kit from home carrying the things you normally use. We had to visit the pharmacy due to a cut on my foot. We got what we needed but everything was, not surprisingly, local brands and we had trouble figuring out what we needed in Spanish. A small kit from home can save a trip to the pharmacy. Side note – a pharmacy trip will obviously be easier if you speak Spanish.
- Water shoes if you are planning to swim in natural water not run by a hotel (for example, at La Fortuna Waterfall or in the free hot springs near Tabacón).
STEAL OUR TRIP
Fortuna Downtown Boutique: La Fortuna, C. 470 Centro, Provincia de Alajuela, Arenal, 21007. Budget friendly.
Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa: Located about 10 minutes outside of La Fortuna via car. Hotel and hot springs reservations can be made on the website.
Mistico Hanging Bridges (formerly Arenal Hanging Bridges): The official website is linked. Open daily 6:00 – 4:30 PM (last entry around 3:50 PM). It looks like a standard ticket currently costs around $30 USD.
1968 Lava Hike: Open daily from 8 – 5 PM (last entry earlier than 5 PM). Looks like tickets are currently around $25 USD per adult.
La Fortuna Waterfall: Open daily 7 – 4 PM (last entry earlier than 4 PM). Looks like tickets are currently around $18 USD per adult.
Desafio Adventure Company: We used this company to organize our Arenal Hanging Bridges hike ($69 USD per person), the 1986 Lava Hike ($59 USD per person) and the La Fortuna Waterfall hike ($69 USD per person). Each tour came with roundtrip transportation and an English speaking guide who accompanied us, paid for our tickets and provided information on our activity. I would use this company again.
Spectacoular Cantina: Right in the center of town. Open daily 11 – 11. No reservations at the time of writing. Super casual with all outdoor seating. Budget friendly.
Chifa La Familia Feliz: 702, Provincia de Alajuela, La Fortuna, Costa Rica. Open daily 12:00 – 9:00 except Saturday, when it seems that Chifa is only open for dinner. Super casual and inexpensive. Large portions. Budget friendly.
La Parilla de Maria Bonita: Calle 470, 25 metros sur del Parque Central de, Provincia de Alajuela, La Fortuna, 21007, Costa Rica. I suggest a reservation for dinner.