As Christmas was essentially cancelled in 2020, Dan and I moved up our planned Costa Rica New Years Eve trip to leave on Christmas day, spending and working a few days in San Jose before moving on to the La Fortuna area, our original NYE destination! You can read about our experience in San Jose here. In La Fortuna, we spent most of our time at the Tabacón Thermal Resort and Spa, which has lovely, amazing thermal pools. This article details our experience at the Tabacón.
For those unfamiliar, La Fortuna is a small, touristy town about a 3 hour drive from San Jose. The centerpiece of La Fortuna is the Arenal volcano, which towers over the town and is quite magnificent on a clear day (which apparently doesn’t happen that often). La Fortuna’s surrounding area also offers lots of adrenaline-fueled jungle activities, including white water rafting, zip lining, and rain forest hikes. However, due to the Arenal Volcano, the area around La Fortuna also has lots of less-adrenaline fueled thermal springs – or water sources naturally heated by the volcano. Since we love a good hot spring, we decided to stay at one of the resorts planned around said hot springs. We opted for the Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa because it looked very nice online and is part of the Hyatt hotel network.
THE TABACÓN THERMAL RESORT & SPA
The Tabacón Thermal Resort and Spa is a resort complex located about a 15 minute car ride from downtown La Fortuna. While you cannot easily walk between the Tabacón and La Fortuna, there is plenty in the Tabacón complex to keep guests busy, from four restaurants, to a lovely pool, a shop, lots of space to walk around, complete with wildlife and perfectly manicured grounds, to the amazing hot springs, and guests will not want for activities to fill the time. Indeed, guests could stay here for several days without leaving, if that is what you are look for, or simply leave the resort and go into town, making the Tabacón a good choice for may types of travelers.
While the Tabacón does have lots of activities on site, I personally suggest guests go “off campus” for an activity or two and a meal in La Fortuna. As you we see, I think La Fortuna offers better food and its a cool little town. With regard to other activities, the Tabacón has a dedicated concierge desk that can help book excursions, or you can book them on your own in advance via a third-party, which is what we did.
OUR ROOM AT THE TABACÓN
We stayed in a spacious Orchid Room (202 specifically) at Tabacón. Our Orchid Room included a large bath with a rainforest shower (no tub) and all the amenities, including a nice hairdryer, a decent size closet, a Brit Nespresso machine, a comfy king size bed, a large TV, and a sitting area with a small table and couch, which abutted doors that opened into a tropical garden. The room was comfortable, the air condition worked well, and the wifi was strong. The room was also pretty tech savvy, with a nice TV that our Roku worked with and a fancy phone for ordering room service or anything else. The staff also decorated the door for my birthday and left me a piece of cake, as well as a sweet treat for the New Year! The room gets a 10/10.
Dan and I were both pretty impressed with the room and don’t have any complaints. Our room location was a short walk to the main checkin area, as well as Toucanes restaurant and the pool (hot springs described below). That being said, since the resort is spread out, complimentary golf carts are available to shuttle passengers around by simply calling the front desk. We noticed a lot of people taking advantage of this perk and it seemed to work quite well.
THE THERMAL HOT SPRINGS AT TABACÓN
Now, for the crown jewel of the Tabacón and its namesake, the hot springs!! The Tabacón’s hot springs are located down a hill the main resort area, about a 10 minute walk by foot down some not so steep stairs. A van shuttle constantly runs between the resort and the springs, providing Tabacón guests with unlimited free transportation between the resort and the hot springs. If you drive by the Tabacón springs or take the complimentary shuttle, you will notice hotel guests walking between the two in the hotel-provided robes!
Before going to the hot springs, know that it’s customary to wear a bathing suit under the hotel provided robe and flip flops or water shoes. And, don’t forget your hotel bracelet, which also doubles as your room key and your method to pay for anything extra in the hot springs! Hotel guests simply walk into the hot springs by showing the hotel bracelet. Entrance is free for hotel guests only (others have to pay an entrance fee over around $75 USD for a half day!). Once you arrive, pick up a towel and a locker key from the kiosk near the locker rooms (lots of signs directing to this point) and you are set and ready to enter the pools!! And, on the hot springs front, as you probably gathered by the price, the hot springs are open to non-hotel guests daily, and the guests come in by the bus load. I suggest planning your time in the springs to avoid the large buses.
Now for the pools and springs in the hot springs part of the Tabacón… First, there are both man made, normal water pools and natural springs heated by the Arenal Volcano. The man made pools have normal pool bottoms and the natural areas have natural floors (some people may prefer swim shoes here), and there are far more natural springs than man made pools. Guests are free to use any and all of the pools, including the waterfalls (people climb all over them) from open to closing. Nothing was too packed when we visited, and it was busy, but I’m not sure how this compares to normal levels as we visited with COVID restrictions. There are hooks near the entrance of many of the hot spring pools, and most people just leave the robe and shoes at the hooks (a la Blue Lagoon in Iceland).
In terms of a general description of the hot springs area, there is one main heated pool right when you enter the hot springs complex. This pool is large and is home to the fun-looking swim-up bar. We spent some time here, but found the more “natural” springs to be more our speed. Plus, this pool is packed during the day. That being said, it is a very nice pool with fun lounging space surrounding it, including fun little tent like beds! The funner the pool chair, the earlier it goes, so get there early if you want one for the day!
If you feel the same as us, keep moving past the pool and enter the “springs” area. Now, while many of these use natural water, the hotel has take great care in modifying these springs so that they are super fun and very Instagrammable, as well as clean. The springs range in heat and style of pool, from sitting under a water fall, to a normal pool area, to climbing over waterfalls. They pools also range in depth from 1 foot to about 3 feet, all with clear water and, again, some with sandy bottoms and other with rocks. A selection of photos is below:
Hotel guests should know, and take advantage of, the fact that the hot springs open for an hour or two just for hotel guests every morning, and there is a hotel-guest only area at the back of the hot springs called the Shangri-La Gardens (signs everywhere). In the Shangri-La Gardens, hotel guests can access a guest only restaurant and bar, hot springs open only to hotel guests, and more chairs and “tents”, also available only to hotel guests. We used the Shangri-La Gardens a lot during our trip. I highly recommend taking advantage of both the extra hours and the Shangri-La Gardens. I would also note that if you want one of those Instagrammable “tent” chairs, go early to snag one, even in the Shangri-La Gardens, and you’ll probably have better luck in the Shangri-La Gardens than around the pool. These are extremely popular and are often taken early in the day.
The hot springs area also has three restaurants/bars on site – the sit down Ave restaurant at the entrance, the swim-up pool bar at the main pool near the entrance and a bar/restaurant in the Shangra-La Gardens. Keep reading for details on these bars and restaurants.
And finally, I suggest not brining too much to the hot springs. While there are complimentary lockers for use in the locker room, the are not too big and a bit flimsy. We only brought our phones and kindle to the hot springs, and usually kept those in our robe pocket.
POOLS AT TABACÓN
If pools are more your thing than hot springs, the hot springs have one very large pool and there is another in the main resort area. As mentioned above, there is a large heated pool in the Thermal Springs, open to hotel guests and outsiders paying an entrance fee. The pool is very nice and has a large pool bar with fun, yet pricey, cocktails! Again, all very Instagrammable.
The Tabacón has one other pool in the resort area of the hotel in front of the Toucanes restaurant, and we really loved this pool. This pool is heated to a similar temperature as that in the hot springs, but since it’s away from the hot springs, it was less crowded. We spent a lot of time at this pool. This pool also has a little waterfall feature, which was very fun! Towels are on site at the pool, as well as fancy loungers. There is also a children’s pool in this area.
OTHER ACTIVITIES AT TABACÓN
Hmm, we spent most of our time at the hotel in the water, pool or the hot springs, and off property, doing tours with third parties. There is a gift shop in the main lobby area that is worth a visit, although prices are more reasonable in La Fortuna town. Wifi was good throughout the hotel, and I’m sure there are other activities that we missed…. Visit the concierge if you have questions here.
RESTAURANTS & BARS AT TABACÓN
Tabacón is home to four restaurants and two bars, and we had at least one meal at each restaurant during our stay (though we skipped room service) and honestly, the food was not great during our stay at Tabacón. Not at all, which was very disappointing. While edible, we found the Tabacón food over priced and lacking in authenticity and flavor. The one high point was Cana Brava bar, which looks to be nothing more than a lobby bar. We found better food in La Fortuna town but unfortunately, were not blown away by Costa Rican food on our trip. Someone please tell me what and where to eat next time! Each of the restaurants is broken down below.
Toucanes Restaurant: Toucanes restaurant is the main restaurant in the center of the the hotel complex. Toucanes serves a breakfast buffet every morning and a la carte dinner service. The one highlight of Toucanes is the breakfast, which was included in our room rate. The breakfast was solid every morning and had lots of variety and local dishes, including a made-to-order egg bar with delicious salsas (yes, plural!), a hot bar with local foods, fresh fruit, and the best freshly made cookies. Even French press Britt coffee was included. My only complaint is that the Tabacón did not refill the buffet as often as it should have. Perhaps this was a COVID issue? I’m guessing the Christmas/NYE holiday period was the busiest they had been in quite a while… so I will excuse the slowness. Hopefully this issue has been fixed.
In terms of dinner, however, the food at Toucanes was truly mediocre. For starters, the menu is pretty plain and the most exciting thing was a steak “cooked on rocks”… Everything was edible, but it was just not great, particularly for the price charged at Toucanes. As you can see below, I had the not exciting pasta while Dan went with said steak “cooked on rocks.” We also had a banana based dessert that was also just “ok.” We expected more for the price paid, and Toucanes simply did not deliver.
Ave Restaurant: The second sit down restaurant at Tabacón is Ave Restaurant, and its located in the hot springs complex across the street from the main resort. Ave is apparently popular for its buffet lunch that caters to tour groups coming to Tabacón for the day. I had read poor reviews things of Ave prior to our trip, and they unfortunately proved to be true. Boring dishes without much flavor. We dined at Ave for New Years Eve, which offered a buffet and live music, which was very fun. However, the food was meh, even though it was NYE. I had lobster, which was totally edible but lacked much flavor in terms of cooking. Same for the steak and rice and sides that we tried. Even the desserts were bland. The one bright spot: the cocktails! They were tasty and quite pretty!
Cana Brava: Costa Brava is an unsuspecting hotel lobby bar that looks more like a coffee shop than a restaurant. However, Costa Brava had the best cocktails and food dishes of any where at Tabacón, despite having a small menu and serving area. I believe my plate was some sort of tostone with tomato salsa, guacamole, and sliced pork sausage, and these were delicious. The cocktails were also ADORABLE, from a Pisco Sour served in a llama to a smoking volcano drink! This was, by far, by favorite food/drink spot at Tabacón. Don’t sleep on Cana Brava until the last day like we did.
Shangri-la Garden Bar: Shangri-la Garden Bar is the bar and restaurant in the private, guest-only area of the hot springs, the Shangri-la Gardens, serving alcohol and food. The menu looks pretty good but, not surprisingly, the food was unfortunately super bland. The drinks are good, but Dan could not get past its use of Andre as the in-house “champagne,” particularly in the VIP guest-only area…
Agua Ardiente Pool Bar: We did not eat at Agua Ardiente Pool Bar (which serves food from Ave at the chairs around the main springs pool), but we had a few drinks. While pricey (averaging around $20 US per cocktail), the cocktails are tasty and look quite impressive. My husband, again, was horrified at the use of Andre as the house sparkling wine.
Bosque Bar: Toucanes Restaurant’s bar. We skipped a visit to this bar, but its open air and located just inside the entrance to Toucanes. It was quite popular during our visit and always a bit rowdy in the evening.
TAKE AWAY THOUGHTS
We had a lovely time at the Tabacón. The hot springs were relaxing and it was a great place to “get away” for a bit. That being said, we found the hotel to be overpriced and the food less than fantastic. I would come back to the hot springs, but would certainly be open to staying in other hotels.
One other comment, Tabacón had recently joined the Hyatt network prior to our stay. We told the hotel numerous times to try to get credit with Hyatt for our stay, but no one had any idea about this. This could have just been because the partnership was brand new, but it was the entire reason that we booked the hotel so this was a bit frustrating. Hopefully this problem has been fixed. I would also note that we did eventually get credit for our night stays, but we had to wait until we got home and could connect with Hyatt corporate.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Tabacón Thermal Resort and Spa: All rooms include free access to the hot springs, including the Shingra-la Gardens and access an hour before the general public. The deal we booked also included a $20 room credit per day and breakfast.
You can buy entrance just to the hot springs if you are not staying at Tabacón. A half day package looks to be around $75 USD on the website. Some tour companies also offer tours here.
ON A BUDGET
We spent one night in La Fortuna proper at a budget hotel/hostel, Fortuna Downtown Boutique Hotel. It was great, came with free breakfast and a small balcony, had a small pool, and we enjoyed ourselves just as much as we did at Tabacón. Plus, there are free hot springs just below the Tabacón that are open to the public. We noticed lots of locals using these hot springs during our stay.