Costa Rica: La Fortuna

After 2 hours of winding mountain roads through the thickest fog I’ve ever seen, we made it to La Fortuna.  The town’s claim to fame is the nearby Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal.  Looming over town to the east, the volcano separates the town from the man-made Lago Arenal – an important source of hydroelectric and wind power for the country.

We met our AirBnB hosts on the north side of town, and they brought us over to the apartment a few blocks away.  If you’re looking for a place in La Fortuna – I highly recommend Edar & Allen’s rooms.  You can find them by name on AirBnB, and you can see the buildings on Google Maps under “Arenal Apartments QR.”  If it’s your first time booking on AirBnB, make sure you use a referral link to help someone out!  If you’re interested, mine is found on the referral page.

La Fortuna

We mixed right in with the combination of locals and tourists in La Fortuna.  It seems like a common spot to vacation, for those that want a little more adventure than the regular beach side resorts all over the tropics.

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An early morning walk through La Fortuna.

On our way into town, we drove by El Salto, a small rapid with a nice swimming pool.  The water is a bit cold, but it’s worth it!  There’s a rope swing hanging over the edge of the rocks for the adventurous ones, and the water’s current is strong in places.  Not a great place for beginners, but an awesome swimming spot otherwise.

When our fingers began to prune, we dried off and drove into town.  We wandered La Fortuna for an hour or so, checking out the various shops and restaurants.  Finally deciding on some chifa for dinner – that’s right, Peruvian Chinese food in the middle of Costa Rica!  My plate of lomo saltado was delicious, as was the wonton soup and noodle dish with Peruvian peppers that the other two ordered.  Chifa La Familia Feliz took me back to Lima.  The restaurant is right at the corner of Ruta 142 and Calle 472 – you won’t miss it!

Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal

The reason everyone comes to La Fortuna (and the reason my camera had a dead battery) is Volcan Arenal.  The next morning, we got up early and drove out to Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal.

To get to the actual park entrance, you need to drive Ruta 142 north around the base of the volcano, and find the turn off to the left, though there are a few other ways to hike the volcano.  If you want to see some of the other routes, you can opt for the Arenal Observatory Lodge.  Near the entrance to the Observatory Lodge is another, smaller operation, that Lonely Planet describes as “shady.”  I don’t think the guy running it seemed all that bad, just a bit of a salesman.  But with shady on our left, and touristy on our right, we opted for the real thing – Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal.

The park entrance opens at 8AM.  At about 7:45AM we were waiting in line with a few other cars and a small combi-style van.  We paid US $35 to get in, but I can’t quite remember how the cost broke down.  I think $15/adult and $5 for the kiddo may be right, don’t quote me on that one though.  Upon entering, we drove all the way down the dirt road to a small lookout spot.  On a clear day, the viewing area would be perfect for the conical shape of Arenal.  Since it was early in the morning, the clouds had yet to burn off, but we got our view of Arenal at the next stop!

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Volcan Arenal is a stratovolcano.  These are built up by multiple layers hardened lava and ash, giving them a very symmetrical, conical shape.  Even with the clouds, you can see the photgenic shape from the first lookout.

We turned the car around and parked at the entrance to the 1992 lava flow trail.  If you’re entering the park, the lot will be on the right, only a few minutes up the road.  The whole hike, round trip, took us around 2.5 hours, including stops along the way for pictures, and a few lizards that crossed our path.  The trail will bring you through forests east of the mountain, just between the lake and the volcano.  The lookout from the ’92 lava flow offered a fantastic view of Arenal.  By the time we got there, the clouds were still hanging around the top of the volcano and blue skies had started to peak through.

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We stopped at the lookout for a handful of photos and a snack break, and then continued south through the forest.  The rest of the hike continues for about half an hour, before looping you around a massive fig (ceiba) tree.

I much prefer to get up early and hit these kind of spots before the crowds arrive, and I’m glad we did.  We only had 7 or 8 other people to compete with on the trail – making for some awesome adventuring and a few great photos.

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Panorama of Lago Arenal and Volcan Arenal from the 1992 lava flow lookout.wordpr

There were a few things we didn’t have time for on this trip, remember?  Well, hiking Cerro Chato and swimming in the volcano’s crater is one of those!  I will absolutely be going back to Costa Rica some day to do this.  It’s a tough hike, and the weather wasn’t perfect, so we didn’t want to risk it with the limited time we had.  That being said, I’d gladly hike a few hours up the muddy slopes to swim in the crater of a volcano.  Cerro Chato…I’ll be back.

and back to La Fortuna!

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We ended the morning in La Fortuna with a delicious lunch at Soda Viquez and some swimming at the La Fortuna Waterfall.  If you want amazing, authentic Costa Rican food, I encourage you to stop by Soda Viquez for some grub.  You’ll find the small, open air restaurant along Calle 468, just off the corner of Avenida 325 in town.  Pairing a pan fried casado pescado (set meal with fish) with a batido mango con agua (mango puree with water), it was probably the best meal I had in Costa Rica.  The casado had everything – cabbage slaw, fried plantains, rice, beans, pasta salad, pulled pork, greens, and some kind of mashed potato.  What’s not to love?  Before we left, our server also dropped off a small bowl of rice pudding to top it all off.  Everyone in the restaurant was very welcoming, and we were the only tourists there.  Always a good sign of authentic food!

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I know, I know.  I keep meaning to see Niagara Falls!

The La Fortuna Watefall is a few minutes south of town.  Driving there is well-marked, and you shouldn’t have any trouble getting to the parking lot via Diagonal 301.  The waterfall is a bit more touristy, though not as bad as the hot springs north of town, and it really is a beautiful spot.  As someone that’s never seen a big waterfall, the view from the platform above was beautiful.

Climbing down the stairs (and back up afterward) can be a bit tricky, but it’s worth it!  The water streams down the cliff face, and plunges into a small pool before turning down past some small boulders and forming a river.  The water is cool, so be prepared.  You aren’t allowed to swim directly under the waterfall, but my son and I got close enough to feel the water plunging into the pool!  After some time admiring the falls, we migrated over to the small river, and tried to catch a few fish.  No luck – we had to find dinner elsewhere!

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The Road to Santa Elena

By the time we were done swimming, it was about 2PM, and we really needed to hit the road for Santa Elena.  We had signed up for a night hike in the jungle that started at 6PM, and we didn’t want to get too lost along the way.

The road to Santa Elena was long, but beautiful.  If you’re starting to see a pattern, that’s because there is one – the Costa Rican landscape is beautiful!  We saw so much of the country driving around, and it really made for a great trip.  First, our route brought us all the way around the north shore of Lago Arenal.

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Lago Arenal – clouds rolling in from the east.

GPS will be your best friend in Costa Rica.  We used Google Maps and Waze extensively throughout the trip.  If I had to pick one, I’d vote Waze.  It’s a bit more accurate and has a simple interface.  I typically use Google Maps in the states, but once or twice the app almost got us lost, so I swapped to Waze for the rest of the trip.

Ruta 142 is paved all the way around the lake, and so is Ruta 145.  Once you turn onto 606 and 619, the drive gets bumpy.  I had fun driving through, and it reminded me of the ranch roads my family lives on out in South Dakota.  My girlfriend was a bit nervous about the rental – more than once the entire car shuddered through a massive ditch in the road.  But hey, the featured image up top?  A beautiful sunset somewhere along Ruta 619, just north of town.

Our journey finally ended in Santa Elena that evening.  We’d be staying at La Pension for two nights, just enough time to explore some of the area and..

..but that’s for the next post!  Thanks for following so far, and I’ll get the next one up in a few days!

-FH

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