One of the most important places on the tourist map of Costa Rica is La Fortuna. This town, situated at the foot of the Arenal Volcano is an ideal starting point for exploring the northern part of Costa Rica. It is relatively small, noisy, and full of tourists, yet quieter than San José and much closer to nature. La Fortuna and its surroundings are known for several attractions that are worth your time when visiting Costa Rica.
How and when to come to La Fortuna?
La Fortuna, also known as La Fortuna de San Carlos, has a very good location – Road 142 and Road 702 lead here. The city is approximately three hours by car from San José, the capital of Costa Rica, and the same for Liberia and Puntarenas. You can also take a bus to get here, but it will take longer. The best time for a visit to La Fortuna and the Arenal area, but also the most crowded with tourists, is the dry season, which is from December to April.
Where to stay in La Fortuna?
I won’t pretend that I like crowded, touristy places. And La Fortuna is exactly like that. It’s a town with a lot going on and a lot of excursions in the area, but in my opinion there are many, much better places to stay. Especially if you have a rental car (which I highly recommend in Costa Rica. You can read more about how to rent a cheap car in Costa Rica here: How to rent a car in Costa Rica – the ultimate guide).
I stayed in the La Fortuna area for almost two weeks and I decided to stay about 40 minutes by car from the city. It was a great decision, because the place I found – La Finca Lodge – turned out to be outstanding – wonderful, intimate houses located on a beautiful farm. Each was surrounded by a private, tropical garden with hundreds of colorful birds. It was quiet, peaceful and close to nature. I really recommend to you such intimate places.
Town of La Fortuna
La Fortuna has several thousand inhabitants. It is a typical tourist town with a well-developed accommodation and dining base. Around the central square and along the main streets there are plenty of souvenir shops, bars, ice cream parlors, and travel agencies offering tours to nearby attractions. The streets are wide, paved, and full of cars, and the crowded sidewalks are full of tourists.
La Fortuna – what you must see?
The town is dominated by the Arenal volcano massif, 1633 m above sea level. The volcano was dormant for nearly 500 years, until its unexpected eruption in 1968. This explosion destroyed three small towns at its base. It is now dormant again, so you can wander around it. You can hike around Arenal Volcano National Park or the private reserves of Arenal 1968 Volcano View And Lava Trails. It costs $ 15 to enter each park, and trails lead through lava fields around the volcano. While hiking in Volcan Arenal National Park, you can see lava rocks, lava fields, and places through which the lave was flowing during the eruption. The trails are not very long, but they do give you the opportunity to see the permanent effects of the volcanic eruption. During the hike, you can stop at one of the viewpoints, which offer an amazing panorama of both the volcano and the lake. To see this amazing volcano up close – you can go on a trip alone or with a guide. As the trails are not very demanding here, it is a great hike for the whole family. As you move around the town of La Fortuna, you will see the volcano on the horizon at all times. For good photos, it is enough to stop on the side of the road, you don’t necessarily have to enter the parks. I decided to skip on seeing them as they seemed too touristy for me.
Lake Arenal – the largest lake in Costa Rica – was created by man. From the very beginning, it was used to generate electricity. However, nowadays it is also a place of recreation. Here you can, for example, sail a boat at sunset, fish, practice water skiing, rent a paddleboard or a kayak. On Lake Arenal, you can also sail, windsurf or go by boat to Monteverde. There are plenty of options for everyone who loves relaxing by the water and fans of water sports. If you don’t have time for these activities, you can just take a ride around the lake and enjoy the beautiful views.
La Fortuna Waterfall
If you want to get the taste of waterfalls in Arenal, the most interesting and the biggest of them is the La Fortuna waterfall, located in the middle of the rainforest. The water is falling down from a height of about 23 m. You can get here by car, taxi or use the offer of one of the local travel agencies. Before reaching the foot of the waterfall, it is worth stopping at the viewpoint to admire its beauty. To get to the foot of the waterfall you need to go down about 500 steps. You can also swim in the cold waters of its pool. Admission is 18 USD, and the opening hours are 7.30 am -4.00 pm.
Bogarin Trail – The Sloth Trail in La Fortuna will give you the opportunity not only to see sloths up close but also various species of birds, including toucans or hummingbirds. It is an easy trail for people of all ages, also families with children.
About 45 minutes by car from La Fortuna are the Venado Caves. Visiting them gives you will be able to explore typical cave environments – stalactites, stalagmites, bats, and insects. You can not only hike here, but the place also gives opportunities for climbing.
Mystical suspension bridges
One of the best places to experience wildlife and explore the rainforest around La Fortuna is the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. The 3.2 km long trail leads through 16 suspension bridges over the rainforest. Here you can see sloths, monkeys, birds, butterflies, snakes, and frogs. The best time to start your trip is early in the morning – then you have the best chance to see the best of the wildlife avoiding the crowds. The park is situated on 243 hectares of private land by the lake. This allows you to see the rainforest from different perspectives. The mystical suspension bridges are located near the dam and you can get to them by a rented car or use the services of a taxi or one of the local tourist agencies. The entrance fee is USD 26 per adult, while the guided tour will cost you USD 65 per adult.
One of the most interesting places worth visiting in the area of La Fortuna is the Rio Celeste – the blue river. The drive from La Fortuna takes 1 hour and 45 minutes. A trip to the Rio Celeste will take you on a hike through the rainforest of the Tenorio Volcano National Park along the impressive Rio Celeste river. There is a wonderful waterfall on the river, a suspension bridge over it, and many viewpoints along the way. At the end of the hike, you can also see the place where the two rivers meet giving a spectacular blue color.
The Rio Frio safari float in the Cano Negro Wildlife Reserve
The Rio Frio is a slow river in the Cano Negro Wildlife Reserve. The area is considered to be one of the best places in Costa Rica to observe wild animals in their natural environment. This area is home to animals such as toucans, three-toed sloths, caimans, and kingfishers. On the Rio Frio safari float, you take a raft paddling down the river for approximately 2 hours. This will allow you to get closer to wild nature. All you hear are the soft thumps of the water hitting the raft and the sounds of countless birds soaring overhead.
Peñas Blancas Safari Float and visiting a chocolate farm
Peñas Blancas Safari Float offers a similar experience. The place is located approximately 30 minutes from La Fortuna. Peñas Blancas Safari Float is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica when traveling with kids as it is a very easy way to enjoy the wildlife. The Peñas Blancas River flows through the Tilaran Moutain Range. Most of its current is very calm. During the trip, you can see observe toucans, bats, crocodiles, lizards, and many more. And on the way back to La Fortuna I highly recommend visiting a chocolate farm where you can, among others, try different kinds of chocolate.
White Water Rafting
If you are into the adrenaline and active sightseeing, you must definitely try white water rafting during your stay in La Fortuna. There are several rivers in the Arenal area where rafting takes place. Rio Pacuare allows rafting in class 3 and 4 rapids. One of the amazing things about Rio Pacuare rafting is that you can make the rafting your own means of transport to and from San José or Puerto Viejo. Many companies pick up tourists from La Fortuna and offer the option of ending the rafting trip in San José or Puerto Viejo. Balsa, on the other hand, is a river with rapids of class 2 and 3. The Sarapiqui river offers both rapids of classes 2 and 3, as well as 3 and 4. It is located about 1.5 hours’ drive from La Fortuna. I tried white water rafting with Wave Expedition and it was great.
Another active way of spending your time in La Fortuna is canyoning. Canoeing in the depths of the tropical forest, jumping from high waterfalls and cliffs – a high level of adrenaline guaranteed. The rafting takes place on a cascade of waterfalls, the total height of which is about 200 m! Canyoning and at the same time admiring breathtaking views of a lush rainforest is not only an amazing adventure but also the possibility of direct contact with Costa Rican nature.
Another way to collect unforgettable memories in Costa Rica is ziplining. There are many places for ziplining in the Arenal area. Ziplining will allow you to admire the Costa Rican jungle from a bird’s eye view. The most popular zipline tours in this area are SkyTrek, Athica, Arenal Canopy Tours, and Ecoglide. I chose the ziplining + white water rafting full-day trip with Wave Expedition, and I highly recommend it, it was fantastic!
Horse riding is very popular in Costa Rica. You can go horse riding almost anywhere but La Fortuna also guarantees amazing views. On the horse’s back, you cross rivers, reach viewpoints with stunning panoramas of the valleys, the lake, the volcano, and the surrounding hills. In my opinion, it should definitely be on the list of things to do in Costa Rica because it is a very local experience!
No stay in La Fortuna and the Arenal area is complete without visiting the hot springs. Underground aquifers and rivers are naturally warmed by the Arenal volcano, creating steaming hot mineral springs. A visit to one of these places is the best way to relax and calm down after a long day. Hot thermal pools are a great way to regenerate muscles after exercise while enjoying the crisp night air. There are several hot springs in the La Fortuna area, the most popular being Tabacón, Baldi, the Springs, Titoku, Kalambu, Ecotermales, and Paradise. There are also some hotels that have their own exclusive hot springs – the most famous is Tabacón Resort Wellness & Spa (you don’t have to stay overnight, you can buy a half-day pass and use the springs only). However, the most visited hot springs by both tourists and locals are the springs by the Tabacón River – a free hot spring with a small parking lot – from there you can also take a walk down the river. They are less spectacular than those in the resort and definitely more crowded, but it’s a nice alternative.
Walk in the rainforest at night
Many animals in Costa Rica have a nocturnal lifestyle, so you have a better chance of seeing them at night. If you are lucky, you can come across sloths, armadillos, snakes, and a red-eyed tree frog. However, without a guide who knows where and what to look for, don’t even try. Night walks are organized by almost every local travel agency.
Rope swing at the El Salto
One of the most popular outdoor activities in the Arenal area is jumping from the rope swing at the El Salto. The El Salto is located just outside town on the River Fortuna. There is a rope swing and a small waterfall here. And most importantly, it’s completely free! The El Salto is located approximately 3.2 km from the city center. You can walk here, take a taxi or park your car right in front of the bridge and walk a few minutes down to the river.