Not as easy as it could be
19.01.2012 - 20.01.2012
I am sure La Fortuna near Arenal was once an amazing backpacker destination. It has all the right things going for it being a tiny town near a natural wonder with decent roads and a large number of things to do and places to see. It’s only when you attempt to explore the area independently that you realize the days of La Fortuna as a backpacker destination are numbered.
We got off our bus, paid $2 for a taxi to our cabin, checked in and headed into town to grab some food. The street we were on was lined with hotels, cabins, and all kinds of other accommodations, however there did not appear to be any restaurants. It was a good 20 minute walk to town but we luckily happened upon a Pupuseria about 15 minutes in on our way so we ate there and ran into some Montrealers. They had visited the Waterfall not too far from our cabins and told us it costs $10 per person just to go in and see it. There goes our plan of spending the day somewhere else and just going in for quick afternoon swim.
The next morning we asked our host what we could do in the area. He immediately started showing us all types of tours we could book. When we informed him we wanted to see something on our own he looked very confused. I don’t think he was faking, our hosts were wonderful in every way and just really awesome people, so I think he really had no idea how to handle such a request. There were no maps of the area, no public bus schedules, not even a list of attractions. There was a LONG list of very expensive pre-packaged tours though (for example $60 per person for entrance to hot springs and lunch).
We decided to go into town and hope to get a bit more information there. Luckily I had read a bit on the internet about the area and found a recommendation for “Gringo Pete’s” a hostel which supposedly offered good information for backpackers. We ran into “Gringo Pete’s” almost immediately when we got into town and the guy manning the place (not sure if that was Pete or not) was our saviour. He explained to us that the $60 hot spring resort lies near a river from which it diverts its hot spring water, but there is no entrance fee to actually go to the river. This is of course where the locals go since they clearly can’t afford to pay $60 every time they want to go in for a dip. Unfortunately only one single public bus a day goes to this area so we had to splurge on a taxi, but the $15 was way better than paying $120.
The Rio Tabacon was AMAZING! It was way better than the overpriced resort right next door. Sure you had a beautiful buffet, pools, and a crap load of staff at the resort, but the natural jungle setting of the river eclipsed all of that. Just take a look at the pictures!
We spent a good 3 hours exploring the river, moving up and down it to experience different water temperatures and different “jet” intensities. The river flow across the rocks created a natural massaging “jet” varying in intensity depending on the location. We caught the one daily returning public bus back to town. Total cost of excursion for BOTH of us was approx. $20.
The next day we wanted to see the national park offering hiking trails near the volcano and some amazing photo opportunities. We were of course already offered $50 per person lunch-included options by the various “tourist information” centers but we asked Gringo Pete the day before and knew there was an 8:30am public bus ($3 per person) that went to a spot that was only a 20 minute hike away. We packed our lunch and headed to the bus station. As it turned out we ran into a German couple there and ended up splitting a $20 cab ride directly to the park but the public bus was a decent option.
It turned out that the national park offers only two very easy and short trails with sparse wildlife and a single but very impressive Ceiba tree. The real reason to come here however is the amazing views of Volcano Arenal. It is truly an impressive natural wonder towering in a perfect cone over the volcanic soil and rocks it spewed only 40 years ago. The picture opportunities alone are well worth the $10 per person entrance fee.
We had walked all the trails and were done taking pictures by 11:30 but the public bus was not coming to take us back until 2:30pm. There were of course no other options for getting into town since everyone else in the park either took a tour or had their own car. There is a gorgeous lake nearby as well but unfortunately we had no way to get there other than walking.
Since we had a ton of time to kill we thought we’d try to find a way to get to the lake. It became very clear quickly that this was a pointless attempt. The road was dusty, straight as an arrow, and had signs saying “8km to Lake Arenal Lodge” which I suppose should have been our first hint. We were lucky that a shuttle driver driving some tourists back from a ziplining tour was nice enough to stop and give us a lift to La Fortuna.
All in all we had a great time in La Fortuna and both the Volcano and the Hot Springs in the area are awesome attractions. This is not a backpacker kind of place though. It is a high-end tourist, pre-packaged tour, “here for a week” kind of place. While it’s still possible to see the area independently it can be difficult and frustrating. Therefore, if you want to backpack Arenal/La Fortuna, hurry up while it’s still somewhat possible!