Central America #6: La Fortuna and Volcano Arenal

After an action-packed weekend in San Jose, I set off towards La Fortuna late on Sunday afternoon, as I’d been to Volcan Poas during the day. Unfortunately, the guy at the hostel directed me to the wrong bus terminal, the wrong one being the Coca Cola Terminal and the name of the right one escapes me, but luckily they weren’t so far apart, and a short taxi ride got me there.

Now, although Costa Rica is undoubtedly the most affluent country in Central America, their public bus system isn’t that great when compared to neighbours such as Nicaragua and El Salvador. Buses don’t run so frequently, and you have to be careful to go to the right departure point, as they are dotted around everywhere in the bigger cities. I ended up walking around the terminal asking everyone where the bus to Ciudad Quesada left from (the last direct bus to La Fortuna from San Jose leaves at 4pm so I needed to connect there), and eventually got hold of a ticket for about 3 USD.

The journey lasted about three hours, a lot longer than the shorter journey I’d mistakenly assumed it to be, and in the end missed a bus to La Fortuna by a matter of minutes, so had to wait more than an hour for the last one of the day to leave at 10pm. Having not eaten much during the day I got myself a vegetable chop suey in the food court rather than risk eating meat in the rather grimy-looking only restaurant open. The onward bus set off a little late, though I realised the driver arrived ages ago as he’d been sat next me to eating from the same Chinese restaurant. Perhaps he chose a meat option.

The bus cost about 2 USD and arrived in La Fortuna just before midnight, a small town at the foot of Volcano Arenal, which has grown in recent years mainly owing to tourism and the volcano being active for a long time in the nineties and noughties. I was now in the habit of arriving at destinations and wandering around looking for accommodation rather than pre-booking, and so I walked around for a while looking for a place to stay. After checking out a few hotels beyond my budget I was eventually directed to La Fortuna Backpackers (14 USD per night), where fortunately they had one remaining bed. I went pretty much straight to sleep though felt a little bad when the hostel worker decided to switch the lights on and momentarily cause groans amongst the other people sleeping in the room.

I’d mistakenly thought that a public bus passing by Arenal Volcano, the main attraction of the region, left at 8.30am. It turns out it goes at 8am and 12.30pm only, so I had to figure out how to traverse what I thought were the 7km to the national park entrance. La Fortuna was certainly very touristy, what with several families with kids from the US walking around, or should I say, driving around in their hired SUVs. The place is definitely geared towards tourism, and those that didn’t rent cars had the option of paying a shuttle bus, extremely abundant in Central America, for an outrageous price of about 30 USD if you take away the entrance fee to the park from the amount most agencies charge. I was not willing to pay such a silly amount, so decided that I’d walk myself there.

There is a kind of area marked where pedestrians can walk, but there’s always a risk of high-speed motorists creeping into it, so I walked against traffic and went on the grass each time a vehicle was about to pass. The road wasn’t too inclined to be honest and I entertained myself by listening to music, if that’s what my playlist can be termed. Needless to say, nobody else bothered to walk such a distance, and plenty of them were ferried by in those aforementioned minibuses. As it happened, it was 7km to the mini-town of Arenal, and a further 7km to the national park. Great.

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Trail in Arenal National Park

Two and a half hours later, a little fatigued and thirsty, I arrived at the park and paid a fee of 10 USD to enter the trails. There are two, a red one and a yellow one, one of them being longer and harder than the other, but if you’re in any kind of shape you can do the more difficult one, even in less than half the three hours which it supposedly takes to walk around. The walk isn’t very testing apart from a series of awkward steps which could be rather slippery on a wet day. On the longer route you pass by an aesthetically-pleasing swampy-looking lake before joining the main route which gives you a viewpoint of Arenal Volcano.

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The swampy lake
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Arenal Volcano, unsurprisingly clouded out

Unfortunately, the fire mountain is often covered by clouds during most days, so I couldn’t really see anything of the top third of it. The story goes that it erupted in 1968, wiping out a handful of villages at the base of the mountains in the process, except for a small one which was consequently renamed La Fortuna, roughly translated as ‘the lucky one’, and you can still see lava (by now cooled and black) on the trail.

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Parts of the trail where you can see volcanic rock

La Fortuna grew as a tourist hotspot owing to this occurrence and the fact that the lava could be seen spilling out of the volcano until around 2010. As frequently happened on my trip, I saw no wildlife as promised on the information boards, with the exception of a few noisy and colourful birds. Though on the walk up, I’d already been treated on the roadside to seeing some monkeys hanging from trees and a pack of ­pixotes, somewhat similar to a raccoon with a very long tail.

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A few pixotes on the roadside

But the best part was yet to come. Arenal is very famous for its hot springs, and most of them can be found in the extremely fancy hotels and resorts which abound on the road up to about a kilometre from the national park, heading back towards La Fortuna. Somebody had told me that you could go into one of these resorts and bathe in the volcanically-heated waters and have access to an all you can eat buffet for around 35 USD.

Yet others had told me of another natural spring which lies just beyond a yellow gate after the last of the fancy resorts, the Tabacon. Where all the locals go. For free. Some agencies would have you believe that it’s really dangerous to go there, as the locals would come and rob you at knifepoint. Ignore them. They only want to send you to the expensive spas.

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Hot springs at the end of the tunnel

I passed the fabled yellow gate, left my trainers by some trees and went through a tunnel behind which there was a cloud of steam, the sound of rushing water and people having fun. For the most part there were tourists, and none of them wielded daggers. I hadn’t planned on dropping by the springs despite having heard about them, but this was an opportunity not to be missed, especially after having trekked for almost 15 kilometres. Therefore I hadn’t brought swimming shorts, and fate would have it that the boxers I was wearing were the smallest and tightest I own. The water was enticing and it would have been ridiculous to bathe in my tracksuit bottoms, so I shamelessly stripped off and lay down in the water with my version of swimming trunks. The water was a lot warmer than expected and was powerful without being violent, so beats against your muscles in a massaging manner. I stayed in for around half an hour and ended up with a load of little rocks and soil in the nether regions, but had to take off sooner rather than later so that sundown wouldn’t beat me on my walk back to La Fortuna.

After about 5km I was getting rather tired, but Lady Luck was shining upon me and a local farmer on a motorbike stopped by and honked, asking if I needed a ride. I certainly wasn’t going to turn down his offer, but did make an idiot of myself by not being able to put on the vest with a luminous strip that he gave me. A journey that would have taken a couple of hours was reduced to about 10 minutes with the breeze in my face. He left me in the town and I bade him farewell with bendiciones.

The evening would involve a few cocktails in the hostel bar, which didn’t really impress me to be honest, though a pair of Australian air hostesses I was with were a little too complimentary of them. I also got chatting to two French guys who were staying in the same dorm room and we agreed that the next day we’d share costs to travel to Monteverde together, as they’d hired a car.

The next morning, before going to our next destination, we went back to the park, as the French guys hadn’t done the trail. I opted against repeating it, so hung around the reception area reading, which probably seemed quite weird to my new acquaintances and people working there. In the national park, there are other trails including hanging bridges, and we went to see an extremely powerful waterfall, meaning that we just dipped our toes in and got soaked by the spray. However, a little down the river there were spots where you can get in the water, though it was certainly cooler than the water of the hot spring.

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A hanging bridge

As with tropical climates, the rain came and went, a particularly violent storm occurring after we had sneaked into the Jacuzzi and swimming pool of one of the resorts, conveniently having not read signs that it was only for guests of one of the hotels within the park. During a brief break from the showers, we opted to make a move, so set off towards Monteverde at about 2pm.

Arenal Volcano was a little disappointing because of the lack of a good view, added to the fact that the trail was quite short, not so challenging, and indeed not very picturesque. On the other hands, the free hot springs were definitely worth my while, and Costa Rica keeps on giving good deeds. Best stick to my side of that bargain.

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