The Local's Guide to La Fortuna and Arenal

The Local's Guide to La Fortuna and Arenal

La Fortuna de San Carlos is definitely worthy of its name, which literally means “a fortune”. These plains in the north region of Costa Rica are home to Arenal Volcano National Park, which blesses the area with great sightseeing, natural hot springs and all sort of water sports and fun activities for visitors. The beautiful active volcano has a perfect cone shape, with rolling hills where you can ride horses or mountain bike.

Don’t worry, Arenal Volcano is active but it’s not dangerous! The volcano is in resting phase, so it is safe to enjoy yourself in its surroundings.

If you’re staying in San Jose or the Central Valley of Costa Rica, Arenal Volcano is about a 3-hr drive away, most of it through the beautiful Costa Rican countryside. Enjoy the landscape of coffee and sugarcane plantations, and make sure to stop for a tasty snack in one of the many towns along the way.

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Arenal Volcano and La Fortuna Church

These towns together are referred to as El Occidente, or The West, but you won’t be seeing any cowboys here! Get ready to enjoy the sights and tastes of San Ramón, Palmares, or even La Tigra de San Carlos - the town’s name means “The Tigress”. Fear no tigers, and dig into a traditional casado lunch, which includes rice, beans, vegetables, salad, beef or chicken, and sometimes also some spaghetti and some sweet plantains.

The Town of La Fortuna

The town of La Fortuna, Costa Rica, makes the most of its beautiful views of Arenal Volcano. There are lots of restaurants, shops and all sorts of amenities ready for visitors looking for volcano fun.

We like the breakfast burritos at Red Frog Cafe. The golden, fried wheat tortilla was filled with gallo pinto (a Costa Rica specialty made with rice and beans), cheese, avocado, and sausage, and served with some sour cream as a dipping sauce.

The french toast is delicious, too. They stuff it with bananas, Nutella and strawberries, and it stands out as one of the most delicious breakfasts I have ever survived. Huge portions, too!

Hot Springs Resorts

One of the main draws of Arenal, Costa Rica, are the natural hot springs. Many hotels and spas make the most of them by offering all sorts of cool experiences. Whether you want to relax, recover, or party, there is a hot springs facility just for you. Baldi Hot Springs are very popular with young people. You have not lived till you have sipped frozen pina coladas by a wet bar in a naturally heated pool, under the stars. Some of the pools even have disco lighting and music!

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Baldi Hot Springs

Baldí, like many other local spas, also offers massages and treatments. I like the Swedish hot rock massage; they even heat the massage rocks in the hot springs! You won’t need a massage to feel relaxed, though - the water is naturally at the perfect temperature to melt all your tension away. Also, the cocktails that flow from the wet bars will take care of the rest.

If you seek more relaxation and fewer crowds and noise, there are other options, such as the upscale Tabacón Resort, where you will feel pampered like a celebrity. The area has many hotels for all tastes and budgets - if your budget allows, choose one with great views of the volcano, and if you’re lucky you will be able to see amazing lava flows glowing red in the night.

Many local hotels tap into the local hot springs to offer naturally heated pools, and this is an experience I cannot recommend enough.

Lake Arenal Activities and Landmarks

After enjoying La Fortuna and all it has to offer, keep exploring the area. Driving towards the volcano will bring you to the beautiful La Fortuna Waterfall, a 200-ft waterfall that can be reached with a short walk down a hiking trail or a fun horse ride. Bring a picnic or book one of the many day trips, and enjoy a dip in the cold river. It is the perfect spot to take photos for your social media.

Horseback Riding

If you like horseback riding as we do, take a horse riding tour to the volcano. You get to ride for a couple of hours, wade through rivers, ride through forests and see lovely waterfalls. Horse riding tours take you as close to the crater as is allowed, which makes for great photo opportunities and lovely memories.

We are fans of Don Tobias horse tours - their horses are happy and well looked after. Some are so gentle that even a 6-year-old can ride them! My friend’s young son had a blast riding his sweet horse, and so did the rest of us.

They bring refreshments so everyone can take a break and have a snack while enjoying the views of the volcano. I have done this tour at least three times.

Water Sports & Activities

Besides all the volcano-related activities, there are also all sort of water sports and fishing options at the beautiful Lake Arenal.

Did you know Lake Arenal was originally much smaller? When the Arenal Dam was built in 1979, the area surrounding the lake was flooded, and the lake became three times as big. The local residents had to move to what now is Nuevo Arenal, on higher ground. The original towns are still at the bottom of the lake, and in the right conditions, you can see them from the surface.

Lake Arenal offers year-round activities for the whole family: fishing, rowing, diving, you name it! If you like adventure sports, Arenal lake is a great spot for windsurfing and kite surfing. The best months for these sports are between December and March. Don’t worry if you didn’t bring your surfboard or neoprene suit - you can always rent one from the local operators. Wakeboarding is also available for those who feel the need, the need for speed!

I personally love kayaking and have had a lot of fun exploring the shallows and paddling to one of the many small islands on the lake. If this is your thing, take a guided 3-hour kayak tour, it’s great fun.

While you can’t drag me away from my trusty kayak, stand up paddling is also very popular among locals and visitors with better balance than me. Stand up paddling tours include a nice boat ride so you can paddle safely in the middle of the lake.

Is fishing your passion? Those who enjoy fresh fish will have fun catching delicious rainbow bass in the shallows of the lake. The bass is called guapote by the locals, which means “big handsome guy”.

With some of them clocking at around 12 pounds, I’d say it’s fair to call them hunks.

I go to Arenal all of the time, and it never disappoints. I have gone as a:

  • college kid looking to party

  • young adult on a romantic getaway

  • family with an active 10-year old

Arenal keeps delivering new and exciting experiences for us, no matter what we seek. If you’re visiting Costa Rica, make sure to set aside a couple of days to explore gorgeous La Fortuna and Arenal, and let me know how you liked it!

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Author Marie Gomez

Marie is originally from San Jose, Costa Rica. She achieved a Master’s degree in London, and has lived in Europe and Califonia. She is now back in Costa Rica, and enjoys spending time in Puerto Viejo and Cahuita with her family and friends.


Photo credits:

  • Arenal & Church: no machine-readable author provided. Mprinke assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]

  • Baldi: John Menard from Phoenix, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

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