Costa Rica Adventure: Exploring Arenal
January is right in the heart of the high season in Costa Rica, which is a good time to visit because it’s not so wet. During our two-week tour of the country, we visited four different provinces—Tortuguero, Arenal, Monte Verde (The Cloud Forest) and Manuel Antonio. In this article, I will be focusing on Arenal, stop number two on our big adventure.
Arenal Volcano Inn
After bidding farewell to Tortuguero, we traveled to the Arenal Volcano near La Fortuna. Our shuttle dropped us off at our hotel, The Arenal Volcano Inn, where we were greeted by large smiles and cold beverages. The hotel is a series of bungalow-type rooms that are arranged on a hillside, capturing the best views of the volcano. Our room was no exception; we had a fantastic view of Arenal’s perfect cone shape framed by our front window.
I have to say that Arenal was, arguably, my favorite stop on the tour. The surrounding area is beautiful, lush and green. There were lovely flowers in many shapes and sizes blooming on shrubs and trees. And with so many birds everywhere we looked, this stop was truly a bird lover’s paradise! The hotel had set up a bird feeding platform just outside the restaurant, Ristorante Que Rico, so guests could watch the birds. The restaurant had floor to ceiling windows (that could be opened all the way for an unobstructed view) which gave that indoor-outdoor feel and let you get up close and personal with the many species of birds that came to the feeding station.
There was a lovely nature path around the property for guests to take a stroll amongst the beautiful plants and critters that abounded there—a very nice way to unwind after a long travel day. Unlike the accommodations at our last stop, this hotel had all the amenities one could hope for in a quality establishment, including a bottle of wine and two glasses, snacks and a fridge stocked with beer, water and soda (for a nominal fee). We also had a lovely front porch to sit and soak in the view of the mountain looming large in front of us, the beautiful flowers that surrounded our little bungalow, and of course, the many birds that visited the flowers just outside our door. We also enjoyed a full complimentary breakfast every morning with delicious local offerings.
La Fortuna Waterfall
We booked a waterfall hike for one of our excursions while at Arenal, thinking it would be at least a couple of miles (we’re from Oregon, where miles of hiking trails abound). After being picked up in the morning for our trip to the waterfall, we soon learned that the “hike” wasn’t what we had thought. It was really a short, but very steep, walk down approximately 500 steps to a viewing platform to see the 200-foot waterfall. Of course, what goes down must come up, so we did manage to break a sweat climbing back up all those steps!
The waterfall was beautiful, as was the surrounding lush jungle vegetation. I only wish it had been a clear day so the colors would have been that much more vivid and alive, but I can’t complain too much. Our guide waited at the viewing platform while we climbed down a little further to the base of the waterfall where we could swim in the creek if we wanted or simply soak in the beauty of the area. The water was a bit chilly for swimming, but I waded in up to my knees and enjoyed watching the little fishes swimming all around my legs. After we got back to the van, our guide gave us each a bottle of water and set out a tempting arrangement of tropical fruit and coconut-flavored cookies to renew our energy.
The Town of La Fortuna
Being the closest community to Arenal Volcano, you can see the mountain rising up in the distance from any vantage point in La Fortuna. Most of the time, the top of the mountain remained obscured by clouds, but a couple of times they cleared for a few moments to give us a good look at this majestic peak. Because of the cloud cover, however, we opted to not go on the hike to the top of the volcano. After our waterfall hike, such as it was, we asked our driver to drop us off in town instead of taking us back to the hotel (approximately four miles away) so we could explore.
La Fortuna was one of my favorite places in Costa Rica. An abundance of shops, stores and cafes with a variety of offerings surrounding a central plaza and park, made up the core of this sweet little community. The plaza and adjacent park had benches for sitting and relaxing and beautifully manicured gardens with giant cannas and other tropical flowers. Of course, birds abounded. We even saw a woodpecker perched on a tree in the front garden of a local home. I was amazed when he didn’t fly away even as we stopped for several minutes to observe his beauty. We were maybe a foot away but he paid us no attention, just continued on with his work of pecking at the tree.
We sipped lattes at an outdoor café that was across from the plaza and watched all the people go by. We never felt rushed while there, and had to ask for the check when we were finally ready to leave. We found this relaxed laid-back mindset was prevalent throughout this gorgeous country. You can sit, relax and soak up the local flavor for as long as you want. After our lattes, we found a street vendor and bought cheese empanadas for lunch. Taking our piping hot cheese filled pastries with us, we perched on a bench in the park and age our lunch while enjoying the beautiful gardens as the birds flitted around as while we ate. Before leaving town, we bought some specialty chocolates from a shop offering a variety of interesting and uncommon flavors. Next, we went in search of ice cream (one of my favorite things in the world). We found a little ice cream stand on the edge of town that fit the bill—the delightful frozen creaminess of our ice cream was so welcome on such a warm afternoon. Satisfied at last, we headed back to our hotel.
Tabacón Hot Springs
You can’t visit Arenal without going to one of the many hot springs that are abundant in this area. Our travel agency arranged an evening at Tabacón Hot Springs that included a buffet dinner. Having only visited Tabacón, I cannot compare it to any of the other hot springs in the area. I will say, though, I don’t think I would care to look anywhere else. This place is simply magical!
We were picked up at the hotel at 5:30 p.m. and taken to the hot springs just a few miles away. We learned that Tabacón is connected to a resort, so you can stay right there at the hot springs if you want—so cool! Our driver helped us find reception, let us know he would be returning to pick us up at 9 p.m., then bid us “adios” with a tip of his hat.
At the reception counter, the attendant informed us that our dinner reservations were for 8 p.m. (very late for us) and gave us instructions for getting our towels, lockers and the like. We thought it strange that we needed reservations for a buffet but didn’t argue the point. First, we took a look around to orientate ourselves to the place before changing into our swimsuits.
The hot springs and surrounding area were breathtakingly beautiful. It was one of the most unique places I’ve ever been—it felt like an enchanted garden of Eden. There were a series of steaming pools and waterfalls at different levels, wooden bridges and stone paths weaving and winding throughout. Since it was dark outside, the pools were lit with the soft glow of white lights which were also strategically placed along the paths—all this surrounded by lush tropical vegetation. We were told that the pools have varying water temperatures from warm to quite hot. We found a pool with a beautiful cascading waterfall that landed somewhere in the middle of the temperature zone. We stayed there, soaking in the same pool, for an entire hour. So relaxing!
The only downside to the evening was dinner. Our plan was to wait at the bar, have a couple of drinks, and kill some time until 8 p.m. when we could go eat. Unfortunately, the alcohol was very expensive, twice that of the bar at our hotel. Being the cheapskates that we are, we couldn’t bring ourselves to pay $12–$15 for a simple cocktail. Instead, we just sat and people-watched until dinner. By the time 8 p.m. finally rolled around, we were starving!
Unfortunately, the food wasn’t very good. I did enjoy the “grilled to order” roast beef and the salad was okay. But outside of that, and the little mini deserts which were pretty good, it was a disappointment to be sure— especially compared to the wonderful experience in the hot springs themselves. Billed as an “international buffet”, most of the offerings were tasteless and rubbery, having sat too long under the heat lamps, or just plain cold. You wouldn’t think they could mess up French fries but even those were cold and overcooked. It was so bad, in fact, that we couldn’t finish most of what we tried, and I typically don’t like to waste food. My recommendation: definitely check out the hot springs at Tabacón but skip the buffet. There’s a plethora of other options in and around La Fortuna that will provide a much better dining experience. Tabacón Hot Springs concluded our Arenal visit. In the morning, we would be heading to our next location—Monteverde and the cloud forest.
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© 2019 Traci Wilson