Arenal volcano is one of the 20 most active volcanoes in the world. When it isn’t hidden behind cloud, you can see smoke billowing from its crater and, at times, red hot lava crawling down its sides. Its last major eruption was in 1968, when a number of local towns were devastated by ash and debris, and 87 people died.
Today, the town that is ‘fortunate’ to have survived, and aptly named La Fortuna, is bustling with tourists and it’s the centre point for arranging local activities. Situated less than 10 km from the volcano, it has jaw-dropping views and caters more than adequately for the energetic traveller, with hiking, canoeing, horse riding, ziplining, bungee jumping and canyoneering all on offer nearby.
Whether or not you’ve exhausted yourself rappelling down waterfalls or struggling up rocky paths in the insufferable humidity, you’ll undoubtedly be drawn to the town’s other key attraction – its hot springs, which are heated by underground mineral rivers.
La Fortuna hot springs
There are four La Fortuna hot springs in total. Tabacon is the most upmarket, romantic and private and, naturally, the most expensive. Its biggest competitor is Baldi, which gets more crowded and has more of a man-made, waterpark feel, but at a fraction of the cost. Eco Termales is smaller, but limits the number of entrants. It has a pool bar, so you can drink and bathe at the same time. Los Laureles tends to attract locals more than tourists and is a bargain at $8 per day. Note that it doesn’t cater, so you should take your own food and drink.
Volcano hike and Tabacon tour
In an uncharacteristic moment of self-indulgence/weakness, we opted for a volcano hike followed by a few hours in Tabacon, with dinner included. This set us back $98 each and we booked it the night before through our hostel (see below).
In retrospect, my personal preference would have been to go to the springs for the entire day and skip the hike. I’ll happily pull on my walking boots any day, but the volcano hike was little more than a chance to feel uncomfortably hot in the late afternoon sun while swarms of mosquitoes gorged themselves. Sure, we learned one or two interesting facts about the area, and especially the volcano, but it was nothing you can’t look up in a guidebook or talk about with the hostel barman over a cool Pilsen beer. People aren’t permitted to hike past its base and there are equally magnificent views in the surrounding area.
Be aware that many areas close to the volcano are inaccessible. As recently as 2000, a young girl and guide died after being engulfed in a pyroclastic flow. You should take caution and pay attention to any advice on safety matters.
The springs were as blissful as I had been led to believe they would be, which made it all the more frustrating that we only had a few hours there.
By the time we arrived at Tabacon, we were so hungry that we chose to eat before exploring the pools. The food was unbelievably good. Presented as a buffet, there was a massive selection of meat and fish and plenty to satisfy vegetarians too. The imaginative deserts were so intriguing that people came back to their tables with four or five on their plates. Since it was self service and included in the price, no one held back, which perhaps wasn’t sensible before swimming in unsupervised pools at night. Thankfully, it wasn’t until the following morning that I was punished with excruciating cramp in my calves.
Since it gets dark at about 6pm in Costa Rica, we didn’t get to see the full extent of the springs and appreciate their natural beauty – another reason why I’d rather have spent a full day there.
There were many pools of varying size interlinked by footpaths, which were only illuminated occasionally by the faint flicker of a candle. The water was almost unbearably hot, especially in combination with my sunburn, but once acclimatised, it beat any spa day back home. I could have stayed many more hours floating in the darkness and shrouded by barely discernible palm fronds, the perfect sphere of a full moon glowing overhead and the gentle rumble of the volcano close by.
Where to Stay
We stayed at a $10 a night hostel called Arenal backpackers, which was part of a chain of hostels that offer affordable and sociable accommodation in some of the country’s most popular spots. It was within walking distance from the town centre, and had a bar, swimming pool and helpful staff. Their tour rates were very reasonable compared with internet prices. The cheapest ‘rooms’ are large tents equipped with proper beds and electricity. They’re a great option if you’re saving your pennies, but if you’re after something more special, La Fortuna has plenty of upmarket hotels with luxurious cabins.
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