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La Fortuna is a town about 80 miles from the Costa Rican capital of San Jose. You can visit as a day trip, but many people chose to stay a night or two, to take advantage of the many activities on offer in the area. We spent 2 days and 2 nights there, having Christmas Eve afternoon, all day Christmas Day, and Boxing Day morning in the town. To be honest, anywhere where you have 30oC weather over Christmas is going to get a thumbs up from me, but we really did enjoy our time here.
The trip from San Jose takes about 3 hours, but there are a number of interesting places to stop along the way. For example, we took a slight detour to Zarcero, to stretch our legs in Parque Francisco Alvardo, known for its interesting topiary. Reminiscent of Leven's Hall in the Lake District, this was well worth a 15 minute break, and the bakery and supermarket right across the street were an added bonus.
One of the main attractions of the town is its proximity to the Arenal Volcano, the youngest and most active volcano in the country. Rumour has it that the reason the town got its name (The Fortune) is because the half of the volcano that is active faces towards the other direction, so even when it does erupt massively, the town is not flooded with lava. The town of La Fortuna is set along a main strip which has a park and church at its centre. Many of the hotels are located on this street, including ours, while others are just a few minutes walk away. Most of the hotels are motel style with few or no facilities, although slightly out of town there were some fancier resorts that we jealously drove past. Rooms range from about £25 to over £250 per night depending on where you stay, but decent, budget accommodations are available. Unfortunately, our motel had no hot water for our entire stay, so if you're booking your own place and you're not on a tour, I would recommend checking for somewhere that boasts "Agua Caliente" under their facilities so at least you have some comeback if they don't deliver. There is a good list of hotels here www.arenal.net/arenal-costa-rica-map.htm since many do not have their own websites.
Because of the all-one-street design it's very easy to find your way around La Fortuna, but then there's not all that much to see, and you can walk the entire length of said street in about 10 minutes. Along the way, you can eat in a Soda (local, cheap restaurant), go for a massage or buy postcards. Most of the action, you see, happens out of the town. Tours ranging
from white water rafting to wildlife cruises depart daily (yep, including December 25th). You can book them at a number of places on the strip, and all seem to have roughly the same prices, which means you don't have to spend too much time shopping around. For the sort of things on offer, have a look at www.arenal.net/arenal-volcano-tour.htm but there's no need to book in advance since most people book the day before, and that's what the agencies are geared towards. Booking before you arrive isn't even a guarantee your tour will run (unless you're a big group) since they need minimum numbers to operate. Tourist information is provided by these offices, though I thought this was a bit of a con, since they were always trying to sell you something. That said, there's not much to see in the town for free anyway, so I suppose it is to be expected. Good sales people that they are, everyone spoke English, but I found in restaurants that service was better when I spoke Spanish, though it could have been a coincidence.
What did we do? On Christmas Eve, we went to the Baldi Hot Springs (photos and details here: www.arenal.net/baldi-hot-springs.htm) This was a magical way to spend a dark, December evening - tons of hot (and some ice cold) pools among a forest of plants, waterfalls and underwater massage things. There were a couple of extremely scary waterslides tucked away towards the back of the complex (only in a country like this, where they've probably not heard of Health and Safety laws). Two mild heart attacks later I was back in one of the best pools, with tiled "beds" underneath glitter balls. We stayed a few hours, and I was sorry to leave.
On Christmas Day I while everyone else was off white water rafting or canyoning (been there, done both of them) I went to a local Spa. It wasn't anything to special to look at but the treatments were divine - I had their chocolate special which included full body exfoliation, face polish and 2 masks, and a hot stone massage. It was actually my second Christmas day in a Spa, and every bit as wonderful as the first time, 3 years ago in Australia. Best bit of all? No Christmas surcharges here - it was just another day for the wonderfully talented therapists.
That evening, we went on a hike, to the Arenal Volcano. I'm not sure why I expected to feel like I was hiking round a volcano during the volcano hike, but that's not what it was at all - the weather had gone bad and started to rain, but we still got to walk through the muddy rain forest (Australia all over again) and see some wildlife like leaf-carrying ants which we all photograph before one of the group comes along and steps on them. However, at this point you still didn't feel like you were at the base of anything other than a big hill. We drove to the look-out point and saw...nothing due to the clouds. Then, suddenly, though we still couldn't see the volcano, we did see a brief moment of bright orange lava - the thing erupts quite regularly, as in every few hours (I told you it was active), so there's a good chance you'll catch a glimpse during any trip.
In between all this floating, spa-ing and hiking, I obviously got hungry. Though it caters almost exclusively to tourists, prices in the town are not too bad and you can eat everything from Italian to Sushi, though the majority of the Sodas have wide-ranging menus with good vegetarian options, providing something for everyone. We ate at the (blue) Pizzeria on the main strip where the choice was extensive and the portions cheap. Service wasn't wonderful, but we were a walk in table of 16 so it wasn't surprising. Definitely try the 3 Leches, a local speciality cake, as it's delish. Christmas day I went to Luigi's (the yellow place) alone, and the service was great though the clearly non-Italian owners were falsely advertising Focaccia on their menu (what arrived was a crispy, garlic pizza bread). Most places add on a 23% tax (actually 13% sales tax and 10% tip) so keep an eye out for this - if they add both, you don't need to tip extra. If they just add 13%, you can leave a few coins. If you aren't good enough at maths to note which alternative has been added to your bill, I would tend to round up to the nearest dollar or colone (see below) and leave it at that.
For breakfasts I hit the 2 bakeries. The better option, Musmanni, is just off the main street (take a left at the petrol station, and it's one block on). The local bakery chain in Costa Rica, this was cheap and cheerful and opened at 5am daily (yep, even December 25th). My second day, I dashed up to the street to the other bakery - it's Viennese, and it sure has Viennese prices to match, but their chocolate brownie slabs are heaven. The ice cream stand just past the petrol station is also worth a visit. If you're self-catering there are two big supermarkets, one on the main strip and another just to the north. Though these didn't have fresh bakery counters, they had pretty much everything else you might need.
Pictures of Volcán Arenal National Park (Costa Rica)
This be topiary
La Fortuna after less than 48 hours, catching a boat across Lake Arenal, and then making the 2 hour trip towards Monteverde on horseback, a popular option. I thought the town was very pretty - think impressive volcano in the background, cute little town centre church, and a beautifully manicured park. It reminded me a lot of Tasmania, and was one of my favourite stops on my 2 week trip. I'm not sure I'd want to spend much longer there, since the town has little to do itself, and the tours are quite pricy, but I'm very glad we got to see it during our time in the country, and I won't be forgetting it in a hurry.
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For an example of an itinerary for a day trip from San Jose, check out www.viator.com/tours/San-Jose/ Arenal-Volcano-and-Hot-Springs-Day-Trip- from-San-Jose/d793-4100AVHS but the Arenal area is much prettier than San Jose, so I would highly recommend staying there, and not the capital, for a few nights. La Fortuna is also served by public busses, but I would recommend a mini tour or hiring a car since said busses are not too comfy (or air conditioned), take various detours, and may be full of criminals, though that's a tale for a later review.
Costa Rica is a dual currency country which is pretty darn confusing. In La Fortuna, generally anything cheap, or anything a local might want (like stuff in the supermarket, or in some touristy shops) will be priced in Colones, and anything expensive, like the tours, or spa treatments, will be in US Dollars. However, you can always use both, you just have to ask if the price advertised is not in the currency you want to use. If you can, travel with both since the varying exchange rates mean sometimes one currency represents significantly better value. I only had Colones cash, but I also had a (UK) credit card and muddled through using a combination of the two.
A note about culture shock - Costa Rican is a 2nd World country (and even just compared to Mexico, it comes across as very poor at times ). If you wander far from the beaten (tourist) track you will come across rundown areas, shanty houses, unpaved roads etc etc, but in La Fortuna itself you are sheltered from a lot of this. You know you're not in, say Europe or the USA, but the tourism has kept the area quite well developed, and it's not too much of a shock to the system, coming here for a few days.
Totally unrelated point: The Fortunate Few is an utterly fantastic gymnastics novel from the 1980s by Tim Kennemore, than any current or former gymnast absolutely has to read.