Saying goodbye to Puerto Viejo was harder than we imagined it would be, but nonetheless you cannot explore the world without saying goodbye to some places you love along the way in search of the next provincial romance. Most of you already know that Bryan is not a morning person, so it goes without saying he was wide awake and ecstatic to get on the bus at 4:45 am for the 6 hour ride to San Jose. We had to catch the earliest bus out of town so that we could make the last connecting bus to La Fortuna on the same day.
If you ever decide to set off on a journey of your own like ours here’s a couple of tips for traveling by bus in Costa Rica (and probably all of Central America for that matter). First for your own comfort do NOT drink any more water than absolutely necessary for minimal hydration and ALWAYS use the facilities before leaving. We did not encounter a single bus with a bathroom on board, so you will be tapping your foot for a few hours before you find relief at their typical stop around the half way point. Secondly, pack a snack because again you never know when that break stop will be and what they might have to eat. A great breakfast we started packing for our early morning bus rides was chia seed pudding which looks fairly easy to make (I know only from watching Lauren make it) and it’s quite tasty too with some peanut butter or jam mixed in.
When we stepped off the bus in San Jose Lauren bolted for the restroom while I grabbed our bags from the hold of the bus. When we stepped of the bus we were immediately hounded by no less than 4 taxi drivers all trying to tell us we needed a ride from them. Luckily, we had done our research and knew roughly where to go to catch our next bus. The next bus stop, called the 7-10, was only about 2 blocks away. The taxi drivers were looking for suckers to drive around in circles to make some money. No hoy Señor! Another word to the wise, do not trust what taxi drivers tell you and always confirm a price before even opening the door. In this case they did not dupe us. We grabbed our bags and headed to the next bus stop. These bus stops were not in the safest area of San Jose, and we did get bothered some by people trying to “help” us and then request money for their “help.” This unfortunately meant we had to get into the habit of ignoring people on the street whenever we had our packs on. At the 7-10 bus stop we got our tickets to La Fortuna and grabbed some lunch while waiting on the direct bus. While there are multiple buses going from San Jose to La Fortuna daily, only two of the buses go directly to La Fortuna with no stops, which is what we wanted to simplify our day.
We knew this was going to be about a 10-hour travel day since we were traveling across more than half of Costa Rica, from the Caribbean coast up to the more mountainous center of the country, north of San Jose. We quickly learned that the bus times were optimistic assumptions that traffic does not exist in Costa Rica. I am sure you have all heard the term bottle neck, right? After moving about 2 miles in 2 hours attempting to leave San Jose via the only highway leaving the city, we tried to come up with a new analogy to better describe our situation and this is what we can up with….an IV drip. Once we finally made it out of San Jose it was actually quite a nice ride up to La Fortuna with the beautiful scenery of green rolling hills and charming little towns along the way. We even got a little break from the heat when it cooled off driving through the mountains. About 30 minutes out from La Fortuna we were very eager to get off of the bus, stretch our legs and find some dinner, but our bus driver had been keeping a secret from us all. Without warning or explanation, the driver abruptly pulled over at a large automotive shop just a few miles away from our destination, jumped off the bus and began pleading with the last two guys left at the shop who were closing up. It was about 7pm when he stopped so I am sure these guys were just as eager to get home as we were to get to our destination, but they luckily agreed to help us get back on our way. As we all sat silently on the bus I knew something that went completely unnoticed by the rest of the group. I knew that our fate hung in the balance as I listened to the hammering of the impact gun over and over trying to break the lug nuts free and the conversations of the mechanics while air compressor recharged between attempts. This shop may not be equipped to work on a vehicle of this size, and as it turns out is wasn’t. After 30 minutes they finally gave up on the impact gun and muscled up to break them free by hand. We heard a lot of machismo grunting outside of the bus and one short painful scream, but they didn’t give up and finished the job, so we could continue on our way. We finally arrived in La Fortuna around 8pm making it a 15-hour day of travel for us. Happy to finally be there we checked into our hostel, dropped our bags and went out for dinner before we crashed.
We were elated with the hostel we picked for La Fortuna because of all the great friends we made there. We made friends while cooking in the kitchen, others on hikes, exploring the surrounding area, and more from a night of drinking games! Actually, now that I think about it we were with friends from our hostel at every place we visited in the area because our hostel was one of the few in the area with a shuttle. The town of La Fortuna is very small and can easily be explored in a day, but we decided to spend almost a week here because it is listed as one of the top locations to visit in Costa Rica. This at one time was the number one most visited area of Costa Rica while the Arenal volcano was active because you could see the red glow of the lava flows from the town. In 2010 the volcano decided to go dormant which definitely impacted La Fortuna’s tourism, but the town still has a lot to offer.
Maybe it’s because we are traveling on a budget or that we are trying to immerse ourselves in the culture of every location we visit, but in our opinion La Fortuna is extremely touristy. If you are looking for hanging bridges to explore, ziplining, ATV tours, whitewater rafting, and other adventurous tours then La Fortuna is a great place to visit. We just grew tired of frequently being hounded about purchasing the, in our opinion, outrageously expensive tours in the area (most were $100+). That is perhaps the reason we were so motivated to find free or inexpensive things to do in the area, it was our own personal challenge. We hiked across the lava flow of 1968, swung from a Tarzan swing at a local watering hole, bathed in natural hot springs, visited the La Fortuna waterfall, and made it one of the cheapest weeks of our time in central America! Also, I should point out that most of the “activities” around La Fortuna are not walking distance (except for the tarzan swing) so it was really great staying at a hostel with a shuttle (La Choza Inn shuttle was $15-US for unlimited rides for your whole stay).
Arenal 1968 Park
On the far side of the Arenal Volcano is the 1968 park, which is a private park named after the lava flow and where we decided to explore. There is also a national park right next to it which we did not visit because we heard it was more expensive to visit and offered less attractive and shorter trails. The trail we hiked in the 1968 park offers a small section of tropical vegetation wrapped around a small pond before climbing up the lava flow to an overlook of Arenal Lake.
Speaking of Arenal Lake it’s time for some fun facts! Arenal Lake was formed by geologic faults which created a depression for a small natural lake. What is even more interesting is that in 1979 the Costa Rican Electric Company completed a dam project that tripled its size turning it into the largest lake in Costa Rica, at 18 miles in length, 33 square miles, and with depths of up to 200 feet. That is still only the tip of the iceberg, this lake is hiding even more interesting secrets below its placid surface. The dam project had a specific purpose and before the dam was built, tunnels were constructed to the pacific side of the country where a hydroelectric plant was constructed. When the project was completed the plant generated around 70% of the country’s electricity! And today still produces a significant contribution at about 17%! Even today Costa Rica has a very sustainable power grid with about 70% of electricity generation from 3 hydroelectric plants. Just when you thought I was done with fun facts I have a couple more! The project not only provided the water source to turn the turbines for production of electricity, downstream of the plant it also provided a much-needed source of water for irrigation in the agricultural area of Guanacaste. The tunnels are not the only hidden treasure below the water surface. There was a small price to pay for the project as two towns (Arenal & Tronadora) lie abandoned at the bottom of the lake. Not to worry though the town of Arenal was relocated to the northeast of the lake. We had one final and kind of scary thought given our knowledge of dams and their potentially lethal power should they ever fail. We sure hope there was a lot of thought given to placing this earthen dam that retains about 138 billion cubic feet of water (approx. 1.5 million Olympic swimming pools) at the foot of an active volcano and on a fault line. Arenal lay dormant for hundreds of years until the unexpected 1968 eruption and has again gone dormant with its lava flows ceasing in 2010.
The trails in the 1968 park are, in our opinion, easy to moderate trails with only short sections of steep uphill that can be avoided depending on the trail you choose. We were serenaded by bird calls along the tropical trail around the pond and were lucky enough to spot a few of the birds perched up high or soaring through the canopy. This was a nice taste of a tropical forest, but still holds no comparison to our hikes in Boquete, Panama or the cloud forests of Monteverde, our next stop on Costa Rica. A family of howler monkeys awoke while we were tromping through the forest and lazily howled at us from afar. We were able to sneak up on them and watch as the adolescents played a game of tag from the branches and the alpha male of the pack lounged on a branch, occasionally belting out a howl. While watching this group, we heard and new and undoubtedly the strangest noise we have ever heard in a forest. It was a strange snapping or cracking noise which you can hear for yourself in the video included in this post at the beginning of the clip with the howler monkeys. After hours of research trying to find out what in the world made this noise we are still at a loss. We found several insects and birds that make snapping or cracking noises, but none like this. If you have any idea what made this noise we would love to know for our own curiosity!
Oh lastly, after searching high and low in several parks along the way, we finally spotted our first snake here and it was huge! Lauren was the one who spotted it and immediately regretted it. We have no idea what kind of snake it was, but it looked relatively harmless because it was mostly black. I know to always stay away from colorful or patterned snakes as those are the most likely to be venomous. I have another fun fact and this time it’s about snakes. The most common snake in Costa Rica, the Fer De Lance, is also the most dangerous poisonous snake in the country. Luckily this is not the type we can came across as the Fer De Lance is a dark brown color with some patterning on its back.
Hot Springs of Arenal
There are a several options for visiting hot springs in the area and it all depends on how much luxury you would like to be surrounded by. We opted for the free choice which is a stream maybe a 20-minute car ride from town. There are also options to be wined and dined in manmade pools fed from the hot springs. For the luxury choices prices range between $50-$100 for a day per person. Our hostel shuttle dropped us off on the side of the road right next to the most luxurious hot spring spa (Tabacon) and we followed our new friend we met on the bus along the asphalt path next to the bridge leading down to the stream. People have relocated the rocks in the stream to make little dams creating small pools large enough to soak in. There were a lot of people there, but still plenty of room for everyone to enjoy and best of all you can bring whatever you want to this location. We saw a group of people taking turns between floating around like hippos and taking shots of a mixed drink concoction from a big jug they brought. We were enjoying ourselves so much that when we finally checked the time we had to jump out of the water and run back to catch the last shuttle. Lauren sprinted up the path to flag down the shuttle just as it was about to pull away.
La Fortuna Tarzan Swing
The Tarzan swing quickly became our favorite place to cool off after being out in the blazing sun. The water was refreshing with the adrenaline rush of the swing taking the edge off when plummeting into the frigid water. We were not quite brave enough (or maybe just not young enough anymore) to pull any stunts like a backflip off the swing. But we did see another poor soul that had the coconuts to attempt a backflip. It did not go well for him…he landed face first and completely flat on his stomach. The sight was so hard to watch that everybody around the watering hole cringed and turned away at the sight, but could not escape the resounding slap of his body against the water. We have all been there at some time in our lives. This poor guy, needless to say, did not go off of the swing again. This guy was attempting to emulate the two locals who were doing backflips and other tricks off the swing. Check out the video for a first person view of us jumping in plus the locals pulling some stunts!
La Fortuna Waterfall
Aside from the Arenal volcano, the second largest attraction in the area is the La Fortuna waterfall which everyone told us was worth the money ($15-US) and they were right. Be prepared to climb down and back up a lot of stairs as that is the only way down to the base of the waterfall. We originally planned to spend just over an hour at this waterfall but ended up staying half of the day with two girls from our hostel. After admiring the waterfall and taking some goofy and inappropriate pictures with it, we all decided to take a dip in the water. The waterfall feeds the same stream where we swung from the Tarzan swing so we were prepared for some cold water. Still it took us several minutes of wading in before we all had the courage to dunk our heads in. After that we didn’t get out of the water for the next few hours. We swam around with all the fish in the stream and got some triathlon training in by swimming against the strong current at the bottom of the rapids. Included with the entrance fee to the waterfall is an orchid garden, which was unfortunately not in season for us, and a small butterfly garden.
Leaving La Fortuna
After spending 15 hours on buses to get to La Fortuna we were not looking forward to the 8-hour public bus ride to Monteverde, so we instead decided to pay a little more and take the shuttle-boat-shuttle, cutting our travel time down to a few hours. Plus, we got to see the Arenal volcano from the water on our way and learned several of the fun facts we shared about Arenal Lake on the way. The ride up to Monteverde was bumpy, steep, and beautiful as we climbed the 3,000 feet up to the cloud forest of Monteverde, straddling the continental divide.