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Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
La Fortuna, (or La Fortuna de San Carlos, as it’s officially named, was once a simple agricultural town dominated by the majestic conical form of Arenal, just 6km away. True to its name, La Fortuna is now booming as a thriving base for the area’s sports, activities and tours. Despite all the tour buses whizzing through town, however, it remains a pleasant, inviting community. Plan your trip to La Fortuna with our guide to La Fortuna — based on the The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, your travel guide for Costa Rica.
There’s nothing specific to see in town — most of the streets are taken up by travel agencies, souvenir shops, guesthouses and restaurants. Visitors wander between them comparing prices, while gazing towards the volcano and popping into sodas for much-needed refrescos to cope with the heat.
Looming at 1633m, Volcán Arenal seems to emerge directly from the town’s fringes. Although still considered to be active, the volcano has been slumbering since 2010 and the famous evening lava tours are now a thing of the past.
On a clear day it remains a majestic sight, but when it’s rainy and foggy, the volcano is almost totally obscured, its summit hidden behind a sombrero of cloud. Indeed, locals estimate that one in two visitors never actually gets a glimpse of the summit.
The picturesque Catarata de La Fortuna, the waterfalls southwest of town, are a popular half-day diversion. Meanwhile, the area to the northwest offers a variety of outdoor activities, from hiking forested trails to ziplining to bathing in steaming hot springs.
Most visitors use the bustling tourist centre of La Fortuna as a gateway to Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal. Its active but slumbering volcano looms over the eastern end of Laguna de Arenal.
A number of hot springs line the road from La Fortuna to Arenal, all set around a variety of pools fed by thermally heated underground streams.
The majority of agencies in town sell tickets and transportation to the springs, but you can easily visit them independently. Some hotels have worked hot springs into their landscaped grounds, which are also open (for a fee) to non-guests.
For years, locals in the know have been enjoying a natural – and free – hot soak in small ponds nestled within the fast-flowing river near the bridge just after Tabacón. If you decide to take the plunge, keep in mind that the rocks here can be slippery and the river treacherous, especially during the rainy season.
Hiking Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal is one of the main reason people come to La Fortuna.
At the time of its most recent eruption in the late 1960s, Volcán Arenal seemed to be nothing but an unthreatening mountain. But on 29th July 1968, an earthquake shook the area, blasting the top off Arenal and creating the majestic, lethal volcano seen today.
While history would suggest that it’s not due another major blowout for a few hundred years, and despite the recent years of slumber, Arenal is still an active volcano.
As a result, a few safety tips are worth bearing in mind when exploring the area — never veer from trails or guided tours, and don’t attempt to hike anywhere near the crater
Arenal 1968 offers taxing but highly worthwhile hikes up to the original 1968 lava flow. These include a 3km loop that takes you past a shrine to those who lost their lives in the 1968, eruption, and a 4.5km trail through some bird-filled forested areas.
The dramatically sited La Catarata de La Fortuna is the epitome of a picture-book cascade. It's clear to see why it's one of the best waterfalls in Costa Rica.
A tall, thin stream plunges prettily from a narrow aperture in the rocky heights 75m above, forming a foaming pool among rocks and rainforest below.
From the ticket booth, a path leads 600m vertically down to the base of the falls, where a series of pools provide a tempting spot for a dip. Though swimming is not recommended due to flash floods, a lot of people do it anyway.
There’s a mirador (signposted) 200m along the trail for those who'd rather look from a distance. This gives great views across the steep valley and its heavily forested floor to the thin finger of the cascade.
Make sure you wear waterproof shoes, and be aware that the paths can be slippery.
The area around La Fortuna is ripe for exhilarating ziplining adventures in the forests. Here are some of the best options.
To see the beauty of Costa Rica’s forests, enjoy a sky walk across the country’s first hanging bridges.
Offering breath-taking views of the forest, there’s no better way to admire native flora and fauna from a unique perspective. Take your pick from a solo walk, or a guided tour.
Sky Adventures offers this hanging bridge experience, along with a seven-cable canopy tour.
They also run mountain-biking trips, and have an aerial tram. And it’s one of the few places you can go ziplining at sunset.
Due to the volcanic activities, this region is known for its natural hot springs.
You can book a tour to visit them, but it is also possible to visit them on your own, if you know where to find them.
The glitziest of the main hot springs and the destination for most tourists is Balneario Tabacón. Fed by a magma-boiled underground thermal river originating in the nether parts of Volcán Arenal, the water temperature here ranges from 27°C (80°F) to about 42°C (108°F).
The complex comprises fifteen mineral-rich pools, most of which are secluded among rich vegetation. Several are set beneath waterfalls, so you can manoeuvre yourself under the cascades for a pummelling hot-water “massage”.
Baldi Hot Springs is more accessible than Tabacón for those without transport. While it lacks the classy touches of its rival, it’s significantly cheaper and offers many of the same facilities.
These include Roman-style baths and waterfall-fed pools. Younger soakers will love the three waterslides.
Fronted by imposing wooden gates, the exclusive-looking Ecotermales Fortuna has five cascading thermal pools of varying temperatures set in idyllic forested surrounds.
It’s stylishly low-key, and only 100 people are allowed in during any of the allotted times, so be sure to book ahead in high season.
Termales Los Laureles is the least expensive official hot springs in the Arenal area, and popular with Ticos.
Four simple pools (one with slides) are set around a very ordinary garden, but the volcano views are sensational. Bring your own food and booze and make a night of it.
Budget travellers usually stay in or around La Fortuna itself, while people with their own transport and/or a bit of money tend to head to the lodges that surround town.
While some of these are quite remote and local public transport is erratic or nonexistent, many places offer a free shuttle service into town.
The nearby communities of Chachagua, 10km southeast of La Fortuna, and El Castillo are more relaxed alternatives to the main town, but still close enough to the action.
Find more places to stay in La Fortuna.
In addition to lots of low-cost joints serving the likes of casados, platos del día and arroz cons, La Fortuna has numerous (generally pretty pricey) restaurants serving international cuisine.
For example, you'll find several fine-dining options on the road west of town. Virtually every restaurant in the area doubles up as a bar, too.
In addition to the eateries recommended below, Down to Earth shop is also a great spot for a coffee.
Find out more about eating and drinking in Costa Rica.
With most accommodation pretty remote, aand public transport all but nonexistent, you might want to pre-arrange pick-ups and trips through your hotel, resort, or hostel.
Taxis are available from the local airport, and most accommodation options offer free, or low-cost, shuttle buses into La Fortuna itself.
Interested in a dual-destination break? You could book a private transfer to Puerto Viejo. Alternatively, our customisable Beaches and Volcanoes trip combines adventuring around Arenal with a Pacific beach break.
To visit a few of the hot springs, hike Arenal, see the waterfalls, and take a wildlife-watching trip, you’ll need at least 3-4 days in La Fortuna.
If you’re into active breaks, consider spending longer in the area. It’s true to say that you could spend several weeks in La Fortuna rafting, horse-riding, mountain biking and ziplining and still not sample everything.
In addition to the zip-lining activitiies covered above, the following suggestions are a small selection of what else is available.
If you’re looking to enjoy outdoor adventures, then the dry season is the obvious best time to visit La Fortuna. This runs from December to April.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that La Fortuna has pretty unpredictable weather patterns in the dry season. Damp, muggy mornings might give way to bright afternoons, and vice versa.
In general, though, you’ll experience less rain from January through to April.
For more on the best time to visit different destinations in Costa Rica, read our guide to when to go to Costa Rica.
There are several options to get here. Renting a car is your best option, but there are more.
La Fortuna Airport lies 7km to the east of town (taxi’s available). Sansa and Skyway have flights to and from the capital, as well as Quepos (for Manuel Antonio).
Three direct buses depart daily from San José for La Fortuna (4hr), leaving the Atlántico Norte bus terminal at 6.15am, 8.40am and 11.30am.
Alternatively, take a bus from San José to San Carlos (roughly hourly; 2hr 30min), where there are frequent connections to La Fortuna.
Many people opt for the “Taxi–Boat–Taxi” transfer to Monteverde. Daily departures run around 8–8.30am & 2–2.30pm, and take 3 hours. It saves time, and the boat trip across the lake is spectacular. You can book in advance.
For more transportation tips, read our guide to getting around Costa Rica.
Our customisable Costa Rica itineraries are also packed with ideas.
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Top image: Volcano Arenal, Costa Rica © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock