Lake Arenal was our biggest Costa Rican surprise. Besides being welcome break from sweltering summer temperatures, the hilly region surrounding Lake Arenal is full of much more than one might ever expect. From nearly cities to small local settlements, the collection of towns that hug the lakefront boasts breathtaking views, welcoming locals, heaps of activities and yummy food all at half the price that you’ll find in most costal towns. Here’s the layout:
Situated at the foot of the volcano, La Fortuna is easily the most famous of all the regions’ towns. La Fortuna is the jump off point for hot springs bathing, zip line adventures or volcano hikes, exploring the lava flow trails in Arenal’s National Parks. La Fortuna is a host to local and international restaurants, resorts, thermal spas and a range of hotels at (almost) every price range (budget travelers are hard-pressed.)
Do: Swim at the Free Hot Springs
Why pay to bathe in the hot springs when you can swim, surrounded by nature, in a hot river for free? Just past Tabacon Resort is the unmarked entrance to the thermal river that feeds all of the thermal spas. You’ll know it by the plethora of cars parked along the side of the road. The easiest way down is through a closed yellow car gate – although there are many other foot trails that work just fine. The way down can be slippery, but other than that this is the prefect activities for singles, couples and families. Even pets or welcome, which is awesome, since in La Fortuna there is just about nowhere else you can take your four legged friend (nearly the entire area is a national park, and pets are not allowed in National Parks in Costa Rica)
Do: Walk the Hanging Bridges
I am normally against any tourist activity with a $26 entrance fee that isn’t a Wonder of the World. When you’ve got a baby however, sometimes you make concessions and take the easy route. Plus, we did not have enough cash on us to enter the National Park ($10 USD per person), and the Hanging Bridges were just around the corner and accepted credit cards. So, we decided to ditch the exercise of a good hike test our fear of heights.
Turns out, when you are sharing a bridge with DG, who apparently walks like a duck and somehow manages to shake the entire bridge even when it is full of people, heights are scary. Noa agreed.
Trembling legs aside, we did get some ridiculous views. If you’re going to spend $26 to walk along some bridges, you really should at least get a surreal view of the nearby volcano. The hanging bridges delivered. The walk is also ridiculously easy (and it looks like they’re doing reforms to make it even more accessible), which is great, because as we are learning, even ridiculously easy walks are made less easy when you are carrying a 30 pound infant on your person the entire time. It’s more tiring than one might imagine!
We topped it off with worth of $6 ice creams and a volcano ‘n me photo shoot, so basically, a huge success.
Other Cool Things to do in La Fortuna
La Fortuna Waterfalls
1968 Lava Trails
Animal Rescue La Fortuna
It’s called Nuevo Arenal because the town that used to be called Arenal is underwater. When the lake was being expanded by the government to be used to produce hydroelectricity, they essentially drown the entire town – literally. They were nice enough though to inform the residents, and pay to relocate everyone to beautiful lakefront property in what now Nuevo Arenal (New Arenal).
Do: Visit the Avatar Tree
On the La Fortuna Side of Nuevo Arenal is a giant tree. Not just any giant tree, but the giant tree that is said to have inspired the extraordinary tree in the Avatar film. I don’t know much about Avatar, but this tree could truly be from some other planet. The property on which the tree itself grows is owned by a really lovely German man who bought it, and the surrounding 20 hectares, from some Costa Ricans more than 20 years ago. He had originally found the place because of the hotel that used to be part of the property – but fell in love when he saw the tree.
The tree is imposing. As you climb up the hill to where it sits up high, you know which tree you’re going to see, but it’s not until you get up close that you can see exactly how unique this specimen is. It’s said to have been sacred to the indigenous people of the area. There was no one there when we arrived – just an open gates, a few cows and a sign marking the entrance and asking for a 4.000 CRC entrance fee (the box to put the donation is actually up by the tree, not at the bottom).
We hiked up, and stood in awe underneath the biggest tree I’ve ever seen in my life.
Do: Picnic at Cote Lake
On the Tilaran side of Nuevo Arenal, about six km past Nuevo Arenal, you’ll see some big white signs on your right hand side for Cote Lake. The signage boasts Panoramic Views, A Paradisiacal Setting and a UFO Zone to boot. We were not lucky enough to see any extraterrestrials, however a paradisical setting and great photo ops were a plenty.
When we drove up to the view point, with a car of middle aged spanish women on our tail (the only other people in sight), the sky was blanketed with grey rainclouds, spewing tiny raindrops against large gusts of wind. Not ideal picnic weather.
We decided, as the Spanish women took their photos and drove away, to enjoy our guacamole hummus picnic inside of the car, as much for Noa’s sake as for mine. Even with the grey blanket across the sky, the panoramic views of Cote Lake were really spectacular. Luckier still, by the time we’d reached the dessert course – a left over half-bottle of red wine – the storm had magically passed over and we were met with bright blue clear skies. We exited the car and spread our picnic blanket on the already drying grassy knoll.
The magic lasted until Noa got fed up with getting bitten by some unknown tiny bug, at which point we packed up our picnic gear and marked it down as pretty a successful outing with a 3 month old.
We actually stayed outside of Tilaran at a realllllly cute AirBnb called Finca Jeyro, which was an incredibly welcome escape from just about everything except cows. The only downside for a writer on the job was that the internet was weak, so between our exploring we found the perfect sanctuary where we could eat brownies and hang out on the couch online, just like at grandma’s house.
Eat: Rock River Rock
Easily our top pick for food in the area, although outside of breakfast we really only sampled desserts and beer. However, I can honestly say they were marvelous. We had just left the MicroBrew Hotel, where the owner had made some rude comments about us traveling with our dog (never going back there), so we were doubly happy when the RRR crowd gave us such a warm welcome.
After meeting a real cowboy – a retired cattle rancher from Texas, who moved to Lake Arenal where he owns a, well, cattle ranch – and acquainting Brisa with his little dog, the two were off the leash running and we dug into a delicious duo of brownie and carrot cake, accompanied by coffee, tea and a large scoop of vanilla ice cream.
The view at RRR is good, although a little too hidden by the overgrown trees to be truly breathtaking, however enjoying it is still a favorite past time. This little mark is easily replaced by the excellent hospitality and huge lending library. On our (third) visit, the RRR was hosting an open mic night for the local community. While we were easily the youngest people there, there was an incredibly welcoming vibe and sense of community that made us feel as if we were in our own…well, at least in our grandma’s home.
Do: Take a Drive
We were pretty low key during our stay near Tilaran. We didn’t try kiteboarding or windsurfing, although the area is known for its world-class winds. We spent a lot more time just driving around the lake exploring, and reveling in the gorgeous lake views around every corner. Although we had set off to drive all the way around the lake, we found that the stretch from Tilaran through Tronodor to La Fortuna is only crossable with a 4×4 – which we did not have. All the best though, since we also didn’t have any snacks with us and our tummies were already rumbling for lunch when we decided to turn back. Not, however, before stumbling upon the illustrious lake and volcano view.
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Go in February or March, as they are two of the driest months in the region. This region gets more rain than many other parts of Costa Rica, so if you want to enjoy blue skies and killer views, definitely avoid the rainy season (September, October).
Rent a Car: Most places are really only explorable if you have your own car. The roads in this regions are largely paved, although like most of Costa Rica there are plenty that are not. We made it in a economy sedan, thanks to dry season and DG being an awesome driver. Our AirBnb only recommended guests arrive by 4×4 … and really, if it had rained on the day we were leaving, we might not have made it out without a tow.