Tuesday, May 3, 2011

La Fortuna and Arenal, Costa Rica

Volcan Arenal, which we saw very little of during our time in La Fortuna.

After spending four days at the beach, Melissa and I headed into the interior of Costa Rica to the much visited city of La Fortuna. This city is the main gateway to Volcan Arenal, which is one of the most visited sights in Costa Rica. Although there is very little to see in the town itself, there are dozens of activities and things to partake in outside of La Fortuna.

Towards the end of our drive, we passed the gorgeous Lake Arenal, where we stopped to take some photos and enjoy the beautiful views. It was so green and lush in this area compared to the dry and hot Pacific coast that we had just come from! Little did I know on this very sunny day that all of the gorgeous greenery came from the constant rain, which we would be formally introduced to the next day.
Beautiful Lake Arenal.

Melissa and Lake Arenal.

We grabbed some delicious pastries at the German Bakery in the tiny town of Nuevo Arenal, which was about 30 minutes away from La Fortuna.

For our three nights in La Fortuna, I decided to stay at Kokoro Arenal, based on its high ratings on Trip Advisor. Since La Fortuna is one of the main tourist destinations within Costa Rica, there are a ridiculous number of lodging options to choose from within the city that encompass all budgets. So, since Kokoro Arenal had over one hundred reviews and was rated #8 of 66 hotels in the city, I figured we were making a wise decision.

We paid $125 per night (had we stayed a fourth night, it would have been free) which included wi-fi internet, daily breakfast, and air conditioning in a private wood cabin that had an incredible view of the volcano. The grounds were beautiful, lush, and serene.
Amazing view of the volcano from our room.
Interior of our room.

Our cabin.

The outdoor breakfast area.

Good things aside however, there were several problems and issues. The hot tub and wi-fi never worked during the three nights we were there. The lack of internet was quite irritating as I had been counting on using it. When I asked when it would be fixed, they told me they didn't know and that internet was out everywhere in town. I quickly learned that was a lie when I was able to connect to wi-fi at several spots in town. They also didn't clean our room one of the days, which normally I wouldn't care about, but when you aren't able to flush toilet paper down the toilet in Costa Rica and have to place it in the garbage can in the bathroom, it tends to get stinky rather quickly. When I informed them about this problem, they really didn't seem to care that much and later told us that their maid HAD cleaned our room. Interesting, considering that we had walked into a room with unmade beds and garbage cans with waste in them.

For $125 per night, I guess I expected a little more in terms of customer service. If the internet was out, then they should have provided assistance to those customers who wanted or needed to use it. For example, they could have given us a few dollars to use internet in town at one of the internet cafes. They should have also had someone at least come and empty the garbage when I informed them that the room hadn't been cleaned. Instead, they later claimed that the room was cleaned and made me sound like a lying complainer. In the end, they agreed to knock off $25 per night on the room rate to try and appease us. I am not sure if I would choose to stay here again just based off of the fact that there are so many other properties to try in the area.

La Fortuna Waterfall: This picturesque waterfall was the first thing we saw while in La Fortuna. It was a quick 10 minute drive from our hotel, and then about a 10-15 minute walk down to the falls. Make sure that you wear slip resistent shoes as the walk down is quite slippery. We arrived just before closing time, so there were very few people around us. I had a great time photographing the falls although it was difficult at times due to the constant mist that was coming off the falls and smudging my camera lens! After enjoying the thundering waterfall, we walked over to the nearby swimming hole where Melissa was brave enough to dive right into the cold water. I on the other hand opted to enjoy the views of the clear water from a distance.

Our first glimpse of the falls as we started the hike down.

We walked through several bridges like this on the way down to the falls.

Arenal Hanging Bridges: When my sister had visited Costa Rica several years prior, she raved about the hanging bridges she experienced while in Monteverde. This intrigued me greatly, and when I discovered that there was a set of hanging bridges located within a 250 acre reserve just outside of La Fortuna, I knew that we would have to visit. The entry fee was steep for Costa Rican standards ($22 per person) but didn't seem to dismay the hundreds of tourists that were coming in by the busloads.
There are a total of six hanging bridges and eight regular bridges suspended over ravines and treetops, along with a few miles of trails. One could probably complete this visit in an hour or less, but most people tend to linger as the scenary walking through the rainforest is absolutely gorgeous. I can't begin to count the number of times I stopped along the way to take photos; Melissa was extremely patient with me!

I wouldn't recommend this tour for those with a fear of heights as some of the hanging bridges were several hundred feet off of the ground. I saw many visitors who had a difficult time crossing the bridges and were gripping the railings like their life depended on it!

Along the way we ran into a French tour group and ended up befriending a young French man and his daughter. We attempted to communicate with one another using my horrific French and his slighly better English. It was fun and meeting people from other countries is always one of my favorite parts of traveling!
The first hanging bridge, located at the entrance.

The forest here was so lush and green!

The rain made everything glisten so beautifully.

Crazy tree trunk!

We saw this beautiful frog towards the end of our tour!

Melissa with a giant leaf.

Arenal Butterfly Conservatory: We learned of this amazing place from our guidebook. I had desperately wanted to see wildlife while in Costa Rica, including butterflies, so this place sounded right up my alley. The conservatory takes a good twenty minutes to reach off the main highway, so be prepared to face extremely bumpy and treacherous roads. It's well worth the rough ride though!

The conservatory includes six covered atrium habitats that mimic different micro climates where butterflies are found in their natural environment. There is also a frog house to visit as well as gardens to explore and the laboratory where the harvested butterfly eggs are meticulously cared for until they hatch. Visitors are only allowed into the butterfly atriums with one of the volunteers of the conservatory so you might have to wait a few minutes before being allowed in. Once inside, you are immediately greeted with hundreds of beautiful and colorful butterflies. I had such a fun time photographing these amazing creatures and learning about the conservatory's work at educating the public.
We got lucky and had a quick glimpse of the volcano when we arrived at the butterfly conservatory.

View from the conservatory.

One of the walking trails at the butterfly conservatory.

Inside one of the atriums.

These butterflies were mating.

Wins my award for most beautiful butterfly ever!

Beautiful black and white butterfly.

One of the many walking trails.

View from the butterfly conservatory.

Almost ready to hatch!

They had some nasty (but thankfully dead) bugs on display at the entrance to the conservatory.

Arenal Volcano National Park: Unfortunately, the majority of our time spent in La Fortuna was without a view of its famous volcano. Apparently, this is a common occurrence throughout most of the year. So, if you happen to be visiting La Fortuna and can see the volcano, make sure to photograph it as much as possible because there is no telling when it will be out again!

The volcano famously erupted on July 29, 1968 and destroyed several of the nearby villages. Since then, lava has continuously flowed and eruptions are still occurring. We decided we wanted to hike along some of the trails that start at the ranger station of the national park. Unfortunately, it was once again pouring down rain during our visit. Even worse, neither Melissa nor myself had brought appropriate rain gear for our trip as we hadn't realized we would be facing torrential downpours. However, we persevered and ultimately decided to protect ourselves from the elements by using black garbage bags. We cut holes for heads and the rest of our body was covered by the bag. We walked around with these lovely bags on the trail for about two hours and were still dry when we finished!

Although I found some of the scenery along the trails to be interesting, because I couldn't see any of the volcano and since I had a constant rain splashing me in the face, I didn't enjoy myself very much. Had the weather been more cooperative, I probably would have had a better time.

So, if you are in the area and the weather is clear or even moderately clear, get yourself to the National Park as soon as possible so you can complete the relatively easy hike without getting rained on!

Melissa and our lovely protection from the rain.

This was as far as we went during our hike. We couldn't see anything and it was pouring down rain!

Ziplining with Arenal Paraiso Canopy Tour: I had gone ziplining previously in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and had a blast so I knew I would want to do it again while in Costa Rica. There are several ziplining companies to choose from in the La Fortuna area, so I was overwhelmed when deciding which one to choose. Ultimately, I went with the location that was closest to our hotel as all of the companies had decent reviews on Trip Advisor. Arenal Paraiso Canopy Tour is located on-site of the Arenal Paraiso Hotel Resort and Spa which was just a few minutes drive from our hotel.

Unfortunately, our prescheduled ziplining tour occurred during the worst downpoar of our four days in La Fortuna. I also made the mistake of bringing my camera along the tour in hopes that I could take pictures but the constant pouring of rain would not allow me to do so. Instead, I had to wrap my camera in several plastic bags and carried it with me during the entire tour, which was annoying.

Our tour included ziplining between 12 platforms, with the longest being over 350 meters long and 80 meters high. The first few lines went through the top of the rainforest canopy where I was smacked several times in the face with muddy and wet branches. The last 2/3 of the lines were set over the Arenal River in a wide and expansive open space; not for the faint of heart nor for those afraid of heights.

Aside from the horrific rain and geting soaking wet, the only thing I didn't like about the tour was the mechanics of the zipline itself. When I had gone ziplining in Mexico, all participants had a handlebar to hang onto that was attached to the top of the ziplining cable. The setup with Arenal Paraiso was quite different as we had to place one of our hands (which was inside a leather glove) on top of the cable to guide it (i.e. to take off and brake). This was very nerve-wracking for me and on the first run I ended up stopping in the middle of the line as I had applied too much pressure with my hand. One of the guides had to come out and get me, which was rather embarrasing.

On the second to last run both Melissa and I were strapped to one of the guides and did the "superman" in which we laid completely flat on our stomachs with our arms spread out. I don't think I have ever screamed so loud in my entire life and I am certain that my guide lost some of his hearing. Immediately afterwards on the very last line, the guides had Melissa and I go upside down, which was actually fun since we were only a few feet off of the ground.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this tour. There are so many ziplining companies all over Costa Rica to choose from but I would recommend picking one in either the Arenal or Monteverde area as there is nothing better than zipping your way through the rain forest canopy!
Getting ready for the ziplining!

Hot Springs: Eco Termales:
Aside from the volcano and rain forest, La Fortuna is also well known for its plethora of natural thermal springs, some of which have been turned into formal and full blown resorts like Tabacon Hot Springs and others that have been turned into simple but relaxing spots like Eco Termales. Initially, I was planning on having us visit Tabacon as my sister had visited it herself and had nothing but amazing things to say. However, after seeing that Eco Termales cost $32 per person for four hours and that Tabacon cost nearly double that, I had to go with the cheaper option. In addition, Eco Termales was rated higher than Tabacon on Trip Advisor, so I knew I was making the right decision!

Eco Termales has four pools that vary in temperature from 91 degrees to 105 degrees. It's recommend to start in the coldest pool and work your way up in temperature. Towards the very back of the pools is a beautiful waterfall that guests can stand under (I found this to be extremely relaxing). We opted to go with the night tour that began at 5:00. Darkness set in about an hour later and the place completely transformed into something unbelievably beautiful. Eco Termales has a maximum limit of 100 guests at a time, so while there was a decent number of people there, there was always plenty of room for everyone to spread out and relax.

They have a bar right next to the pools where one can purchase tropical drinks of their choice. Melissa and I quite enjoyed our delicious pina coladas as we relaxed in the hot springs. The drinks were a tad on the expensive side, but definitely worth it!

Visiting Eco Termales and spending hours in the hot springs was one of my most favorite activities while in Costa Rica that I think everyone should try to partake in if they visit La Fortuna!

Soda La Parada: This 24 hour soda offered cheap and reliable food and even had free wifi! It was filled with a good mix of both locals and tourists. Melissa ordered a plate of arroz con pollo which was absolutely fantastic! The soda is located on the south side of the plaza in the center of town.

La Brasitas: This overpriced restaurant is located very close to downtown La Fortuna. We met our Canadian friends here (whom we had befriended back in Nosara) for dinner one night. The food was okay, certainly nothing to brag about. My steak was decent, but at $20 a plate, it was overpriced for Costa Rican standards.

Soda Las Flores: We ate at this lovely soda twice while in La Fortuna. We ended up befriending the owner, who was a woman in her twenties. We talked to her at great length about her business and life in Costa Rica. It was great to see someone of such a young age so serious and passionate about their business.

My delicious cheese and chicken empanada.
The incredibly delicious pot roast.
During the first visit, I ordered some sort of pot roast dish which was to die for, along with a chicken and cheese empanada (delicious!). Our second visit occurred after our lovely swim at the hot springs, so I only ordered a cheese empanada and fresh squeezed pineapple juice. Along with Melissa, we also had convinced two people we met at the hot springs to join us. Everyone ended up ordered a different type of empanada and they were all very tasty.

Unfortunately, within an hour of eating, I ended up becoming very ill with horrific diarrhea that lasted for 12 hours until I took some medicine. I don't think I have ever been so sick in my entire life. I can't imagine that the empanada made me sick (since Melissa had had one as well and was fine) so I figure that the sickness was caused from the water in the pineapple drink. I was warned on multiple occasions not to drink the water in Costa Rica, but I had ordered fresh pineapple juice with nearly every meal and hadn't ever gotten sick.

Even with this incident, I would still recommend this soda and would eat here again in a heartbeat. The food was too good to pass up and taking some precautions in the future regarding drinking the water would most likely prevent any issues.

In summary, Costa Rica was a great and relatively inexpensive country to visit. Although we were there for eight days, we barely skimmed the surface in terms of things to do and see. In hindsight, I think I would have preferred to spend a little less time at the beach and more time in the interior of Costa Rica. Additionally, on future visits I would love to see Manuel Antonio, Corcovado, and Tortuguero National Parks. One could spend an entire month in the small country of Costa Rica and still not see everything!

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