We had arrived at the gateway of the Arenal Volcano National Park without concern, and were excited to explore the tropical rainforests and the clear waters of the Rio Fortuna. Our first exciting adventure was a night tour we had pre-booked with Arenal Natura Ecological Park which cost us US$44 per person (and US$9 round trip travel per person) – this was a really fun couple of hours with a small group (6 of us), and we saw different types of frogs, birds, insects, and the parks crocodiles. From talking to people later on in the trip however, it seemed like the nature walk in Monteverde was actually better, so if you are planning to visit there too, maybe plump for that instead.
The next day we went to the hanging bridges which cost US$26 per person (and US$11 round trip travel per person). This was a great walk through the forest, spotting wildlife and crossing the huge suspension bridges, which takes about an hour to walk through (you don’t need a guide!).
We then visited Rio Fortuna, which is a 200ft waterfall set some 200 steps down through the rock. We swam in the pools below, and climbed over the rocks to stand in awe of the waterfall. The swell and the current is so strong you can’t actually swim in the main pool, but you can feel the energy from standing at the shore alone. It cost US$15 per person to enter the area, which is reinvested into local conservation efforts, and we paid US$8 for a taxi each way (you can phone for a taxi when you are ready to leave at the parks information desk).
Later that evening, we visited Baldi Hot Springs, a natural hot spring resort with 25 different mineral pools. The steep entrance price of US$45, which includes a buffet dinner too, was well worth it. A taxi here was US$6.
- Remember your own towel – their deposit charge is expensive
- Try not to bring too many valuables with you – the non-refundable fee for a locker is expensive
- Link your card with a wristband when you enter, so you don’t have to keep paying as you go, which will be annoying when you’re in the pool bar and your bag is not nearby
We found in Costa Rica, more than anywhere, that USD was more widely used with tourist activities. For cheaper purchases, like snacks and taxi journeys we tended to pay in colónes, and if we paid in dollars, were given a huge array of Costa Rican coins. This is also the country we found the most expensive. It obviously has a much larger tourism scene than most other Central American countries, and maybe they are capitalising on this. Activities were also spread out with no public transport available, so plenty of taxis are required.
We liked our hostel, Arenal Backpackers Resort, and chose a fancy tent complete with wifi, electricity, and a fan! In hindsight though, I think we would prefer to spend the money on a dorm room, or even pay for a private room, as logistically the tent was a bit of a nightmare (and we came away with most of our clothes feeling and smelling damp after our first three days!)
The next morning we took the taxi-boat-taxi to Monteverde. We had prebooked this with Anywhere.com and paid US$25 per person, but our hostel offered this for US$20. It’s one of the most common things for people to do leaving La Fortuna, so don’t worry about booking ahead. You can definitely save money by arranging the day before you leave with multiple hostels and travel agencies in town. These run at 8am or 2pm.
We were collected at about 8:30am, and given a number on a post-it note. This, we were helpfully told by another tourist, was the bus number we needed on the other side of the water. From La Fortuna, the drive to the ferry port is about 20 minutes (in fact, it’s on the way to the Hanging Bridges Trail) and there, the shuttle empties onto a boat. Our boat seemed to be having a few speed issues, but we bumbled along, able to take in the tremendous views of the volcano.
We found our second bus on the other side, and found our driver. It was now apparent that the buses were divided by destination; we were staying in Santa Elena, a small town just next to the town of Monteverde (the area in general is called Monteverde because of the cloud forest, but most people stay in Santa Elena due to its close proximity).
It took about two hours (including an unnecessary stop at a restaurant) to get to Monteverde, and we were dropped off at our hostel, Casa Tranquilo. We had found this place in a Lonely Planet (“LP”) guide and were really pleased with it. Nice private rooms and bathrooms, with communal areas and a kitchen area too. We wandered into town once we had checked in, and decided to book a zip lining tour that afternoon. We paid US$45 per person, including travel, with the Original Canopy Tour.
There is an abundance of canopy tour companies in Monteverde, each offering something slightly different. We found Extreme Adventures had mostly the same basic zip line tour, but also offered a superman type wire. The overall price was more, and you had less time, and covered less wires, so we decided to go with the Original Canopy Tour, who again were recommended in the LP.
We both really enjoyed this activity. We jumped off of Tarzan ropes and zip lined 16 different wires, the last two being the longest and the highest, an exhilarating 800m across and out of the forest, and also offering the best views of the continental divide between the Pacific and the Caribbean (see video below!)
There is a lot of choice when deciding where to eat in Santa Elena, and we went for the Treehouse, which is a restaurant built around a tree! Good Costa Rican food, and a fun atmosphere (but a bit of a tourist trap – the food was a little more expensive than other less exciting venues.)
The next day we booked on a coffee, chocolate & sugar plantation tour with El Trapiche, a family run farm. It was fascinating to see how each crop was grown, harvested, and prepared, ready for sale. We got to sample everything! Well worth the US$33 per person including transport.
The bus to the Monteverde cloud forest itself runs every hour and a half from Santa Elena (or thereabouts – check with your hotel, as a couple of bus times have recently been cancelled, and you wouldn’t want to get caught out), so determined to not let the rain dampen our spirits, we jumped on the 1:30pm and paid just over US$1 each (we paid with US$2 and a few Costa Rican coins). This took about half an hour and we paid US$20 each to enter the park. Sensibly, the park guards make you sign in and tell them which form of transport you arrived on, so they know not to let the last bus leave without you! They gave us a map and told us the routes we should take with the time we had before the park closed. We were sheltered for the majority of the time from the rain as a lot of the walks were covered by the foliage, but a few of the paths were exposed and so were very muddy.
That evening we ate at Taco Taco (the best tacos in Costa Rica) and spent the evening with hostel guests, who had become new friends. We did not get the early night we should probably have had considering we were rising early to cross our first border, and to reach our next destination; the beautiful twin-volcano island of Ometepe, situated in Nicaragua’s vast Lake Nicaragua. More on those next few days to come!