La Fortuna, also known as La Fortuna de San Carlos, is undoubtedly one of Costa Rica’s most talked about destinations. Travel writers love to cover it, tour operators boast about it, and a quick Google search will reveal thousands of articles on this small town alone. But does La Fortuna live up to the hype? The answer: yes it does and then some. In this post, we share our insider tips to this quaint mountain town and tell you why following the tourist trail to La Fortuna is still worth it.
La Fortuna is located in the hills of northwestern Costa Rica about 3 hours from San Jose’s international airport and 2.5 hours from Liberia’s international airport. The town is centered around a beautiful park with colorful gardens and a large church. The main star, Arenal Volcano, provides the backdrop and can been seen from almost every vantage point. On the streets surrounding the central park lie many restaurants, hotels, tour operators, and shops, with more lodging and dining on the road leading to the volcano and Lake Arenal.
Some of the guidebooks might have you picturing an overdeveloped tourist trap, but fear not, the town remains charming and still has a local feel. Among the souvenir shops and cafes catering to the many visitors, you’ll find Ticos in their daily life, buying supplies for their farm, running errands, grabbing a bite to eat, or just relaxing on a park bench.
Check out our short video at the end of this post to help you get a feel for the town.
One of the reasons for La Fortuna’s popularity is the plethora of activities. You can do just about all of the quintessential Costa Rica adventure tours out of La Fortuna, from exploring the rainforest canopy on a hanging bridge, to flying through the sky on a zip line, to canyoneering down waterfalls. With all of the choices, it can be hard to know where to start. Here’s a list of some of our favorite attractions that are totally unique to this area of the country.
Arenal is, in our opinion, Costa Rica’s most spectacular volcano. Standing at a lofty 1,633 meters (5,358 feet) high, this cone-shaped giant can be seen for miles around, but it’s worth the effort to get a closer look. For good hiking trails, read our post about Arenal Volcano National Park or head to the nearby Arenal 1968 trails. And for one of the best viewpoints, visit the Arenal Observatory, which has its own hiking trails but also a nice view from the observation deck.
The other attraction that you don’t want to miss is La Fortuna’s hot springs, which are naturally heated by the volcano’s thermal energy. For the whole experience, head to one of the resorts like Tabacon or EcoTermales where you can soak in luxurious gardens. Or if you don’t mind a more rustic setting, do what we usually do and head to the river across from the Tabacon to soak in the beautiful natural surroundings for free.
La Fortuna Waterfall
If you have time for one more activity, make it the La Fortuna waterfall. We delayed our visit here for a while, not being sure it was worth the $10 entrance fee, but were impressed by the waterfall’s beauty and power. Tip: Arrive early in the day to avoid the crowds. This is a popular attraction and it can get busy, especially during the dry season (December through April).
La Fortuna boasts over 75 restaurants so travelers are sure to find something that pleases their pallet. High-end dining options are typically located at hotels and resorts, while smaller, local places are scattered throughout town and the surrounding area. But eating off of the resort doesn’t limit you to traditional Costa Rican fare. Among the many sodas serving local specialties are restaurants offering international cuisine.
For breakfast or lunch, head to My Coffee, a casual café with a mix of dishes from arroz con pollo (fried rice with chicken) to an assortment of crepes. While the food is good, the real highlight is the coffee. Costa Rica is famous for its rich java and you can get a great cup just about anywhere, but it’s rare to find iced coffee. My Coffee not only has that, but they also make specialty drinks like iced mochachinos if you want a treat.
Soda Viquez is one of our favorite spots in town for local food. It’s located just a block from the park and has great service, with typical Costa Rican friendliness. They serve up all of the classics like gallo pinto (rice and beans with eggs) for breakfast and casados (plates of chicken, beef, or fish with side salads and plantains) for lunch. At any restaurant in Costa Rica service can be on the slow side (it’s all part of the pura vida way), but if you’re short on time, Soda Viquez is a good option because it also has a la carte offerings.
Last but not least, there’s Café Mediterraneo. We stumbled upon this restaurant after a grueling hike up to Cerro Chato crater lake and were so glad we did. Café Mediterraneo is located just outside of town and has great views of Arenal and the neighboring Cerro Chato. Not only is the view nice but they also have excellent pizza—a rarity in Costa Rica.
Because La Fortuna is a major tourist hub, the options for lodging are numerous and varying. When considering the choices, our biggest tip is to inquire about the location. While you don’t need a car if you stay near the downtown, you might want one if you’re staying closer to Arenal Volcano where things are more spread out.
Below are a few recommendations for hotels in the area. For a full list, read our detailed post La Fortuna Hotel Guide: Where to Stay Near Arenal Volcano.
High End Hotels and Resorts ($250+)
Our top choice for luxury in La Fortuna is the Nayara Hotel or its new sister property, Nayara Springs. These eco-friendly boutique hotels have beautiful grounds, excellent food and service, and nice volcano views. Staying at the Nayara Springs, where each villa has its own private plunge pool fed by hot springs, is definitely on our bucket list of places to stay. Check Availability and Prices Here.
The Nayara tends to book quickly so if it’s unavailable, try the Springs Resort and Spa. The Springs is a larger property with more of a resort feel because it has everything on site. It’s located outside of town and has its own hot spring pools. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Another good option is the Tabacon, home to the most popular springs in the Arenal area. They have several different types of rooms from well-appointed suites to standard rooms starting at $300/night. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Mid-Range Hotels ($100-200)
For a more affordable resort, check out Arenal Springs about 7 kilometers outside of town. It has spacious, clean rooms with good volcano views, but the main draw is the big, multi-layered pool. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Hotel El Silencio del Campo
If you’d rather stay somewhere smaller with more character, check out Hotel El Silencio del Campo. This family-run hotel has 24 private, comfortable cabins and an on-site spa and thermal pools. It’s a short drive from town on the road going towards the volcano. Good restaurant and friendly staff. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Budget Hotels ($100 or less)
Hotel Monte Real
We enjoyed our stay at Monte Real on one of our vacations to La Fortuna. It’s conveniently located just a few blocks from downtown along the river, so you don’t need a car. It has simple, yet spacious, well equipped rooms, and a manicured property with gardens and a pool. Some of the rooms have volcano views so be sure to inquire. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Hotel Rancho Cerro Azul
Another solid budget option is Hotel Rancho Cerro Azul, located about 1.5 kilometers outside of town. This lodge is run by a local family and is known for its warm hospitality. It has five rustic cabins set in a garden with great volcano views. Check Availability and Prices Here.
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La Fortuna has no doubt grown over the years into a vacation hotspot with all of the amenities, but thankfully it still has a small-town feel. From a traveler’s perspective, it’s the best of both worlds: a place where you can enjoy five-star accommodations and gourmet meals but also experience the culture and get to know the real Costa Rica.
Here’s a quick time lapse video to show you around town.
Are you planning a trip to La Fortuna? What are you most excited about?