Last Updated: June 16, 2020
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 town and tell you why following the tourist trail to La Fortuna is still worth it.
La Fortuna is located in the Northern Highlands of Costa Rica, about 2.5 hours from San Jose’s international airport and 2.5 hours from Liberia’s international airport. The town is centered on 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 on the road leading to the volcano and Lake Arenal.
Some of the guidebooks may 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, 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.
Activities in La Fortuna
One of the reasons for La Fortuna’s popularity is the plethora of activities. You can do almost all of the quintessential Costa Rica adventure tours out of La Fortuna. You can explore the rainforest canopy on a hanging bridge, fly through the sky on a zip line, rappel down waterfalls, and splash down churning a river on a whitewater raft. 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), this cone-shaped giant can be seen for miles around, but it’s worth the effort to get a closer look. Two of the best options for hiking are Arenal Volcano National Park and the nearby Arenal 1968 Trail. From either reserve, you’ll get close views of the volcano and be able to walk on the decades-old lava flows from prior eruptions. Read our full posts for more details.
And for one of the best viewpoints, visit the Arenal Observatory. The Observatory has its own hiking trails but also a fantastic view from the observation deck.
The other attraction that you don’t want to miss is La Fortuna’s hot springs. These 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, visit the river across from the Tabacon to soak in the beautiful natural surroundings for free.
La Fortuna Waterfall
Another must-see, which can be done in an hour or two, is La Fortuna Waterfall. We delayed our visit here for a while, not being sure it was worth the $18 entrance fee, but were impressed by the waterfall’s beauty and power. You can swim in the large pool if the current isn’t too strong so be sure to bring a bathing suit. Access is through a Visitors’ Center about 10 minutes from the downtown. They now have sturdy concrete steps down to the falls, but there are about 500 of them so be ready for a little exercise.
Tip: Arrive early in the day to avoid the crowds. This is a popular attraction and it can get busy, especially during high season (December through April).
Zip Lining and Hanging Bridges
If zip lining and hanging bridges are on your list, you’re in luck because La Fortuna is one of the best destinations in the country for these activities. Not only do you get to experience the rainforest canopy from above on a zip-line cable or hanging bridge, you can also get amazing volcano and lake views.
These activities can be done separately or together if you’re short on time. We work with some great operators in La Fortuna that offer these tours. If you would like help arranging one, contact us through our Tour Booking Service page. Combo tours with zip lining and hanging bridges are around $105 per person, with discounts for students and children.
Restaurants in La Fortuna
La Fortuna boasts over 100 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 the resort doesn’t limit you to traditional Costa Rican fare. Among the many sodas serving local specialties are restaurants offering international cuisine. Here are our recommendations for the best restaurants in La Fortuna.
We stumbled upon this restaurant after a grueling hike up to Cerro Chato’s crater lake and were so glad we did. Café Mediterraneo is located right outside town and has great views of Arenal and the neighboring Cerro Chato. Not only is the view nice, but they also have excellent pizza, which can be hard to find in Costa Rica.
This soda 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.
This cute café is a great option for those looking for something healthy. Organico Fortuna serves up fresh salads, sandwiches, and quinoa dishes, and has a big breakfast menu. As the name Organico implies, the local family who runs it sources organic, locally grown produce. Vegans and vegetarians will have no trouble finding something delicious to eat here.
For breakfast or lunch, head to this casual café with a mix of dishes, from arroz con pollo (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 almost anywhere, but it’s rare to find iced coffee. My Coffee not only has that, but they also make specialty drinks like iced mochaccinos if you want a treat.
Chifa La Familia Feliz
If you need a break from typical cuisine, grab a table at Chifa La Familia Feliz. This small restaurant has made a name for itself with its Peruvian and Peruvian-Asian fusion. Our friend from Peru has tried it and told us that the food was very authentic. Located a block west of the central park. Reservations recommended.
Hotels in La Fortuna
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. Click here for our Rental Car Discount to save 10% on a car.
Below are a few recommendations for hotels in the area. For a full list and additional tips, read our post La Fortuna Hotel Guide: Where to Stay Near Arenal Volcano.
High End Hotels and Resorts ($300+)
Our top choice for luxury in La Fortuna is the Nayara Hotel or its 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. $330-1,000/night. 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. It is located outside town and has several hot spring pools on-site. This family-friendly resort also has a wildlife sanctuary where you can see animals like toucans, sloths, and big cats. Rooms start at $330/night. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Another excellent high-end option is the Tabacon, home to the most popular hot springs in the Arenal area. They have several different types of rooms from well-appointed suites to standard rooms starting at $310/night. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Mid-Range Hotels ($150-300)
For a more affordable resort, check out Arenal Springs Resort and Spa about 7 kilometers outside town. It has spacious, clean rooms with volcano views, but the main draw is the big, multi-layered pool. Rates range from $250-$800/night. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Hotel El Silencio del Campo
If you’d rather stay somewhere smaller with more character, there’s 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. Rates range from $155-$300/night. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Budget Hotels ($150 or less)
Hotel Monte Real
We enjoyed our stay at Hotel Monte Real on one of our vacations to La Fortuna several years ago. It’s conveniently located only 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. Rooms are around $65-$105/night. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Hotel Rancho Cerro Azul
Another solid budget option is Hotel Rancho Cerro Azul, located about 1.5 kilometers outside 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 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?
Last Updated: June 16, 2020
Looking for more information to plan your trip to Costa Rica? Check out these posts:
Manuel Antonio Trip Planning: If you’re visiting Costa Rica for the first time, Manuel Antonio is the perfect destination to pair with La Fortuna. Learn more about Manuel Antonio’s gorgeous beaches and wildlife with this post.
Packing for Costa Rica: The Essentials – For a small country, Costa Rica has widely varying weather. Read our guide for essential info on what clothing and gear you’ll need.
Rental Car Discount: Unless you’re staying near downtown La Fortuna, a rental car is nice to have to access the area’s attractions and restaurants. Learn how to save 10% or more and get free extras through our discount with Adobe Rent a Car.