73. La Fortuna, Costa Rica - Volcan Arenal and the Hot Springs

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July 18, 2007

There is a "Gringo Trail" that runs from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico down to Costa Rica, and we are starting to see familiar travelers wherever we go.

In Tamarindo, on Costa Rica's pacific coast, we had run into three American backpackers that we had first met briefly on Caye Caulker in Belize, several weeks earlier.

For $20 (the first time our bank account had gone in that direction in six months) we drove them from Tamarindo to La Fortuna, and then continued to day-trip with them in the area.

After six months of living in a van together, it was nice to have the added company.

La Fortuna, which we reached after driving the 80 kilometers of narrow road around Lake Arenal, lies in the shadow of the constantly erupting Volcan Arenal.

And from our campsite on the back lawn at Cabinas Sissy, we had a perfect view of Costa Rica’s most famous volcano, albeit from the "wrong" side.

(There are some nicer looking campsites in the La Fortuna area that are beside a river and accessible on the road up to the "waterfalls" tourist attraction).

The “right” side, which is accessible through the Volcan Arenal National Park, offers a better view of the spewing ash and lava, as well as access to the vantage point to see the deposits left by the 1992 eruption.

With our American companions, we hiked the two kilometres from the parking lot to the lookout, and then spent an hour sitting on the solidified lava watching the boulders kick up dust as they rolled down the mountain. The eruptions made a sound like wind snapping a sail.

In addition to being nice to look at, Volcan Arenal has created a series of thermally heated hot-springs at its base that have been turned into popular tourist attractions.

The first night we went to “Baldi Thermae”, paying $20 each to get the upscale experience.

(The Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort, which is past Baldi, closer to the entrance to Volcan Arenal National Park, is even more upscale, charging $40 a person).

Baldi was worth every penny, and not just because it was our first hot bath in six months!

It has about a dozen pools of various sizes and temperatures, cascading waterfalls, gorgeous rock work, and swim-up bars covered by bamboo roofs, all shrouded in suitably dim lighting. It was comparable in look and feel to a high-end resort/spa you might find in Hawaii.

The next night we opted for the more budget, more local, Los Laurels, which is just down the road from Baldi, has only three pools, not a lot of ambiance and is still partly under construction.

It, did, however, provide a better view of the volcano. And for a few minutes while we lounged in the chemical free pool, we witnessed the spewing orange lava light up the sky.

Given the proximity of Volcan Arenal National Park and the hot springs, and our desire to avoid expensive organized tours, we reaped the benefits of having our own vehicle in La Fortuna as much as anywhere on the trip.

We also broke our rule - both nights after going to the hot springs – of never driving after dark in Mexico/Central America.

We didn't need our van for the final highlight, a bull-riding competition that was being held at the La Fortuna fair grounds.

We were immediately entranced, especially by what goes on under the stands as the rider prepares to mount the angry bull: ropes being tied, bulls being prodded, gates being held closed, cowboys directing horses, beer being drunken - you could have bottled the testosterone.

Key Facts & Figures:

-Campsite, Cabinas Sissy: $6/night
-Volcan Arenal National Park: $6/person
-Baldi Thermae hot springs: $20/person
-Los Laurels hot springs: $6/person