sloth on branch

La Fortuna de San Carlos, or La Fortuna as it’s simply known, is undoubtedly one of Costa Rica’s most visited destinations. It’s a place most Travel Writers and influencers love to cover.

La Fortuna can be found in the Northern Highlands of Costa Rica, about a 3-hour drive from the capital, San José. The town has a beautiful park with colorful gardens and a large church. The most prominent attraction, Arenal Volcano, provides a stunning backdrop and can be viewed from almost every vantage point. Many restaurants, hotels, tour operators, and shops are on the streets surrounding the central park. There are plenty more lodgings on the road leading to the volcano and Lake Arenal.

However, does La Fortuna live up to the hype? I traveled here in November 2021 and stayed at Hotel Bijagua, overlooking the Arenal Volcano. During my stay, I became close to the hotel owner, David Castro Osi. He gave me a local experience, which is always the best way to experience a destination. So why is La Fortuna so special to visit? I sat down with David for a chat, and he shared insider tips to this quaint town and told us why La Fortuna is worth it.

Firstly, I asked David how long he has lived in La Fortuna and why he felt the need to start a hotel. “My story in La Fortuna goes back to my childhood, but that is not where this story begins. My grandfather, Ricardo Quirós, arrived in La Fortuna even before the volcano exploded. He was a man of adventure, a dreamer, who found a farm and started a family with a GREAT woman, Anita Maria Murillo.”

“Long ago, everything was different. Going from La Fortuna to Ciudad Quesada, you had to take a 7-hour journey on oxcart without stopping.” The traditional oxcart is the product of Costa Rica’s most famous craft. This dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. Oxcarts transported coffee beans from Costa Rica’s central valley over the mountains to Puntarenas on the Pacific coast, a journey requiring ten to fifteen days.

David carried on telling me, “With adventurous blood and courageous spirit, my mother raised a family of four, and together with my father, they bought a piece of land in La Fortuna 32 years ago. It started as a weekend house, and 16 years ago, it became the hotel’s beginning.”

“As you can see, life is unpredictable, but sure, you can always predict adventures when talking about La Fortuna. This is just my family’s story, but this small town is full of stories like mine. A land that attracts tourists and often touches their hearts and lets them feel the meaning of Pura Vida (a well-known saying in Costa Rica, meaning pure life) in their hearts.”

So what makes La Fortuna so unique? David told me.

“I can say that you have many things to do here, from volcano hikes to hot rivers. All the activities are immersed in nature, and this alone is a reason to come. People here are happy; they are always ready to hang out, sing karaoke, or dance to Latin music. In terms of what is a must whilst you’re in La Fortuna, David said, “The hot springs, in my opinion, are a must. It can be in the morning or at night. The water can relax your muscles and replenish your soul if you stay long enough.”

Costa rica hot springs
Photography courtesy of Shebs Alom

The hot springs are one of my most fond memories during my stay. There are many to choose from, but which hot springs are best to go to? David gave us a few suggestions.

“There are many hot springs; all of them have their charm. Eco Termales and Baldi are very good in their own way. If I want adventure, then I go to the free hot spring called by locals as “El Chollin.” This hot spring was exceptional, and I would recommend heading over there late in the evening to get the best experience. You can also take some candles and make an evening of it. 

As David said, one of La Fortuna’s popularity is the plethora of activities on offer. You can go canyoning down a waterfall, explore the rainforest canopy on a hanging bridge, fly like a superhero through the sky on a zip line, and splash down a churning river on a whitewater raft. Not to mention trying to spot a sloth or a toucan. It can be hard to know where to start with all of the choices.

toucan costa rica
Photography courtesy of Shebs Alom
costa rican sloth
Photography courtesy of Shebs Alom

One must for me, which you can make an afternoon of, is La Fortuna Waterfall. I was immensely impressed by the beauty of the waterfall. You can also dip in the falls if the current isn’t too strong. So take your swim gear. 

La Fortuna Waterfall
Photography courtesy of Shebs Alom

When I went, there was an $18 entrance fee, but you can get lunch and drink at the restaurant if you pay an extra $12 when purchasing the tickets. It makes it worthwhile once you have had your splash. 

And, of course, the Arenal Volcano. This was a highlight for me and my first trek over a volcano. I got fortunate with the weather as well as I was able to see the top of the volcano during my hike. 

arenal volcano
Photography courtesy of Shebs Alom

David went on to tell me, “The Arenal Volcano is absolutely worth it. Years ago, I climbed the volcano to the top. Nowadays, it’s not possible unless you get something specially organized in advance. But, you should definitely trek the trail, as you won’t regret it.” The entrance fee for the volcano was $18 during my visit. There is a cafe for you to enjoy before and after the trek. 

The food in Costa Rica was exquisite, and I particularly loved it in La Fortuna. David gave us a suggestion on where people should go and dine in. “Every restaurant has its own style, but in my opinion, the best for me is Nene’s. This is one of the oldest restaurants in La Fortuna, with a rich history. The food is delicious, and it’s in the centre, four blocks away from the church.” 

When it comes to food, you have to try two traditional cuisines. For breakfast, you have to have a Gallo Pinto. Gallo Pinto is a breakfast dish made of rice and beans. The cuisine is typically referred to as just ‘pinto’ by the locals, and its roots are in both Costa Rica and the neighboring country, Nicaragua.

You can’t look further than having the Casado for either lunch or dinner. The Cassado is probably the most traditional dish in Costa Rican cuisine. If you order a Casado, the plate will contain rice, beans, salad, tortillas, fried plantain, and a choice of beef, pork, chicken, fish, or vegetables. A Casado typically also includes fresh fruit juice. Restaurants also have a hot or salsa sauce to go with the rice. I highly recommend both, but be cautious about how much hot sauce you pour over your rice. You don’t want your mouth to be on fire. Plus, you won’t be spending much on your meal either. You can have an excellent course for around about $6-15. 

Photography courtesy of Shebs Alom

Where ever you are in Costa Rica, you must try their coffee. I’m not a coffee drinker, but I reckon I would have been converted into a coffee junkie if I had been there long enough. They are so fresh, and it’s none of that jar stuff you get in the western world. You can taste the beans as if they had come out of the grounds that day. 

As La Fortuna is in the rainforest, the weather can be challenging. I asked David when is the best time to visit La Fortuna. “The weather is constantly ever-changing, so you can expect rain at any given time. I do like January, but my best advice is to bring adventure to your heart. This way, no matter what the weather is like, you will have fun.” 

I was lucky enough to tour La Fortuna because David took me around his car. But if you’re not as fortunate as me, Uber was cheaper to use when I was there over local taxis. Many people also rent a car. Rentals can vary in price depending on your vehicle. Whatever you decide, it will be very cost-effective.  

I would recommend staying for 2-4 days, with a budget of around $150 on a decent hotel. I got the friends discount with Hotel Bijagua. The activities, on the other hand, can be expensive. Perhaps in total, depending on what you do, you could spend up to $150-300 on top of your hotel cost.  

La Fortuna has undoubtedly grown over the years into a tourist hotspot with all the amenities, but thankfully it still has a small-town feel to it. From an explorer’s perspective, it’s the best of both worlds. You can enjoy five-star accommodations, gourmet meals, experience the culture, and get to know the real Costa Rica. David gives us his last words by telling us the feeling people will have when they leave La Fortuna after visiting. “If you open yourself up 100%, you will connect deeper and understand new ways to see life when you leave La Fortuna.”