We have been in Playas del Coco now for just over a month and are really enjoying the warm (OK hot) weather, the fabulous beaches and the vibe of this coastal town. Our son and a friend came to visit us for just over a week and we decided to take a road trip to the Arenal Volcano area which we have visited before. The town of La Fortuna at the base of the volcano is a tourist hotspot as there are literally hundreds of attractions including zip lines, thermal springs, bird watching and nature tours, butterfly gardens, horseback riding and much more.
Our main reasons for going this time were to try zip lining and to expose our son’s friend to another side of Costa Rica beyond the beaches. One of the great aspects of this country is the broad range of ecosystems and micro climates packed into a relatively small area.
Getting around in Costa Rica can be fairly easy but you need to do a little research if you are not familiar with it. Buses are very cheap and quite efficient, at a slightly higher cost there are very good shuttle services available almost everywhere, Nature Air provides a good internal flight system and car rentals are available in most major towns. We rented a car for this two day trip and chose Vamos Rent a Car in Liberia based on a friend’s recommendation. We try to support Costa Rican companies whenever possible and were pleased with the customer service, cost and quality of the vehicle we received. We requested a Toyota Rav4 but there wasn’t one available so they gave us an upgrade to a Mitsubishi Montero diesel for the same price. The cost was $306 CAD for three days which included full insurance.
Driving in Costa Rica can certainly be a challenge as road conditions are quite variable, the drivers are very aggressive and you need to be prepared for almost anything. In the mountainous areas we always approach each corner expecting there to be a car, motorcycle, truck or small herd of cattle in our lane. Once you are off of the major highways the roads can be quite narrow and extremely twisting as they wind up and down hills. We’ll talk about some other safety tips in our next post. Don’t let this discourage you however as the freedom of having your own vehicle is well worth it.
We left Liberia on Monday morning and headed south on the Pan American Highway (Route 1) which is now a very nice divided 4 lane highway all the way to the bustling and usually hot town of Canas. Route 1 at this point takes you through rolling pastures dotted with the famous Guanacaste trees for which the province is named. From Canas we headed east to begin the climb up the foothills to the pleasant agricultural town of Tilaran.
Once you leave Tilaran you soon arrive at some some wonderful viewpoints across Lake Arenal. This is a man made lake which was expanded in 1979 and is the largest lake in Costa Rica. It provides water for hydroelectricity, irrigation and domestic use to a large portion of northwestern Costa Rica. If you are fortunate, as we were to experience a clear day you will get your first dramatic glimpse of Arenal Volcano in the distance at the opposite end of the lake.
The road then begins to wind its way around the lake offering many interesting photo opportunities. We stopped for lunch at one of our favorite little towns, Nuevo Arenal, which was created in 1979 with the building of a new dam to relocate the displaced town of Arenal. This isn’t a tourist town at all but has a fairly large expat community which seems to have adapted reasonably well to the mix of local and expat needs and services. Moya’s Place right on the main street has excellent pizza and pasta and we enjoyed a great lunch there.
Continuing around the lakeshore, the last part of the drive to Arenal is one of our favorites. There are pleasant lake views, small brooks coming down from the hills and the lush vegetation reaches across the road in places. Take your time along this section, enjoy the views and keep an eye open for monkeys, coatis, toucans and oncoming traffic as there are many sharp corners and one lane bridges.
After a pleasant half hour you will start to catch glimpses of the dam with more impressive views of the volcano which dominates the skyline. Wispy clouds around the peak and often plumes of smoke can accentuate the view. On this day it was very clear with only high clouds. Several small tour boats operate in this area and it is also close to the Mistico Hanging Bridges which we have visited twice and would highly recommend.
After driving across the Arenal Dam you start to get some excellent views of the volcano from close range. The volcano is 1633 m in height and was dormant for hundreds of years, until 1968 when it erupted unexpectedly destroying the small town of Tabacon. It experienced several more eruptions but has been dormant since 2010.
As you approach the town of La Fortuna you pass many thermal hot springs along the way. The most expensive and arguably lavish is Tabacon Hot Springs which is the site of a world class resort and spa. We visited these springs last year and they are truly wonderful. A day pass with either lunch or dinner runs about $85 USD per person. There are many other options including free hot springs in the area so it is best to check out the prices and reviews on Trip Advisor to see which one would suit your taste and budget.
The town of La Fortuna bustles year round as it a major tourist hub. It doesn’t have a traditional Costa Rican feel to it but there are certainly no shortage of places to stay or eat and things to do. It can be quite overwhelming trying to decide which tour company to trust your precious time and money to. Again, it is best to do your homework ahead of time and decide what type of activity is best for you.
We stayed at the Arenal Country Inn just on the outskirts of town as it promised nice gardens and grounds, the opportunity for a little bird watching, along with a bit of peace and quiet. We rented two cabinas and weren’t disappointed. Other than some very hard beds, the price of $75 CAD each including breakfast was well worth it.
After a long day of driving we all were all thrilled to relax in the pool, soak up the paradisaical setting and cool our bodies down. We were scheduled to head off on an amazing zip line adventure the next day so we had lots to talk about over supper. We were going to try and put our two day trip in one post but as you can see we have more than filled one. Stay tuned for the exhilarating next day – coming very soon!