Arenal Volcano was the second stop on our Costa Rican road trip, and it was a pretty smooth drive from San Jose to the district of La Fortuna. I originally reserved a small SUV for our journey, but when we got to Avis, they only had economy cars left over. So, unfortunately, we got stuck with a Nissan Versa. After doing countless research about driving in Costa Rica, I was worried that my Nissan Versa wouldn’t cut it. But after speaking with the car rental salesman, he recommended that we just drive slowly on the unpaved roads. So, with hesitation, we took the car. Overall, I didn’t have any issues with driving around the country in that car. But if I had a choice, I would still pick a SUV over the economy cars because of the peace of mind it can provide. There are rarely any potholes within the city and on the major highways and roads, so you won’t have to worry if you plan to stay in San Jose. But once you start venturing away from the main highway and going off the beaten path, it turns into unpaved and gravel roads which can seem daunting to drive on. The beaten path can beat up your car!
Before going to La Fortuna, I wanted to stay at one of the hotels on the List which is located in the rain forest. Chachagua Rainforest Eco Lodge is about a 1.5 hour drive north of San Jose, and technically on the way to Arenal. I really wanted to just stay one night there, but during high season they require you to stay for a minimum of two nights. Patricia, the book’s author, usually takes the luxury route when staying at hotels so I wasn’t too worried about staying here. However, I was shocked by how wrong she was about recommending this place. Were they skimping out on amenities to justify themselves as being eco-friendly? I understood we were in the middle of a rain forest, but I wasn’t expecting us to be greeted by bugs throughout the night. The entrance doors were flimsy and weren’t secure enough to keep the bugs out. There’s also about a 2 mile drive of unpaved roads to get to the hotel, and that’s just one way. It was quite annoying to be going 5 miles per hour on this dirt gravel road in hopes that we don’t puncture our tires. I’ve seen other cars similar to ours go much faster, but I wanted to be safe with our driving. Also, be aware of a small river crossing you will need to take your car to get to the parking lot. Overall, the only upside to this hotel was the food because I enjoyed my dinner both nights I was there. But learn from my mistake and skip this hotel and go straight to La Fortuna.
The hotel we stayed at after Chachagua was directly inside the Arenal Volcano National Park, called Arenal Observatory Lodge. It was obviously a much better stay than the one before, and this hotel I can highly recommend. Obviously there are different room views you can get with each room type, but you should stick to the volcano view rooms with a balcony. The room itself was basic and nothing really to write home about. However, the properties amenities really made the stay worthwhile. There are several short trails on the property you can hike on, which we did the first day we were there. One of the highlights of this hike we did was the ‘Nest’, which is a 92 foot metal observation tower you can walk up to the top and observe wildlife in the center of the rain forest. It’s not for the faint of heart as it is scary walking up the stairs of that tower, with even some strong wind allowing the tower to sway a little bit back and forth. If you are tight on time, you can just wait until the next morning at 8:30 a.m. every day (which starts at the reception office) to do the free guided walk that lasts for about 2.5 hours. The tour took us on most of the hiking trails, with a fun tractor ride back to the hotel at the end of it. Please be mindful that this hotel property is secluded and isn’t walking distance to anything remotely close by, so all your meal’s will be at the hotel restaurant. Lucky for me, the dinner prices were reasonable and not overly priced. As noted here, breakfast was included with our stay. Even though the food was delicious, I think the bigger draw of the restaurant was the amazing volcano view on its deck. There were a few chairs on the deck facing the volcano, but I think there should have been much more. I would have loved to sit on the deck overlooking the lake and volcano with my morning coffee.
Another attraction in La Fortuna are the hot springs, where the top two I would say is Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa and Baldi Hot Springs & Resort. I think Baldi Hot Springs was the more affordable option because we saw a lot of people trying to enter. Whereas Tabacon felt a bit more exclusive. I opted to try out Tabacon because it was on the List, but Baldi (from the exterior) could have been just as fun. If you stay at Tabacon, access to the thermal springs are included in your hotel reservation. But if not, you can easily get a day pass, which prices range between $70-$94 depending on the season and includes a buffet meal with access. If you want to be romantic and stay away from the crowds, there are lots of little pockets of hot springs you can go and relax as a couple. If you want to add a little more excitement, there’s a small water slide and swim up bar you can enjoy.
If you plan to go to Poas Volcano instead, which is a much closer volcano to San Jose, be sure to make reservations the day before to get access. Since the volcano is currently active, there is only a limited number of people that can go inside the park. You will need to wear a helmet and other safety gear when entering, and be sure to go earlier in the day to get a better chance at viewing the volcano.