OK, so this will be the start of what I hope will be many travel guides, but I think La Fortuna is an important start, because much of the information is geared towards travelers staying at all inclusive resorts and doing guided tours. Information for independent, solo travelers is much more scarce.
There are lots of ways to get to La Fortuna, including renting a car (expensive) or taking a taxi (very expensive). But if you are willing to put up with some minor inconveniences for a taste of local flavor, the public bus is the way to go.
There are direct buses to Fortuna that originate from San Jose and stop in Alajuela. Remember that, because most places try to send you to San Jose first. You can get on a bus about a kilometer from the airport that goes directly to Fortuna. The one I got departed from Alajuela at around 12:15PM. Alternatively, you can get a bus in Alajuela that goes to Ciudad Quesada, and from there get on a bus to Fortuna. You’ll know you’re in Fortuna when you see a bunch of tourist traps and the bus driver stops at an actual station and says “Fortuna”. The public bus costs about six bucks, takes from 3-5 hours depending on traffic and what not, and is first come first serve, so expect that you might stand for part of the trip. Watch your bags. Seriously, watch them, anything that goes into the luggage bins below has a habit of walking off at busy stops.
There are a number of hostels and backpacker lodgings in Fortuna. I stayed at Arenal Backpackers resort, which is one of the most expensive hostels at 15 bucks a night. But, it was the only one with lots of people, so that’s where I went. If you go at a busier time, or if you enjoy being solo all the time, you can go to the cheaper locations.
Arenal Backpackers is on the main road, if you turn left heading up from the bus station. It’s uphill at any rate, walking towards the Arenal Volcano. You’ll know you’re getting close when you see the Burger King sign on the right side of the road, about 100 meters up the road on the same side is Arenal Backpackers. The 15 dollars buys you sheets and a bed, but that’s about it. They have lockers you can lock yourself, an expensive bar and restaurant and a pool.
Food runs the gamut here. For those looking for cheap local food, there are some pretty solid Sodas that sell good food cheap. My favorite was Soda Vazquez, where for about 2500 Colones (5 bucks) I got rice, beans, chicken, vegetables, fried plantains, and some kind of beets in cream sauce that were excellent, and I hate beets. I also split pizza with some friends at Latin Pizza, it’s the cheapest pizza joint in town. But don’t get the cheesy crust, it’s not worth it. For drinks, you can drink at the bar in the hostel, which is expensive, or if you’re willing to hoof it, you can go to one of the mini supers and get a liter bottle of Imperial or Pilsen for 1500 Colones plus a small refundable deposit. So I was drinking the equivalent of three beers at a slightly lesser price than one hostel beer. Math winning.
Stuff To Do
Fortuna has nearly limitless adventure and ecotourism options for any and all wanderer. The trick is doing it cheap. If you have the resources, you can jet off every day on fully guided excursions to go rafting, hiking, canyoneering, or what have you. But if you are on a more shoestring budget, here are some options:
Fortuna Swimming Hole – This is a pool after a small waterfall about a kilometer from the town center. Go to the bus station and look for the only road leading out of town that direction. Walk down the road and you will see a sign for the Fortuna Waterfall and a road heading right, towards the Volcano. Stay on the paved road you were on and shortly you’ll see a bridge. The river it crosses is the swimming pool, so hike down and jump in, or use the rope swing. Keep an eye on your stuff and be forewarned, the locals can be assertive in striking up a conversation with someone they fancy – this goes for guys too, I got two phone numbers the first day in town. But, they are all harmless and are probably more amused to flirt with gringos than anything. Also, be careful jumping into the pool and try not to swim over the waterfall.
Fortuna Waterfall – This is a nearby attraction, within walking distance of town. To get there, walk up the main road towards the Volcano until you get to a blue supermarket labeled Christian Super No 2 (I believe). Then turn left and walk down that road, staying to the left when it hits a Y intersection, crossing a small stream, and then you will come to the end of that road on a T intersection. Turn right and walk uphill, wherein you will find the entrance for the waterfall. It’s 10 dollars to hike down, and worth it. The river pools above and then bursts through what appeared to be a basalt fracture of sorts, falling about 210 feet straight down into another pool, where you can swim and lounge about. There is a trail across the river that allegedly goes back to Fortuna, but I couldn’t confirm this. The walk to the trailhead takes about 1.5 hours and from there it’s about 15 minutes to the base of the falls. Worth it.
From the waterfall, you can also hike to the top of Cerro Chato, a small volcanic crater lake about 700 meters above the trailhead for the waterfall. The hike is long and difficult, – it took about two hours of slogging to get to the top – and the view from the top wasn’t that great. So while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the whole hike, you can walk up part way onto exposed, deforested slopes and get great views of Arenal and Fortuna. I think you were supposed to pay another 10 bucks for Cerro Chato, but there was no one at the pay station, so…I accidentally… the whole thing.
Hot springs – I’ve never been to a hot springs before, so I have nothing to compare it to. I went to Baldi for about 30 bucks, which included dinner. Split a cab with six others there for a dollar a person. If you like hot springs, water parks for adults, swim up bars and such nonsense, you’ll like Baldi. If you like natural hot springs, more seclusion, and less drunk gringos doing the water slide over and over again, there is one called Tapicon which is natural and more expensive. There’s also a free one, which had I known about, I would have gone there. Protip: Drinks are expensive at Baldi, but they neither check your bags nor seem to care if you discreetly drink from the bottle of rum you smuggled in.
Zip Line – This was the real super touristy thing I did. I went with Sky Trek/Sky Adventures and it seemed like the extra 20 bucks was worth it. Miser Mistake: I took the pubic bus to the Arenal Park entrance for a dollar (smart) but then tried to walk the 8km to Sky Trek (not so smart) it was a bit of a slog and it rained, and I found out later the Fortuna shuttle is 6 bucks. So I took the shuttle back, having walked the entire way there. Upside: Either the fences were broken, or cows can walk with impunity on Costa Rican roads because they were rambling all over the place.
So there you go, La Fortuna. I’m going to put up pictures when I get back to faster interwebs – San Salvador is lacking in this regard – and I’ll add more thoughts later, but the main point is: If you take public buses, walk places, eat at Sodas and stay in hostels, Fortuna is more than manageable. Just don’t expect the Volcano to erupt, because it no longer does, despite what “reputable” tour agencies say