The main attraction of La Fortuna is Volcan Arenal – the tall, nearly-perfect cone that lurks just west of town. The history of the volcano is so interesting to me – people used to live and farm at the base of it, either not realizing it was a volcano, or thinking that it was dormant.
On the morning of July 29, 1968, the volcano spontaneously erupted, and continued to erupt for several days. The ash, lava and rocks from Arenal covered an area of about 6 square miles. It destroyed three small villages and killed many people, livestock and crops. You can read more in-depth about it here: http://www.arenal.net/arenal-volcano-1968-eruption.htm
Arenal remained active until 2010. It was a huge tourist draw – people wanted to stay in hotels with a lava view! By the time Dave and I heard about Arenal, it had stopped spewing rocks and lava, although apparently it still releases hazardous gases, so hiking up to the crater is prohibited.
On Tuesday, we headed over to Arenal National Park to check out the hiking trails. There are two hiking options that take you around the lava flows from the 1968 eruption. The landscape is prehistoric looking – I kind of felt like we were walking around in Jurassic Park, except without the dinosaurs.
We took a lot of GoPro videos, which I haven’t yet compiled and edited, except for this little cameo right here:
Towards the end of the hike, we came across a couple of capuchin monkeys. They had been in the middle of the trail, but then they hid themselves as soon as I saw them. We were trying to get a peek at them, and we could hear them making scary growling noises, but we could not see them! For a moment, I was afraid they might jump out of the grass and attack us, but luckily they aren’t those kind of primates.
We grabbed casados for lunch in La Parada, which became one of our regular restaurants for a quick, delicious meal. Then, we spent the afternoon chilling by the pool at the hotel. Oh yeah.
One of the many street dogs. This one looked like my dad’s dog Bruce.
Veggie casado for me and lengua in salsa for Dave.
Swans on our bed!
Not too shabby…
This is the life!
That evening we went back to Ecocentro Danaus for our night rainforest tour. Our guide was a young guy named Elias who spoke perfect English, which I appreciated. Right away he showed us a momma and baby sloth and told us all about how the green algae that grows on sloths is a symbiotic relationship. The algae gets passed on from the mother to baby during the baby’s first months of life. Not only does it help to camouflage the sloths, but they can obtain nutrients by licking it! He also explained how the sloths will climb up or down in the trees, depending on the temperature. And here I just thought they were super lazy.
In addition to the sloth, we saw all kinds of frogs, insects and even a little caiman. Elias apologized for there not being more animals to see – he had hoped to show us the big caiman and some snakes, but I was happy with what we saw.
After the tour, we had dinner at Life House, which was the place we’d eaten lunch at the day before. It was kind of late, so we were one of the only customers in the place, which made it feel a little awkward. But the food was good!
On Monday morning, while our friends and family back home were commuting to work in the cold and snow, Dave and I were preparing to visit our first Costa Rican waterfall!
Of course we had to start with the hotel breakfast – fruit, eggs, gallo pinto, and toast – which was just what we needed to fuel the adventure.
La Catarata Fortuna
La Catarata Fortuna, aka La Fortuna Waterfall is located only a few miles outside the town of La Fortuna. It was a gorgeous drive, with breathtaking views of both Arenal and Cerro Chato.
Selfie with volcano
It cost about $15 for admission to the park, and it helps to have a healthy pair of legs. There are over 400 steps to climb down to the waterfall! By the time we were at the bottom, I could feel my calves quivering and I just hoped they weren’t visibly twitching.
The waterfall is breathtaking. Seen from the viewing platform above, it looks deceivingly delicate, like a lock of silver hair streaming through the forest. At the bottom of the stairs, looking up the 200+ feet of thundering whitewater, you really get a sense of it’s might.
Selfie with a waterfall
This tree was hugging me!
Ok, it hugged Dave too
Posing by the pool
The river bends around to the left, where there are lots of shallow, calm areas. And rocks, of course. We spent a bit of time relaxing here, trying to capture video of fish with the GoPro, and enjoying the fresh water.
When we’d had our fill of calm, we climbed back up the few stairs to the pool at the base of the waterfall. People were swimming here. Of course we had to try it out too.
The water was surprisingly cold (though not as cold as a Vermont waterfall), and extremely turbulent. There really was no shallow area – you just sort of slid in and had to swim. There were some rocks to stand on, but the water was moving around us so vigorously that I couldn’t keep my balance. The closer you got to the waterfall, the more turbulent it got. So much for that romantic vision of putting my head under the waterfall and tossing my hair back sexily. I’m pretty sure it would break a person’s neck.
There was actually a lifeguard on the scene and a lifesaver (is that what those foam rings are actually called?), but he was standing so far back from the water that I think a person could drown before he made it across the slippery rocks, untied the life preserver (ah, that’s what it’s called, right?) and threw it into the water.
I called it quits after a few minutes in the pool, preferring not to drown on my third day of vacation. Dave went back in with the GoPro, to try to get some action shots, but the camera would not cooperate. Note: learn to use your GoPro and troubleshoot any issues before you take it on vacation.
Moments later, two young women approached him and asked him to take their picture. The three of the struggled to remain upright in the water during the transaction. I ate some cheetos and watched from the sidelines.
After drying ourselves off we were ready to hike back up the 400+ steps.
I was a bit worried, since I have weak lungs, weak legs, and – frankly – am just a weak person all around. It ended up not being too bad. We (I) only had to stop to rest once. We stopped next to a mother and grandmother who were carrying a very fat baby. The grandmother gave me a knowing look and said “gordito!” as she shuffled the baby onto her other hip. He was smiling broadly and clearly not concerned with the fact that he was overweight and weighing his people down.
Once we got to the top, we changed out of our wet clothes and had a look around the butterfly garden there. There was also an orchid garden, but the entrance was closed off because they were doing construction in the area. That’s one of the downsides to visiting in the off-season – not everything you might want to see or do is available.
The Rainforest Chocolate Tour
While perusing the map the day before, we noticed there was a cacao farm along the route between la Fortuna and the waterfall. So we casually dropped in on our way back, and found out that a tour would be starting at 1. We had just enough time to eat some more snacks and slap some more sunscreen on my white self.
The tour began under a covered patio, where the guide gave a history of the natives use of the cacao fruit, and how it evolved over the years to the chocolate we know and love today.
We then walked around the farm, which not only had cacao plants, but also coffee, banana and lots of flowers. We learned about the different colored pods and how to tell when the fruit was ripe.
Then we gathered in another covered area, and the guide gave an interesting explanation and demonstration of how the cacao is harvested, the different components of the fruit and how it was used back in the day versus how it’s used now.
We got to taste the raw beans. They were covered with a slimy white goop, which is actually cocoa butter and felt quite lovely as I rolled it around on my tongue. We were warned not to try to chew the raw bean because it would be intolerably bitter.
He showed how the farmers dry the beans and let ferment them before grinding them up. Several people in the audience took turns grinding the dried beans. Then, the other guide showed how to pour the ground beans from one bowl into another, while blowing through the falling pieces, to blow the bits of shell away. She had a girl come up and try it, and it seemed much harder than it looked.
Luckily we were sitting in the back row and there were eager kids in front of us, so I didn’t have to embarrass myself with any of these activities.
We got to taste the ground up chocolate. It was kind of like tasting baking chocolate, only fresher. Not sweet, but not terrible, either.
They made us a drink of hot chocolate, which was good, but the highlight for me was when they had us line up and receive a spoonful of melted chocolate. There was a table full of toppings – sea salt, nuts, caramel, coffee, and different spices. I tried it with sea salt and it was so amazing, I had to go back and get another spoonful. I would have gone back for a third (they said we could have as much as we wanted), but by then the line had dwindled down and I didn’t want to look greedy. Plus, Dave said if I wasn’t careful, I would get the runs.
After we left the chocolate place, we were ready to get some lunch. It was close to 3 pm at this point, so we were pretty hungry.
I’d seen a sign in one of the restaurants in la Fortuna, proclaiming it to be the home of “The Best Vegetarian Food in Town”, so I suggested we try it. It was called Life House. At 3 pm, it was basically deserted, but a friendly waiter came over and took care of us quickly. I got a veggie burger and Dave got a chicken sandwich. Both were really yummy. We met the owner of the restaurant, who grows much of the food in his own garden. It was a neat place.
That evening we went to Ecocentro Danaus, which is a local conservation and education center. We’d read that they gave night forest tours. However, when we arrived, they were just closing up, and they told us to call and make a reservation for the next night. It was a gorgeous time for a drive though!