If you’ve seen photos of the magnificent Arenal Volcano, you have likely heard of La Fortuna, the town at its base. Known for having some of Costa Rica’s best adventure activities, it attracts visitors who are ready to get their adrenaline fix in one of the country’s most beautiful spots.
That’s not all there is to enjoy in La Fortuna, however. Many visitors come with the hope of swimming next to the incredible waterfall there, seeing the color-changing waters of Río Celeste, and spotting diverse wildlife.
From breaking down how to visit the waterfall to other activities in La Fortuna and where to stay, this is a complete guide to one of the most sought-after destinations in Costa Rica:
La Fortuna Waterfall: What You Need to Know
At 230 feet tall, the La Fortuna Waterfall is a showstopper. As the water barrels into the pool below, you can feel its mighty force as it generates a misty breeze that is nothing short of magical. Speaking of the pool below, you can swim in its baby-blue water, adding to the already stellar experience of being so close to the cascade.
The waterfall is one of the most popular activities in La Fortuna. Unlike others I had been to in Costa Rica, I quickly realized that there was a great deal of complexity around visiting it. So you don’t make the same mistakes I did, here are the most important things you need to know:
How to visit La Fortuna Waterfall
The first thing to know is that the waterfall itself is part of Arenal National Park. However, some of the access points around it are on private property. I know, it sounds confusing.
One way to visit is to book a ticket through the Catarata La Fortuna company, which are $18 plus tax and include access to lockers and a platform that serves as a viewpoint, very close to the base of the falls. By visiting this way, you have access to everything nearby, including the swimming areas. The hike to the waterfall includes climbing 530 steps, so be ready for a hefty workout on the way back up.
The other way to visit is on a tour like this one. The downside is that you can’t access the overlook, but otherwise it’s almost the same experience. The entrance is not the same one, and you take a different nature path, along which you’ll find a hanging bridge and hike along the river. I went this way and enjoyed it.
Best time to visit La Fortuna Waterfall
I visited La Fortuna Waterfall during rainy season, in July. Looking back, I would not recommend going during this time if you don’t plan on renting a car. I relied on a tour to get to the waterfall, as the price of taxis to get there plus the entrance fee would have set me back almost as much as a tour. The tour included additional activities, so this made the most sense for me.
However, doing that means that you don’t have control over what time you get to the waterfall. When I went, there were so many people there that it was hard to move around. Then it started to rain, and we quickly had to leave, as the rainy conditions can make the rocks slippery and therefore dangerous. I also saw the water dramatically change color from bright baby blue to brown as it rained, which was less than ideal.
If you rent a car in La Fortuna, aim to get to the waterfall right when the entrance opens at 7am. That way, you beat the tour crowds and have a better chance of seeing the blue water, as the rain usually comes in the afternoon. The latest you can enter is 4pm; the entrance closes at 5pm.
Swimming at La Fortuna Waterfall
There are two areas where you can swim here. One is in Río Fortuna, the river that flows from the waterfall. It has varying depths, and the swimming area stretches about a hundred feet, with large boulders speckled throughout. The bright blue water is stunning, especially in contrast with the deep greens of the surrounding rain forest.
The other swimming area is at the base of the waterfall. You can try to see how close you can get to the fall itself, but the sheer force of the water plummeting down creates a strong current, so you won’t get very far from the water’s edge. In any case, this swimming area is beautiful, and the cool temperatures are a welcome change from the thick heat.
More Things to Do in La Fortuna, Costa Rica
1. Relax in the hot springs
Due to volcanic activity from Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna is rich in hot springs. There are many places to choose from where you can go for a soak, with a wide range in prices and specs. Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa is the most famous. You don’t have to be a guest at the resort to visit the hot springs, which include a more natural hot river area in addition to hot spring pools. The day passes here range from $75 to $110 and include at least one meal at the resort. This was pricey for me, so I went on a mission to find a more affordable option.
I checked out Relax Termalitas (see map below for the location) which was only $18. Here you’ll find several pools with varying sizes and heat levels. I enjoyed soaking in the hottest pool, but I have to admit that it felt more like a cheap waterpark than a natural hot spring. This was also one of the only places I visited in La Fortuna where I was the odd one out as a foreigner, as it’s more of a local hangout.
Another one that I visited was Baldi Hot Springs, which has day passes starting at $40. It has a more elevated feel than Termalitas but the same type of layout, with several pools at different temperatures. I enjoyed Baldi a lot more, because there was overall a better selection of pools.
2. Take a dip in a hot river
If you want to experience a hot spring for free, you can go down to Río Chollín. It’s the same hot river that goes through Tabacón but is completely free and easy to access. This is a popular spot among locals and gets very full during the day, so visit in the morning for a better chance of having some peace and quiet in the river.
To get to Chollín, follow the signs for the Tabacón resort. Once you pass the entrance to Tabacón, the entrance to the free hot river is on the opposite side of the street. There’s nowhere to park besides right on the side of the road. If you take a taxi, just let them know you’re going to Chollín, and they should know where to drop you off.
Keep in mind that the river is dangerous to visit when there is heavy rainfall. The rain causes the river to rise rapidly, plus the once-bluish river turns a muddy brown.
3. Go zip-lining over the rain forest
La Fortuna is the go-to destination in Costa Rica for adventurous travelers who want to get their adrenaline pumping. You’ll notice right away that there are ample opportunities for zip-lining advertised around town.
Arenal Mundo Adventures is one of the best places to go zip-lining in La Fortuna, because of the variety of cables they have and the value for the price. The AMA Extreme Tour offers seven canopy lines, round-trip transportation from your accommodations, and a naturalist guide for $54 plus tax.
4. Head out on a tour
Costa Rica felt to me like the land of the tours, with what felt like hundreds of different companies all operating in the same place and offering nearly identical experiences. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. I actually felt like I was able to visit more places than I would have otherwise, since the tours take the pressure off of finding transportation, which is tricky in La Fortuna.
If you are backpacking like I was, consider doing at least one full-day tour to get your bearings when you arrive. I did this waterfall, Arenal Volcano, and hot springs tour, which was a great value for the price as it included all park fees, lunch, and access to a hot spring at the end. I ended up booking another tour with the same company, Red Lava Tours, to go to Río Celeste as well.
5. Have the ultimate white-water rafting experience
Rafting is another popular adrenaline-pumping activity in La Fortuna that attracts thousands of visitors per year. There is a seemingly endless number of companies that offer white-water rafting experiences, like this one that you can book on Get Your Guide. It includes transportation, a meal, and a guide.
Joining a tour is the easiest way to go white-water rafting in La Fortuna, as most companies operate the same way. They almost always provide hotel pickup and drop-off, making transportation easier. The rafting sites are outside of La Fortuna, so having transportation is a huge plus.
6. Try to catch a glimpse of the Arenal Volcano
I have to sadly report that I never saw the top of the Arenal Volcano while I was in La Fortuna, due to the weather conditions. Since the clouds hang so low here, it’s tough to get a glimpse of it during the rainy season.
The sun sets behind the volcano, so heading out to the main street in La Fortuna for sunset means you might be able to see an impressive display of colors, with the silhouette of the volcano adding to the scenery.
7. Admire Río Celeste’s vibrant color
The bright-blue Río Celeste flows through the Tenorio Volcano National Park, about 90 minutes from La Fortuna. I went on a tour to Tenorio, since getting there without a car proved to be more expensive. The park is smaller than Arenal National Park, but just as packed with wildlife and natural wonders to see.
Río Celeste is reason enough to visit the park, as its blue color is a spectacular sight on its own. The trails in the park weave through the jungle, running parallel to the river for sometime before eventually crossing it on a small hanging bridge.
8. Don’t miss out on the Río Celeste Waterfall
If you thought Río Celeste was impressive, wait until you see the waterfall. This massive cascade is truly a magical sight, as the white falls contrast beautifully with the lush green foliage and bright blue water.
There are hundreds of steps leading down to the waterfall, and the way back up is a doozy. Bring plenty of water — you’ll need it! Another important tip for visiting the Río Celeste waterfall is that it gets quite crowded. I didn’t have the option of when to visit, since I was at the mercy of the tour schedule, but if I were to do it again, I’d go on my own and try to enter the park right when it opens at 8am.
9. See the work of “God’s Paintbrush”
After seeing the color of Río Celeste and admiring it again at the waterfall, you might be left wondering how the water gets its hue. At the site called El Teñidero within Tenorio Volcano National Park, you can see the chemical reaction that causes the change in the river’s color with your own eyes.
Local legend has it that this is where God cleaned his paintbrush while painting the sky, giving the river its color. Guides will tell you that these two versions of the story, the scientific and the spiritual, are equally revered and important to the Costa Rican people.
10. Spot wildlife
The sheer volume of wildlife in La Fortuna is impressive, which makes it an obvious choice for animal enthusiasts. In both Arenal and Tenorio Volcano National Parks, I couldn’t believe how many different kinds of animals there were, many of which I’d never seen before! Since I opted out of having a guide in Manuel Antonio (five hours to the south), I went for tours in La Fortuna. This totally paid off, because my guides were experts at spotting animals, even from far away. From rare varieties of Quetzal birds to brightly colored snakes and hidden tarantulas, I was amazed to see so many critters. There are also sloths, frogs, lizards, monkeys, and small ground mammals to see.
If this sounds right up your alley, consider this twilight safari tour, which takes place on the Peñas Blancas River.
11. Hike the Bogarín Trail
If a friend in San José hadn’t mentioned visiting the Bogarín Trail, I might have missed it. I’m so glad I didn’t, because it was one of my favorite places in all of La Fortuna. The trail, unlike the national parks, is on private property and maintained by the owner and his team of conservationists.
This park is small but mighty. It only has about 1.5 miles of walking trails, but there’s an impressive density of wild animals living there. I saw a sloth, several red and blue tree frogs, a couple of small snakes, and dozens of types of birds here — all without a guide.
You can visit the Bogarín Trail without a guide for $15 plus tax, or book a group tour for $50. A guided tour is great if you want a more in-depth experience, although I thoroughly enjoyed having the freedom to walk along the trails on my own.
Where to Stay in La Fortuna
There is a wide range of accommodations in La Fortuna. From quaint Airbnbs to small hotels to gigantic hot springs resorts, there’s truly something for every kind of traveler. Since I was looking for something more affordable and centrally located, I went with FAS, a small hotel just a block away from the town center. It’s a family-owned hotel with only eight rooms, and it grants free access to some nearby hot springs.
I loved the mom-and-pop atmosphere of FAS and got to meet the owner’s whole family. As a solo female traveler, I can wholeheartedly recommend this place because of the warm hospitality I received there. You can book your stay at FAS through Hostelworld.
For other types of travelers, here are my recommendations for where to stay in La Fortuna:
Backpackers on a budget: Poshpackers Hostel
Located right on the main street in La Fortuna across from the town center, you’ll find Poshpackers Hostel. Focusing on elevating the backpacker experience while keeping prices affordable, it has some of the best rates for the value in La Fortuna. Dorms are just $18 per night; private rooms start at $56. Comparatively, other hostels in the area begin around $20 for a dorm room and $70 for a private room, so Poshpackers is a bargain.
Mid-range travelers with a car: Casa Luna Hotel & Spa
With nature at its doorstep, Casa Luna Hotel & Spa makes sure that guests can enjoy stunning views of Arenal Volcano and the surrounding jungle. The hotel has its own nature trails, along with a pool and four jacuzzis. Casa Luna is about two miles away from La Fortuna’s town center, which makes it a great option for travelers who have a car, because you’ll be able to escape the bustle of the city and take advantage of the seclusion.
Rooms at Casa Luna Hotel & Spa start at $160 per night, which is about mid-range for this area.
Looking for luxury: Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa
When it comes to luxury stays in La Fortuna, it doesn’t get much better than Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa. First of all, it’s most well known for its natural hot springs and one of the only such resorts that has access to the hot river itself, as opposed to the man-made pools that you’ll find at other resorts.
Rooms at Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa start around $300 per night and go up to around $700. Considering a day pass for just the hot springs starts at $75, staying here and enjoying the hot springs for no additional cost makes a lot of sense.
How to Get to La Fortuna
This is one of the easiest destinations to get to in Costa Rica due to its popularity. From San José, you can take a bus to La Fortuna at Terminal 7-10 for about $5 and the trip takes between 4-6 hours depending on traffic. Go to the station the day before you travel to check the schedule, as it isn’t posted online.
If you are coming from Monteverde like I was, I recommend taking a bus-boat-bus shuttle like this one. Lake Arenal is between Monteverde and La Fortuna, and makes for an elevated travel experience if you get to take a boat across the lake. It’s definitely more pricey than taking public transportation, but completely worth it.
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Now you’re ready to start planning your next epic Costa Rican adventure!
Of these things to do in La Fortuna Costa Rica, what are you most excited for?