La Fortuna

We decided to wait out the weekend at our quiet spot on the lagoon in Arenal. Even on Sunday, this place was basically deserted which is a rare treat. We headed to the nearby restaurant with the hope of using the internet. Instead we enjoyed some local beers with a fantastic view of the lake, the internet as is often the case was present but not working. 

We were planned to head north to Rio Celeste on Monday morning, but we had heard mixed reviews from fellow overlanders. The general consensus seems that if the weather is nice then it maybe worth going. Go after rain then those blue waters seem to be more of a grey. 

“Don’t go out of you way for it”. We were advised.  

As Sunday rained all day and most of the night, when we awoke to Monday morning to yet more drizzle we decided to skip it and head south towards La Fortuna. This small town has enough activities to keep you busy for weeks, if you can afford them that is. The large range of camping activities is not reflected in camping options. Most people frequenting this spot are likely staying in the resorts with their thermal pools that line the side of the road. 

We did find one reasonable camping option though, another hot spring resort that offers camping outside the entrance for a reasonable £5 per night. While the wifi was a not the best, to have it at all was pretty good for that price. If only there had been a hot shower, it would have been perfect. Still, we were happy enough and we made plans for how we would spend our time here as we sat in the shadow of Volcano Arenal.

There is a lot of things to do, but most of them cost about $50 per person or more. You can hike the volcano, go zip lining in the cloud forest, have a guided sloth tour or visit the thermal pools and still the list goes on. Us budget travellers though had to be a little more selective. 

We debated going to the Mistico Bridges hanging park. It looked kind of cool, all the suspension bridges through the tree tops but we now had a bit of experience it seemed unlikely we would see much wildlife. Therefore, we would in essence be paying over $50 for a 3km hike with some bridges. In the end, as we hadn’t done too much ‘touristy stuff’ we decided to go. It was only a short half hour drive, though the access road was definitely on the steep side. We parked up in the busy car park and while we put on our walking boots, Lizzie escaped. 

Normally, she’s the easy cat. You only have to open the box on the food and there she is. Every now and again though, she doesn’t want to be in the camper. She chose this exact spot, in the national park where pets are not allowed to take us for a tour of the car park. Eventually we managed to grab her and with the cats stowed, we parted with our money and headed to the entrance. 

The park is beautifully maintained and features an easy trail that wanders through the cloud forest. You can pay for a guide for nearly double the price or you can just wander around yourself.

We decided to try and make the most of other peoples guides where possible. Although, it didn’t seem there was too much to spot apart from lots of monkeys.

The bridge were pretty cool, if a bit hard to walk on. Walk too enthusiastically and the whole thing would start bouncing around, causing you to stagger along it like a drunk. It’s a good job there was handrails. 

Despite our best efforts, we didn’t spot any sloths not that I was too surprised there. We made do with some picturesque waterfalls and the views out across to the volcano. 

It takes around two hours to wander slowly around the park and by the time we reached the end I had mixed feelings. We saw a few animals, but nothing new.

It’s a nice walk, but is it really worth that money? I’m not sure it’s justified. Perhaps that’s why we’ve avoided some of the higher priced things here as for us on a smaller budget than a regularly holiday maker and having seen a lot of stuff already it easier to be disappointed. Saying that, this is still a cheaper activity by Costa Rican standards. 

You definitely can’t feel ripped off by something free though. So, for our next stop we decided to head to the thermal river. You park up roadside and while it’s free, we paid a small amount to one of the various people on the road to watch the van. Down at the river it’s pretty busy but there was still room for us to find a small pool to ourselves and sit in the lovely warm waters for an hour or so. 

We have been getting back into our walking recently and so we had been checking out the possibility of hiking Cerro Chato. This is a hill next to the volcano, supposedly a closed trail it takes you up a rather challenging route to the volcanic lake at the top where you can cool off after a muddy ascent. We weren’t sure if we were allowed to hike the trail, but it was still being reviewed online so we decided to head that way and see.

The trail runs across private land and therefore to access it you have to pay. As it’s technically not legal to hike, the Arenal Lodge where it begins charge you a $12 fee per person to park your car and have access to the pool. They then tell you how to access the hike which firstly goes up to an amazing viewpoint of the surrounding area. This part is fine and only takes about half an hour to complete on a straightforward track. In fact, you could drive up here with a 4×4 and what a campsite it would be. 

From here, the trail continues steeply up the hill. It’s clearly popular, deep footprints carved into the hillside. We could see why people had warned against doing it in the rain. It’s a purely mud path, right now after no recent rain it wasn’t to slippery, but even a small shower would turn this clay hillside into a skating rink.

From here, it’s only about 2km to the top of the hill. After a short distance, you enter the trees and a little way up there’s a sign saying you can’t keep going. I expected that there wouldn’t be many people here, but actually there was quite a lot. We met probably around 20 other people on the trail, including two locals acting as guides. The path is a steep climb through the trees. It’s probably the easiest trail ever to follow, it being carved several feet deep into the ground at points. 

This is not so much a hike but a climb. It’s good that it’s in a wood as you need as many tree roots and branches as possible to pull yourself onwards and upwards. 

It’s basically impossible to stay clean as you scramble though the mud walls. We trekked on for around an hour. 

As we reached the top of the crater, the bright green waters of the lake came into view below. We had been warned by several people we passed on the way up that the water was very cold and that the descent to the crater lake was very steep. These things both turned out to be very true. The descent to the lake is near vertical at points and doens’t have quite a many handy things to hold onto. You’re gonna get dirty as you scramble down on your hands. 

After this exercise we were pretty hot, a refreshing dip sounded amazing. Firstly we ate our packed lunch, sharing the little beach on the side of the lagoon with a group of young loud backpackers. In retrospect, we should have dived straight in the water. The sun went behind the clouds and a breeze skimmed across the water cooling us down quite nicely. Having stood experimentally in the water, we could confirm that it was very very cold.

While we have seen two crater lakes, you couldn’t swim in them. The first in Mexico, was a toxic sulphur filled affair that would make you infinitely smellier for going in the water. The water of the second in El Salvador was clearly boiling. 

I felt like it was necessary to go in this one, despite the fact that I wasn’t actually that hot anymore. I water for the sun to come out and got in vey quickly. That wasn’t water that you could ease into, normally after a few minutes it goes from refreshing to tolerable. For me, I think my feet were just starting to go numb instead. Only one of the other group went in, and like us, it was a brief visit. It’s probably the coldest water I’ve swam in, but at least now I can say I’ve swum in a volcano crate. Bucket list – tick. 

It was good to wash off some of the mud we had acquired on the way here, but ultimately quite futile as by the time we were ready to retrace our steps we were muddy again almost instantly. The hike back isn’t all that much quicker. Generally a descent is much faster, but as you’re still climbing around through tree roots it was a pretty slow business. Even though it was a challenge, it was a fantastic hike that definitely gives you a feeling of accomplishment and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Back at the lodge, we had a beer by the poolside in the last of the sun. I was hoping for a nice hot shower, but when we saw it was a cold poolside one we settled for washing off our legs and left it at that. 

We spent our evening back at the campsite chatting with a lovely Israeli couple travelling in a rented camper. There were also some Costa Rican ladies in a big RV and a few families in tents. It was a popular spot and I’m not surprised, with most of the other options be double, if not triple the price. 

With time on our visa slowly ticking away, we would be wrapping things up here soon. We had one more place to visit on our list though, the Bogarin Trail. Recommended to us by several people as being the best place to spot sloths, we felt obliged. We had only seen one on our night hike and that was pretty far away. With guided sloth tours being the best part of $100, this trail was a bargain at just $30 for the two of us. Hanno and Kikki had stayed on site at the cabanas but unfortunately they were all booked up when we asked. It’s a shame, we would have loved a hot showers. It’s also great to be on site, as once you’ve paid you can access the short trail as many times as you like and sometimes with the unpredictably of nature you need a good bit of time to spot things. 

We parked up road the back and headed in. By the entrance are some chairs placed around several bits of fruit that attract the locals birds. Here you can sit and watch for as long as you wanted. We decided to walk around first before coming back. After our hike yesterday, a sit down at the end would be quite appealing. 

Ahead of us down the trail, we spotted a capybara in the distance, unfortunately the people in front scared it off before we got anywhere near it. I suppose we were about half way around when I actually spotted a sloth.

It must have definitely been a case of looking in the right place at the right time and for a minute I wasn’t sure I was right, then it moved. High up in the trees and very well camouflaged, these animals are not easy to spot unless they are moving. Something they are not particularly famous for. 

Finally though, we had seen one. A little further round, we bumped into one of the guys who had been on the coffee tour with us the other day. Now three pairs of eyes scanned for the elusive sloth. We spotted several toucans, again another species I hadn’t seen before, before we had completed our loop and were back at the reception. 

I was happy to collapse into a chair and watch some birds for a little while. There was a lot to see.

We decided we would walk the trail again in a bit and meanwhile went for some lunch. After enjoying our lunch sitting outside the van, we went and sat inside the van as the rain came. After a brief shower, it looked like the worst had passed and we headed back inside. I suppose I should have thought to put on some bug spray as the brief shower had made the woods come alive with mosquitos. It was worth revisiting the trail again though. We had only just passed the entrance for the second time when we found another sloth in the tree above us. I investigated a rustling in the bushes and found this rather colourful lizard too. 

We walked around the trail a little quicker than the last time, spotting the same sloth that we had seen the first time. That’s one thing, at least once you’ve found them they don’t go anywhere for a while. We also got to see this gorgeous owl, sleeping high up in the tree tops thanks to one of the guides. 

Now we picked up the pace even more as we were being eaten alive and the rain was starting to spit again. Finally though, we had spotted the elusive sloth and I felt we could now leave La Fortuna, mission accomplished. 

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