Congratulations! You made it all the way to Part 6 of our journey through Costa Rica.
You definitely deserve some sort of trophy or world-wide recognition for your achievement.
In the absence of my ability to reach through your screen and present you with some awe-inspiring plaque (C’mon technology! What are we paying you for?), I simply say, “Way to go, You! The fact that you’re reading these words right now brings me so much joy.”
Now that we’re both feeling good, I’m gonna have to politely ask that you hold on to your biscuits because today we are going to tear through 4 full days of fun in La Fortuna, Costa Rica.
La Fortuna is one of the most popular vacation spots in Costa Rica and likely the one place in Costa Rica you’ve heard of before. I can assure you it is as fantastic as everyone makes it out to be, so let’s cut the intro and dive right in.
In today’s post we’re going to experience the exciting hanging bridges at Mistico Parqué, swim, slide, and splash at the incredible (and amazingly abandoned) Los Laureles Waterpark, do some serious jungle-trekking (that’s probably a word, right?) up and around Volcano Arenal, and finally, we will feel the crushing weight of the giant 200 foot La Fortuna Waterfall.
Here we go!
Driving to La Fortuna
Before we can experience any of those things, we’ve got to pack up our humble, yet large, SUV and drive the 4 hours from Tamarindo to La Fortuna.
As we already discovered in Part 2, long-distance road trips in Costa Rica are quite enjoyable so we were excited to embark on another relaxing day of road travel.
I suppose it was bound to happen at some point, and this being our 15th day in the country I suppose I’m lucky it hadn’t happened yet, but today I got to experience getting stopped by a police officer in a foreign country…twice.
That’s right. TWICE! (I’m just that lucky!)
Now I must assure you, neither event was perpetuated by any illegal activity on my part. My driving record is impecc..ably scrubbed of all moving violations.
No, these Costa Rican stops occurred at what appeared to be random checkpoints.
Saying Hello to La Policia
At the first stop, I saw that officers had the two cars in front of us stopped and it appeared they were checking licenses.
The first thought I had was, “I hope this guy speaks English.”
He did not.
As I rolled down the window, the officer said something in Spanish including the word “licencia” so I quickly grabbed my license and handed it over.
He asked a few other questions about where we were from and how long we were staying in Costa Rica, which we did our best to answer in our broken Spanish.
Apparently, it was good enough because he handed my license back and we were quickly on our way.
Val and I were still chuckling about the experience when we suddenly encountered…our second checkpoint.
This one caught us off guard because the police officers were parked and standing on the side of the road, but they weren’t stopping the cars in front of us.
But as we approached, the officer walked towards our car and made the universal stopping hand signal to us.
Again, the officer didn’t speak any English and my attempts to communicate clearly indicated that I was no expert in Spanish either.
The officer quickly shifted his gaze to my wife and started speaking to her in Spanish.
Now, my wife is half Mexican and definitely looks like she can speak Spanish…but she can’t. Well, she doesn’t think she can. Her Español is better than she lets on.
So you can imagine the officer’s confusion when my wife looked at him and said, “No hablo Español.”
Now, imagine how much more confused he was when she proceeded to carry on a conversation with him in Spanish.
That wasn’t suspicious at all.
Luckily for us, the officer seemed to be in a good mood and we were soon back on the road.
No going to Costa Rican jail for us today!
Seriously…Driving to La Fortuna
With our momentary run-in with the law behind us, we found ourselves heading back in the direction of Liberia, the city in which we spent our first 10 days in Costa Rica.
It was a beautiful drive, but nothing unexpected.
About 30 minutes past Liberia is where the terrain started changing.
We knew that La Fortuna was in the shadow of Volcano Arenal. We knew that it was in a more mountainous region than we had been in so far.
But it’s not until you start driving through the beautiful lush jungle-covered mountains that you really experience the breathtaking beauty of the region.
For a solid hour, we were oooh-ing and aah-ing at the landscape every couple of minutes along with whichever kids were awake at the time.
We didn’t see anything resembling civilization for a long time. It was just one winding road working it’s way higher and higher through the rolling peaks and valleys.
Occasionally we would see houses on a hillside in what seemed like the middle of nowhere and we wondered what it must be like to live in such a beautiful place, but be so far from anyone else.
Just over 2 hours into our drive we got our first glimpse of these giant power-generating windmills planted on top of some of the mountain peaks.
Back home in south Texas, we have a handful of wind farms that we’ve driven by several times. But the nearest windmills are at least a quarter-mile from the highway, if not more. You can tell they’re big, but that’s from quite a distance.
In Costa Rica, some of the windmills are just 200 feet from the road and we recognized for the first time just how massive these things truly are. Luckily the speed limit is slow (and we hadn’t seen another car in over 30 minutes) because I found myself staring at the windmills and having trouble keeping my eyes on the road.
After 3 hours of winding mountainous driving, we were relieved to finally enter a small town whose name shall forever remain a mystery to us, and see a giant inflatable chicken outside a Pollolandia restaurant.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the pure joy that is Pollolandia, think of it as the Popeye’s Chicken of Central America.
It was a delicious and cheap way to feed a family of 6, and in Costa Rica where fast food was almost non-existent (or really expensive where it did exist), Pollolandia was a tiny slice of chicken thigh heaven.
Throughout our 22-day journey, we ate many a meal at Pollolanda, and can honestly say it’s a great meal at a great price.
(Announcer Voice: This post brought to you by Pollolandia – the Popeye’s Chicken of Central America.)
Refueled (physically) on healthy doses of protein and carbs, we hopped back in the car and realized we still had another hour of driving ahead of us. So we cranked up the jams and hooked a right out of the Pollolandia parking lot headed for La Fortuna.
The Lost Iguana
Quick backstory: When I was in high school, my sister had a friend who’s mother owned a resort in Costa Rica called the Lost Iguana. That sounded super awesome, but when I was in high school, Costa Rica was a lot like Jupiter – I had definitely heard of it, but there was no way I was ever going to go there.
In fact, I had mostly forgotten that little fun fact.
So imagine my surprise when, as we’re driving in the rain down a tiny road in the middle of a mountain valley Valarie says, “Hey look. The Lost Iguana. Isn’t that your sister’s friend’s mom’s resort?”
I turned my head just in time to see the sign as I was simultaneously recalling this memory from over 20 years ago.
I couldn’t believe it. I pulled the car over and quickly jumped out and got a picture with the sign.
Thanks to our always-on, mobile wifi hotspot in the car, I was able to send the picture to my sister immediately and confirm this was actually her friend’s mom’s place.
Small world, huh?
No Seriously. Can You Just Get to La Fortuna Already?
Those were our thoughts exactly as we were finally pulling into La Fortuna.
The mountains are gorgeous, but it had been our longest road day yet stuffed into our giant SUV, so we were definitely ready to just be there.
We found our La Fortuna Airbnb tucked away in a small neighborhood about 3 blocks from the quaint city center.
This was ideal because that meant we had two grocery stores and several restaurants just minutes from us.
We quickly hit the MaxiPali grocery store to stock up for the week, then headed back to our Airbnb to catch some sleep for the next day’s adventures.
The Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park
Our first full day in La Fortuna called for rain, but we weren’t about to let that keep us from exploring.
We drove about 15 minutes to the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. It wasn’t crowded at all, so I suppose we had the weather to thank for keeping some people indoors.
We brought ponchos just in case, and while the rest of the family simply kept theirs in the backpack my wife was carrying, I realized that with a toddler on my back, I wouldn’t be in a good position to get covered up if rain suddenly came swooping down.
So I decided to go ahead and put my fluffy green poncho on, then put the baby’s poncho on, then put the baby in her pack, and the pack right on my back.
We looked like a bright green Russian nesting doll.
As luck would have it, the rain never came.
Eventually, the sun even came out.
Fun Fact: Ponchos, by design, are not constructed of breathable fabric. When the sun comes out, wearing a green plastic tarp is exactly as comfortable as you think.
The Hanging Bridges
As the name suggests, the trail starts at the top of a mountain ridge and consists of several suspension bridges ranging in length from 25 feet all the way up to 350 feet in length.
The tallest bridge is nearly 150 feet in the air, giving way to some spectacular views of the surrounding terrain, but with the jungle canopy below, you can’t really see the full 150 feet down to the ground so it doesn’t necessarily feel that high up when looking straight down.
The bridges are also surprisingly sturdy. They definitely bounce and sway a bit, but not to the extent that you might suspect. And with relatively high railings on either side, we were perfectly comfortable letting our kids bound across the bridges freely and enjoy the spectacular views.
In my opinion, the lower we got on the trail the more exciting the views got. It was fantastic to be engulfed in the lush greenery, seeing the flowing rivers below us while also being able to look up and see the variety of trees and limbs towering above.
The entire trail took about 2 hours, but it’s very much a go-at-your-own-pace adventure. With 4 kids and my camera, we likely went a bit slower than most, but you’d certainly be allowed to take even more time if you’d prefer.
As we finished up our journey we sat down at some concrete tables near the ticket booth overlooking the beautiful valley below.
It appeared we were the last ones left in the park when a young couple emerged from the trail.
We started chatting with them and found out they were a newlywed couple from Germany that were honeymooning in Costa Rica.
They spoke near-perfect English so we sat and chatted with them for a while. Carly worked on teaching them some Spanish words while they taught us some German phrases.
There’s something really cool about being 2,000 miles from our home and making a genuine connection with people who were over 5,000 miles from their home.
The world is a small big place.
Los Laureles Waterpark
On Day 2 in La Fortuna, our adventures were taking us to a local hot springs waterpark called Los Laureles.
The pictures online looked like a typical waterpark here in the states with the exception that some of the pools were warm – or even hot – because they were fed by underground hot springs.
That alone sounded really cool. (ba-dum-ching)
Like most amusement parks, we turned off the main road and entered through a giant branded gate leading to many drive-thru ticketing booths – except all the ticketing booths were empty and there were no other cars around.
At first, we thought it was closed, but as we pulled up to the booth there happened to be a person inside.
We told her how many adults and children and paid our entrance fee, all the while quietly wondering what was wrong with the park. If it was so fantastic, why wasn’t there anyone here?
My wife asked the ticket agent about lockers, and she informed us that there were lockers located at the covered picnic tables and once we found a table to place our stuff, we should come back and let her know which table number we were at and she would give us the key to that locker.
That sounded odd…but when in Rome.
We drove through the nearly empty parking lot and found a spot right up front with a handful of other cars. At this point, the kids were so excited to go play that we paid little attention to how empty the parking lot was.
We gathered all our swim gear and beach towels out of the car and made our way to one of the many covered picnic tables.
As we placed our stuff on the table we noticed a wooden box up near the thatch roof with a number on it and keyhole. We assumed that was the locker the ticket agent had referred to.
As we were debating whether we needed to trek back to the ticket booth to get the key to locker 67, we looked around and realized that all of the tables in every direction were completely empty. Other than the handful of other cars we parked next to, there was no indication that anyone else was even in the park.
Based on that, we chose to just leave our stuff on the table and skip the locker key. Unless there was some mad rush of people showing up later in the day, our stuff wasn’t going anywhere.
Time to Play
The first pool near our table was a giant swimming pool with 2 big waterslides and the words Los Laureles spelled out in the tiles at the bottom.
The water was glass smooth because no one had been in it yet, though that didn’t last long.
Before I was done surveying the pool, Jacob and Carly were already up the concrete steps to the very top. Carly planted herself at the top of the first slide, a steep straightaway leading directly into the deep part of the pool.
With barely a pause she was racing down the slide and landed with a splash immediately sending ripples throughout the entire pool.
I had barely turned around when Jacob came flying down right behind her.
In just a few moments the pool went from silent and still to raucous laughter and squealing as the 3 big kids (and eventually myself) took turns racing down the slides again and again.
Giabella got to swim around with mommy for the time being as these slides were not baby approved, although we noticed there were no lifeguards around. Everything was swim-at-your-own-risk.
Eventually, we made our way over to a smaller pool with a smaller slide built for Giabella. Interestingly, that pool was fed by warm water, so that was pretty neat.
Scottie and Giabella enjoyed going down the smaller slide again and again while Val and I enjoyed hanging out in the heated water catching them.
Jacob and Carly were unimpressed with the “baby slide” and the novelty of the warm water only lasted a few minutes, so we made our way past several other empty pools and found a medium-sized pool with a twisting waterslide, smaller than the big slides, but bigger than the “baby slide.”
The big 3 made a beeline for the top and came down one right after the other screaming and laughing the whole way as they tried not to land on each other in the pool.
The slide still seemed too big for Giabella to go by herself, but I figured it was just right for her to go in my lap.
She happily agreed!
I climbed to the top with her, sat down, and put her in my lap.
This was one of the times I was so glad to have the GoPro camera with me. It wasn’t until we got home that night and I watched the video that I got to see the huge smile on her face as we went twisting down the slide and splashing into the pool.
She loved it so much and kept saying “a more, a more” as her mashed up version of “again” and “one more”.
She had plenty of “a more” times with both mommy and daddy and she loved every bit of it.
We eventually made it over to another warm pool that had a small straight slide…and another family in it.
This was our first encounter with other people the whole time we had been there.
They didn’t speak any English so we didn’t get to chat with them much, but as best we can surmise, going to a giant waterpark on a Tuesday was a great way to have the entire park pretty much to ourselves.
After several hours, we headed all the way back over to the original pool we started in. Our stuff was still sitting on the one non-empty table near the pool completely untouched.
But now there was another family with two young kids who had been playing in the pool all by themselves.
We joined in and took turns with their kids on the 2 big waterslides and had a blast.
As far as waterpark experiences go, this was one of the best we’ve ever had. The waterslides weren’t as glamorous as some of the fancy innertube rides or gimmicky tunnel rides at many of the waterparks we’re used to in the states.
But it turns out just plain waterslides are so much fun! Especially when there are no lines, no waiting and no crowds of people to watch out for.
As parents with 4 young kids, just keeping an eye on all our kids was 1,000 times easier when our kids were the only kids in the pool.
Heck, even when another family and 2 more kids were added to the mix at the end of the day, the overall ease and relaxation didn’t dip in the slightest.
It was far and away the most relaxing day we’ve ever had at an amusement park and will likely ruin us from enjoying our typically overcrowded, high-priced waterparks here in our own city from now on.
But even so, spending a day at the almost completely empty Los Laurales Waterpark in La Fortuna was worth every penny.
It would be a gross understatement to say that the whole family slept hard after our all-day funfest at the waterpark the previous day.
The kids were in bed and asleep probably the earliest they had been for the entire trip.
And that was a good thing because we had no idea that Day 3 in La Fortuna was going to have us burning up the miles hiking all over Volcano Arenal and Lake Arenal.
Power legs activated!
Living in the Shadow of a Volcano Arenal
La Fortuna rests at the base of Volcano Arenal, and from our Airbnb we could look up and see it every morning.
Most days the very top was covered in clouds, and today was no different.
As we finished our breakfast and loaded up the car, we were hoping the clouds might part and we would be able to see the peak, but that was unlikely.
Let the Hiking Begin
Volcano Arenal National Park was a quick 15-minute drive from our Airbnb.
Upon arrival, we saw a large straight path headed upwards toward a “lookout point” and a smaller trailhead leading into the forest.
We opted to take the Lookout Point trail first as it was a short 600 meters (1/3rd of a mile) to the top.
We did notice on the provided map that this trail was drive-able, but we disregarded that due to the short distance. What we neglected to factor in was that the 600 meters were on a constant incline heading up the base of the volcano.
After some unknown distance, the little girls were already getting tired (which did not bode well for the rest of our day), so Jacob and I (along with Giabilla who was strapped to my back and not tired at all) volunteered to head back to the parking lot to grab the car to ease the burden on the rest of the girls.
Ironically, by the time we made it to the car and drove up the path, the girls had already made it to the top.
Oh well. At least the drive back down would be easier.
The lookout point consisted of a large covered patio with benches along the front edge. Several other families were there gazing up at the large volcano in front of us.
The cloud cover was sporadic, and I whipped out my camera to try and get a shot with the top exposed, but to no avail. I also wasn’t willing to burn hours of our day waiting for such a moment to arrive, so after about 10 minutes we all hopped in the car and headed back down to the forest trail.
The Forest Trail
This trail wound a path through the thick jungle below the volcano before splitting off in two directions.
We could either continue heading around the volcano or start heading up.
We chose up.
This is where our legs got a serious workout. The trail wasn’t that difficult, but we could definitely tell that each step was taking us higher and higher up the side of the volcano.
The trail eventually arrived at a man-made staircase of sorts with a stone rise that led to a portion of the trail made up of solidified lava rocks from previous eruptions.
Traversing the lava rocks brought us to a peak about halfway up Volcano Arenal with a picturesque view of Lake Arenal down below.
The terrain was tricky with all the rocks, and there were probably 2 dozen hikers clamoring around the peak looking for the perfect selfie spot.
We took turns with the kids at the top. I took more video than pictures because there were just too many people to get clear photos.
After several minutes, we headed back down the lava rocks and the staircase and all the way back to the parking lot.
There were certainly more trails around and up the volcano, but they were many miles long, and we didn’t want to exhaust our kiddos – or ourselves.
Plus, we weren’t done exploring just yet.
Hiking Down to Lake Arenal
The map showed that we could take a quick 5-minute drive along a very rocky road to get to a portion of the park with a paved sidewalk that would take us all the way down to Lake Arenal.
The day was only half over, so this was an obvious choice.
I had no idea how many miles we had walked just at the Volcano, but the idea of doing another mile along a paved sidewalk down to the lake sounded easy peasy.
We were quick to jump out of the car and start making our way down the path when it slowly dawned on us that the trail was a steady decline all the way down to the lake.
I’m not so great at this whole geometry thing, but I’m pretty sure that meant it was going to be a solid uphill trek the whole way back, and our legs were already feeling the burn.
But there was no way we were going to come this far and not make down to the edge of the lake, so we went slow and made sure we all had plenty of snacks and water.
About 3 quarters of the way to the lake, there was a lookout tower rising 3 stories above the sidewalk.
Climbing up the 3 flights of stairs took us to a well-maintained platform that provided a beautiful panoramic view of Lake Arenal with Volcano Arenal rising up in the background.
It also got us a few benches in the shade to rest on, which was a nice bonus.
After a brief time to rest, we headed back down to the path leading to the edge of the lake.
Eventually, the concrete path ended with a short staircase down to the ground and a sandy, rocky area about 50 feet from the water’s edge.
There were only a handful of other people down there walking around and taking pictures, so it was easy to get photos without crowds of people in the way.
From the water’s edge, we could look back and see Volcano Arenal stretching to the sky, as well as Volcano Chato, its smaller sister Volcano, nestled in its shadow.
Lake Arenal itself is quite large and we could feel its size much more from the banks of it than any of the previous lookout points.
Across the lake, we could see a handful of houses and buildings nestled in the hilly jungle terrain with their colorful roofs sticking out nicely from the tropical green canvas.
After some pictures of the family and the beautiful landscape, we knew it was time to head back.
We were all pretty tired and dreading the uphill climb back to our car, but there was simply no getting around it.
The walk back through the lush forest along the nice wide sidewalk was certainly beautiful, but there’s only so much that can alleviate sore legs and tired kiddos.
Oh, and I was in hour 6 of carrying a 2-year-old on my back, so my shoulder and back muscles were wondering what the heck they had done to deserve such cruel punishment.
Needless to say, there was a tremendous sigh of relief from the whole family when we arrived back at the car.
We were all in desperate need of showers and dinner, and it was definitely going to be another night of heavy sleeping for all.
La Fortuna Waterfall
Day 4 in La Fortuna had us back in our swim gear and heading towards more water adventures in the form of the giant 200 foot La Fortuna Waterfall.
As rested as possible from our 50-mile trek1 the previous day, we loaded up the chariot and made the quick 10-minute drive to La Fortuna Waterfall.
480 Steps Down
Driving to the main entrance and ticket area for La Fortuna Waterfall is interesting because it’s pretty much a straight shot up the side of a mountain.
It’s no wonder that the main ticketing platform is actually located at a higher elevation than the waterfall itself, meaning there’s a pretty long trek down to get to the bottom of it. About 480 steps down to be more precise.
After purchasing tickets we crossed a short bridge to get to the main trailhead.
But before starting down the steps, there’s a wonderful lookout point where you can view the waterfall and surrounding mountains and it is just breathtaking.
We spent a few moments here just taking it all in and enjoying the incredible beauty of the surrounding terrain with a gorgeous waterfall tucked right into the center of all of it.
Of course, to actually experience the waterfall meant making our way over to the trailhead and starting our descent.
The staircase to get to the bottom of the waterfall is very well constructed and easy to maneuver with several benches for resting along the way.
We knew the going down part wasn’t going to be a problem. We just had to remember to not completely wear the kids out while playing below knowing that going up 480 stairs would be a much more difficult endeavor.
Enjoying La Fortuna Waterfall
Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, there’s a small rise on the right blocking the view of the waterfall, but not the sound.
Rushing water falling from 200 feet above and crashing into a pool of water below makes quite a thunderous roar.
As we rounded the rise and saw the waterfall, it was truly awe-inspiring.
There were roughly 2 dozen people on the rocks leading to the pool where the waterfall was crashing, and probably 8 or 10 people huddled in the water.
As we arrived, there were attendants working at the waterfall that were sharing safety precautions with the onlookers. We were allowed to get in the water, but there was a laundry list of things to watch out for and places to avoid completely once in the water if we wanted to stay alive!
Needless to say, with our small kiddos, we had no intention of hanging out in this pool for long, but luckily there is another area a little way down the river that is perfect for families with young children.
But first, there was no way Val and I weren’t going to at least get in the waterfall pool for a few minutes just to experience it.
I volunteered to go first.
It was a bit tricky getting in because there are just a series of large rocks to navigate your way into the water.
Once you do encounter the water, you immediately realize the water is freezing.2
Once in the water, just feeling the power of the rushing water along with the thunderous roar is incredible.
Several folks hanging out in the water were having to shout just to have a conversation.
I was in the water for all of 2 minutes until I made sure Val got a picture of me, then I was definitely ready to get out. Then I took pictures of her doing the same.
The More Kid-Friendly River
Satisfied that we could say we’ve been in the La Fortuna Waterfall (with picture evidence to prove it), we migrated over to a section about 50 yards downriver from the waterfall that was more kid-friendly.
This area had a bend and the water was super shallow on one side and got deeper to about 5 feet on the far side.
It was perfect for our kids to run and play in. Best of all there were fish everywhere, so the big kids got to try their hand at catching them just like they did at Playa Conchal. (Their luck was about the same.)
This family-friendly area was more crowded than the waterfall pool, but it was also bigger so it didn’t feel too crowded.
La Fortuna Waterfall is another very popular tourist destination with tour buses coming and going throughout the day, but we never felt like it was ever overrun with people.
There was also a small sandy shore where the kids could play like they were at the beach without having to brave the icy water. The little girls enjoyed this much more than splashing about.
At one point Valarie made her way up and around the river bend toward the waterfall and discovered you can actually crawl your way up the river and over the rocks to find some really cool spots to hang out and let the river rush over you.
I took Jacob with me during my exploration, and though he was a bit timid about the adventure, I helped him over the big rocks and held him steady in the rushing water. We made it about halfway to the waterfall before we turned back.
It turns out La Fortuna is a fantastic playground for adults and children alike.
480 Steps Up
After several hours at La Fortuna Waterfall, we were getting hungry and the kids were getting tired.
And we knew we still had to navigate those 480 steps back up to the entrance.
And I knew that included a 2-year-old baby strapped to my back…so I couldn’t be all noodle-legs trying to get back to the top.
The trip up the stairs was definitely slower than the trip down, but with only a few stops along the way, we made it back up just fine.
Once again, I was super proud of the kids, especially Scottie who willed her little 4-year-old legs to keep pushing even though she was super tired.
Back at the car we grabbed our towels and dried off before inserting ourselves in the car into what had become our designated seating configuration for the duration of our Costa Rica trip.
I believe the kids were asleep before we even made it out of the parking lot.
Wow! That was an action-packed 4 days in La Fortuna.
But the truth is that we really only scratched the surface of what you can do there. Several adventures were off our list due to the ages of our kids, but even with 4 kids age 9 and under, we were still able to do so much and have a blast.
But now our time in Costa Rica is rapidly coming to an end.
In next week’s post, I’ll give the trip a proper conclusion and also share a few of the fun details we simply didn’t have time to cover in these first 6 posts. (Yeah…6 posts!)
I hope you all have enjoyed reading about our journey. If you’re thinking about spending some time in Costa Rica and have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you and share any info that might help you have a successful adventure.
Thanks for reading!
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