La Fortuna, Costa Rica

San Jose airport – La Fortuna
Oct 19 – Oct. 22, 2018

*prices in this blog reflect low (rainy) season.

Costa Rica was a random trip for me… I booked it 3 days before I left. I had been several times before so it wasn’t the top of my list (there are still so many places to go!) but for a last minute return flight for $400 (Canadian $) with good flight times and connections, I booked it.

I didn’t have a lot of time to plan but decided early on that I’d check out La Fortuna as I had never been before.

Selina hostel caught my eye, particularly because of the yoga, fire pit, pool, and of course, central location. Their website advertised a discount for booking directly but I found it cheaper on Expedia (Pro tip: booking direct isn’t always cheapest. When I extended my stay at Selina by one night I was surprised they charged me more than if I had booked online with a third party website like Expedia. Add savings from cashback on Ebates and booking online would have been way cheaper for that extra night).

Initially I was going to book one of the super cute teepees and then remembered it was rainy season and leaving my teepee to use the washroom in the middle of the night didn’t appeal to me so I opted for a regular room.

Teepees at Selina La Fortuna

I had emailed the hostel and googled online for best (cheapest) directions to La Fortuna from SJO for a 12:45 pm flight arrival. The consensus from the hostel and what I’d read online appeared to be that it would be best to take a shuttle (for $55 US plus taxi to the shuttle pick up point which is not directly at the airport).
I dug harder online and found another option. The only direct buses from San Jose to La Fortuna are in the morning but it is possible to take a bus by connecting through Ciudad Quesada. I would attempt this option despite conflicting schedules posted online.

I arrived at SJO at 12:45, cleared customs and immigration, grabbed a sim card at the airport (2 GB for $10 US) and walked out to catch a taxi to the Alajuela bus station – approx. 1 mile from the airport.

Kolbi prepaid phone SIM

Initially the man organizing taxis told me I would need to take a taxi to the coca cola station in San Jose, 20 minutes away. I reminded him of the bus terminal in Alajuela that the buses pass through and going to the Coca Cola station in downtown San Jose would be backtracking. I asked for the fare (never get in a taxi without confirming the fare or using the meter) and he quoted me $6-8 US. I told him it should be $3 US. He smiled and said “you’ve been here before” as I shot down his second attempt to rip me off. We agreed the driver would use the meter. When I got in the taxi, I politely reminded the driver to turn on the meter as he started to drive away without doing so. 5 minutes later, I was at the Alajuela bus terminal. The fare was 2488 colones ($4.30 US).

There was nobody at the ticket window for the Ciudad Quesda bus but a kind soul let me know that if I ran outside, I’d catch the 1:40 pm bus. I was able to get the last seat on the bus (2000 colones) but unfortunately was on the opposite side of the luggage hold beneath the bus. When I have to put my bag in the luggage hold, I ensure I sit in a window seat above it to keep an eye on it and ensure it does not leave the bus with another passenger. Note: there was no 1:40 bus advertised on the schedule. Central American bus schedules can be funny but for a frequent route such as San Jose to Ciudad Quesada, you don’t have much to worry about if you just show up at the station.

Schedule at Alajuela bus terminal

I met some fellow travellers who told me when they got the direct bus to La Fortina from San Jose, it had been sold out. In low season! Buy your tickets in advance if you can. And if you can’t, negotiate standing room (I did this a few years ago on a sold out bus from San Jose to Jaco). Standing room isn’t comfortable. Nothing about Costa Rican public buses is comfortable. If you want comfort, take a shuttle. If you want cheap, get comfortable with the idea of many sweaty people (and dogs, chickens, etc.) in your personal space for several hours.

Standing room only on the bus to Ciudad Quesada

After a long journey of twisting roads, we arrived in Quesada at 4 pm. All the tourists (including me) attempted to get off at the first stop in Ciudad Quesada, this was not the terminal. After letting off the locals, and loading the tourists back on, we went to the Quesada terminal 10 minutes away.

At the terminal in Ciudad Quesada, I followed the other gringos with backpacks and boarded a bus to La Fortuna which left shortly after (4:20 pm).

The bus took approximately 2 hours to get to La Fortuna from Ciudad Quesada. I watched on google maps as it appeared to take the most indirect route possible, zig zagging across the two main roads taking the smaller roads in between. Was there a more direct bus from Ciudad Quesada to La Fortuna? Maybe. But I jumped on the bus right away without too many questions.

The door to door shuttle from SJO to La Fortuna is 4 hours, this journey took me 4.5 hours and I saved nearly $50 US. Whether you decide comfort over cost savings is your choice…

When I arrived at Selina I checked in and immediately regretted not getting a teepee. Sadly they were sold out (in low season! Book ahead) when I inquired about switching.

Selina is a newer brand of higher end hostels with all the amenities one could imagine. Selina La Fortuna was fantastic and I wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again but don’t just trust the brand… other Selina hostels have less than fantastic reviews.
My only disappointment was to find out the twice daily yoga at Selina at 9 & 6 was now only once daily at 4 pm – I had even messaged them to confirm. Then on my second day there, the yoga class was cancelled last minute. The yoga platform is in an amazing spot and classes are only $5 for guests but sadly, I wasnt able to check it out.

Lonely yoga platform at Selina with no classes on…

Hungry after over 24 hours of travel, I wandered into the first seemingly vegan friendly restaurant I could find at Lava Llounge. A couple modifications to the vegetarian burrito and I was in food heaven. Then I noticed… the restaurant supports the Costa Rica dog rescue. I happily paid for a tourist priced meal knowing my money was going to help rescue dogs. (Pro tip: if you want to save money, eat at the little authentic sodas rather than a North American style restaurant in the centre of town) but you can still donate your saved money to the rescue dogs 🙂

For my first full day in La Fortuna, my plan was to take the Fortuna shuttle ($15) to some of the local sites. When I went to La Choza Inn who advertised this shuttle, I was informed it is no longer in service. They managed to bait and switch me to a $50 Extreme Volcano Tour, including hiking, waterfall and hot spring. There was nothing “extreme” about this tour other than the rain so those who don’t have amazing fitness need not worry. You’ll be fine.

La Fortuna is not solo backpacker friendly- you either need to rent a car or pay for tours. I’m not a fan of tours but $50 for a 10 hour tour including lunch and drinks seemed reasonable… maybe too reasonable. When I did the math on just entrance fees and a taxi to the free hot springs, I knew this would be the cheapest option for a solo traveler. In retrospect, I should have just rented a car which would have allowed me to make my own itinerary and adjust based on weather, rather than getting caught in a torrential downpour. (Pro tip: when you do a search for car rentals in Costa Rica, the rates will seem low, way too low. There are mandatory insurances they add on that you cannot opt out of even if you have other insurance)

La Fortuna free hot springs

That being said, the tour was fantastic. They told me to pack a rain jacket, I did not listen (I assumed the rain would be warm) so spending 6+ hours in cold, wet clothes was my own fault. We went on two “hikes” (walks) to two different view points wnd to the free hot (really they were warm, not hot) springs across from the Tabacon fancy expensive hot springs. As much as I dislike group tours (nothing worse than waiting for 30 people to use the washroom), I likely would not have found the red footed tree frog or monkeys if I had been on my own.

When I got back to Selina, wet, cold, and tired I had a hot shower (yup, Selina has hot water!) and excitedly checked out the brand new vegan friendly food stand “Juan in a Million”. You likely won’t stroll past this place as it is on a back road but the food is fresh and incredible for vegans and meat lovers, with possibly the best hot sauce I’ve ever had. If you do nothing else in La Fortuna, eat here.

Attempted view of Arenal volcano

There are a million cool adventures to go in from La Fortuna – white water rafting, canyoning, hiking, etc. Every corner will have someone trying to sell you a tour. You can easily spend up to $200 US a day on the excursions. Booking last minute in town will save you some money, but at the risk of not getting a spot you may want to consider booking ahead.

Arenal volcano

The only thing I really wanted to do before leaving was the Rio Celeste hike. I was contemplating taking the public bus there but was able to get a last minute spot on a tour for $65 (originally quoted $60 but… Costa Rica, ever changing prices). Since admission to Rio Celeste is $26, I figured it was worth the extra money to avoid the hassle of hitch hiking or cost of a taxi since public bus doesn’t go right to the hike. This tour was an economical option for a solo traveler but if you are two or more, consider renting a car. There are quite a few car rental shops in town and a quick search led me to a car for $40 for the day with all the taxes and mandatory insurance.

Rio Celeste waterfall

The Rio Celeste tour was advertised as very challenging. It is not. There are two challenging sections which each last less than two minutes; one of which is the 220 steps back from the waterfall. The mud makes it slippery but incline wise, anyone who can walk a flight of stairs can do this hike. In addition to the breathtaking waterfall, you’ll see some beautiful coloured river spots, and if you look closely, some creepy jungle creatures like baby tarantulas and a baby viper snake- thankfully babies in both cases. On the way back we stopped for a beer in the river. I asked if it would be cold or warm and she said “fresh”. Perhaps it was a translation issue but she meant cold. It was nice as the sun poked out and maybe could be classified as fresh but I’ll stick with cold. As we drove back we stopped for lunch at a soda (more rice and beans!) and stopped to watch a sloth climbing in a tree on the side of the highway thanks to our attentive guide noticing him from the passenger seat while driving. This was definitely a worthwhile tour (and again, I hate tours!) With only 5 people in the group, the pace was reasonable and the extra stops, lunch, and beer all made up for the $30 above admission price just to the hike.

Rio Celeste hike

General La Fortuna tips:
– rent a car
– if you don’t rent a car, stay central in town and budget for tours as public buses to the sites are non existent.
– prepare for humidity! Like serious humidity.
– bring water shoes for the hot springs and waterfalls
– pack a dry bag so you don’t destroy your phone charger and battery pack in the rain.
– consider booking hotel with hot springs in admission instead of staying elsewhere and paying for hot springs admission (otherwise check out the free hot springs)

– US $, colones, credit card? They all seem to be widely accepted although you’ll want some colones for small purchases at the small shops.

– keep a keen eye out for wildlife – many species are experts at camouflaging themselves but if you watch carefully, this area is filled with surprises!

Baby Viper snake

After some rainy adventures in La Fortuna, it was time to get my tan on and head to the beach.

Next stop: Tamarindo