A Guide to Pura Vida
Get ready to say hola to one of the most magical places on earth. La Fortuna. This small town in Costa Rica northwest of the capital San Jose sits at the foot of a volcano. Don’t fret, there hasn’t been any activity since 2010.
After the 1968 eruption of Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna transformed from a tiny, dusty farm town to one of Costa Rica’s tourism powerhouses, where visitors now converge to see the volcano in action.
Population: 15,383 (2011)
Language: Spanish, although many people speak English
Money: Credit/Debit cards accepted, but cash is king. Tourist prices in USD
Currency: Costa Rican Colon
Driving: On right side
Map below courtesy of roughguides.com
HOW TO GET THERE
Air Travel: Two international airports service Costa Rica – Liberia (LIR) and San Jose (SJO).
My friend, Natalie, and I flew from Omaha, Nebraska to Atlanta, Georgia; and San Jose, Costa Rica via Delta Air Lines. And then our Airbnb host, Mauricio, drove us two and a half hours to La Fortuna. It cost $200 for the pickup and drop off.
Bus Travel: All Costa Rican towns connect by reliable and inexpensive bus service. Purchase tickets at bus stations and on buses. https://tropicaltourshuttles.com/routes/san-jose-airport-to-arenal-bus/
Car Travel: Renting a car is a good yet, expensive choice if you’re destination hopping or going off the beaten path. We stayed in La Fortuna and all of our excursions included transportation. Car insurance is mandatory and, 4WD suggested. If you choose this option, be aware that Costa Rica’s weather and roads often create unfavorable and unpredictable conditions. We talked to other tourists who rented a car and admitted it was challenging driving at night due to potholes, no streetlights and winding roads.
WHEN TO VISIT
High Season: The sunniest, driest season in most of the country occurs from mid-December through April, with Christmas and Easter bracketing the busiest tourist season. March and April are sweltering in lowland areas, with temperatures in the North Pacific frequently exceeding 90 Degrees.
Low Season: Afternoon showers kick in by May and last through November, with a brief drier season in June and July. Rain or not, North American and European summer vacations do increase the influx of visitors from June through August. Rain becomes heavy in September and October.
Day 1: Drive to La Fortuna from San Jose
Our Airbnb host, Mauricio, and his girlfriend, Carly, picked up Natalie and I from San Jose (SJO), then we stopped at Mi Rancho for lunch. Mi Rancho was a great place to eat. It was empty, and the service was quick. It was a full-service restaurant, but it also felt like a hole-in-the-wall restaurant because it was on the side of the road and not surrounded by much. There’s a lookout point across the street. Of course, Natalie and I had to take a few pictures before we continued our journey. We both ordered Cheese and Chicken quesadillas. They came with salsa and sweet, sour cream. This place was cash- only but accepted US dollars. In La Fortuna, most places accept debit cards, but cash is king. I didn’t exchange any money during my stay. I only used my debit card and USD.
After we got settled into our Airbnb, we went to Nanku for dinner. It was within walking distance, in the town center. It was touristy and pricey, but worth it. I quickly learned that Costa Rican food prices are comparable to what we would spend in the States. I ordered the steak dish recommended by the waiter. It was so juicy, tender, and loaded with flavor. It was the best steak I’ve ever had, and that’s saying a lot because I love steak. They also had a theatrical presentation of it. They turned off all the lights and set it on fire.
WHERE TO STAY
Our home away from home was a first-floor apartment I found on Airbnb. It embodied the “Pura Vida” (pronounced poo-rah vee-dah) lifestyle. Translated, it means “simple life” or “pure life.” It was simple. I don’t need luxury when I travel. I need clean, safe and affordable. Our Airbnb was $181 for five days. The reviews said that it was 5 minutes from downtown. The reviews also noted that Mauricio, the host, was available to help arrange tours and transportation. The reviews were correct.
Every night we walked downtown for dinner. Mauricio set up all our excursions and gave us restaurant recommendations. Downtown La Fortuna is bustling, full of tourists, but not overwhelming, and we always felt safe. If you are new to Airbnb, please use my link to create your account. When you sign up, you’ll get $55 off your first trip.
Day 2: Hanging Bridges and La Fortuna Waterfall $120
Alvaro with Canoa Aventura picked us up bright and early to go to Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges . Alvaro was a great tour guide. It was very apparent that he had a passion for the park, and he was very knowledgeable.
A series of trails and bridges form a loop through the rainforest of a 250-acre private area. We hiked for two miles, and it took a little over two hours. The sixteen fixed and hanging bridges allowed us to see the rainforest at different heights. Trails are open rain or shine. There are also horseback-riding and night tours if that’s more up your speed. Alvaro taught us about the birds, trees and insects. He also had a great eye and would spot animals in the trees. He spotted this baby sloth on her mommy’s belly in a tree. Bring a camera, binoculars and wear comfy shoes.
La Fortuna Waterfall
You have to walk down 500 steps to get to the waterfall, and just as many to come up, but it’s worth the effort to see it. The stairs were pretty intense, but I took my time and rested a couple of times on the way up.
Once you get to the waterfall, there’s a little swimming area. I can’t swim, so I stayed on the rocks and had a mini photoshoot with Natalie. I think I make a pretty good photographer. Wear sturdy shoes or water sandals with traction. You can also get to the trailhead by foot or horseback.
Lunch at Rancho Perla
After the waterfall, Alvaro arranged for us to eat lunch at Rancho Perla. Alvaro put in our order before we got there, and the timing was perfect. As we were pulling into the parking lot, a large tour group was leaving and, we had the entire restaurant to ourselves. We had attentive service, timely food delivery, and an intimate dining experience. It was also lovely to talk to Alvaro and learn about his life and Costa Rican culture.
A traditional Costa Rican lunch was included with our tour. Alvaro put in our order before we got there. Right when we got there a large tour group was leaving and we had the entire restaurant to ourselves. We had attentive service, timely food delivery, and an intimate dining experience.
Dinner at Pollo Fortuneno
This restaurant was so good that we ended up going twice and Natalie ordered the same thing. The ambiance was relaxed. It sits on the corner of the block and doesn’t have any walls. I’m starting to notice a trend with all of the restaurants in La Fortuna.
Here you can expect a gentle cool breeze and people watching as they walk in the town center. The food cooked on a wooded fire makes it take a little longer to cook, but it’s so worth the wait. The second time we went to the restaurant, the waiter remembered Natalie’s whole order from the first time – a burger with light sauce, add bacon.
Day 3: Hiking in Arenal National Park and a Coffee and Chocolate Tour $83
We booked our Arenal Volcano tour, “1968 Trail” through Canoa Aventura. On July 29, 1968, an earthquake shook the area, and 12 hours later, Arenal blew. From 2010 onward, it has remained in a resting phase. However, under no circumstances should you hike the trails on your own.
The trails still have the remains from the lava flows from the 1968 eruption. The lava flows have hardened into rock. When you first get to the park, there is a beautiful look out point and restaurant. The park is home to more than 200 species of birds, as well as monkeys, sloths, coatis, deer, and anteaters.
The hike was pretty intensive, and the next day my legs, glutes, and abdominal muscles were sore. I would recommend wearing comfortable, lightweight clothing, hiking shoes, a camera, and mosquito repellent. (Shout out to my sister, Charity, for allowing me to wear her hiking boots. They were so comfortable and kept my feet dry). Unfortunately, I forgot to apply mosquito repellent and got bitten nine times.
The waitstaff touted itself as the only Caribbean restaurant in La Fortuna. The service was excellent, the food was terrific, and the portions were huge. The waiter even gave me a shot of a traditional Costa Rican drink, Cacique Guaro. It tasted like a Bloody Mary. It was so good that I bought some in the SJO airport to add to my international bar cart.
North Fields Coffee and Chocolate Tour
This place is such a hidden gem. If you’re a coffee and/or chocolate lover this tour is a must! North Fields Cafe is a family-owned business that shows you how chocolate and coffee are produced from the seed to cup.
Our tour guide, David, was friendly and knowledgeable. Natalie and I had so much fun during this tour. It was so interesting to see everything: the nursery, plantation, coffee harvest, cross crops, sugar cane, roasting cacao beans, cacao plantation, roasting coffee, grinding coffee and brewing coffee. After the tour, there was a chocolate and coffee tasting. A few things I learned during the visit is that coffee beans should never be black, never use boiling hot water to make your coffee, and espresso has less caffeine than blonde roast coffee. Feel free to purchase their coffee from their website. It’s delicious.
During the tour, David showed us the “Sleeping Indian.” It’s a chain of mountains next to the Arenal Volcano. The locals call it El Indio Dormindo, because it resembles a big fat Indian lying down.
Day 4: White-Water Rafting
White-water rafting was so much fun. I was a little nervous because I can’t swim, but I’m always trying to push myself out of my comfort zone on trips. When we arrived at the location, we received a safety brief. Our tour guides were a whole lot of fun. They were telling jokes and stories during our ride to the river. They all had really cool, laid back surfer vibes, but they took our safety very seriously. Please pay attention to everything they say during the briefing because you might need it. A couple of people fell out of their boats while we were rafting.
Our guide, whose name was also Mauricio, did an excellent job explaining when and how to paddle. He also kept an eye out for different animals (sloth, vultures, and many more). Halfway through, we took a short break and ate pineapple, cantaloupe, and watermelon. As a reward for finishing, we drank beer and then had lunch. Hands down this was the most exciting part of the whole trip for me. We also made a ton of friends on the trip. Lizzie, I’m going to visit you in London!
Pura Vida is more than just a saying, it’s a way of life. The locals use the term to say hello, to say goodbye, to say everything’s great, and to say everything’s cool. It means not to worry, enjoy life, and be grateful.
When I was packing up and getting ready to return to the States, I thought about the Pura Vida way of life. Nobody cared or talked about materialistic or superficial things. People talked about family, food, adventure and their love of nature. I also learned that in 1948, Costa Rica abolished its military. And it got me thinking you don’t really need an Army when you embrace the “Pura Vida” lifestyle.
If you have any questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, feel free to let me know where I should go next. I look forward to hearing from you. See more of my La Fortuna trip on my Instagram .
Travel with Joy