Although this Costa Rica trip was originally going to be an all girls trip, my mom, sister, and I decided to drag my dad along last minute. He joined us a couple of days into the trip, which resulted in us spending several days in Alajuela, but also meant we had to rework our carefully planned itinerary.
Because of that, this post will include not only what our itinerary looked like, but what a recommended itinerary looks like as well. That way, you don’t make the same mistakes we did and end up missing some cool sites!
This Costa Rica travel guide focuses specifically on La Fortuna and Monteverde, and I’ll be posting another one soon all about Manuel Antonio. So without further ado, the Costa Rica Travel Guide: La Fortuna and Monteverde edition.
La Fortuna: 2 days
Getting around Costa Rica is expensive whether you rent a car (more on that in another post) or take the shared shuttle buses. Budget for that accordingly.
If you aren’t interested in doing any day trips out of Alajuela when you arrive in Costa Rica, then I recommend driving directly to La Fortuna, either the day you arrive or early the next morning. It’s a 3-4 hour drive depending on traffic and I’m told the road is really scenic. I wouldn’t know since we only drove for about an hour in daylight.
I recommend a full day and a half to two days in La Fortuna to really enjoy it. We were only there for a full day and ended up skipping both La Fortuna waterfall and the hanging bridges, which sucked. See below for the must-dos in La Fortuna!
Arenal National Park
You can pretty much see the famous Arenal Volcano no matter where you are in the Arenal area – it looms largely over the town and is surrounded by beautiful green hills. It’s Costa Rica’s most active volcano, and the closest point you can get to it is by hiking the trail at Arenal National Park. There’s still volcanic activity so you can’t get that close. The full 3-mile hike is relatively low impact and although there’s the opportunity to spot cool wildlife in the park, we didn’t see much. There were really interesting looking plants though, including a very impressive Ceiba tree. Either way, if you’re looking to get close to the volcano and enjoy a mild hike, I definitely recommend the park! The entrance fee is $7 and I suggest you get there early because it gets hot really quickly. The clouds can obscure your view of the volcano later in the day as well, so you should get there early even if the heat isn’t a problem for you. Apparently there are also some hidden and hard-to-reach hot springs nearby if you’re up for exploring. Check out this site for more details.
Baldi Hot Springs
Although I would have loved nothing more than to try to find those hard to get to local hot springs, my sister and I decided that we would all enjoy spending the day at a nicer spa instead. The Baldi Hot Springs are the most affordable in the area ($35 per person) and are totally family friendly. The thermal pools are all natural and filled with minerals, and there are plenty of them to enjoy. We spent the entire afternoon here, but they open early and don’t close until late, so come whenever.
La Fortuna Waterfall
Sadly, this is one of the sites in La Fortuna that we missed, due to our last minute itinerary changes. The waterfall is located just outside the main town and has a deep pool that is perfect for swimming. You can reach it by hiking or on horseback if you feel like channeling your inner ranchero. Like all sites in Costa Rica, it likely gets crowded as the day goes on so come early. Although this isn’t a thermal pool, it’s a good budget alternative to the hot spring resorts considering its $10 admission fee.
Walking the hanging bridges is a popular activity to do in both La Fortuna and Monteverde, although it seemed to be more popular in Monteverde. Essentially these bridges hang high above the forest in line with the canopy (remember learning all the parts of the rainforest in science class?). The bridges allow for excellent views of the forest and of course, epic photos for Instagram ;). We didn’t get a chance to visit but this post offers a great comparison of the various options in both cities.
Depending on how long you’d like to spend swimming at either the waterfall or in the thermal pools, plan for at least a day and a half in La Fortuna. I recommend you spend two nights in there and drive to Monteverde early on the third day.
- Rainforest Café (not the chain): an excellent local spot located in downtown La Fortuna, this is a good choice for local Costa Rican cuisine. I recommend a casado (typical plate), but everything we ordered was spectacular. Be sure to order one of their giant, tasty empanadas as well!
- Chifa La Familia Feliz: a small Peruvian-Chinese fusion restaurant, which isn’t as weird as it sounds if you know the history of Peruvian food. There was actually an hour long wait when we went, but the large portions and delicious food made it totally worth it.
Where to stay:
Hotel Arenal Rossi (affiliate link): This hotel is solid if you’re looking for a place to stay on a budget. Beds were comfortable, the Wi-Fi was okay, and there was a pool as well. Wi-Fi didn’t work as well inside the room, but worked fine outside. It’s located just outside of downtown La Fortuna, but we liked that we weren’t dealing with the noisy city at night.
Monteverde: 2 days
If you’re driving from La Fortuna to Monteverde, get ready for an adventure! Some itineraries actually recommend skipping Monteverde because the roads are rocky and unpaved, but I think it’s worth the struggle. Wake up early, eat a hearty breakfast of gallo pinto (breakfast beans and rice) and hit the road. Even though the cities are only 75 miles apart, prepare yourself for a four-hour drive. You can shave off an hour or so if you want to take a boat taxi though.
Montverde is really cool – both literally and figuratively. Due to its location, it has a tendency to get incredibly foggy and cloudy, and can get pretty cold throughout the day so be sure to bring a jacket. It’s the only place in Costa Rica where we encountered this climate, and it’s a refreshing change from the heat and humidity throughout the rest of the country.
If you arrive to Monteverde at a decent hour, head to the Cloud Forest. I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies that result in this magical climate, but I do know that this particular cloud forest is one of the most well known in the world. It has many hiking trails and is home to 2.5% of worldwide biodiversity as well as tons of beautiful plants and animals. I was genuinely upset that I didn’t get a chance to visit and even contemplated doing a 6 am guided tour (it didn’t work out in the end). The forest closes at 4 pm, so aim to visit as soon as you arrive in Monteverde!
Ziplining and Hanging Bridges:
In all honesty, if you aren’t interested in doing outdoor activities like ziplining, hiking, kayaking, and / or rappelling, then you’re better off skipping Montverde altogether. It’s an outdoor lover’s paradise, and you’ll find a wide variety of activities that cater to every adventurer’s whim.
You can find a comprehensive list of ziplining tours here, but we decided to go with the canopy tour with 100% Aventura. We got a discount by booking through our accommodation, so it was $45 per person for 12 ziplines, 1 rappel line, 1 hanging bridge and 2 superman ziplines. For an extra $25 per person, you can also opt to do 8 hanging bridges, but since it was raining pretty heavily we decided to stick with just the canopy zipline tour which was SO much fun.
I highly recommend 100% Aventura. Not only did we do 12 regular ziplines, but we also did two Superman ones, which is when you zipline facing downward – the views are seriously stunning! You also have the option of doing the Tarzan swing, which includes a 3 second freefall into a swing. I give serious kudos to my parents for doing all the activities including the Tarzan swing and the fairly steep hike to get to the Superman. #stillgotit. I definitely screamed the loudest out of everyone when doing all these activities, but that’s half the fun, right? 🙂
Bravery is NOT my game.
This tour will take you a solid 3-4 hours, and the additional hanging bridge tour takes the same amount of time. I think you could very easily do a day and a half in Monteverde by doing the Cloud Forest on the day you arrive then spending the following day doing extreme sports. I recommend your next stop to be Manuel Antonio, but that’s coming in another post!
- Soda La Salvadita: This soda (meaning a local Costa Rican restaurant) is around a 15-minute walk from town, but the food is absolutely delicious! It mostly has typical Costa Rican dishes, but the food is good and prices are inexpensive. I had the casado here, which includes your choice of protein plus veggies, rice, beans, and yucca. Yum!
- Tico y Rico: Tico y Rico is clearly the tourist hot spot in town – with prices to match. While it’s technically Costa Rican, it also has a huge variety of international cuisine. I was a little tired of casados and ordered a burger here #sorrynotsorry, but my sister’s quesadilla was also delicious. It’s not a “must-eat” place but it’s worth stopping by if you’re looking for a little variety.
Note: We also had some subpar Chinese food and pizza (from the same restaurant on separate days, so that should tell you something), but neither meal was good enough to recommend. The town is pretty small, so your options are somewhat limited.
Where to Stay:
Cabinas Vista Al Golfo (affiliate link): Confession time. We accidentally stayed at a hostel in Monteverde. In my defense, this place was listed as a bed and breakfast all over the internet, and it did include a good breakfast…we just had to wash the dishes after :o. My parents were pretty good sports about it but I was annoyed by the misleading name. This seemed to be the case for the majority of the “bed and breakfasts” of Monteverde, so be sure to check carefully so you don’t make the same mistake. That being said, the small room was comfortable and really breezy despite the fact that it had no AC. There were plenty of common areas to relax or do work, so overall I’d say go for it…but just know that it’s a hostel.
So, if you’re wondering whether or not you should visit La Fortuna and Monteverde, my answer is a resounding yes. You do need at least two days in each, and if you’re renting a car, you will need a 4×4 to navigate Monteverde. Overall though, there are plenty of great things to do, see, and eat in each city, so both definitely need to be part of your Costa Rica itinerary.
Have you ever been to Monteverde or La Fortuna? What was your experience like? Share in the comments below!
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