San Jose to La Fortuna

One of the annual events my wife and I are starting to enjoy is a visit to La Fortuna (LF) during the low season in September, which is also the green or rainy season.  September and October are two of the rainiest months in CR, which means there are fewer people and better deals.  In 2015, we took the bus from San Ramon to La Fortuna for a couple of days of R&R link.  The inexpensive bus from San Ramon to LF runs four times a day and provides quite a scenic ride; however, if you tend to experience motion-sickness, I recommend you take a Dramamine tablet when you board the bus. We stayed in a hotel for $30 a night and took a few adventure tours which were half the usual high-season rates.  So we enjoyed a $35 half-price guided tour of Arenal.  At the end of the tour, the sky opened up and we experienced the full force of mother nature and were drenched.  We learned from that experience that the rain is not all that bad and we could live with it for the discounted prices being offered.  We also learned there was a free hot spring enjoyed by the locals and budget minded Free Hot Springs in La Fortuna.

So in September of 2016, we wanted to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary and decided to explore the hot springs in LF.  I have been collecting all the  Hot Springs in Costa Rica locations so we can eventually try them all.  You might enjoy reading this review of  The best hot springs in La Fortuna.

There are about eight hot springs in LF, so we chose two high-end places –  Tabacon and Eco Termales.  Tabacon is a high-end, tourist experience and Eco Termales is a smaller, more intimate experience.

Step 1: Terminal 7-10

The first step in any CR bus adventure is finding the right bus station.  There are many bus stations in San Jose – normally one for each bus company and route.  Terminal 7-10 is new and fortunately has a number of bus companies located in the facility, which is also a shopping mall with stores, a pharmacy, and a food court.

We always take a taxi to the station because the area has a reputation for being dicey.  The area between Terminal 7-10 and the central avenue is known as the “red zone” and, in addition to having many hourly hotels, has many homeless and drug users and is best avoided on foot.

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Here is a Facebook Album of Terminal 7-10 with photos link and here is where to eat link.

On the third floor, go the ticket station on the left end (there is another bus company to the right), and buy your ticket to La Fortuna from the window on the far right of the counter.

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Note: on the left, all the times leaving for Ciudad Quesada, a major hub in San Carlos that offers frequent trips back and forth to La Fortuna

I bought my ticket a few days before because I am risk-averse; however, except for holidays, you can probably show up an hour beforehand and buy a ticket without a problem.  There are three buses a day going to La Fortuna from San Jose.  I purchased the 8:40 a.m. bus.

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An alternate route, shown below, is to take the bus from San Jose to Ciudad Quesada and from Ciudad Quesada to La Fortuna, which runs frequently.

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BTW, I typically type out the information for the ticket I want to buy so there are no misunderstandings.  Remember that Costa Rica’s date format is DD/MM/YYYY so I normally write it out (ex: September 26, 2016) and the day of the week (Monday) with the Spanish translation to reduce the chance for error.  The bus ticket to LF costs about $5 USD.  You get a white ticket which you give the driver and a yellow copy for your records. In addition, the driver will give you a temporary ticket to re-board at the midway rest stop.

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Step 2: The Bus Trip

The phone app, Map.Me, which I use to follow the trip, indicated the trip would take about two hours, not accounting for traffic or stops.  We left at 8:40 a.m. and arrived at 1 p.m., so the duration was more like four hours.  There are no bathrooms on the bus, which has only one rest stop halfway through the trip (at Ciudad Quesada), so use the bathrooms on the 2nd and 3rd floor of Terminal 7-10 before you leave.  The attendant charges c200.

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Note: if you have a seat preference, there is no reserved seating on this route and the bus boards 15 minutes before leaving.

Also, this bus does not have AC, so if you need air, get on early to find a seat with a window that will open.  Once you are seated is a good time to take that Dramamine if you need it.  I sat on the right side hoping to get better views, which proved correct. I was excited that my backpack fit in the overhead (photo below) since many times the overhead space is very tight and I have to keep my backpack between my legs the whole trip, which would not have been good on this route given how tightly the seats are spaced.  I always put my backpack across from me so I can keep an eye on it. The driver put all the big luggage under the bus and gave people a luggage receipt, which was reassuring.

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The bus left at 8:44 a.m. and was probably 1/4 full.  You give the driver the white receipt and keep the yellow copy.  Something different this time was the driver handed me the plastic card below to use to get back on the bus at the midway rest stop at Ciudad Quesada, so don’t lose it. Warning: the rest stop is only 10 minutes and not everyone will get off; also, if you don’t get back in time, new riders will be lined up and may take your seat, so get back in time to reclaim your seat and don’t leave valuables behind.

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I plotted the bus route and stops here link.  Most notable: the bus stopped in Alajuela (Central de Autobuses del Norte) across the highway from SJO airport. If you fly in and want to avoid coming into San Jose ($30 taxi ride) to board where the bus starts, you can board in Alajuela.  Warning: since there are no reserved seats, there is a possibility you could be standing for four hours!

What I find so fascinating about Costa Rica are the changes in elevation and the resulting weather pattern.  To understand the graph on the elevation map below from Google Earth, read from left to right to follow our trip from San Jose to La Fortuna.  The trip starts  at 38oo ft. above sea level in San Jose, dips down by Alajuela and then heads higher going north into the cloud forest.  Around Naranjo, you can feel the temperature drop. Interestingly,  the elevation drops under 1000 ft. when you get to La Fortuna (right side of graph below) which means it is hotter than I like.  I prefer life above 3000 feet, which is normally 70F (+/- 10 degrees) most of the time.

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The bus stops in Zarcero, which has a beautiful central park full of topiary arches, so look right.  It could be a final destination for anyone wanting to explore this pretty town.

Facebook album of Zarcero photo link.

Step 3: La Fortuna Bus Station

Here are some pictures from the La Fortuna Facebook Album link.

The La Fortuna bus station is modern, small, safe, clean and easy to navigate.

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Note: attached to the bus station is a MegaSuper, a full grocery store where you can buy your supplies before heading to the hostel or trail.

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If you want to go around the lake, this station has a bus going to Tilaran on the west side of the lake.

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Another great feature of this station is the soda (small restaurant) located near the bus station just past the MegaSuper. Soda La Hormiga has a clean bathroom, a wide selection and reasonable prices.  Soda Website.  It is only open for breakfast and lunch.

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Here are some hot springs ideas: Tabacon (expensive) to Free Hot Springs in La Fortuna (cheap).

Step 3: Getting back to San Jose

When the time comes to return to San Jose, Tyler Wenzel at CRTravel wrote up the details here La Fortuna to San Jose Return Trip.  The bus returning to San Jose stops at SJO airport in case you are flying out.

 

Tabacon

Tabacon is a wonderful place to enjoy the beauty of Costa Rica.  There are three Tabacons – the hotel, the spa and the hot springs, but I was only interested in the hot springs. The hotel and spa were out of my price range with rooms running from $400 to $1000 a night, and I wanted to try the place without paying full price.  So I was excited to discover we could buy a day pass to the hot springs at an affordable rate.  The usual rate for tourists is $105 per person including lunch and dinner, but we paid only $65 per person because we are legal residents of Costa Rica.  Note, there is a “free” hot spring downstream, across the street and under the bridge for the budget minded. Free Hot Springs in La Fortuna

Getting there

Tabacon is located seven miles west of La Fortuna and cost us about $1/mile or $7 each way for a taxi.  There is no public transportation except a remote chance to take the infrequent Tilaran bus and hope to get off at Tabacon, which does not seem cost effective especially trying to flag down the bus to get back to La Fortuna.

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Arriving

Tabacon’s hours are 10 a.m to 10 p.m.  We had a taxi pick us up at 9:30 a.m. in La Fortuna and arrived at Tabacon at 9:45, so we walked across the street and investigated the “free” hot springs people talk about.  I had made an online, prepaid reservation, so we only needed to check in at the front desk.  The clerk: 1) checked our cedulas to make sure we qualified for the resident rate, 2) made an imprint of my credit card as a deposit for the towel and locker, 3) gave us lunch and dinner receipts, and 4) gave us wrist bands to show we were guests for the day.  This is when I learned there was an unadvertised manager’s special that we could come back the next day for free with that wrist band, but unfortunately, we already had plans at another hot springs.  You give the towel ticket to the attendant between the two dressing rooms who gives you a thick towel.

Suggestion here: carrying the towel around was a pain, so next time, I will keep the towel ticket or the towel in my locker until I come back for lunch and need to dry off.

The hottest pools are about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Above is the main pool with a temperature in the 90s, a slide and swim-up bar. Note on the bar: you can either give the bartender cash or have him hold your credit card to run a balance against.  I chose to give him $50 cash deposit.  Drinks averaged $10. Don’t think about it and enjoy your $50.

I will mention that, yes indeed, it rained while we were in the hot springs, but who cares? We were already wet.  In fact, it was sort of magical being in the hot water with cool rain coming down around us.  There were no thunderstorms, which, if they had occurred, might have changed our attitude.

Lockers

OK, major mistake.  I brought way too much stuff to Tabacon.  I brought towels, an assortment of shoes, sunscreen, bug spray, camera, phone, etc.  As a result, I had to use the big backpack which barely fit in the locker.  Plus, the lock was quite flimsy so I worried about my valuables too much.  Next time I will be a minimalist. Definitely bring sunscreen, insect repellent (for dinner time), and sunglasses. We stayed barefoot except for meal-times when we also threw on our casual, quick-dry clothing.

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Food

When I made my reservations, I was asked for the time I wanted to eat lunch and dinner.  I chose the earliest times available, 12 noon and 5 p.m.  I learned that we could have eaten at the swim-up bar if we had wanted pay-as-you-go, but I don’t know the economics of making that choice.  The restaurant meals are quite large, so I think next time we will schedule only one meal, probably dinner, and snack at the bar.

Both meals were wonderful.  The lunch menu included appetizers, natural fruit drinks, main course options, desserts, and coffee with the option to buy beer or other drinks. Dinner was a buffet with a wide selection of choices, which were all good.  Again, if you are going to save money using a day pass, consider splurging on the drink and food.

 

 

Afterward

After lunch, it was back to the hot springs, followed by afternoon cocktails and dinner. After dinner, we chose to sit by the pool to read and enjoy the peaceful surroundings until our prearranged taxi came at 7 p.m.  There appears to be an after-five special that many locals take advantage of since more people showed up for dinner. This might be a good option to follow an afternoon hike.

Rates

The usual rate for a one-day pass with lunch and dinner is $105 per person,

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but during the off-season, be sure to ask if they are offering a special deal. They don’t advertise that Costa Rica residents can get the same entrance for $65 a person (Invoice), and as mentioned above, we only found out upon arrival that our pass would be good for two days.

My friend, Tyler Wenzel of CR Traveling, who lives in La Fortuna, told me he can find the best prices, so you might want to check with him before booking.

Transportation

Here is the taxi driver we used to get from La Fortuna to Tabacon.  It costs us about $1/mile or $7 each way.  8972 2473 Rodrigo.  He picked us up at 9:30 a.m. and came back for us right on time at 7 p.m.  During the week Rodrigo had Carlos pick us up when he was not available.

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Here is a great video from TravelCostaRicaNow of their trip to Tabacon Video

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Free Hot Springs in La Fortuna

We arrived at Tabacon before they opened and decided to walk across the street to the infamous “free” hot springs (comments) often touted by budget minded travelers. Apparently, the hot water from the resort drains under the bridge, which is probably public property allowing public access.  We first heard about the “free” springs while taking a tour with Red Lava out of La Fortuna in 2015.  The tour ended with everyone being dropped off on the side of the road to go swimming before heading home.  Unfortunately, (maybe fortunately) the night was dark and stormy, so no one on the tour wanted to chance going down the trail.

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The trail to the river is easy to locate from the main road, paved and short, but that is where civilization ends.  As you can see above, the trail ends at the river bank  and access down is steep and slippery, so I suggest you prepare for it.

Also, there are no aesthetics at the “free” place.  It looks a like like a dump with trash and graffiti.

It seems bathers need to head left under the bridge to enjoy the hot water since there appeared to be no easy access going right downstream.

Once you cross under the bridge, there is an attractive location to soak.  I am not sure what the etiquette is here since there are many other people in various states of dress and embrace that make it awkward to step over them to find a private place to settle.  I understand people get quite frisky here when the sun goes down. A future trip for me will be trying to see how to make the most of this place.

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Here is a view down from the north side of the bridge at the people enjoying the hot water. There may even be a way to get down to the upper pool from this direction, but it was not obvious.

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Here are two of my favorite CR guides documenting their trip to the “free” springs: TravelCostaRicaNow video

I could not find any public transportation from La Fortuna to this hot springs.  There are no local buses except the one that runs infrequently to Tilaran which would be problematic flagging down to get back  There are employee buses that travel to the springs but non-employees are not allowed on.  So here is the taxi driver we used to get us from La Fortuna and back who I would recommend.

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More Hot Springs Info and more