Despite flying into the capital city of San Jose, I only planned on spending one night in the city before heading northwest to one of Costa Rica’s most popular tourist attractions, the Arenal Volcano region. A couple months prior, I purchased a one-way ticket from San Jose to La Fortuna, Costa Rica for $65 ticket on one of the region’s domestic airlines– Nature Air. So regardless of having thrown most of my itinerary out the window, I wasn’t willing to lose money on my nonrefundable plane ticket.
Something you learn very quickly in Costa Rica is that taxis are a major budget killer. Avoid them at all costs. If you speak even a little bit of Spanish, you should be able to navigate your way with public busses for a miniscule fraction of what cab drivers charge gringos. Had Carlos not picked me up when I arrived, I was looking at a $30 cab ride to downtown San Jose. The next day I ended up paying for a cab to bring me to Pavas airport in west San Jose for my Nature Air flight—it costs $40, and we were 40 minutes late. I made my plane with about 10 minutes to spare!!
Upon landing at the La Fortuna airport less than one hour later, all passengers were charged a totally random and unexpected $7 “terminal fee”… you know… to use the airport. Taxis at the small airport charge a flat $20 rate, so including the plane ticket it cost $132 to get from San Jose to my hostel in La Fortuna- definitely not budget traveling. On my return trip to San Jose, I took a bus for $6.50. The bus from San Jose to the airport… $1.50.
Despite the costs, the flight was a blast with beautiful scenery. It was on a little 8 person puddle jumper, and we had one layover of about 10 minutes in Quepos on the Pacific coast. Both legs and the layover were still less than an hour– as opposed to the bus ride back, which took 5 hours.
I had reservations for one night at the Sleeping Indian Hostel in La Fortuna. I made the reservations online at hostelworld.com and paid approximately $30 for one night in a private room. The hostel had wonderful reviews, but I was not impressed at all. The place didn’t have AC, which would have been fine, if it also had windows that would open. My room was like an oven, if it was 85 outside it felt like 105 in my little prison cell. I promptly jumped in my suicide shower, which I didn’t even think of turning on, and then hit the road to look for a new place to spend the night.
I visited about 4 places in total and ended up getting a room at a rather nice hotel a few blocks away for the same cost. The room was normally $70 a night, but if I paid US cash, she would give it to me for $30. I found this to be the case at two other hostels I stayed at during my trip. My suggestion would be not to book rooms online. If you are traveling during a low time or midweek, you may save 50% or more just walking in and asking for a deal on an open room. The other advantage of this is you can see what rooms are available and make a decision based on more than a few random reviews and some blurry pictures.
Having blown too much money on cabs just getting to La Fortuna, and then wasting another $30 on a disappointing room I decided to be somewhat frugal the rest of the trip. Food was always cheap and easy to find. Basically, you can get a full meal for about $4, and no one tips.
However, as in most of Costa Rica, taxis are a fortune. A ride to the other side of the volcano cost $50-70 round-trip. There are also tourist shuttles, but you are still paying a small fortune. As for the local busses, the town is small and the service is not as frequent as in San Jose. If you are alone, my suggestion would be to find 3 other people who want to do the same trip. Plan it with them in advance and you can still use a taxi to get to some of the remote destinations without breaking your budget. Also, ask the hotel staff what a reasonable fare would be in a taxi, and then ask the driver if he will do it for 20% less than you were told. You never know…
La Fortuna is a small town, but it is packed with attractions observatories, kayaking, hot springs, zip lining, rafting… The increased presence of tourists means the prices get jacked up, but there are still some affordable options. One of my favorite days was spent taking a taxi for $5 up to the entrance of the La Fortuna waterfall. If you go early enough, you could probably avoid paying the $10 entrance fee. From the entrance, there are approximate 580 steps down to the bottom of the waterfall and several trails to wander along. The whole area is absolutely beautiful, and when you reach the bottom you can take a dip in the refreshing pool at the base of the falls.
Since there isn’t very much hiking to be done around the waterfalls, I decided to hike back down the volcano to downtown La Fortuna, which ended up being a wonderful idea. The weather was wonderful, and the road gives some amazing views of the volcano. The walk is about 2.5 miles. I also had the chance to stop at some of the small craft shops and wood galleries along the way, and see how the locals support themselves off the tourist.
After a couple nights at my fancy hotel, I decided to move to a nice hostel I had previously checked out. The crowd was mostly young European backpackers, so I thought perhaps… To be continued