“Just spread your legs as wide as you can and let the water push you,” he said, motioning toward the two inches of water rushing down the rocky channel toward the waterfall dropping four-or-so feet into the natural pool below. I was dubious, but after watching a demonstration, there I sat ready to throw my limbs wide and launch down the slide. And I use the term slide very loosely. I think my back scraped every pebble along the way because, contrary to anything anyone might try to tell you otherwise, human beings are not designed to float in two inches of water. After grinding to a halt at the bottom, I looked around and thought, there must be a better way to do this. So I walked back up to the top of the stream, threw my legs wide, and tried again. Allow me to repeat: human beings are not designed to float in two inches of water.
Heed my advice and steer clear of the “slide” at the free, local hot springs at the base of Arenal Volcano. You’re welcome in advance.
That La Fortuna (The Fortunate) earned its name at the total annihilation of all its neighbors is a little morbid, but you have to appreciate the moxie. When Arenal Volcano erupted in 1968, it took with it everything in its eastern path. Fortunately for Fortuna (then called El Borio), its position on the west was unscathed and its since become one of the most popular stops on the Costa Rican tourist trail.
It’s quite the picturesque little town. At first glance, little more than one square block of tour operators, bar-and-grills, and cliche souvenir shops. Make no mistake: I loved everything about it and took every opportunity to soak it in. When all but one other passenger (coincidentally, the other Canadian) on my tour opted to spend our first night in La Fortuna at the nearby resort hot springs, I chose to pass. I was just as happy to pick up a six-pack of Imperial with my fellow Canuck and crack into it on the edge of that fountain in central park. As soon as the sun had set, the park began to buzz with activity — families on walks together, children riding bicycles around and around, dogs playing with their owners. Good ol’ wholesome fun; Catholic conscience looming overtop included free of charge.
Saving a buck in this manner and experiencing the town rather than pamper myself at the spa turned out to be just one of many good decisions I made by following my whimsy, gut, or intuition. The following night our tour guide, Marvin — a La Fortuna local — took us to the free hot springs pool through which the same waters from the resort flow. We went after dark, lit candles, brought refreshments; it wasn’t fancy, but nothing in life has to be. There were enough people around to make it lively, but not enough to crowd anybody out. If you find yourself there — just ask the locals for directions, it’s a bit of a trip — and aren’t afraid of the dark, try dipping your head behind the waterfall and into the ‘secret’ cave beneath it. Take a quiet, solitary moment to reflect on just where you are and how it feels.
On the flipside of free, I managed to spend the most on activities while in La Fortuna because of the sheer variety of things to do. I would have emptied my bank account to try them all, but I settled with white water rafting on Rio Sarapiqui and spelunking through Venado caves. Both of these tours were organized through Desafio Adventure Company, who get a wholehearted recommendation from me.
Being “birthed” through tunnels and crevices barely wide enough to squeeze through was a uniquely fun experience, and though it made me nervously cognizant of the fact that Costa Rica is constantly at the mercy of landscape-changing earthquakes, the question at the forefront of my mind was constantly: did I just put my hand in mud or blood (vampire bat guano)? Alternatively, rafting down class III and IV rapids with our guide, Luis the Rastafarian, was so much fun and absolutely addicting — something I’ll definitely be doing again. Adding to the many life lessons I learned in Costa Rica, it was on this day that I learned the most sensible and ingenious way to chop a pineapple. My life has been forever changed for the better because of that.
And then there was El Salto. The “secret” local swimming hole that I’d had my sights set on long before departure. A local waterfall jump, complete with rope swing and those trademark Tico vibes. I’d made plans a few times to go during the afternoon of our second day in La Fortuna, but after two cancellations and a no-show, I decided to just go myself. I asked the front desk at the hotel how to get there and she hesitated, telling me a shouldn’t go alone, and repeating that statement when I asked a second and a third time. She eventually pointed me in the right direction — fifteen minutes down a main artery out of La Fortuna, beneath the third bridge. Past farm fields and counting the bridges, 1… 2…, I stopped twice to check with a couple of the many people I passed along the way. They all eyed me dubiously and now that I reminisce, I’m certain that had I been of the alternate gender they would have pointed me ahead without hesitation.
At any rate, I made it to the third bridge and beneath to El Salto without incident and with the sole intent on snapping a few photos and making my triumphant return back to La Fortuna. Hanging around wasn’t on my radar after the many warnings I was given along the way about going there alone, but after meeting a group of sunny SoCal students onto whom I forced my friendship (they were open and inclusive hostages), I left my pack with theirs and proceeded to jump, swing, and fly off ledges and ropes into the beautiful pool of water. My new best friends showed me how to climb up the fallen tree to get out, and how to get up and behind the waterfall for yet another moment of solitary reflection. I stayed for nearly an hour before saying goodbye and trekking back toward town. I wanted to holler and shout with the satisfaction of it. I did.
La Fortuna, a place I felt entirely indifferent about prior to going there, turned out to be the headquarters of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. Adrenaline-inducing activities, local charm, and those Tico vibes I keep banging on about meld into what I am convinced is an ultimately unrepeatable escapade. To go back and do it all over again would, I’m certain, lead to an entirely different experience. This is part due to the sheer variety of things to do and people to do them with, but also, I suspect, because La Fortuna seems to encourage at its very soul, an entirely new day each and every time the sun rises.
I just hope the good music at the Lava Lounge never changes.