Either side of Lake Arenal, Monteverde and La Fortuna are essentially live-in outdoor adventure playgrounds. Both have Costa Rican classics like hiking, rafting, zip-lining and quad biking. For us, Monteverde was more about seeing and doing (wildlife and hiking), and La Fortuna more about stopping and sitting (volcanic hot springs).
Monteverde was originally a settlement founded by American Quakers who opposed the draft for the Korean war. Today, there are still many Americans living there, and the prices reflect that. Neighbouring Tico village Santa Elena has a steady stream of outdoorsy tourists all year round… and the prices reflect that too. Reeling from the restaurant prices, our hostel’s kitchen was clearly going to be getting a lot of use. First on our shopping list was the local cheese. In Monteverde, La Lecheria cheese factory produces 13 different varieties of cheese (but annoyingly only one variety of free sample) and some really good ice cream. After hoovering up the free Gouda samples, we bought the local speciality, Monte Rico with jalapenos. Across the road, Monteverde Coffee Centre scored much better for free samples. They offered a free tasting session of 5 different roasts, all made with locally grown beans.
At $20 per person, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve – the area’s main attraction – is a little pricey, but they offer half price tickets for students… luckily with a very loose definition of a student card. Visiting off-season meant there were no crowds, visiting early in the morning meant there were also no clouds. We spent four hours exploring all the trails; one to a canopy viewpoint, one to a waterfall, all of them past furry jungly vines, towering trees and swaying ferns.
Despite creeping along as quietly as possible, our David Attenborough skills weren’t up to much and we didn’t see many animals. The clouds were starting to roll in as we were leaving, and by the time we’d reached the steep hill that leads down into Santa Elena, the whole village had been consumed by cloud.
Wildlife-wise, it turned out to be a case of wrong time, wrong place at the Cloud Forest. The right place was just outside the entrance to the reserve; some feeders set up outside a cafe were attracting an entire postcode’s worth of hummingbirds. Not at all afraid of humans, they were happily swooshing from branch to branch and divebombing around our heads.
The right time turned out to be at night. We did a 2 hour night hike for $25 per person. Back in Nicaragua, the owner of our Ometepe hostel had told us that Costa Rican guides’ fluent English and degree level qualifications mean they charge a lot. Thanks to the eagle eyes of our guide Elvis we saw a lot, and thanks to his encyclopaedic knowledge, we learnt even more, so it was definitely worth it.
Each equipped with a torch, we set off on the pitch black trails through the forest. We saw birds settling down to sleep: some brown jays who pick a spot at the end of a branch, so that if a predator comes, the movement will shake them awake; a violet sabre wing hummingbird; and a rainbow billed toucan (although his rainbow bill was hidden underneath his wing). One of Elvis’ best bird facts was that all hummingbirds are actually brown, their metallic purple, blue and green colours are actually caused by the way the light reflects from their feathers.
We were lucky enough to see a kinkajou (a cat like animal related to a raccoon), giant stick insects, and noisy but hard to spot forest frogs. We also saw (luckily or unluckily, depending on your phobias) a scorpion, an orange-kneed tarantula waiting for passing prey, and a green pit viper curled around a high-up branch. Neither the scorpion nor the tarantula were poisonous to humans, but get bitten by the viper and we’d last 30 minutes. Sidestep that tree then.
One other thing stood out on the map our hostel had given us. Those two words rarely seen in Costa Rica: ‘Free admission’. The Cerro Amigos hike follows a steep trail up a mountainside (yes, “cerro” translates as “hill” but given the view from the top and how our legs ached, we’re going with mountain) to a free 1850m vantage point overlooking the canopy. We made our slippery ascent in the company of some huge beetles, caterpillars and butterflies.
The jeep-boat-jeep trip between Monteverde and La Fortuna was an easy choice as it takes 3 hours rather than 5 hours by road all the way around the lake. It also doubled up as a kind of mini-tour with amazing volcano views from the lake, and a bit of history from the boat operator. The captain was a survivor of the 1968 Arenal eruption that destroyed 3 villages. One village, El Borio, avoided the lava and was renamed La Fortuna, meaning ‘the fortunate.’ Arenal continued to sporadically erupt until 2010 when it all went quiet, but it’s still an impressive presence towering over the town.
There are a lot of posher resort hotels around the slopes of the volcano, making the most of the natural hot springs. Staying here was obviously out of budget, but at Tabacon those magic words ‘free admission’ cropped up again; there is section of river with natural hot spring pools not developed into a resort. Every taxi driver in town knows where it is so it’s easy enough to get there and back. This was a major Costa Rican highlight. Sat in the fresh spring water, as hot as bath water and as frothed up and bubbly as a jacuzzi thanks to the strong currents and small waterfalls, we saw not one, but two toucans perched on the branches above our heads and a seriously big green lizard scaling the rocks at the side!
At some points, the high prices ($100 zip lining. $60 moped hire!?) made us feel a little priced out of the fun, which was never the case in places like Thailand or Vietnam. But, from free coffee tastings and cooking with local ingredients, to free admission activities like the Hummingbird garden and Cerro Amigos hike, plus well-timed toucan encounters, we were able to do quite a lot, on not a lot of dollar.