My inland experience in Costa Rica
By Jennifer Simonson
Once upon a time, I lived in a small beach town on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. While living as a beach bum was a great way to spend a year of my 20s, when planning a recent trip to the small Central American country I decided it’d be better to spend most of my trip inland.
Most tourists rush to the coasts as soon as they land in Costa Rica to join a yoga retreat, surf beginner-friendly waves, or drink too many Imperials (the country’s official beer), but in my opinion the center of the country is where it’s at. Sure, Costa Rican beaches are pretty, but in reality the Caribbean has bluer oceans, Florida has finer sand, and Hawaii has bigger waves. What makes Costa Rica stand out is its green spine, running through the heart of the country and giving life to lush rainforests, volcanic mountains, sprawling coffee plantations, and therapeutic thermal hot springs.
The shining star of Costa Rica’s interior destinations is Volcano Arenal. The cone-shaped volcano rises up from the fertile landscape of Arenal Volcano National Park. Arenal is the most famous volcano in a country known for its volcanoes. Today it sits dormant, but less than ten years ago it was the most active volcano in the country, with an average of 41 eruptions a day.
The small city of La Fortuna sits at the base of the volcano. Originally named El Burio, the story goes that it was renamed La Fortuna—the fortune—after being spared by the 1968 volcano eruption that destroyed other nearby towns. Though it was actually named for the fertile lands in which it’s located before the eruption, the story is still charming, as the eruption caused extensive damage and “fortunately” left this town untouched.
La Fortuna is home to cheap hostels, dollar beer specials, and tour companies. During the height of my budget travel years, when I rarely spent more than $7 a night on accommodations, public buses and hitchhiking where my only means of transportation, and lunches more often than not consisted of peanut butter and saltine crackers, I passed through La Fortuna twice.
Despite those one-time budgetary restrictions, my friends and I managed to shell out what for us was big money to buy passes to the nearby Tabacon hot springs. In addition to checking out a nearby waterfall and taking day hikes through the rainforest, locals assured us that the hot springs were not to be missed. We arrived just after sunset. The volcano was still erupting at the time. We watched red lava flow down the volcano as we soaked in the thermal waters of the springs. Just as we were about to order our second drink, a staff member ushered us out, telling us that after 8 PM the springs were only for hotel guests. I remember thinking “one day, when I am really old, I will be able to afford to stay at a place like this.”
lush rainforests, volcanic mountains, sprawling coffee plantations, and therapeutic thermal hot springs
Fast forward 16 years to the present, and I decided to keep that promise my younger self made and book three nights at the Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa. The hotel has since been fully renovated into a five-star resort and spa that sits on 900 acres of tropical rainforest. Five main springs pump thousands of gallons of hot water every minute through the hotel’s thermal pool system, which also happens to be Costa Rica’s largest network of naturally flowing hot springs.
The volcano’s magma heats the mineral-rich water. Minerals such as silica, calcium, and lithium can be absorbed through the skin and are linked to health improvements such as stress relief and relaxation, improved circulation, joint mobility, and increased energy levels.
A long soak in these healing waters turned out to be necessary, because on the first morning of my vacation I took a two hour horse ride through the Costa Rican mountainside. Upon hearing I was from Texas the guide said “Oh, you must know horses very well.” This was not entirely accurate.
My horse was older with a slow gate, but every so often she would take off running to show everyone that she still had it. I get that, so I hung on for dear life and let her do her thing. That might have been a mistake because during the next three days my aching muscles reminded me that I too was no longer as young as I used to be.
Later that night, as my muscles began to stiffen, I found relief when a heavy downpour canceled a nighttime nature and wildlife walk across hanging bridges in the nearby jungle. While it would have been a cool experience to see sloths and tree frogs at night, going to bed early to be fully rested for a coffee and chocolate plantation tour the next day was appreciated.
On my last day at the hot springs I booked the “Kapi Kapi,” an 80 minute spa service that included a wrap made with the resort’s craft beer, a local IPA. I have all but given up drinking beer since my backpacking days, so I was a little weary about the body treatment smelling of beer, but when the therapist lathered on the body gel all I could smell was hints of honey. Before drifting off to a mid-massage blissed-out slumber in the open-air jungle bungalow I remembered my younger self getting kicked out of the hot springs, promising myself that one day I’d return when I was “really old.” If this is what being really old is like, I could get used to it.