Central America

Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano

Bet you never see it like thisOur hotel was the Montana de Fuego Inn. Their web site is a bit flattering, with wooden huts similar to many hotels in Costa Rica. They go on about the brilliant view of the Volcano but to be honest unless someone has told me a volcano was there I would have not believed them. The cloud base around the volcano completely obscures it 99% of the time.

The haute cuisine restaurant at this lodge seems totally out of place, in this backpackers paradise of La Fortuna, Arenal. Maybe backpackers would not stay here (pricey) but even so it was like walking into a top London restaurant, with fully overdressed waiters, table service and tongs to serve you butter! We felt uncomfortable, and would not go back there. Just to add insult to injury, the only meal we had there, stuffed chicken breast, was actually underdone with partially cooked chicken. We spent a restless night wondering if we were going to get food poisoning. Typically, being British, we said nothing but it was obvious to the waiter that something was amiss as he took our barely touched plates away.

Just to redress the balance, the waiters were the best looking of the entire trip (according to my 13-year-old going-on-18 hormone raging daughter) and were extremely friendly. They even put up with my tourist Spanish, though it was obvious they could speak far better English than I could Spanish. Funnily enough, breakfast in the same restaurant (it was part of our package) was much better, less formal (buffet style) and all together more enjoyable.

The other downside to this particular hotel, was that it was at least a 10 minute taxi ride from La Fortuna town itself, so there was no chance of a quick stroll into town after dinner (remember, it's dark at 6pm in Costa Rica). In the town though, featured in Lonely Planet which countless backpackers could be seen reading, there were numerous eating places, Internet cafes and bars. One we used a lot was Parada La Soda, popular with backpackers because it was so damn cheap, but good value. Pity I left my VISA card there the night before we left for Monteverde...

David Lohnes, of Costa Rica Calling, hosts a very informative subscription newsletter for anyone thinking of visiting, retiring or setting up a business in Costa Rica. He tells me that the original Arenal town was flooded by Lake Arenal, and La Fortuna effectively became the surrogate Arenal, on the NE shore of the lake. You drive past the lake when you move on to Monteverde, if that's where you're headed.

OK, this I would consider important

1. Book a hotel nearer the town. You can't see the damned volcano anyway because it's permanently covered by cloud, so you might as well stay somewhere closer to town. And cheaper. And with a less formal restaurant. Or eat in the town.

2. Visit the hot springs at Tabacon Resort nearby. A courtesy bus went from Montana de Fuego every couple of hours (and back again) but it's easy to get to. Not so cheap to get into though, at $17 pp. Try and imagine Disney's Typhoon Lagoon except that the water is HOT (very so, in some pools) and you have a choice of clean swimming pools or natural river pools. We only made it for a couple of hours but you could easily spend half a day here. Margaritas IN the pool! And you don't need to shower the kids that night.

3. Book the Cano de Negro tour in town. This is an all day trip to a secluded lake a few miles from the Nicaraguan border (so take your passport in case the police stop you, searching for illegal immigrants). Well worth for the experience and the wildlife. Remember that's why you came here, right?

4. Don't leave your credit card behind.

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