A DIY guide to visiting La Fortuna Waterfall – Costa Rica. Everything you need to know about an easy, budget friendly visit without a guide.
Having had some amazing wildlife experiences at Corcovado National Park and Manuel Antonio National Park, we were looking forward to seeing more of Costa Rica’s natural beauty. La Fortuna, with its iconic Arenal Volcano, had always appealed to us. But its famous La Fortuna Waterfall was what excited us most!
La Fortuna Waterfall
The 70m La Fortuna Waterfall, known locally as Catarata Fortuna, is arguably Costa Rica’s most famous waterfall and certainly one of its most picturesque. Located at the base of the Chato Volcano in central Costa Rica’s Alajuela Province, it’s surrounded by luscious green rainforest and really is picture-perfect.
Entrance fees & facilities
As with many of the other attractions in Costa Rica, the La Fortuna Waterfall is pretty developed and commercialised. There’s toilets, showers, a souvenir shop, restaurant, lockers and a small free car park.
Opening Hours: 7:30AM – 4:00PM Daily
Entrance: US$18 for foreigners
Remember that all proceeds go to ADIFORT. This non-profit organization’s main objective is to ensure the well-being of the community through education projects, roads, cemetery management, conservation of natural resources and the beautification of the community. So it may seem a little pricey, but your money is making a big difference!
Best views of La Fortuna Waterfall
La Fortuna has two offical structured observation decks. One from up top and one from the base of the falls.
The upper viewing platform is accessible to everyone, subject to paying your entrance fee. Once you’ve entered passing the lockers and souvenir shop, directly in front is the upper viewing platform. This observation area offers awesome views down to the falls on the opposite side of the gorge. The contrast of the white plume of water against the green vegetation is really quite impressive.
Getting to the base of the falls and the lower viewing platform does involve a bit of a descent and a fair few stairs! In fact, there’s several hundred stairs (around 500!) But don’t be put off by this, the views at the bottom are well worth it. People often describe this as a ‘hike’. But in reality, those with reasonable fitness levels and good knees, shouldn’t find this walk on structured stairs too challenging. And it’s certainly not a hike! Obviously the ascent is a bit tougher on the calves.
At the base of the stairs on the right-hand side you’ll find the lower viewing platform, which gives a great front on view of the 70 metre falls.
Our favourite view was from in the water, just downstream of the falls. On our early morning May visit, the water was freezing, but worth braving for a few photo’s. But do be careful as the rocks can be very slippery.
Down river, to the left of the falls there is a much calmer section of water, which is much safer for swimming in than at the base of the falls. It was from down here that we waded across the river and accessed one of the walking trails on the other side for a different perspective.
Orchid & butterfly trails
Before or after you’ve been down to the falls, don’t miss the Orchid and Butterfly Trails. Included as part of the entrance to the falls, they are well worth a quick wander through if you’re interested in this sort of thing.
The Butterfly Garden is good place to see pollinators – bees, butterflies and birds. The red Psychotria poeppigiana, amusingly known as the ‘Hot Lips’ or the ‘Sore-mouth bush’ was a favourite with the butterflies. And, keep an eye out for the stunning Blue Morpho, among the largest butterflies in the world and certainly one of the best-looking. When its wings are open it shows off its magnificent bright iridescent blue colouring that reflects light. When closed, the underside though less eye-catching, is still impressive. With a dull brown colour and several eyespots, it provides excellent camouflage against predators.
But it’s not only the butterflies worth seeing here. The Heliconia and Purple Porterweed are popular with the hummingbirds for their mid-air visits. We will never get tired of photographing these amazing little birds.
The Orchid Garden isn’t just about pretty flowers, its purpose here is far more important. Like many species around the world, wild orchids are disappearing. Habitat loss and deforestation are two of the major reasons. The gardens here were purposefully planted to educate and raise awareness of orchids and the their importance for the whole ecosystem. With close to 200 different native species in the garden, it is colourful all year round and full of beautiful plants.
Wildlife at La Fortuna Waterfall
As well as the stunning waterfall, its position in the Arenal Volcano National Park means wildlife sightings are not uncommon. Mammals including White-faced Capuchin, Howler and Spider Monkeys, Sloths, Coati and multiple reptiles and amphibians can be seen here. Our experience didn’t yield any of these, but we did see a good few insects and birds. A couple different species of Hummingbirds was the highlight of our visit.
But unexpectedly, it was the area around the car park where saw the most variety of birdlife. The open area meant sightings were a little easier than the thicker rainforest surrounds of the waterfall. As well as a fleeting glimpse of a Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan, we saw Montezuma Oropendolas and two different species of Woodpecker. The Black-cheeked Woodpecker and both male and female Hoffman’s Woodpecker.
Time needed at La Fortuna Waterfall
We spent several hours at the falls taking photos and walking around the short walking trail and gardens. You’ll likely want at least 1-2 hours at the falls, so it can easily be done in half a day. Depending on the weather and temperature of the water, bring your swimming gear and make the most of the natural swimming areas.
If you really want to enjoy this serene environment and get some photo’s without massive crowds, make sure you get there as the waterfall opens! Remember that the falls can get incredibly busy during weekends and the December to March period.
Getting to/from La Fortuna Waterfall
Getting to and from the town of La Fortuna to the La Fortuna Waterfall is easy and there are multiple ways of doing so:
- Taxi – about US$15 one way
- As part of an organised tour
- On foot
How we got there
On our visit we were without a car. So we took a taxi there and arrived right on opening time, in order to avoid the crowds. It took us up the standard Diagonal 301 road (blue dotted route on our map).
Our tip – Arenal Volcano is notorious for being shrouded in clouds, especially its top half. If you are visiting La Fortuna Waterfall, it’s worth a quick roadside photo stop if you get a clear view en-route. During our May visit, early to mid morning was the only time we got a clear view, before it was covered in clouds for the rest of the day.
How we got back
After a few hours at the falls and with the weather still holding, we decided to save US$15 for a taxi and walk the easy 5km back to town.
The walk back is an easier option than walking to the falls, as the return journey is down hill. On our return leg, we took the left turn off the Diagonal 301 onto the Calle 506 (grey route on our map). As always, we were keen to search for more wildlife. With road signs like the one below, we kept our eyes peeled for one of our favourite species of feathered friends, the Toucan. Eventually, we heard the distinctive frog-like croaking call of the Keel-billed Toucan, which we really happy to eventually find. And we didn’t just see birds, we saw more of the ‘Jesus Christ’ Lizards, just as we had done throughout our Costa Rican travels.
The walk was scenic, all downhill and gave us a chance to again witness the Arenal Volcano from a different angle, as we got closer to town. The clouds were building but the weather gods seemed to be on our side.
That was until about 5 minutes before we got back to town. Just as we reached our favourite restaurant ‘La Casa de la Hormiga’ it started pouring with rain! The weather literally flicked from blue sky and sunny, to torrential rain in a matter of minutes. One other poor creature who couldn’t find shelter quite in time was a Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth in a nearby tree, close to the restaurant
As sloths spend the vast majority of their lives hanging upside down, their hair grows in the opposite direction from all other mammals. The hair actually parts on their bellies and grows up toward their backs, as does their facial hair. This allows water to run off their bodies during these torrential downpours!
When to visit
La Fortuna, like most of Costa Rica, has two distinct seasons – a dry and a wet. The dry season falls from December through April. The wet season (green season) spans a longer period falling from the end of April through to November, with August-October generally being the wettest. But it’s important to consider that ‘wet season’ doesn’t mean solid rain all day everyday.
With the Costa Rican climate, La Fortuna Waterfall has an impressive flow year round, so you can visit anytime. But, there’s pro’s and con’s to visiting in either season. The months of the December to March are the busiest, so it will get super crowded, especially from mid-morning onwards. Visiting in the early part of the wet season, as we did is often an ideal time. The weather is usually ok in the mornings, crowds are far less and the waterfall and surrounding vegetation is at its finest!
What to take with you
- Make sure you have plenty of decent ‘reef-friendly’ sunscreen.
- Take a re-useable water bottle as there’s drinking water provided at the waterfall. Not only does it save the pennies, but drastically reduces plastic waste.
- A ‘dry-bag’ or waterproof rucksack is essential when travelling during wet season, or hiking and exploring particularly wet places like rainforests, cloud forests and waterfalls. They protect your camera gear and keep spare clothes dry.
- Likewise a good waterproof jacket is essential for wet season travel.
- If you planning on swimming, don’t forget your swimwear & towel!
- A pair of flip-flops (thongs/jandals), crocs or water shoes are great for wandering around at the base of the falls.
- If you don’t want to carry everything down to the base of the falls, remember you can always store it in the lockers provided. These lockers are US$2 and you need to pay a US$10 per locker refundable deposit.
- If you have a passion for wildlife photography, we highly recommend taking a decent zoom lens. We shoot the majority of our wildlife pics with a Canon 100-400mm.
- Take a picnic lunch and make a day out of it!
Other things to do in La Fortuna
La Fortuna is one of those places you could spend days exploring. There’s an abundance of diverse activities to take part in. Whether it be organised combo tours with La Fortuna Waterfall, or adrenaline-fuelled activities to bird-spotting, there’s something for everyone! Here’s a few other things you can do after you’ve visited La Fortuna Waterfall:
- Hike the Cerro Chato Trail (Closed during our visit)
- Visit Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park
- Hike around the Arenal Volcano National Park
- Checkout the natural hot springs
- Take a Canyoning Tour and rappel down a waterfall
Getting to/from the La Fortuna
The most popular and cheapest was to travel anywhere in Costa Rica is by public bus. This was the approach that we took and this is how we did it:
From Manuel Antonio via San Jose
We took the 6am Tracopa bus from the main street of Manuel Antonio to San Carlos bus terminal San Jose. It took 3.5 hours and cost ₡4790. You must buy a ticket from Quepos bus station at least the day prior to travelling. Tickets are not available to purchase on the bus or from Manuel Antonio.
From the San Carlos bus terminal in San Jose, we took a taxi to bus terminal 7/10 which took 10 minutes. Negotiate a fee with the driver but it is only a few km away.
Inside terminal 7/10 on the top floor to the far left, is the La Fortuna ticket counter. We booked seats on the next available bus, which departed at 11.30am and our ticket to La Fortuna cost ₡2580. The journey from San Jose to La Fortuna took 5 hours and the last part of the journey was very scenic. There were only a couple of scheduled departures a day.
NOTE: There’s food options and toilets at 7/10 Terminal. You’ll need small change for the toilets. Our taxi driver told us to stay inside the bus terminal, as wandering around the area was not so safe! So, we stayed inside which was secure with helpful attendants floating around.
Don’t leave your personal items unattended on the bus. Our bus driver warned us that bags had been stolen from inside the bus in the past. Despite the warning, a few backpackers left their bags unattended on the bus when we stopped for a toilet break and their bags went missing.
From La Fortuna to Monteverde
We took the first bus from La Fortuna to Tiliran, which in our case was at 8am. The journey took 2 hours and the ticket cost ₡1430. It was beautiful drive and for the best views, sit on the left side of the bus!
We took the 12.30pm bus from Tiliran to Monteverde, which takes between 3.5-4.5 hours. The ticket was cheap, costing ₡500 (also a beautiful drive). This was one of the few chicken buses we saw and used in Costa Rica and it was a fun journey. We got some coffee and food from the cafe (there’s many) right next to the bus station and chilled while we waited for the bus.
If you take this same journey and you want a seat (recommended), you’ll need to fight your way onto the bus. Don’t be shy as the locals will literally shove you out of the way! Regardless, your bags will most likely be at the back of the bus, so it’s best to sit as close to them as possible, just to be safe!
- Jeep/boat/jeep combos are available through tour desks and hostels/hotels. Takes approx 3.5hrs US$25-30
- Tourist shuttles operate between both towns. They’re quicker than our local bus option, but cost A LOT more. Bookable at accommodation desks or tour operators – 4 hours US$54.
Accommodation – La Fortuna
We stayed at a small hostel called La Choza Del Arbol. It was the cheapest place we stayed in Costa Rica and surprisingly nice and clean! We booked a basic private room with a small en-suite and fan, which cost around US$10 a night – an absolute steal. The location was great, only a 5 minute walk to the bus station, close to the town centre and restaurants. Highly recommend for budget conscious backpackers. Our room had no A/C though, so rooms may be uncomfortably hot for some depending on the season (we found it to be fine).
Cheap eats – La Fortuna
The best value restaurant we found was Soda La Hormiga (La Casa de la Hormiga). Tasty local food at reasonable prices and friendly staff. Always busy with locals and tourists alike.
The official currency in Costa Rica is Costa Rican Colón – CRC or ₡. USD is widely accepted and often entrance fees, accommodation options and food menus are advertised in USD. In these cases, you can usually pay in either currency, but do check the exchange rate to see which option in better for you.
ATM’s are widely available in town and at bus stations etc. Visa & Mastercards are also widely accepted.
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