Stranded in the Jungle: Pura Vida in La Fortuna

Fresh off the boat portion of the jeep-boat-jeep from Monteverde, we were shuttled to La Fortuna where we scoured the local bus schedules for transportation out to the Tree Houses Hotel, about 30 minutes south. In true off-the-beaten-path fashion, our bus immediately broke down on the side of the road in the jungle in the middle of the night. After a long time of waiting for it to be repaired we finally de-bussed...and five minutes later it was fixed and on it’s way. We were now stranded. Typical. It’s like that episode of Spongebob.

Route from La Fortuna to San Carlos

The Tree Houses Hotel does have a bit of a shuttle service, so they came to rescue us. Keep your portable cell phone charges on hand, people! It was difficult to explain where exactly they could find us – by the tree? -  but somehow after two hours or so we managed to flag them down on the side of the road. #AmericanYokels. Once we got to our treehouse and dropped off our packs, Ashley and I ventured back out into the nearest town to find dinner at a (not very) nearby spot called Happy Land, which was delicious and exactly what we needed at like 11PM after a long day of travel. When we got back to the Tree Houses, we met the groundskeeper Rolando, who knows the property and surrounding jungle like the back of his hand. Sometimes he organizes night tours for guests, and this particular night he was awesome enough to offer a private one for Ashley and I since he was making the rounds anyway! He gave us each a flashlight and led us into the dark, pointing out insects, frogs, and even a beautiful sloth along the way (bucket list item for this trip – crossed off)! It was wild to learn how much life was surrounding our treehouse, especially because we never would have noticed any of it with the naked eye – somehow Rolando would be staring into a dark patch of vegetation and zero in on some rare species crawling across a leaf, when Ashley and I could be staring for five minutes at the exact same spot and still not be able to pick out what he was finding. It took me embarrassingly long to see the sloth he was pointing to, but he noticed it almost immediately. 

That night and the next morning we could hear monkeys shouting somewhere in the trees, and as we drank coffee on our elevated porch we watched black squirrels parkouring through the branches. On our morning walks to the “rancho” we always discovered some new kind of plant we’d never seen before, like the Mimosa Pudica which closes when touched:

The homemade breakfasts were amazing – fresh local ingredients! – and the woman who runs the hotel was incredible about offering advice on the best places to see and the easiest transportation options. After breakfast Ashley and I took the bus back into La Fortuna (smooth sailing this time!), which picks up at a couple stops outside the Tree Houses property and brings you right into town. We picked up a little rental car at this point, knowing it’d be easier to get around to all the sights we had limited time to see and that we’d ultimately need it for our return trip to San Jose (important to note if anyone is considering this – while you can find really cheap daily price options, the deposit for a rental car in Costa Rica is exorbitant. You get it back when the car is returned in good shape, but the hold on your account for a moment can be disconcerting). Then we were unleashed on La Fortuna and did as much as possible – we hiked the Arenal Volcano and the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges, shopped and ate in town (we loved the Lava Lounge Bar & Grill La Fortuna - open air, great food, lively vibes, dogs allowed!), and attempted another hike on the opposite side of the volcano a little too late in the day when the park was technically closing. We kind of tried to avoid being seen, but a security guard or park ranger trailed us for a bit and told us we needed to turn around. This memory is actually a highlight for me, though, because this trail was less travelled than the main one to the volcano, and as we tried to find our way through the brush it began to rain. It was one of those refreshing, “Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing?” moments, where you take in your incredible environment, hold your arms out to the rain, breathe in the forest, and feel totally present. Until you get kicked out.

This isn’t to say the main hike to the volcano wasn’t spectacular, too. It put me in a state of paranoid unease and excitement to learn that every parking lot in the area requires you to back into your spot so you have a quick getaway should the volcano blow. Once you get far enough into the trail (and I wouldn’t recommend paying for a guide, the trail is incredible easy), all of the land surrounding you is hardened volcanic ash and the charred remains of vegetation, which is making half-successful attempts to grow back through the cracks. From most views of the volcano you can see that it appears to still be smoking – like a handful of other volcanoes in Costa Rica, Arenal is still active (though dormant since 2010). You can’t get super close to it, unfortunately, but I hear tell that many adventurous hikers go off-trail and bushwack their way up the volcano itself...

The Hanging Bridges provide gorgeous views. We did the self-guided hike, which took us far above the ground so we could mingle with the trees and see out over the jungle miles into the distance – and quite a distance down below our feet, as well (I kept thinking, whatever you do don’t drop your stuff). You get a bit of a thrill whenever other hikers don’t wait for you to cross before they begin making their way onto the bridge as well (there are often signs advising against this); your own weight shifts the bridge one way, while each step another person takes shakes the bridge in the opposite direction and causes some push and pull. But there is no real danger and this hike was pretty easy – definitely doable for kids or anyone who’s not usually super active. 

Our time here was much too fleeting. I would have loved a day to relax at the Tree Houses, since there were so many cool things to discover - I don’t think we ever went down to their waterfall or did any of their in-house tours! With more time I would have liked to do a farm-to-table cooking class, or a cooking class with a local Costa Rican family. I would have kayaked on Lake Arenal, visited the free hot springs spot (we drove by but it was too crowded that day), joined Nancy on her ATV tour, finally found the Costa Rica Dog Rescue & Adoption (we searched high and low for this place), and hit up more local, traditional food spots (although we did do a pretty thorough job of eating, given the time constraints...). We spent two weeks in Costa Rica as a whole, after I had just spent a number of months living and working in the last two destinations I'd been in; the comparison made me realize how much I prefer long-term stays and seasonal work/volunteering to vacationing. We got a little taste of every city we went to in Costa Rica, like a carrot being dangled in front of our faces, but not a full understanding about the culture and lifestyle.

But I'll tell you what Pura Vida meant to me in La Fortuna - finding fresh mango on every corner, getting caught in the rain and continuing the hike anyway, getting stranded on the side of a jungle road and laughing about it, discovering wildlife I'd never seen before, the kindness of strangers, and, a rarity - having no nagging desire to be anywhere other than exactly where I was.


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