Hot springs in full swing – Lake Arenal, Costa Rica

Waking not long after the sun rose on Playa Pelada, we took a stroll down to the water for a quick dip, having the beach entirely to ourselves. This wasn’t to last, as shortly a local guy and some friends arrived, with two middle aged American tourists in tow, to drag his small fibreglass ‘fishing boat’ from the sand down to the waters edge. The look on the American’s faces was priceless. This obviously wasn’t what they had in mind when they paid for their fishing trip…the boat was tiny, had no shade, a tiny outboard engine, and the three of them were heading out into the open ocean.

Playa Pelada, Costa Rica.
Sunrise over our campsite at Playa Pelada, Nosara Costa Rica

Eventually they could see the funny side and we exchanged long distance laughs with them. Whipping up a nice breakfast of scrambled eggs, banana fritters, fruit and coffee we watched as the beach came alive with dog walkers, local fisherman and surfers out for some early waves.

The view from Lake Arenal Brewery, Costa Rica.
View of Lake Arenal from Lake Arenal Brewery

Preparing ourselves for another long day on dirt roads, we left our beachside camp spot at Playa Pelada early and made tracks inland towards lush Lake Arenal. Mentally ready, the slow dusty driving didn’t dampen our spirits this time, as we slowly ticked off the miles.

Passing a gentleman casually leading his white horse down the road on a rope attached to his car, we were stopped in our tracks as a little black sausage dog, so short it was dragging it’s stomach, slowly sauntered across the road, perfectly in time to the intermission style background tunes of Afro-Cuban All Stars ‘Distinito Diferento’ we had on the stereo.

Lake Arenal Brewery, Costa Rica.
Lake Arenal Brewing Company

Several hours later a fine layer of dust covered everything, and all we yearned for was one thing – a blacktop tarmac road – and finally 5km from the Nicoya turn off we arrived at a patchy though very welcome one. Finally able to put pedal to the metal we beelined it inland, passing a roadside bushfire, and finally wound our way up into the cool climates of Lake Arenal Brewery.

Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica.
Nuevo Arenal

Perched up above the edge of the lake, the views were pretty good but we were a little disappointed there was no outdoor terrace. A couple of local IPA’s later we passed on their offer of camping the night for $15 (having made a pact not to pay for any more accommodation in Costa Rica) and headed further along the lake to the small town of Nuevo Arenal.

Coati.  Costa Rica.
A coati waiting for tourists to cause another ‘Coati Jam’ on the windy roads of Lake Arenal

Long story short, for some reason this place is a haven for mostly American expats of all ages (we met 19 and 65 year old expats in the same bar). The only problem is a bag of groceries costs you about $20, hence the joke going around;

How do you leave Costa Rica with $1m? You come with $2m!

Having spent the night with some friendly expats who let us park the van in their apartment complex carpark, we headed further along the lake to hunt out the free Tabacon hot springs. Spotting a coati in the middle of the road, we slowed down only to find ourselves in the middle of a coati jam. Right beside a sign asking tourists not to feed them a swarms of tourists had ignorantly stopped in the middle of a narrow road on a corner and didn’t seem to care, as they had food out in order to get a better photo.

Coati jam, Lake Arenal
Coati’s on the roadside, Lake Arenal

Passing the idiots by we drove under monkeys swinging from the lush jungle trees and finally reached our destination. Parking up outside the posh Tabacon Spa resort, we donned our swimming gear and headed in the other direction, across the road and under a dodge looking bridge with water flowing. One foot in makes you realise it’s actually quite warm, and following the locals you’re suddently presented with a gorgeous selection of natural steaming pools under the jungle canopy.

Free hotsprings.  Mini Tabacon, Costa Rica.
Hot, natural and totally free, Tabacon mini hotsprings

Small vibrant red and black Cherrie’s Tanager birds flit around and even the rain can’t dampen your spirits…you could spend hours here being not too hot, not too cold, but goldielocks just right.The locals have manipulated the stones to form little private jacuzzis, and the splashes of melted wax across the rocks give you an idea that this would be a great place to bring your loved one, a bottle of wine and some candles to spend an awesome free night.

A Cherrie's Tanager, Costa Rica.
Cherries’s Tanager bird which are in abundance at the hot springs

Always up for sharing the freebies, the GPS coordinates for the free hot springs is N10.29.312 W084.43.380, just park up and head towards the metal yellow barriers across from the expensive spa.

Free hotsprings.  Mini Tabacon, Costa Rica.
Free Tabacon mini hotsprings

Having had our fill of free hotsprings for the day, we made some food on the run (cheese and biscuits, what else!) before heading back the way we’d came to camp for the night at a lake side beach we’d heard about in El Castillo.

Free Tabacon Hot Springs
Free and natural hot springs!

Turns out there is no beach in El Castillo (either that or we’re navigationally inept), so we drove a few kms out of town until we found a small dirt boat ramp right on the lake which looked like a nice place to read a book. WRONG! The swarm of thousands of bugs small enough to fit through the mosquito wire who decided to join us put that idea to rest, and we headed back towards the small town of El Castillo and spent the night parked up by the local football pitch.

Lunch on the run.  Costa Rica.
Lunch on the run, cheese and biscuits of course

Waking to the sound of howler monkeys (again), we discovered for the first time on the entire trip we had a flat battery. Managing to flag down a young couple only a few minutes later we got her started and headed back down the dirt road to, you guessed it, the free hot springs!

After a few hours lazing in the river we headed into the small town of La Fortuna, where there’s some great coffee to be had at My Coffee Lounge. From the terrace there’s a view of the main square, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to sip your coffee listening to a screaming brat spend 30 minutes repeatedly telling everybody in the vicinity


He was so annoying even his parents sat him down and left him behind. Seriously.

Good Coffee and WIFI.  La Fortuna, Costa Rica.
Good coffee and decent WiFi at My Coffee Lounge, La Fortuna

Cloud continued to obscure nearby Volcan Arenal so we set off to tackle the mountainous roads standing between us and the breezy Caribbean coast. Finally reaching the summit along the narrow curving route 702 we enjoyed some great views of the lush mountains, before cruising down into traffic choked San Jose just in time for peak hour. Debating whether to stop and wait for it to pass, we decided we had nothing better to do, so we joined the throng of cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes and even the odd pushbike to wind our way along the main highway from one side of town to the other.

San Jose, Costa Rica.
San Jose

For more photos check Flickr.


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