Twenty years ago, a roadblock obliged two men to seek an alternate route back to San José from Liberia, capital of the northwestern Guanacaste province.
One man owned a piece of land between Nuevo Arenal and Tilarán in north-central Costa Rica, so they decided to visit the property and return via San Carlos.
Stopping for lunch, they were immediately intrigued by the warm river that flowed by the Tabacón restaurant and local hot spring pool. They were so fascinated by this natural wonder that they decided to set up a meeting with the owners and stay the night at one of the few small hotels in the town of La Fortuna. They met the following day with the Cedeño family, sowing the seeds of the present-day, world-class hot spring facility, Tabacón Grand Spa and Thermal Resort.
Since Martín Mora and Jaime Mikowski stumbled upon Tabacón, it has gone from local hot spring to what National Geographic Traveler magazine has named one of the top 50 wellness destinations in the world. Hand in hand, La Fortuna has grown to claim one of the top spots in the country’s tourist scene.
Like Las Vegas in the early 1900s first attracting visitors as a water stop, La Fortuna’s constant stream of mineral-rich volcanic waters is fueling growth in what some have dubbed the “City of Springs.”
Megaresorts are on the rise, and everyone, even Tabacón, is trying to keep up. From casinos to conservation, there are pre- and posthot spring diversions for the whole family.
After exercising unused muscles horseback riding and pulling yourself hand over fist after not quite reaching the zipline platform, there’s nothing better than soaking your tired limbs in soothing, hot volcanic waters.
La Fortuna currently has 10 hot spring options ranging from free to “I’m glad they accept credit cards,” each offering a unique look and feel to match your mood.
Tabacón Grand Spa and Thermal Resort has seven hot spring pools fed by the thermomineral TabacónRiver. The pools are scattered throughout extensive and meticulously landscaped gardens connected by narrow, winding paths and Zen-like wooden bridges. Volcanic rock shapes the pools, some of which have natural floors.
Digging your toes into the warm sandy bottom as you gaze at iguanas perched on tree branches offers the perfect opportunity to contemplate your relationship with nature, or to canoodle with a loved one. Rushing waters and occasional downpours dominate the soundscape.
In the works are four new rooms and a carbon-neutral program through which guests can plant a tree on nearby deforested land.
Day-pass rates change seasonally and run from about $80 for an all-day pass including a lunch and dinner buffet to $45 for an evening pass valid from 6 to 10 p.m. For information, call 2519-1940 or visit www.tabacon.com.
Los Lagos Hotel, Spa and Resort is a four-star hotel created by Tabacón’s first owners. Deciding to opt out of the business, the Cedeño family sold its part of Tabacón, a decision based on what is rumored to be the toss of a coin. The Cedeños won the toss and decided to sell.
Los Lagos offers six hot spring pools fed from a sizzling volcanic stream. Guests can also enjoy other amenities, from swimming pools to an on-site canopy tour and crocodile pond.
Day passes cost $20, $35 including lunch or dinner. For information, call 2479-1000 or visit www.hotelloslagos.com.
The Springs Resort and Spa, created by the owners of the Peace Lodge at La PazWaterfallGardens near Poás Volcano, is the newcomer on La Fortuna’s five-star luxury resort scene. Two of what will be three hot spring areas have been built so far. Twelve lagoon-style pools sit at the front of the reception building, and seven more intimate pools, called Los Perdidos, cascade down the property’s edge in a tropical setting. Underground mineral springs have been tapped to continuously feed the thermal pools.
No expense has been spared to provide plenty of outdoor seating, including that oft-forgotten, quintessential symbol of relaxation, the hammock.
For those ready to regain the adrenaline rush they got earlier from hooking a carabiner to a pulley and zipping across the rain-forest canopy, The Springs will also have a casino.
From now until December, the hotel is offering a $25 promotional rate to enjoy the hot springs, plus $5 for a locker. Eventually, Los Perdidos will be reserved for hotel guests. For information, call 2401-3315 or visit www.thespringscostarica.com.
Baldi Hot Springs Resort is the place Las Vegas executives from the MandalayBay in the U.S. would study if they wanted to remodel their pool with a little Costa Rican flair.
Like most area hot spring resorts, Baldi is set to the backdrop of Arenal Volcano. Baldi dares to compete with the imposing scenery with gigantic faux rock formations, some embossed with stars. Their practical purpose is to cool down the thermal waters pumped from underground streams.
What is always pumping is a steady stream of rock music. Reclining, submerged in hot water on a blue-and-yellow-tiled rock chair, you can sing along to Men at Work while watching a spinning disco ball. For $10 more, you can do it with a piña colada.
New at Baldi are three huge, winding slides. A year old and just beyond the slides are a few pools far removed from the thumping sounds below. Baldi also has an idea to add a casino and conference center. Just opened is a 24-room hotel, with approval to eventually build 150 rooms.
Day passes cost $28, $20 for nationals and residents, plus an additional $5 for a locker and $24 for a lunch or dinner buffet or special à-la-carte menu. For information, call 2479-9917.
Arenal Kioro Suites and Spa is a newer addition that shares a wall with Baldi Hot Springs – and not the quiet one. Titokú hot springs, as they are called, are located three kilometers from the Kioro and offer eight closely connected pools at varying temperatures in a small, secluded setting. There is a snack bar, restaurant and soon a sushi bar.
Day passes cost $20, $35 in high season, and $10 more for lunch or dinner à la carte. For information, call 2461-1700, or visit www.hotelarenalkioro.com.
Hotel Royal Corin Resort and Loto Spa is across the street from Baldi and Titokú.
Also new to the luxury hotel scene, the Dutch-owned Royal Corin offers a collection of contemporary thermal-water pools surrounding a well-stocked wet bar.
It is said that good design is about contrast as well as fitting in. The Royal Corin pushes this design theory to the limits. The jury is out on whether they have gone too far.
Day passes cost $25. For information, call 2479-1515.
Eco Termales is the only hot spring complex without a view of the volcano, but it more than makes up for it with just enough comfort to pamper while maintaining the feeling of being immersed in the rain forest.
Hidden behind an unmarked wooden gate and available by appointment only, Eco Termales has five, neck-deep thermal pools, one cold pool, two bars and a restaurant serving home-style food.
Adding to the authentic Costa Rican feel of days gone by, drinks are calculated on the honor system at check out.
Day passes for one of three time slots, 10 to 1 p.m., 1 to 5 p.m. or 5 to 9 p.m., cost $24, $39 including lunch or dinner. For reservations, call 2479-8484.
Hotel El Silencio del Campo is just one lot away from Eco Termales, with the new Hotel Royal Corin towering in between.
At the back of El Silencio’s collection of 17 – soon to be 20 – individual cabins sits a large thermal pool fed by an on-site well for hotel guests. A waterfall and an overflow wall ensure constant water circulation. Next to the pool are several chaise longues and a bar. Horses grazing on the bordering lot add to the symbolism of a place caught between Costa Rica’s past and future.
El Silencio’s thermal pool is for hotel guests only; day passes are not available. (Cabin rates are $120 to $150 a night, depending on the season.) For reservations, call 2479-7055, or visit www.hotelsilenciodelcampo.com.
Termales Los Laureles is a popular hot spring park for families. Its four pools include a freshwater pool and a children’s pool. There isn’t a restaurant or bar, but there are numerous covered picnic areas with electricity. Barbecues are also available. Day passes cost $8. For more information, call 8306-7674 or visit www.termalesloslaureles.com.
El Chollín, which in English means “the scrape,” serves as a warning for those who dare to take an off-road dip in these free hot springs. Just above Tabacón, the intrepid open a yellow gate, walk by abandoned construction and pass through a long square tunnel that opens up to raging, hot rapids. From there you climb over a rock lip into what feels like the mouth of a sleeping dragon.
It is pitch black at night. As you wade down the river with your flashlight, looking for a spot, young couples flinch like in old movies when people didn’t turn off their headlights driving into “Inspiration Point.”
Whether you opt for rustic or rich, there is a La Fortuna hot spring to soothe your mind, body and soul. The active volcano that the first Las Vegas megaresort, The Mirage, engineered as a popular tourist attraction, La Fortuna has as a gift from Mother Earth. What “SinCity” offers in artificial opulence, the “City of Springs” rivals with abounding nature.