Home Costa Rica Comparing paid vs free hot springs in Arenal, La Fortuna (Costa Rica)

Comparing paid vs free hot springs in Arenal, La Fortuna (Costa Rica)

by Simon

One of the biggest attractions of La Fortuna, Costa Rica is the hot springs that run off the Arenal volcano. You only need to drive out of La Fortuna to see the swathe of spas, resorts and other establishments offering you a relaxing dip in the mineral heavy volcanic water of a thermal spa.

Now over the years I’ve become a big fan of the humble bath. Hell, throw some bath salts in there, maybe some bubble bath if I’m feeling like it and if I’m really wanting to go full cosmo I’ll light some candles. Masculinity comes in many forms. Anyway, I like my baths hot. Hot enough so that I only spend 10 minutes in them and a further 30 minutes after a cold shower trying to cool down. So a morning at a thermal spa in 25-30°C didn’t really seem like something I’d be interested in.

We went anyway. They looked nice and ‘when in Rome’ as they say.

The only other catch is that I’m relatively cheap. Not a huge fan of paying premium for things. So it was a bit of a surprise when we were looking at anywhere between $20 and $85 for a morning.

Naturally enough, we went for the most expensive and best known hot springs in the Arenal/La Fortuna area, the Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa. Being the savvy spender that I am, I also researched some other options. It turns out there’s free hot springs as well, otherwise known. as Rio El Chollin.

Armed with such essential traveller knowledge, I decided that I was going to put it to the test. Was it worth paying for the thermal spa in La Fortuna or would the free hot springs be good enough?

Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa

Let’s get the logistics out of the way first.

Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa is roughly 12km North West of La Fortuna at the base of the Arenal Volcano (15-20 minute drive).

They have a range of options, including rooms for you to stay overnight. However, the half day option is probably the most popular and comes with lunch or dinner depending on whether you choose the morning or evening session. We paid $70USD for entry to Tabacón hot springs and a full day is $85 USD, although this can vary depending on the time of year. Finally, the half day sessions are either 10am till 2pm or 6pm till 10pm.

I actually looked at the price for a night which was about $130 – $150 to stay there. As such, it would have been substantially cheaper to stay there than to pay for a room elsewhere and also two entry tickets. That’s not taking into account the pain of moving hotels after one night…..although the spa opens at 8am so presumably the guests get it to themselves between 8am – 10am and 2pm – 6pm.

More information and booking here: https://www.tabacon.com/thermal-experience/

First impressions

Slight hiccup at the beginning. We thought it would be good to turn up at 9.40am to buy the tickets and be the first ones in. Turns out that reception doesn’t open till 10am on the dot so we had to wait around. No biggie.

They didn’t allow me to fly the drone even though there wasn’t really anybody there. Complete understandable though – drones are really annoying for everyone and people are in bikinis/swimming costumes so there’s a privacy issue there. Again, no biggie. I expected that.

As you walk in it is remarkably peaceful. That’s probably stating the obvious considering it’s been built specifically to be a spa!! Another unsurprising thing…the water is warm. It varies but mostly it sits around 38°C (100°F for the Americans).

There are loads of little pools, waterfalls and rivers, all surrounded by lush vegetation. I believe that they’ve diverted the water from Rio Arenal but I might be mistaken there. Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa actually sits on a 900 acre estate, although I would say that the spa itself is probably on 3-4 acres.

They’ve created little areas within the spa with their own little names, like the Shangri-La gardens. As such, it’s worth exploring more than just the initial mini waterfalls. If you go upstream to the left, in the Shangri-La gardens there is a larger waterfall (maybe 1.5 – 2m) where you can sit in the waterfall and get a nice little massage.

Everyone wants that Instagram spa picture

The main series of mini waterfalls and pools are directly opposite a bridge, allowing for people to perch on the edge and take their much wanted Instagram shot. I have Instagram and am no stranger to it, but I do find it kind of frustrating when you see a couple of people spend the entire few hours taking photos instead of relaxing in the warm water!

Having said that, I also spent a decent amount of time filming so the irony is thick here.

Hot/Cold Pools

We were warned by the receptionist at the place we were staying (Arenal Volcano Inn) that the best time to go was the evening. This was because it gets hot during the day so that combined with the warm water isn’t ideal.

Luckily it was overcast with some small rain showers so it wasn’t too hot outside. Regardless, after an hour or so of soaking in the natural hot tubs you kind of want to find a bit of cold water…..which we subsequently did.

Now 22°C (71.6°F) water isn’t exactly cold. However, after the main thermal pools it comes as a brisk wake up! This was probably my favourite part – going from the hot pools to the cold pools. It makes you appreciate the warmth of the spa!

Lunch at Tabacón

It was great that lunch was included within the half day entrance fee. A meal out in La Fortuna will run you $20 minimum anyway so it helps with the $70 hit.

It’s a buffet style lunch but with a variety of options across starters, mains and desserts. They also don’t have a problem with you going up for more so needless to say, this little piggy stuffed his face.

Overall impression of Tabacón

At first I thought that the $70 USD entrance fee for a 4 hour spa experience was a little steep. However, considering how relaxing it was and the fact that you get lunch thrown in as well, it isn’t too bad.

I was expecting it to be far more crowded but I think they do a good job of restricting access.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Sure, it’s not cheap but how often do you get to soak in natural thermal rivers running off a volcano? There’s lots of claims as to the health benefits of the minerals in the water but I’m not doctor so I really can’t comment on that!

The great thing was that there really wasn’t any smell of Sulphur – unlike just about everywhere (including the tap water) in Iceland.

But……what are the free hot springs like?

The free hot springs at Rio El Chillon, La Fortuna.

The interesting part about the free hot springs in La Fortuna is that they are 60 meters from Tabacón. Literally, across the road. They say that it’s called Rio El Chillon, but I couldn’t see this on Google Maps!

There’s lots of cars parked on the side of the road we which originally thought were for Tabacón. However, it turns out that the majority of these cars are for the free hot springs.

A short walk across the road from Tabacón and down a path for another 60m and you arrive at the free natural spa in Arenal.

One thing you’ll want to know immediately is that they have constructed a sort of culvert/tunnel under the road to let the water pass beneath. It’s concrete, it has graffiti and it isn’t necessarily the prettiest thing in the world (by that I mean that it’s pretty horrible). However, once you get over that, either side of said tunnel it is surprisingly nice.

I hadn’t expected for there to have been walls built to create little pools at the free hot springs. I just assumed that it would be a thermal river that people could relax/swim in. How wrong was I!

It didn’t have the picturesque waterfalls and the tunnel was a bit of a downer, but apart from that I was seriously impressed. I genuinely thought that it would be an easy decision – pay for the premium ones or have a half arsed attempt with the free ones. It’s the complete opposite.

The free hot springs are not as well groomed. The vegetation surrounding them isn’t as well manicured. There aren’t any instagrammable mini waterfalls.

But they’re free.

They aren’t hard to get to. You don’t feel like you have to stay for the whole 4 hours because you’ve paid for them.

Honestly, if you don’t want to drop $70 on a morning at the spa, the free ones are well worth a visit. I’d be happy with either. If you’re in La Fortuna or elsewhere in Arenal, you have to visit the hot springs.

It’s also not just Tabacón or the free ones. There’s Ecotermales that we heard was nice, Baldi which is more kid friendly and a load of others so you have a really wide choice. Whichever one you choose, visiting volcanic hot springs in Arenal/La Fortuna is a must.

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