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Where should a family go for hot springs in Costa Rica
Choosing the Best Hot Springs Option
for a Big Family in the Arenal Area

Visitors to one of Costa Rica's most popular tourist destinations, the town of La Fortuna, near Arenal Volcano, have a bewildering variety of options for places to experience a hot springs. After researching them all, and visiting three of them, we found one that we liked a lot more than all the others...

This is a curated list; there are a handful of additional hot springs options in town, but these were the ones that made it to my short list after many hours of careful research to determine which hot springs would be the best for our big family's taste. All the hot springs in town feature some pools with hot water heated by the thermal action of the volcano, plus some cool-water pools for taking a break from cooking yourself.

So, here are the hot springs options in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, listed in descending order of price. Of course, these places can change their prices at any time, so be sure to verify current prices for yourself before making a decision.

$$$ per Person per Day (The Sky is the Limit!)
First let me point out that all of the below options are described and priced at the rates for independent travelers, like us. If you book through a middle-man or any sort of tour operator, you'll surely pay quite a bit more. You could very easily pay $100 per person per day, and up. There are tour agencies, both online-only and some with physical offices in La Fortuna, which happily sell so-called "tours" to these hot springs.  A "tour" of a hot springs means picking up the tourists at the hotel, driving them to the gate, then picking them up in a few hours. So the difference between a "tour" and a "taxi ride" would seem to be limited to the price, and in the case of a "tour," your operator is going to want to make the decision of which resort you'll be visiting.

In these cases your entry fee may either be buried in the tour price, or, may be in addition to the tour price. Taxis in La Fortuna are everywhere, and car rentals are low-cost. For us it made no sense to even consider taking a "tour" to get to a hot springs. The hot springs are everywhere you go in La Fortuna; you can't miss them.

Most Kids Pay Full Price
By the way, a word on "per person" costs in Costa Rica:  if your child is age 6 or 7 and up, that child will pay "adult" prices at almost any and every attraction in the country.  There's often no such thing as a "child discount," since the age range for children really refers to infants and toddlers, with an age 6 cut-off being very common.  And so, on to the independent travel (non-tour) options: 

$40 per Person per Day
The Ecotermales Resort day fee is $40 per person for a day-pass.  For a family of 6, this would be $240 for a dip in the hot springs. Moving on...

How much does it cost to go to hot springs in Costa Rica
Ecotermales Resort, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

$17 per Person per Day
The Los Lagos Resort also sells day passes. This place looks sort of like a hot springs water park. At $17 per person, this would cost a family of 6 about $102 total.

We spent one of our days here (that's where the photo at the top of this article was taken), and except for the severe, painful injuries I sustained there to multiple parts of my body, injuries of a sort which I later learned are common at this resort, I could almost recommend it.

So, moving on...

Which hot springs resort to choose in La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Los Lagos Resort, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

$12 per Person per Day
At $12 each for a day pass, Termales Los Laureles looked fun. It has a waterpark sort of look, and advertises having a big tall slide, 7 hot springs pools, and 2 cool pools.  It's open 9am to 9pm daily. It's located 7km to the west of the main plaza in La Fortuna, on the road that goes to Arenal Volcano.

We had already been to one of the cheaper options (listed below), and I wanted to see if it was any nicer or better at a more expensive place. We made it all the way to the property before deciding against it. The one hesitation I had, before going, is that it looked like there would be no shade anywhere, with all the pools in full sun, all day.

But we went to the gate anyway, and at the time of our visit, we found that the main attraction for the kids, the biggest water slide, was covered by a tarp. Fortunately I saw that, off in the distance, before we paid to get inside. I asked the ticket seller at the gate about it, and he said it was being "restored." I'm sure the renovation is complete by now...probably...but this was a good learning experience for us. If we're picking something expensive to do, and our selection is made mostly because of one feature, it's probably a good idea to verify that feature exists and is operation, before paying. We decided to leave and head to another option that day.

Do they have any shade at the hot springs at Termales los Laureles?
Termales Los Laurels, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

$8 per Person per Day
At a price point that is 5 times less expensive than comparable resorts, we put Las Termalitas del Arenal at the top of our list. It has a two 20 ft waterslides (side by side), man-made pools (like all the resorts), and clean restrooms and changing areas.

They sell inexpensive and delicious food and drinks (all the food is Costa Rican), but it's also unique in that they allow you to bring in your own food and water from outside the park. Locals come here on weekends to barbeque and relax, but during the week, during the rainy season, we found it to be mostly empty, which was just to our liking.

What's the cheapest hot springs resort in La Fortuna, Costa Rica?
Las Termalitas del Arenal, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Supposedly Free but Not Free
Now to address a bit of misinformation we found in multiple sources online. Supposedly, you can visit the inside of Rio Chollo Tabacon Hot Springs, during certain hours of the day, for free. I read this in numerous online reviews. It's not true though. This is a very expensive luxury resort with 27 pools, powerful waterfalls, and steaming hot water. Guests of the resort use the pools for free. And during the day, the resort does in fact "open the hot springs to the public," but it's not free - it requires a day pass, just like any other resort. One day we drove out to Arenal Volcano, and way far outside of town I saw the sign for this resort, so I stopped by just to ask the gate attendant about the veracity of the rumored free entry.

The first thing we noticed was that this was the most remote hot springs from La Fortuna. Anyone staying here is staying a very long way away from town. The second thing we noticed is swarms and swarms of tourists in the 18-22 range. The road was crawling with them. They were cold, wet, barefoot, and looked lost. Parking here is pandemonium. This appeared to be the place where the majority of the tour buses were bringing their tourists. Since parking onsite is limited, and the place gets packed with tour buses, we saw a hundred rental cars plus a dozen buses all parked directly on the shoulder of the mountain road. Tour buses disgorge their masses right into the street. Just driving past this place is chaotic.

Where to swim for free at Rio Chollo Tabacon Hot Springs in La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Rio Chollo Tabacon Hot Springs Resort

So when driving by, I stopped and asked the gate attendant if it was true that you could get inside for free during certain hours of the day. Boy, did he ever laugh. He thought it was a hilarious idea. Considering the luxury look of the place, I'm sure it was. He said that I must be thinking of the free option that involves going to the river just outside the resort. I told him that I already knew about that option, but that many travelers had written that it was possible to get inside, into the resort itself, for free after 10am on weekdays. He confirmed again: no way, and gave me instructions for how to get my vehicle turned around through all the chaos.

The other bit of misinformation about this place is that you can avoid the tour buses by going early and leaving before 430pm.  Not true. The various times that we passed by this place on the way to or from Arenal, we saw overflowing parking lots and swarms of tourists and hives of tour buses, at all hours of the day.

Free! But is it Worth the Savings?
Many travelers recommend the "secret" free hot springs option, which is a soak in the river called Rio Chollin, located right outside the Rio Chollo Tabacon Hot Springs Resort. These two potential destinations are so close to one another that they are literally separated by a fence. However, this involves parking on a narrow road where buses, trucks, and tourists in rentals go zooming along the curvy road at high speeds. A family with kids would have to walk along this dangerous route, which has no sidewalk or any shoulder, to make their way to a "hidden" entrance. You can go through a fence that has been cut, or there is another option further along that involves ignoring a yellow barricade gate and the "Danger" signs.

Wherever you park, your car would be at an extremely high risk of break-in and theft, especially if you left anything at all visible inside of it. Basically the risk of break-in is so high that it is said to be a relative certainty. And on the other hand, if you bring anything with you to the river that you can't hold in your hands the entire time, it will also get stolen.

One path to the river involves going through a concrete tunnel under a bridge, which is sprayed with graffiti and depending on river conditions, is sometimes obstructed with debris from the river. The sticks and branches probably aren't that bad, but some travelers have reported stepping through soiled baby diapers, and broken beer bottles as well.

The other thing that might gross you out is that this hot springs access point involves soaking in the overflow from a resort. The exit pipes from the resort are dumping their contents into this river, and that's what you're soaking in: the "used" (so to speak) water from the resort. Well, there's that, and the fact that there are no bathrooms here since this is a natural river, and the banks of the river are too steep to allow climbing up away from the river easily. So you can imagine where dozens and dozens of people per day are relieving themselves, and where their waste ends up, and what your chances of walking or swimming in it are.

Is it safe to bring kids to swim in the river in La Fortuna?
Rio Chollin, La Fortuna
From top left: Cut fence entrance; graffiti bridge; party time; candle-lit evenings generate mood lighting for thefts and drug deals; river scenery; day-time scene

Still interested in taking your family there?  Consider also that this is a place where people go to buy certain illegal substances, and in the evenings this is a party scene for young adults, lit by candles placed on the rocks and banks of the river. Diapers are probably not the nastiest used items to be found in these waters.

If you decide to try it anyway, a waterproof pack and watershoes are needed.  Broken beer bottles and assorted dumped trash will make water shoes a must, though I'm sure a sharp piece of glass wouldn't have all that much trouble puncturing the average water shoe. One option for getting into the river is to go past the yellow gate over the bridge, and look for the theoretically "better" way to enter on the left side, just past the "DANGER" signs. Just next to the bridge there is a little cove with a whirlpool effect. Just don’t bring anything you don’t want to get wet, and leave all valuables in your hotel safe because from all accounts, anything and everything that you bring with you to this place and attempt to leave laying on a rock somewhere will definitely be stolen.

Best Bet
Our big family very much enjoyed Las Termalitas del Arenal, so much so that we went twice in three days. But more on that in a future post...[Update:  That post is here.]

Looking for More on Costa Rica?
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6 Tips on Getting from Playa Samara to La Fortuna, Costa Rica

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