The paid hot springs in the La Fortuna area are a great place to spend an afternoon, but if you want to just relax your muscles on the cheap after a long day of hiking El Chollín is the place to go.
The best time to be there is in the late afternoon/evening as the sun is going down. Especially during the dry season the air temperature is just too hot to enjoy the river during the day. Also, since it is a river keep an eye on how much it has rained. If there’s been a lot of rain it can dilute the amount of hot water and take it from hot springs to tepid muddy water springs which isn’t that enjoyable.
One really cool experience is watching the lightning beetles as the sun goes down. They’re similar to the lightning bugs or fireflies in the US, but they’re a type of beetle and their front lights up instead of their back. It’s just an amazingly beautiful scene to sit out in the jungle in a warm river and observe nature. Even if you plan to go to one of the paid hot springs, this place is worth taking a little bit of time to see just for the ambiance.
Also, and this is very important, if there has been a very heavy downpour do not go right after. If it starts to rain very hard while you’re there, get out. When there is a heavy downpour the rivers in the area get what is called a Head Water where a huge flood wave of water draining off Arenal rushes down the rivers. If you look at the picture above you can see some of the destructive force of it. After a very heavy rain in September 2015 several trees and even concrete slabs were dislodged. These heavy headwaters only happen a handful of times a year during the heaviest of rains, but even for infrequent occurrences knowledge can save lives. You will usually hear the head water a bit before it hit’s too, so don’t take this as making the river seem like some deadly creature either. Just if it’s rained very hard be cautious and especially if you hear a loud rumbling, get out.
One might wonder how these free hot springs in a jungle river ended up appearing to have a human hand in their layout. The reason is that this used to be part of Tabacón, the most expensive Spa and Hot Springs in the area ( hence why it is occasionally referred to as Tabaconcito or little Tabacón). However some years ago the government ruled that Tabacón did not actually have the right to have fenced in and used this part of the river and opened it up to the public.
To get there you need to follow the road out of La Fortuna heading up towards the volcano, after about ten minutes you will pass the Tabacón hotel and spa. You can’t miss it, it’s got all kinds of signs. As you pass the hotel reception you will go down a steep hill on a curve and there will be the entrance to Tabacón spa and on the left side is a long stretch of parking spaces. On the opposite side of the road is a bright yellow gate and some posts to keep cars out; walk 100 meters down that path and you’re there!