We lodged just three kilometers from the most famous waterfall in Costa Rica – La Catarata de la Fortuna. On our third day in Arenal we took a morning hike to the falls before heading further north.
At 70 meters tall, this was the biggest waterfall I’ve ever hiked to. To get to the falls you first have to hike down 500-600 meters of steep old steps into a deep ravine that’s lined with dark iridescent rocks and innumerable ferns, mosses and bromeliads.
The view from the top of the trail is stunning itself. The waterfall peeks out of the jungle on a clear day and you can really get a sense of its scale before hiking down, but even so I wasn’t prepared for how large and powerful it really was. The base of the falls is about a mile down from where this photo was taken, and the crashing of the falls can be heard as this deep rumble even from up here.
The hike down to the falls is not for the weak, nor the weak-of-heart – the trail is lined with protective barriers in some places but most of the trail consists of very steep, slippery steps winding down the side of the ravine. Just to see these trees up close is worth it though; huge, old grandfather trees supporting so much life and holding the steep hillside together with their massive and intricate root-systems were beautiful to behold.
Down at the base of the falls the scale that I thought I had a sense of was completely blown away. Only about a third of the waterfall can be captured in a photograph from the base of the falls, it’s so big. See those old tree trunks back there? Those were too big to crawl over (but they look tiny!). We immediately jumped into the tide pool, in which were only a few other people. Immediately I discovered why no one was swimming – the force of the falls created a current that was so strong it was extremely difficult to stay afloat treading water. We tried to swim backwards toward the falls but the strength of the water was so strong we could only swim a few feet in. Exhausted, Ryan and I decided to explore the other side of the pool.
The cave behind the waterfall was dark and lush and full of mysterious blackbirds and huge rocks but off-limits to visitors. We discovered that going too close to the cave would also get you in trouble because of the danger of falling rocks. The spray from the falls was so strong and chilly it nearly knocked us over as we tried to take a few photos.
The current at La Catarata is unusual. The front side of the falls pushes out strongly, while the water behind the falls pulls under the base of the waterfall itself. We learned that recently a visitor tried to swim under the falls and his neck was broken by the force of the water. We creek-hiked downstream and found a few perfect and calm places to swim and relax with a handful of big fish and it was fantastic.
The rocks in the area formed in beautiful crystalline patterns of dark grey and black, reflecting the light with an iridescent glow. I found the variety of mosses, ferns and tiny palms living on the rocks to be so unusual and beautiful, I marveled at them for quite a while. The rocks at the bottom of the falls were similar but huge and smooth and great for perching on for meditation, which I did while ryan napped on the edge of the jungle.
The hike out of La Catarata is intense but wonderful! This place is absolutely magical and transfixing. I didn’t want to leave so soon but we had to get on the road toward and begin next leg of our journey!
In the late afternoon we drove west through La Fortuna, past boys playing barefoot soccer, through Tanque and onto a smaller road. We drove north and north, away from the cities and the tourist destinations. No more signs for zip-lines and hotels and hot springs, instead, we saw more evidence of serious deforestation and open rolling farmland. We passed between Tenorio Volcano National Park (who’s river feeds La Catarata) and Silvestre Cano Negro and paused to approach the mules and oxen along the roadside.
The sun set as the road turned into rough gravel. We wound up and down hills, past tiny villages, further from civilization every minute. We had finally arrived at our next destination: La Carolina Lodge, right in the middle of nowhere.