Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal ResortLa Fortuna/Arenal, Costa Rica
- Grounds of the 18 hot springs are expansive, full of countless hidden hot pools and waterfalls
- Spa treatments take place in bungalows open to the rainforest
- Modern rooms look onto rainforest, and it's not uncommon to see coati or other exotic fauna
- All rooms come with free Wi-Fi, flat-screen cable TVs, and air-conditioning
- Suites have separate showers and whirlpool tubs, and some have loaner laptops
- Free shuttle between the hotel and the hot springs
- Free valet parking
- Internet center consists of three big-screen iMacs
- Not much local flavor besides the flora and fauna -- you could be at a hot-springs resort anywhere, really
- Breakfast not included
- Hot springs located down a twisty main road from the hotel; not entirely safe to walk
- Guests expected to wear plastic wristbands during their stay
- Not all rooms have volcano views
- Hot springs can get crowded with day-trippers
- Food and drink are expensive for the area
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Hot spring enthusiasts of all ages come here from all over the globe, and honeymooners can be spotted lounging around among the jungle trees and buffet tables in their bathrobes and slippers.
Guests of all ages from all over the world lounge in slippers and bathrobes in both the hotel and the hot springs, and the atmosphere at this resort is definitely one of committed relaxation. The place is a popular destination for honeymooners and couples, and many of the folks immersing themselves in the hot waters, taking a nighttime stroll through the (carefully manicured) jungle paths, or sidling up to the pool barn (without getting out of the water) are obviously romantically minded pairs waiting for the right moment to slip under the waterfall alone.
Tabacon is deservedly famous not just for its extensive hot springs, but for its role in spearheading the tourism development of the entire Arenal region. Costa Rican architect and hotel developer first opened Tabacon as a day spa destination with five hot springs pools in 1993, and the property has grown dramatically since then to become what it is today -- a 102-room hotel and the country's leading hot springs destination, with 18 natural pools. Because the projects developed over time, they don't form one cohesive property; rather, hotel guests will need to take the (free) shuttle to the hot springs down the road, and will be expected to wear wristbands with their room numbers and a color code on them during their stay. Some may mind the clearly touristy nature of the experience and that the hot springs are open to the public, not just hotel guests; others will find it a small sacrifice given that a stay at the hotel includes access to the most extensive hot springs around (day passes are otherwise $60 per day, per person as of 2015).
We feel obligated to mention that only a couple days after our visit, the Tabacon hot springs and spa area was robbed by six men wielding guns who pistol-whipped the guards and stole cash and several of the spa's and employees' electronic items before fleeing. The robbery took place at 3 a.m., with no guests present, and at least two of the perpetrators were later caught. Though local media dubbed it the latest incident of a crime wave in the canton, local proprietors say an increase in robberies and similar crimes rise each tourist season as they do in other popular destinations, but that the area remains generally safe.
Located on the west side of the volcano, the hotel is a destination unto itself, and those who go here probably don't mind that they're not going to be able to quickly pop into town.
The hotel lies on its own part of the Arenal area west of the volcano, and requires a 20-minute or so drive from La Fortuna or most other obvious locations, mostly on a windy road from La Fortuna to the Arenal Dam. That's probably not much an issue for most guests, however, as the vast majority come here to pamper themselves at the hot springs anyway. Arenal National Park, however, is not far to the south. Both hotel and spa lie in the rainforest, and it's not unusual to see coati or other wildlife nearby, though it's always from a safe distance. (Staff assured us there's a trained "Green Team" to handle dangerous animal incursions into the spa.)
Contemporary rooms with beautiful rainforest views
The rooms are immaculately maintained and spacious, with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the rainforest that allows them to feel like they're full of light even on a rainy day. Decor is contemporary and includes wood furniture handmade my local artisans. The style between categories varies, but most rooms have tile floors, quality white duvets, and plenty of wood accents; the overall look is polished and upscale. Despite the subtle displays of Costa Rican handicrafts, the rooms are a touch generic. Most guests are impressed by their spaciousness (especially those who book suites), though some units are older than others as the resort was expanded over many years, and a few guests have complained of mustiness and inadequate AC units. It's also worth noting that while the views of the rainforest are lovely, and many guests spot wildlife right out their windows, not all rooms have volcano views. Still, this is one of only a few luxury resorts in the area, and amenities in all rooms include cable TVs with DVDs, safes, minibars, and coffeemakers. Sleek bathrooms have big walk-in showers with rainfall showerheads, and many suites also have big two-person jetted tubs. Wi-Fi is free, and some suites have in-room laptops.
Hot springs, hot springs, hot springs -- Tabacon is all about the thermal resort side of its operation, and with good reason.
Tabacon was the first hot springs destination in the area, and is perhaps the only one with completely natural hot springs. Many other hot springs resorts in the area depend on pumps and heat or re-heat the water through mechanical means, but the 18 springs here flow into the pools by gravity, and temperatures naturally range from 25 to 50 degrees Celsius (77 to 122 degrees Farenheit. The higher pools are hotter because they're closer to the source, by the way. Sure, you have to wear a silly wristband that makes you feel like you're about to go to your first concert all over again, but for people who pamper themselves, it's a small price for the countless waterfalls, hot pools, and labyrinthine (and perfectly manicured) rainforest paths that lead you to yet more hidden waterfalls and hot pools in the four acres of Edenic tropical gardens. Just note that you'll need to take the free hotel shuttle down the road to the springs (walking along the road is possible but not completely safe because of traffic).
Food at the resort gets mixed reviews, with some guests finding it no better than average. Prices for everything, from the food to the excursions, are steep. Other resorts offer more value in these areas, and most in the region -- unlike Tabacon -- offer free breakfast.