With its several protected areas, lakes, lagoons, volcanoes, rivers and waterfalls, the Northern Zone is undergoing a boom in tourism service and adventure site development, so that nature-loving visitors can enjoy the region’s many riches. Thanks to frequent rains, the Northern Zone features wet and evergreen forests as well as fertile plains—natural environments that serve as sanctuaries for water birds, reptiles, mammals and the prehistoric Gaspar fish, and important sites of interest for wildlife-lovers. Adventure activities and nature-watching may be enjoyed on the region’s rivers—Peñas Blancas, San Carlos, Toro, Puerto Viejo and Sarapiquí—some of which are important navigational routes.
Forming part of the region is the Sarapiquí canton, which, with its rich biodiversity, is recognized as a scientific research site and the last stronghold of endangered species such as the great green macaw. The region is famous for the turnos (outdoor parties or festivals) held in its towns, with bull riding and livestock auctions.
A canton in the Guanacaste province, Tilarán is known as the “city or port of many waters.” Situated at 561 meters above sea level in the Sierra de Tilarán, the city enjoys cool temperatures and lovely landscapes from its irregular topography. A wide variety of tourism and commercial services is available. Interesting tourist destinations include San José hill and Volcán Pelado, which offers an impressive view of a large part of the pampas of Guanacaste. Tilarán is a departure point for Monteverde, Fortuna and Arenal volcano and reservoir, as well as the rest of the Guanacaste province.
EOLIC ENERGY IN TILARÁN
Eolic energy is obtained by harnessing the force of the wind. Over the last few years, parts of the Tilarán area have been converted into eolic plants, impressive facilities with gigantic towers. There are several projects in Tierras Morenas. The last plant, built by the Costa Rican Electricity Institute, is known as Tejona.
An 87.8-square-kilometer artificial lake at an elevation of 546 meters above sea level, the Arenal reservoir is perfect for trips on large boats fitted out for tourists, fishing or waterskiing. It is also well known among windsurfers as the windsurfing center of Costa Rica, with winds reaching an average speed of 72 kilometers per hour.
COTE OR COTER LAKE
This lake is situated at 680 meters above sea level and has a diameter of approximately one kilometer. Many Costa Rican scientists believe the lake is a crater due to its geological characteristics. Recreational and tourism activities here include boat tours and fishing.
Located seven kilometers from Fortuna, Volcán Arenal has an area of 33 square kilometers. The volcano has experienced constant activity since July 29, 1968. Its landscape has two faces: one covered with lush vegetation sheltering a variety of wildlife, and the other rugged with lava tracts and sand from the constant eruptions. Considered the region’s main attraction, Arenal offers daytime and nighttime viewing opportunities, thanks to its constant explosions and eruptions.
Located in the vicinity of Volcán Arenal, this river has had a series of improvements made along its banks, giving rise to another of Fortuna’s attractions: Tabacón hot springs. At a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius, these waters relax muscles, clean the skin and reduce stress. Several nearby companies have developed access facilities for visitor enjoyment, including pools at various temperatures strewn among beautiful gardens surrounded by tropical forest.
Located southeast of Arenal, this volcano has an altitude of 1,140 meters above sea level. Its crater is 550 meters in diameter, and features a stunning lake fringed by lush greenery. Visiting it requires a bit of a climb, but the reward is well worthwhile: views of forests, birds, the northern plains and breathtaking Volcán Arenal.
LA FORTUNA WATERFALL
This stunning attraction is located 5.5 kilometers from Fortuna. A steep trail allows visitors to view the 70-meter-tall waterfall. Funds from entry fees to the waterfall are used by the Association to pay for various projects and activities for the good of the region.
Situated at 253 meters above sea level, this community is made up of people with great spirit and business drive, who have converted a largely agricultural region into a booming commercial and tourism destination. The city features a lovely surrounding landscape, the most imposing features of which are the picture-perfect cones of Volcán Arenal and its eternal companion, Volcán Chato. Fortuna offers visitors a full range of tourism services and products, and is an important departure point for Caño Negro, the Venado caverns, Monteverde, Tilarán and other destinations.
Discovered in 1962, these caverns are located three kilometers from the town of Venado. Approximately 2,000 meters long, the cavern system contains unique geological features, many of which have yet to be explored. Spelunking in these caves is an adventure not to be missed by nature-lovers. With good access facilities, the caves are easily visited; several tourism outfits offer tours through a large part of the cavern system.
SAN RAFAEL DE GUATUSO
The seat of the Guatuso canton, San Rafael sits at 50 meters’ altitude. Located on the banks of the Río Frío, the community offers several tourism and commercial services. From here, trips can be arranged to interesting destinations such as Caño Negro and the Margarita, Tonjibe and El Sol indigenous territories. River trips may also be enjoyed.
MALEKU INDIGENOUS RESERVATION
Centuries ago, the Maleku—a branch of the Chibchas—were spread out over 23 villages. Over the last 100 years or so, the population has shrunk, and today only around 600 Maleku remain in the palenques (straw huts) of El Sol, Margarita and Tonjibe, located six kilometers from San Rafael de Guatuso. Their main needs are lands to continue cultivating medicinal plants and repairs to their access roads and bridges.
In general terms, the people of Guatuso preserve their language and have their own unique burial traditions, songs, ways of preparing food and raising children, methods of transporting goods, playing drums and using bows and arrows. They also make hammocks and bags woven out of vegetable fibers.
This group has a tradition of hunting turtles in the lagoons of Caño Negro. “Javara,” their god of turtles, gives them food and protects them, and guides their boats on the right course during the hunt. If they catch nothing, it is because Javara has willed it so. Hunting takes place in March and April; everyone participates, including youths and the elderly, men and women. The event goes on for around 15 days. Nets and provisions such as coffee, sugar, rice and other foods are packed along. The hunters depart in the morning, fishing and hunting mainly for turtles, iguanas, agoutis, spider monkeys and wildcats along the way. At nightfall they build palm-leaf shelters to sleep under.
Families await the hunters’ return with chicha and music at the ready, ending the trip with a real party. Meat brought back from the hunt is shared among neighbors.
Artistic expression among these people includes the napuratengeo and nakikonarájari dances. Men and women dance the same, accompanied by flutes, drums, maracas and hymns sung by a main singer who leads the song while the rest of the participants respond in chorus. In these dances, everyone holds hands, forming a long row; they take three or four steps forward, lift a leg and their hands in the air, and then return to their original position. The same movements are repeated in succession. The flutes used in these dances are different from those used in funeral ceremonies.
In another ceremony, the Maleku cry out to their god in the name of nature and the future, with dances, prayers and profound devotion. This rite is held every three months or on special dates almost always coinciding with the full moon. The event takes place in the afternoons, and only men participate. They invoke the Great Spirit, and ask for their needs to be fulfilled. Ten of them lead the ritual, with the rest remaining standing the entire time, though in certain moments all knees are bent in deep solemnity.
Why, Great Spirit, have you allowed us to commit so many sins against our mother nature?
Oh, Great Spirit, the roar of the jaguar and the cry of the falcon are no longer heard.
No longer does the dawn’s dew mist our faces, nor do we smell the flowers of the field. Our brother animals are no longer, nor our sisters, the birds. Why have they gone?
The healing plants have also disappeared. Why? Why do the waters no longer run in the rivers?
Oh, Great Spirit, you have kept us in these lands for so many centuries. For this, we sing and dance in your honor, we turn our faces to the earth and raise our voices so that you might hear our pleas.
One of the region’s most stunning tours, the Río Celeste trip cannot be missed. A combination of adventure, nature-watching and geological features, the voyage includes a visit to a place called Teñidero (“Dyer’s Shop”), where the clear waters are naturally “dyed” turquoise-blue, as well as a hike and a tour through the forest leading to the extraordinary Celeste waterfall, which, like the river, offers spectacular scenery.
At 43 meters above sea level, this town is located on the banks of the Río Frío, and in general offers good services. Visitors can rent boats to visit Caño Negro or tour part of the river to enjoy the scenery or fish in the region’s generous waters. From here, tourists can visit the city of San Carlos in Nicaragua and see Lake Nicaragua, or check out El Castillo on the banks of the Río San Juan.
RÍO SAN CARLOS
This river runs 148 kilometers, 60 of which are navigable. Historically, neighboring communities have benefited from economic activities made possible by the river; currently, however, tourism has become an important source of income. Beautiful trips such as Boca Tapada–Río San Juan allow visitors to view natural landscapes, birds, caimans, crocodiles, river communities and more.
The seat of the San Carlos canton and main entryway to the country’s Northern Zone, Ciudad Quesada is located 100 kilometers from San José, at an altitude of 656 meters above sea level. A community under impressive development, the city maintains some striking buildings such as the Municipal Market, where visitors can sample the local fare. A variety of commercial and tourism services is offered, as well as interesting tourist destinations such as Aguas Zarcas, Venecia, Río Cuarto, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, Fortuna and Arenal volcano and reservoir.
Reaching 2,183 meters above sea level, this volcano is located eight kilometers southeast of Ciudad Quesada, forming part of Juan Castro Blanco National Park. The imposing feature can be seen clearly from several parts of the city.
SAN CARLOS LIVESTOCK SHOW
The current site of this exhibition is the community of Platanar de Florencia. The show takes place in April, and displays the best livestock in the region as well as from the rest of the country. Awards are given to the best animals. Various activities complement the event, including topes (horse parades), concerts and auto shows.
MARINA ZOO, PALMERA
Located in the Palmera district’s marina, between Ciudad Quesada and Aguas Zarcas, this zoo houses more than 200 species of birds, mammals and reptiles, and develops protection and breeding programs for animals in danger of extinction.
RÍO CUARTO LAKE
Situated at 400 meters above sea level, eight kilometers from San Miguel de Sarapiquí on the road to Venecia, this lake covers 40 hectares and is approximately 75 meters deep. Many scientists believe the lake fills a volcanic crater. Owing to its rich biodiversity, the area has great geological and biological interest to appeal to tourists.
BAJO DEL TORO
At an altitude of 1,442 meters above sea level, this community is perfect for visitors who enjoy combinations of nature and rural life. Its attractions include rivers, waterfalls, hydroelectric projects, nature preserves and agricultural landscapes. Visitors can enjoy cycling, trout fishing, hiking in the mountains, climbing and rappelling down waterfalls, hot springs and nature-watching.
LA PAZ WATERFALL
Located in the outskirts of Varablanca and Cinchona on the road to Sarapiquí, this extraordinarily waterfalls is set in a gorgeous natural environment. Two small cascades and one large and imposing waterfall crown La Paz, which can be seen from the highway right by a lovely wooden bridge considered a work of art. Trails and viewpoints have been put in in places so that visitors can enjoy the spectacular natural landscape surrounded by forest, river, waterfall and wildlife.
SAN FERNANDO WATERFALL
Located in Cinchona on the route from Varablanca to San Miguel de Sarapiquí, this waterfall can be seen from the highway, set in thick forest that forms part of Braulio Carrillo National Park. The waterfall is approximately 70 meters tall.
This waterfall can be seen from certain parts of the highway (La Isla), and may be visited by following a trail along the banks of the Río Angel on the outskirts of Cariblanco. Though the waterfall is approximately 100 meters, only the upper part is exposed to open air.
Many years ago, when highways did not exist, the only way to journey through Central America was via the Río Sarapiquí. The enchanting scenery along its banks is a delight for those who want to get close to nature. The Sarapiquí runs through 84 kilometers of diverse landscapes, and is a good place to see birds, monkeys, turtles, caimans and more. The river has become a tourist destination for nature- and wildlife-watchers, and allows visits to the Río San Juan, Barra del Colorado and Tortuguero.
PUERTO VIEJO DE SARAPIQUÍ
The seat of the Sarapiquí canton (Heredia), Puerto Viejo is a typical river community surrounded by forests, agricultural plantations, rural architecture and many hanging bridges. The town is situated at 37 meters above sea level. In recent years, Puerto Viejo has seen significant commercial and tourism development that has converted it into a well-visited ecotourism destination, with several biological stations and preserves located in the outskirts of the community.
The Northern Zone offers a variety of tourist activities, most of which are related to nature and adventure:
Horseback riding is a widespread activity in the region. Tourists can enjoy rides in Tilarán, Fortuna, Bajo del Toro, Caño Negro, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí and other areas, and several tours use it as a way of getting to different sites of interest.
There is no limit to the variety of hikes available for observing the region’s natural attractions, including rivers, volcanoes, hot springs and waterfalls.
Breathtaking scenery and nature-watching can be enjoyed on several rivers, including the Frío, San Carlos, Sarapiquí and Puerto Viejo.
The region offers a variety of roads and adventure or leisure sites that allow touring on regular or mountain bikes. Interesting destinations include the La Fortuna waterfall, agricultural plantations, the Arenal volcano and reservoir and the trail between Fortuna and Monteverde.
Several towns maintaining very rural lifestyles offer cafes and restaurants, while others, such as Ciudad Quesada and Tilarán, feature municipal or city markets where traditional Costa Rican food may be sampled. Some lodging establishments also offer typical fare.
The outskirts of Venado are home to the largest and most accessible cavern system in the Northern Zone, enabling visitors to explore and learn about the stalactite and stalagmite formations as well as various other geological features.
NATURE-, BIRD- AND BUTTERFLY-WATCHING
The region’s natural wealth can be enjoyed in numerous public protected areas such as Arenal and Juan Castro Blanco National Parks and Caño Negro and Bosque Alegre Wildlife Refuges, as well as private protected sites such as the Danaus Botanical Garden, La Selva Biological Station, Selva Verde and the Tirimbina Preserve, to name just a few.
NATURE-TRAIL, HANGING-BRIDGE AND TREETOP ADVENTURES
Tourism and recreation outfits in several communities—including Fortuna, La Virgen and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí—have developed facilities for enjoying adventure activities on hanging bridges, nature trails and in the forest canopy.
Photography is highly worthwhile here, thanks to a variety of scenic and cultural options and a wealth of flora and fauna, waterfalls, rivers and volcanoes, as well as picturesque ranches and farms, including sugarcane, coffee and pineapple plantations, dairies and more.
RURAL TOURISM ACTIVITIES AND SERVICES
Rural tourism activities and services offered in the Northern Zone and their corresponding locations within the region are as follows:
Heliconias Lodge, located in Bijagua de Upala, three kilometers from the Banco Nacional. Activities: Butterfly garden, nature-trail hiking, hanging bridges in the canopy, visits to the sugar mill, visits to the Río Bijagua waterfall or Laguna Danta, bird-watching, visits to the Río Celeste and its waterfalls.
La Catarata Lodge, located three kilometers from downtown Fortuna, San Carlos. Activities: Tours to the Fortuna waterfall, hot springs on the Río Tabacón, Arenal National Park, the Venado caverns, horseback rides to Monteverde.
San Juan Lodge, located 46 kilometers from Aguas Zarcas in the community of La Gloria, allows visitors to enjoy communal life and natural riches. Activities: Guided tours on wet-forest trails, bird-watching, visits to medicinal plantations, dairy tours.
Poco Sol Biological Station, located 12 kilometers west of Tigra de San Carlos. Activities: Tours on trails through primary and secondary forest, visits to the 3.8-hectare lake, waterfalls, hot springs and fumaroles.
Bosque Alegre Lodge and Wildlife Refuge, located six kilometers from Cariblanco de Sarapiquí. All-terrain vehicle required for the last stretch of gravel road. Activities: Hiking and nature-watching in tropical wet forest on the trail to the lakes, fishing and boat tours.
Throughout the year communities celebrate religious, sporting and civic events, or hold fairs to raise funds for community development.
All year. Every three months at full moon. Religious ritual, Palenque Tonjibe, San Rafael de Guatuso.
VOLCÁN ARENAL NATIONAL PARK
Located 15 kilometers from Fortuna in the northwest part of Costa Rica, between the foothills of the Cordillera de Tilarán mountain range and the San Carlos plains, Volcán Arenal National Park is one of the most visited destinations in the Northern Zone. Several trails—Heliconias, Coladas, Tucanes and Los Miradores—allow observation of much of the park’s flora and fauna, as well as the remains of lava tracts. The park covers a 12,124-hectare area. Visitor services include information, a park ranger station, trails, communication means, restrooms and drinking water.
CHILDREN’S ETERNAL FOREST–POCO SOL BIOLOGICAL STATION
The Poco Sol Biological Station is located at 720 meters above sea level on the Atlantic slope of the Cordillera de Tilarán, inside the Children’s Eternal Forest private preserve. To get to Poco Sol, take the San Ramón-Fortuna highway. At approximately 50 kilometers is the office of the Monteverde Conservation League in La Tigra de San Carlos; from there, follow the road to San Miguel de La Tigra (approximately 13 kilometers). Around the station there are some 10 kilometers of trails through primary and secondary forest and pastures in regeneration. The site features a variety of environments, including a 3.8-hectare lake, waterfall, fumaroles and hot springs.
As at the San Gerardo Station, the area’s forest is classified as premontane pluvial forest, and is always green. Though at a lower altitude and close to transition to a different type of forest, the Poco Sol Station is unique in terms of biodiversity and scenic beauty.
CAÑO NEGRO WILDLIFE REFUGE
Caño Negro is a RAMSAR site of worldwide importance for wetlands conservation. The refuge is vital to the environmental balance of the country’s Northern Zone. This habitat shelters a wide variety of plant and wildlife species, many of which are unique or in danger of extinction, including seabirds such as the jabiru and reptiles such as caimans and turtles.
During the dry season, the refuge becomes an important feeding ground for the thousands of seabirds that arrive at the wetland. The plumage of some of these birds will change color and take on a pinkish hue due to the mollusks consumed by the birds. The natural wealth here includes plant and animal species found nowhere else in the country, including the prehistoric Gaspar fish—considered a living fossil. Visitor services include information, a park ranger station, trails, lodging, restrooms and drinking water.
JUAN CASTRO BLANCO NATIONAL PARK
Located east of Ciudad Quesada, this park is surrounded by the Aguas Zarcas, Venecia, Zapote, Laguna, Tapezco, Altamira, Sarchí Norte, Toro Amarillo and Río Cuarto districts. The area features thermal pools (Fila Chocosuela), active volcanic vents (Volcán Platanar), inactive volcanic vents (Cerro Viejo, Cerro Pelón), volcanic cones and rugged topography. Wildlife is varied, and includes species such as quetzals, wild turkeys, chachalacas, black guans, monkeys, armadillos, agoutis and tapirs. The source of around 50 rivers, the park is home to Pozo Verde Lake and some of Costa Rica’s biggest waterfalls: Toro, Aguas Gatas, Gorrión and Río Claro. Visitor services are offered in the San José de la Montaña sector, Ciudad Quesada district, and include an information office, trails, restrooms and drinking water.
LA SELVA BIOLOGICAL STATION
Located in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, at the confluence of two great rivers, La Selva Biological Station comprises 1,600 hectares of tropical wet forest and deforested land in regeneration. Wildlife here is diverse, and includes large animals such as jaguars, pumas and tapirs. Thousands of arthropod species are currently being recorded here, and more than 400 species of birds, both resident and migratory, have been observed—that’s almost half the bird species found in Costa Rica. One of the rainiest places in the country, La Selva receives an average of four meters (more than 13 feet) of precipitation annually, constant throughout the year.
La Selva was originally established in 1954 by Dr. Leslie Holdridge, who dedicated his property to experimentation with mixed plantations to improve natural resource management. In 1968, the property was acquired by the Organization for Tropical Studies and declared a private biological station and preserve. Since then, it has been converted into one of the most important sites in the world for tropical wet forest research.
BOSQUE ALEGRE WILDLIFE REFUGE
To get to this refuge, visitors must travel approximately seven kilometers from Cariblanco along a back road, preferably in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, or make the medium-long hike. This group of volcanic lakes is made up of Bosque Alegre, Congo and Hule lakes (in November, Hule’s waters turn a reddish color), surrounded by tropical wet forest. An organized community watches over protection policies and conservation of the refuge. Visitor services include trails, restrooms, drinking water, lodging and local guides.