This is a region that, due to its unique geographical characteristics, invites visitors to combine natural wonders with adventure outings. The Northern Plains are home to national parks, protected areas, rivers, waterfalls and even volcanoes, making this area a tourism hotspot. The region’s diverse offerings attract many types of tourists, including those interested in scientific pursuits, nature, health and adventure travels.
Although Costa Rican tourism is usually associated with the sun and sand, the Northern Plains are known more for their wetter weather and wide variety of wildlife – reason why in this region, nature stands out as the main attraction. Without a doubt, Costa Rica’s Northern Plains are completely unique and an incredible place to visit
In addition to the area’s natural attractions, the Northern Plains offer a wide range of visitor services: hotels, cabins, restaurants and companies dedicated to arranging tours and excursions. If your next vacation is to the Northern Plains, you won’t be disappointed.
The Northern Plains span an extensive territory that includes Poás Volcano National Park on the Caribbean slope and sidling over to Juan Castro Blanco National Park near Zarcero. To the north, the region’s boundaries cross the Tilarán Volcanic Mountain Range and to the south slide over the Guanacaste Mountain Range and the area surrounding Tenorio Volcano. The plains pass between the ancient volcanic cone and end at the towering Miravalles Volcano.
The Northern Plains area is such that it also covers the area north of Miravalles Volcano and Rincón de la Vieja Volcano, jutting out north towards Costa Rica’s plains bordering Nicaragua. The region borders the towns of Upala, Caño Negro, and Los Chiles to the north and also includes the road that connects Los Chiles with the canton (similar to a county) of San Carlos. Finally, it stretches down toward the Infiernito River, where it turns east toward the San Carlos River.
From the San Carlos River mouth, the Northern Plains venture south to the Cuarto de Grecia River, where the region continues toward the canton of Sarapiquí, which borders both the road between La Virgen and Horquetas as well as the Sarapiquí River, Here, it continues to the northern section of Braulio Carrillo National Park and the Central Volcanic Mountain Range at its eastern limit between Poás National Park and Juan Castro Blanco National Park.
Dominion over Nature
In the Northern Plains region of Costa Rica, tourists may choose between a wide range of activities. For example, horseback rides, hikes along trails or paths, ATV tours, boat trips, bird and wildlife watching, waterfall visits, river rafting, and picnics by lagoons, as well as visit to national parks, protected areas, and volcanoes are all popular.
The Northern Plains are known for consistent rainfall, and the region’s habitats include tropical wet forests, which are home to year-round warm weather. Fertile plains cover the area and serve as true sanctuaries for all kinds of animal life, including aquatic birds, reptiles and mammals. Among these, the prehistoric gaspar fish stands out as one of the region’s most unique inhabitants.
The gaspar, or crocodile fish as its also known, is a primitive species that lived during prehistoric times. Due to its ancient origins, this fish is an important element in one of the world’s most unique ecosystems. The first record of the gaspar fish’s ancestors correspond to fossils from the Cretaceous Period (between 80 and 90 million years ago), earning this species its nickname as a living fossil. Another distinctive quality of the gaspar fish is that it shares the characteristics of both fish and other reptile species.
These unique tourism opportunities make the Northern Planes a very special destination for wildlife lovers and nature photographers.
A handful of tourism companies are scattered throughout the towns of the Northern Plains, specifically La Fortuna (Arenal), La Virgen de Sarapiquí, and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí.
During the dry season (December-April), this refuge is responsible for a vital environmental function: becoming a food supply for thousands of migratory aquatic birds that seek shelter in the reserve’s wetlands. Each year, the plumage of several resident bird species takes on a rosy hue, due to the animals’ ingestion of certain local mollusks.
Given its natural diversity, Caño Negro is home to a host of plant and animal species that are not found in other parts of the country, among them the gaspar fish. Due to its prehistoric origins, this fish is often called a living fossil.
This large and biodiverse region also gives shelter to a wide variety of resident and migratory birds. Some of the bird species found in Caño Negro are very abundant and it is possible to spot hundreds of these birds, especially during the dry season. Commonly spotted bird species include anhingas, wood storks, jabirus, and neo-tropical cormorants.
Additionally, Caño Negro is home to monkeys, iguanas, sloths, caimans and turtles. Along the river it is possible to spot howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and white-faced monkeys, as well as three-toed sloths and several reptile species including basilisk lizards.
Regarding tourism services, the park offers an information area, park ranger station, trails, lodging, restrooms, and potable water.
This is a river group of volcanic origin, made up of the Bosque Alegro, Congo, and Hule Lagoons. During November, the waters of the Hule Lagoon turn red.
All of these lagoons are surrounded by tropical wet forest. A local community has assumed responsibility for caring for the wildlife refuge and assuring that its conservation and protection policies are followed.
Regarding services, Bosque Alegre offers trails, restrooms, potable water, lodging, and local naturalist guides.
Arenal Volcano is one of the most visited destinations in the Northern Plains. The park offers several trails: Heliconias, Coladas (Lava Flows), Tucanes (Toucans), and Miradores (Lookout Points). The trails are ideal for bird and wildlife watching, hiking, and exploring black-rock lava flows. The park spans 12,124 hectares (almost 30,000 acres).
Arenal Volcano National Park offers a full range of services including an information booth, park ranger station, trails, phones, restrooms, and potable water.
Without a doubt, the park’s primary attraction is Arenal Volcano, which ascends to 1,663 meters (5,450 feet) above sea level. After many years of supposed extinction, the volcano roared to life in 1968, when it violently erupted. Arenal Volcano is still active and red-hot lava can be seen on most clear nights.
The area is marked by numerous thermal pools (Fila Chocosuela), active volcanic vents (Platanar Volcano), inactive volcanic vents (Cerro Viejo and Cerro Pelón), volcanic cones and rugged topography. Wildlife is very varied, and includes species such as quetzals, wild turkeys, chachalacas, black guans, monkeys, armadillos, agoutis, and tapirs, among others.
The park’s wetland resources give it a strategic importance in the region, since it is home to many hydrographical watersheds and numerous creeks and rivers. For example, the park is home to the headwaters of approximately 50 rivers including Tapesco, Peje, La Vieja, San Rafael, Aguas Zarcas, and Tres Amigos. Juan Castro Blanco is also the source of the Platanar and Toro River watersheds, which take advantage of the consistently wet surroundings to create hydroelectric power projects. The park is also home to several lagoons such as Pozo Verde and a few of Costa Rica’s largest waterfalls: Toro, Aguas Gatas, Gorrión, and Rio Claro.
Visitor services are offered in the San Jose de la Montaña sector and include an information office, trails, restrooms, and potable water.
Fauna is very diverse. La Selva is home to large mammals including jaguars, pumas and tapirs. Thousands of arthrepod (invertebrate) species are currently registered as living at the biological station, which also protects and additional 400 bird species, both resident and migratory – almost half of the species currently residing in Costa Rica.
Because of its intense and varied biodiversity, the National Science Academy of the United States of America recognized La Selva Biological Station as one of the four most interesting and suitable places in the world for conducting research on tropical forests.
In 1954, Dr. Leslie Holdridge first established La Selva Biological Station, which receives some of the country’s heaviest amounts of precipitation. Dr. Holdridge dedicated the property to research and mixed plant experimentation with the hope of further improving the country’s natural resources management.
In 1968, La Selva was acquired by the Organization of Tropical Studies, which declared it a private biological reserve. Since then, it has become one of the most important sites in the world for research on tropical wet forests.
To get to Poco Sol, take the San Ramón-La Fortuna road approximately 50 kilometers (31 miles) until reaching the Monteverde Conservationist Association at La Tigra de San Carlos. From there, follow the road another 13 kilometers (8 miles) toward San Miguel de la Tigra.
Approximately 10 kilometers (6 miles) of trails surround Poco Sol, wending and winding through primary forest, secondary forest, and pastures in the process of regeneration. The biological station is home to a diversity of habitats including a 3.8-hectare (9.4-acre) lagoon, a waterfall, boiling thermal pools, and natural hot springs.
As at the San Gerardo Biological Station, the region’s forests are categorized as pre-montane wet forest, which is known for being evergreen. However, due to the biological station’s altitude and proximity to a transitional forest, the Poco Sol Biological Station demonstrates certain unique conditions regarding its biological diversity and scenic beauty.
During a visit to the reserve, tourists are welcome to not only experience the tribe’s unique culture but also to share in group activities and witness indigenous customs. Handmade artisan goods are excellent souvenirs.
One of the river’s greatest attractions is the area known as El Teñidero, where the river’s crystal-clear waters are naturally “dyed” a turquoise blue. Truly, this is a destination best seen to be believed: a hike through the surrounding forest leads to the extraordinary Celeste Waterfall which, like the river, is colored a surprising and beautiful shade of baby blue.
The Rio Cuarto Lagoon is located eight kilometers (five miles) from the community of San Miguel de Sarapiquí. Its surface area spans 40 hectares (100 acres) and its deepest point reaches down almost 75 meters (nearly 250 feet) below the lagoon’s surface.
Several local companies operate around the river; they have developed access points and facilities for use by those visiting the area. A special treat are Arenal’s hot springs, which offer many different pools of varying temperatures set in beautiful gardens and surrounded by lush tropical forest.
This river and its shores are covered with beautiful foliage; the landscape boasts indescribable scenic beauty, almost untouched by man. It is an ideal destination for those who love nature and wish to surround themselves with the great outdoors.
The Sarapiquí River stretches 84 kilometers (275 feet) long and its shores boast a wide range of habitats and scenery. It is an ideal destination for bird watching and wildlife observation; monkeys, turtles, caimans and other animals are common.
The river has become a popular tourism destination, especially for nature photographers and outdoor aficionados. The Sarapiquí is a departure point to destinations including the San Juan River, Barra del Colorado, and Tortuguero.
Local tour operators offer cave spelunking excursions and hikes, which are companied by specialized guides. This exhilarating trip can be described as nothing less than “pure adventure.”
All proceeds earned from the waterfall entrance fees are used by the Association to develop additional projects and activities that promote development in the region.
The town’s climate is fresh, thanks to its elevation of 541 meters (1,775 feet) above sea level. Appropriately, Tilarán is located in the Tilarán Mountain Range and, given the irregular topography characteristic to the region, it boasts picturesque and very beautiful mountain scenery. These views contrast with the landscapes typically seen in Guanacaste, which features mostly flat plains.
Here, visitors are welcome to enjoy a wide range of commercial and tourism services. Due to the town’s location, it is a departure point for other local sites of interest including the Cerro San José and Pelado Volcano, which boasts a spectacular view of the prairies below – this typical terrain spans most of the province. Tilarán is also a transportation hub to other tourism hotspots including Monteverde and La Fortuna de San Carlos, which is home to Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal.
Not very far from Tilarán, in the towns known as Tierras Morenas and Tejona, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), harnesses the region’s strong winds for a wind-electricity development project. Here, the hillside is covered in massive white windmills.
La Fortuna is the best place to overnight before trips to local attractions, including Arenal Volcano, Cerro Chato, and Lake Arenal. The surrounding area is home to many exciting activities, for example hanging bridges and informative bird and wildlife watching tours.
Due to its location and wide range of commercial services, Ciudad Quesada is an ideal base for day trips to local attractions.
Here, for example, touists can rent boats for cruising through Caño Negro or for rafting down part of the river.
Additionally, Los Chiles is an excellent base point for San Juan River explorations. The river marks the natural boundary between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and is the best route to reach El Castillo, and old colonial building located in the middle of the forest.
In recent years, commercial and tourism development have been very important to the local economy. Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí has become an eco-tourism destination and is very popular among outdoor aficionados. The town is a perfect base for visiting the local biological stations and nature reserves located in surrounding communities.
Due to its natural beauty, this is an ideal place for many activities such as biking, trout fishing, hiking through the mountains, waterfall rappelling, rock climbing, visiting hot springs, and going bird and wildlife watching.
Throughout the year, several events, most linked to certain communities, celebrate the historical, religious, sport, civic, and artistic aspects of life in the Northern Plains. Other events are held to raise funds for local communities.
San Carlos Expo. Farming Expo in Platanar de San Carlos.
15. Costa Rican Independence Day
Every three months on the full moon, the Tonjibe community, in San Rafael de Guatuso, celebrates the religious Ritual of Observation. Year-round.