Northern Plains

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

normal image 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.

Area

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.

Activities

Photography
Home to natural landscapes including those already described, the Northern Plains are a veritable hotspot for tourists seeking excellent opportunities for nature photography. Capturing the moment in just one small click applies not only to the region’s diverse flora and fauna, but also to the beautiful scenery, the Costa Rican people, regional culture, and this area’s way of life.
Boat Tours
Since the Northern Plains see year-round rainfall, there region’s waterways stay full, creating many options for taking day trips in boat. River tours, lagoon floats, and canal explorations are a popular and exciting way to observe the region’s diverse wildlife and nature offerings.
Observation of Flora and Fauna, Including Birds and Butterflies
One of the region’s main attractions is staying overnight at lodges located in national parks and protected areas. Here, visitors will enjoy a variety of enriching and enjoyable activities. National parks in the region include Arenal, Juan Castro Blanco, Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, and Bosque Alegre Wildlife Refuge. These are joined by other private parks including the Danaus Botanical Garden, La Selva Biological Station, Selva Verde Biological Station, and the Tirimbina Biological Reserve, to name a few. These parks and reserves invite visitors to experience the great outdoors as never before, taking advantage of the biological diversity seen throughout the Northern Plains.
Natural Hiking Trails, Hanging Bridges, and Canopy Tours
Throughout the region’s vast territory, several tour operators and companies dedicated to recreational pursuits have developed facilities with the sole purpose of creating new ways to enjoy nature and dive into adventure including hanging bridges, naturalist hiking trails, and zip-line canopy tours.

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.

Protected Areas

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge
Caño Negro is a tropical wet habitat that, thanks to its wetlands, is considered of great importance on a global level. The refuge’s wetlands are of vital importance to the environmental stability of Costa Rica’s northern region. Its various habitats are home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, many of which are endemic to the Northern Plains or in danger of extinction. Among these species are aquatic birds like jabirus and species of reptiles including caimans and turtles.

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.

Bosque Alegre Wildlife Refuge
To get to the refuge, depart from the community of Cariblanco; the secondary road winds for approximately 7 kilometers (about 4 miles).  An all wheel drive or 4WD vehicle is recommended for the journey.

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 National Park
Arenal Volcano National Park is located in northeastern Costa Rica, sandwiched between the Tilarán Mountain Range and the San Carlos Plains. The park is located 15 kilometers (about 9 miles) from the town of La Fortuna de San Carlos.

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.

Juan Castro Blanco National Park
Located east of Ciudad Quesada, this park is surrounded by the districts of Aguas Zarcas, Venecia, Zapote, Laguna, Tapezco, Altamira, Sarchí Norte, Toro Amaraillo, and Río Cuarto, among others.

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.

La Selva Biological Station
La Selva Biological Station, of great biological value, is located at the junction of two large rivers in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí. The biological station spans 1,600 hectares (3,950 acres) of tropical wet forest and other terrain.

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.

Children’s Eternal Forest – Poco Sol Biological Station
The Poco Sol Biological Station is located on the Atlantic slope of the Tilarán Mountain Range and sits at 720 meters (1,780 feet) above sea level. The station lies inside the boundaries of the Children’s Eternal Forest.

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.

Attractions

Maleku Indigenous Reserve
Located just six kilometers (almost four miles) from San Rafael de Guatuso, the Maleku Indigenous Reserve offers tours within the Maleku community. Small Maleku communities, called palenques, are located in the communities of El Sol, Margarita, and Tonjibe. The Malekus, a branch of the Chibchas, have lived in this region for hundreds of years.

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.

Celeste River
Many consider the Celeste River to be an obligatory sightseeing excursion while in the region. A visit to the river combines nature watching, adventure, and even activities connected with geology.

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.

Lake Arenal
The Northern Plains are not graced with ocean waters, but water lovers will not be disappointed: thanks to strong winds, Lake Arenal is a prime destination for windsurfing. Trapped between the mountains and offering a panoramic view of Arenal Volcano, this manmade reservoir measures 87.8 square kilometers (21,695 acres). The lake is a popular destination for boating, water skiing, and fishing. Local marinas offer lake inputs and tour operators depart daily for lake tours.
Río Cuarto Lagoon
Although this body of water does not appear to be a lagoon, its waters and setting encompass a huge range of biodiversity, making it a must-see destination for nature lovers and wildlife waters.

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.

La Marina Zoo
The La Marina Zoo, situated in the district of La Palmera de San Carlos, is home to 200 bird, mammal and reptile species. The La Marina Foundation administers the zoo and other projects including animal rescue, breeding, rearing, wild release, and reintroduction of wild species back into their natural habitats. The foundation is especially focused on educational programs and environmental conservation projects.
Tabacón River
This river, which winds by the magnificent Arenal Volcano, has become one of the most popular destinations for tourists visiting La Fortuna de San Carlos. The river’s natural hot springs, which boast an average temperature of 37º C (98.6º F), are ideal for relaxing sore muscles, cleansing the skin, and combating stress.

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.

Sarapiquí River
For many years, in the absence of paved roads, the Sarapiquí River was the only means of communication in the region. In fact, previous generations used the river to travel to points throughout Central America.

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.

Venado Caverns
Located three kilometers (1.8 miles) from the community of Venado and 45 minutes by car from La Fortuna de San Carlos, these caverns were discovered in 1962. Scientists have discovered many geological characteristics unique to the caverns, which is actually a system of caves. Many of the rooms have not yet been explored.

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.”

San Fernando Waterfall
Located in the community of Cinchona, along the Varablanca-San Miguel de Sarapiquí road, this gorgeous cascade sits immersed within dense jungle. The waterfall is part of Braulio Carrillo National Park and its waters tumble 70 meters (230 feet) down the mountainside.
La Fortuna Waterfall
Another one of the region’s most popular attractions, the La Fortuna Waterfall is located 5.5 kilometers (3 miles) from La Fortuna. The cascade is accessed via a rustic and very hilly trail that winds down to the waterfall, stopping at scenic lookouts along the way. La Fortuna Waterfall reaches an impressive 70 meters (230 feet) high.

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.

Angel Waterfall
This waterfall may be seen from a certain point on the highway, near the community of La Isla. Also, close to the community of Cariblanco, a trail running parallel to the Angel River heads to the waterfall, which tumbles 100 meters (330 feet). However, only the waterfall’s upper section is exposed to the open air.

Communities

Tilarán
Tilarán is one of eleven cantons (similar to counties) contained within the province of Guanacaste. Its wide streets contrast with the rural and small-town architecture that predominates 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 de San Carlos
Once a prime example of a community living off the land, over the years, La Fortuna slowly became a town dedicated to now booming tourism industry. Today, La Fortuna is home to many commercial and tourism services aimed at servicing visitors to the region.

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.

Ciudad Quesada
Ciudad Quesada is the political seat for the canton of San Carlos, located in the province of Alajuela. The town is situated approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from San José.

Due to its location and wide range of commercial services, Ciudad Quesada is an ideal base for day trips to local attractions.

Los Chiles
This rural community is located close to the Nicaraguan border and sits by the edge of the Río Frío, or Cold River. The town is home to a wide range of commercial and visitor services.

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.

Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí
Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí is the political seat of the canton of Sarapiquí, located in the province of Heredia. It is a typical rural community, sitting at the edge of a river and surrounded by forests and agricultural plantations. The town boasts rural architecture and attractions such as hanging bridges, making the area a unique destination. Puerto Viejo sits just 37 meters (121 feet) above sea level.

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.

Bajo del Toro
Located at 1,442 meters (4,730 feet) above sea level, Bajos del Toro is an ideal destination for vacationers who enjoy a mix of natural and rural life. Here, many attractions vie for tourists’ time, among them: rushing rivers, rumbling waterfalls, hydroelectric projects, natural reserves, and agricultural landscapes.

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.

San Rafael de Guatuso
The political seat of the canton of Guatuso, located in Alajuela province, San Rafael is located by the shores of the Rio Frio (the Cold River). Thanks to its location, this is a good base point for tours to Caño Negro and visiting local indigenous communities.

Schedule of Cultural Events

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.

January
Last week. Oxcart and floats parade in honor of San Bosco. Patrono de Fortuna.
February
First and second weeks. Civic Fiestas. La Fortuna.
April
11. Juan Santamaría Day, honoring a national hero. Countrywide.

San Carlos Expo. Farming Expo in Platanar de San Carlos.

May
Final week. Sarapiquí Tourist Expo-Fair.
June
13. Festival honoring the Patron Saint Antonio. Patrono de Tilarán.
August
24. National Parks Day
September
14. Lantern Parade

15. Costa Rican Independence Day

October
4. Festival honoring the Patron Saint San Francisco de Asis. Los Chiles.
November
4. Festival honoring the Patron Saint Carlos Borromeo. San Carlos.
December
24. Christmas Eve

25. Christmas

Every three months on the full moon, the Tonjibe community, in San Rafael de Guatuso, celebrates the religious Ritual of Observation. Year-round.