The rolling plains of northern Costa Rica are a product of millions of years of alluvial deposits from Lake Nicaragua. These flatlands, or llanuras, are covered with lush, verdant rain forests, segmented by a vast network of rivers and streams, and teeming with exotic wildlife.
Largely inaccessible from most of the nation until the 1950s, Costa Rica's Northern Lowlands has always been one of its most remote regions. It wasn't until 1957, when San José was connected to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí via Highway 126, that modern culture had made a presence in the jungles of the north. This, coupled with encouragement by the Costa Rican government and the World Bank to homestead in the area, brought the first modern-day settlers. These new residents cleared land for cattle grazing and farming while loggers began to chip away at the valuable hardwoods.
Today, most patches of old-growth lowland rain forest, montane cloud forest, and wetlands are confined within the boundaries of a dozen or so national parks and reserves, but nonetheless spark the interest of most wilderness fanatics. Nature hikes, aerial trams, canoeing and rafting, horseback riding, fishing, mountain biking, and spectacular spelunking make the Northern Lowlands a top destination for those wanting to experience a deeper immersion into the splendor of the Costa Rican jungle.
Major Cities of the Northern Lowlands
Located near the foot of Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna is a pleasant and charming tourist town, offering a convenient springboard for exploration of the fiery giant. From here, visitors can acquire the services of a tour company which will escort their clients, day or night, by car, boat, or horseback to the infamous volcano.
Accommodations in Fortuna are plentiful, and range from clean, but modest cheapies to upscale resorts. Closer to Arenal, spas and hot-spring resorts take advantage of the area's geothermally-heated ground water.
Parked high in the foothills of Cordillera de Tilarán at 2,150 feet, Quesada has the incongruous designation as the provincial capital of the Northern Lowlands. Formerly known as San Carlos, this clean and friendly town is known as a center of agriculture and cattle ranching, and is also a good launch-pad for exploration of the north.
Much of the local culture centers around the city's role as a breadbasket participant. The heart of the town features a bustling market, vending everything from fresh produce to local handicrafts; the latter being a significant contributor to Quesada's tourist industry. In particular, talabarterias, or saddle-makers, are celebrated for their exquisite leather saddles, featuring rustic, pastoral designs.
Cattle-ranching is another influence to Quesada's culture. Most restaurants feature a variety of delectable steaks on the menu, and the renowned Fería del Ganado, a cattle fair held every April, is a lively festival where local cowboys show off their stuff.
Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí
Puerto Viejo is the largest town in the Llanura de San Carlos, the flatland alluvial plain that makes up most of the eastern portion of the Northern Lowlands. Once a major shipping port for the area's expanding coffee industry, the town's greatest attraction today is its position as a convenient base for river exploration of the Río Sarapiquí and Río San Juan. River tours are excellent in this area; birds, aquatic reptiles, and terrestrial wildlife abound for visitors with a watchful eye. And, for those who really want to experience the jungle-edged rivers, spend the night at one of the several ecolodges in the area.
Parks and Reserves
Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro
Over 25,000 acres of swamplands, lowland rain forest, and wetlands are enclosed by this increasingly popular national park. As a vital habitat for crocodiles, waterfowl, and freshwater fish, Caño Negro National Park is responsible for protecting a significant number of Costa Rica's "wet" species.
At the center of the park is a sprawling lake, Lago Caño Negro, which expands and contracts according to seasonal precipitation. Fed by the Río Frío and other tributaries that flow down from the Cordillera de Tilarán, the lake shrinks in size and lagoons dry up during the dry season, from the end of January through April. Throughout the year, visitors to this park can expect to see monkeys, sloths, tapirs, deer, and big cats, like jaguar and ocelots. Waterfowl species are present in great number, including egrets, ducks, grebes, storks, grackles, and the largest population of the gluttonous, fish-diving bird, the cormorant. The abundance of freshwater fish, tarpon in particular, make this reserve an angler's paradise.
Caño Negro National Park is readily accessible through tour companies in La Fortuna and Los Chiles. During the dry season, the park is best explored on horseback, while a guided boat tour is an excellent choice during the wet season.
La Selva Biological Station
In conjunction with Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo, this research center has likely made a greater contribution to the field of tropical forest sciences than any other reserve in the world. Formed over 25 years ago, the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), a consortium of biologists from over 50 different universities worldwide, created the reserve and research center for strictly scientific endeavors. Today, however, tourists can observe the park's remarkably diverse and abundant fauna and flora by way of guided hikes. Boasting more than 400 species of birds, two-thirds of the country's mammalian species, and over half of the butterfly varieties in Costa Rica, this park is a must-see for any wildlife buff.
This private reserve is one of Costa Rica's greatest and most secluded ecotourism hot-spots, featuring over 3,200 acres of unspoiled montane rain forest. The brainchild of biologist Amos Bien, Rara Avis was designed in 1983 to study profitable and sustainable alternatives to logging rain forests in Costa Rica. These innovative projects included the sale of medicinal and ornamental plants, epiphyte and butterfly species, and other commercially-viable products. Today visitors can see these projects still in action.
The trip to Rara Avis is arduous. Day trips are impossible, and the only accessible route to the park is via Las Horquetas, a small village 11 miles south of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí. However, the four-hour, tractor-pulled excursion is only recommended for those who are physically fit and possess a healthy dose of patience. Once there, guided tours of the forest floor and canopy tours by aerial tram are the best ways to immerse oneself in the overgrown jungle. The latter, in fact, was actually conceived at Rara Avis by California tropical biologist, Donald Perry.
Located near the rustic village of Chilamate, this private reserve covers almost 500 acres of lowland rain forest, and boasts an abundance of wildlife. There is an extensive network of well-maintained trails, some of which boardwalk over the swampy areas. Other alternatives of travel within the park include horseback riding and river canoeing
The park's butterfly garden is a popular attraction among visitors, and within its confines one is able to observe over 50 species of butterflies in simulated habitats.
A popular tour from the town of La Fortuna takes tourist to this destination by horseback. The journey is spectacular, but the ultimate destination, the waterfall itself, really makes the trip.
This park protects over 1,000 acres, and has recently been integrated with Tenorio Volcano National Park of Guanacaste. Its relatively small territory includes a specialized niche of wildlife habitats, including montane rain forest and mist-swathed cloud forest in the upper elevations.
The Magil Reserve is supposedly the only place in the country to catch a glimpse of the renowned and endangered white eagle. It is also one of the only habitats of the seldom-seen black panther.
Centro Neotrópico Sarapiquí
This 24-room ecolodge is located 1 mile east of La Virgen de Sarapiquí, and just opened in 2000. Featuring botanical gardens, archaeological gardens, a highly-interactive natural history museum, and convenient access to the 865-acre Tirimbina Rain Forest Reserve, this new retreat center is truly one of a kind. The landscape and building designs are based on 15th-century villages of pre-Colombian tribes, and three large palenques (tall, round, thatched-roof structures) house the cozy guest rooms.
The archaeological significance of the area around Centro Neotrópico Sarapiquí was discovered unintentionally, but proved to be a great resource. During the construction of the facility, workers unearthed several large pre-Colombian tombs, and the artifacts from the dig have now been put on display in the museum.
The Venado Caverns, located at the base of the Cordillera de Tilarán, are a true marvel for spelunking enthusiasts. Formed from eons of water erosion through the solid limestone, the caves extend more than 1.5 miles into the foothills of mountain, and feature stalagmites, stalactites and a network of interconnected, underground streams.
In addition to the spectacular subterranean environment, cave-exploring tourist can also observe a host of peculiar critters that call the Venado Caverns home. From nocturnal bats that huddle together in an inverted perch to blind fish that swim the streams, its apparent that things are a little bizarre underground. There is even a species of transparent frog that can be seen hopping along the floor.
Just south of the San Juan river, which makes Costa Rica's border with Nicaragua, a very remote private reserve, Oro Verde, protects 6,180 acres of lowland jungle and swamp. A charming, bucolic lodge will make your stay feel like home.
Accessible by riverboat from Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, this quaint, 450-acre private reserve allows tourists to explore pristine primary rain forest either by guided tour or by horseback.
South of Las Horquetas, just off of Highway 4, La Arawak is a charming reserve, offering trails through primary forest and the possibility of spotting the colorful, yet deadly poison-arrow frog.
Fería del Ganado - April
Featuring rodeos and parades, this is the most popular cattle fair in the country.
How to Get There
From San José, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí is directly accessible from Highway 126. To get to Ciudad Quesada from Highway 126, take Highway 140 from the town of San Miguel. Buses run these routes daily from San José.