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Northern Zone

The vast expanse that locals call the Zona Norte (Northern Zone) packs in a larger variety of activities than any other part of the country. You’ll find almost everything in this region that Costa Rica has to offer, except beaches, of course.

Spend any amount of time here and you can partake of—take a deep breath— horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, rappelling, windsurfing, kitesurfing, wildlife-viewing, bird-watching, bungee jumping, shopping, cloud and rain-forest hiking, swimming, hot-springs soaking, and volcano (albeit now dormant) viewing. The zip-line canopy tour deserves special mention. The activity was invented in Costa Rica and has spread to all corners of the planet while zipping along cables from platform to platform high in the trees has become Costa Rica’s signature adventure activity.

The myriad activities make this, and especially Monteverde, Costa Rica’s most kid-friendly region. Guided nature hikes abound; shorter treks can be entertaining and cater to younger ones’ shorter attention spans. Most sure-footed and confident teenagers can participate in adult activities such as white-water rafting and canopy tours.

A few operators around here will tell you that kids older than eight can participate in canopy tours. Even if their brochures show children happily zipping from platform to platform, the gondola-like trams (Monteverde) are far safer ways for preteens to see the rain-forest canopy.

Most of the activities go on rain or shine, so don’t feel you have to avoid a rainy season visit here. During the wet months, it’s almost a given that you’ll get a bit damp on your canopy tour, hike, or horseback ride, and most tour operators provide ponchos. But to avoid a thorough soaking, plan activities for the morning. Rains usually begin around 2 pm, like clockwork, from July through December, although they can be more prolonged in September and October. The clearest time of day is normally before 8 am.

POINTS OF INTEREST

ARENAL VOLCANO

The 1-mile-high Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica’s youngest volcano, dominates the region’s landscape. Volcanologists estimate Arenal’s age at around 7,000 years, and it was dormant for nearly 500 years until 1968. On July 29, 1968, an earthquake shook the area, and 12 hours later Arenal blew. Until October 2010, Arenal was in a constant state of activity—thunderous, rumbling eruptions occurred sometimes as frequently as once per hour. Tourists flocked here for the nightly show of rocks spewing skyward. Now, it’s highly unlikely you’ll even see a plume of smoke. Experts believe the volcano could remain in a “resting” state for up to 800 years. Sleeping or not, the lack of lava hasn’t lulled travelers from seeing the magnificent mound or even hiking its flanks, which offer views of Lake Arenal is the distance.

CAÑO NEGRO

Think of a smaller version of Florida’s Everglades and you’ll have a good picture of the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro. This lowland rain-forest reserve in the far northern reaches of Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border covers 98 square km (38 square miles). It looks remote on the map but is easily visited on an organized day tour, especially from La Fortuna. Caño Negro is the core of a UNESCO biosphere called Agua y Paz (Water and Peace), which encompasses more than 2 million acres of wildlife habitat in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Caño Negro has suffered severe deforestation over the years, but most of the length of the Río Frío, its principal river, is still lined with trees. The park’s vast lake, which floods after seasonal rains, is an excellent place to watch waterfowl. The reserve is home to more than 350 migratory and resident bird species and 310 types of plants. On land, pumas, tapirs, ocelots, cougars, and the always elusive jaguar are among the more than 160 mammal species that thrive here— consider yourself fortunate if you spot a jaguar. Caimans snap everywhere in the knee-deep marshy waters, too.

CIUDAD QUESADA (SAN CARLOS)

Highway signs point you to “Ciudad Quesada,” but this friendly hub city is simply “San Carlos” in local parlance. Like so many other places in Costa Rica, the landscape is splendid, but what passes for architecture varies from ordinary to downright hideous. San Carlos is where everyone in the region comes to shop, take in a movie, get medical care, and generally take care of the necessities. There’s also an enormous bus terminal (with a shopping center and multiplex movie theater) where you can make connections to almost anywhere in the northern half of the country. If you’re traveling from San José to points north, your bus will stop here even if it’s a so-called express. This lively mountain market town–provincial capital serves a fertile dairy region and is worth a stop for a soak in the soothing thermal waters in the area.

ARENAL AND LA FORTUNA

As they say, “Location, location, location.” Who would think that a small town sitting at the foot of massive Arenal Volcano would attract visitors from around the world? Nobody comes to La Fortuna—an ever-expanding mass of hotels, tour operators, souvenir shops, and sodas (small, family-run restaurants)—to see the town itself. Instead, thousands of tourists flock here each year to use it as a hub for visiting the natural wonders that surround it. The volcano, as well as waterfalls, vast nature preserves, great rafting rivers, and an astonishing array of birds are to be found within an hour or less of your hotel. La Fortuna is also the best place to arrange trips to the Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge.

After the 1968 eruption of Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna was transformed from a tiny, dusty farm town to one of Costa Rica’s tourism powerhouses, where visitors converged to see the volcano in action. Don’t expect to see any bubbling lava anytime soon. As of 2010, the volcano went into a resting phase, which means it is still “active” below the surface, but it’s doubtful you’ll even see a puff of steam anytime in the foreseeable future. Viewing the volcanco’s peak can be hit or miss, especially during the rainy season (May through November). One minute Arenal Volcano looms menacingly over the village; the next minute clouds shroud its cone. Early morning, especially in the dry season, is always the best time to catch a longer gaze.

NUEVO ARENAL

Much of the original town of Arenal, at one of the lowest points near Lake Arenal, was destroyed by the volcano’s 1968 eruption, and the rest was destroyed in 1973 when Lake Arenal flooded the region. The nuevo (new) town was created about 19 miles away from the site of the old. It doesn’t have much to interest tourists but is about halfway between La Fortuna and Tilarán, making it a good stop for a break, and an even better base, with a couple of truly lovely lodgings nearby.

TILARÁN

A windmill farm in the hills high above Tilarán attests to its being the windiest place in the country, and this lakeside town is used as a base by bronzed windsurfers. For those days when you get “skunked” (the wind fails to blow), horseback riding and mountain biking can keep you busy. A lakeside stroll is a pleasant way to while away a few hours.

MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST BIOLOGICAL RESERVE

One of Costa Rica’s best-kept reserves has 8 miles of well-marked trails, lush vegetation, and a cool, damp climate. The collision of moist winds with the Continental Divide here creates a constant mist whose particles provide nutrients for plants growing at the upper layers of the forest. Giant trees are enshrouded in a cascade of orchids, bromeliads, mosses, and ferns, and in those patches where sunlight penetrates, brilliantly colored flowers flourish. The sheer size of everything, especially the leaves of the trees, is striking. No less astounding is the variety: more than 3,000 plant species, 500 species of birds, 500 types of butterflies, and 130 different mammals have so far been cataloged at Monteverde. A damp and exotic mixture of shades, smells, and sounds, the cloud forest is also famous for its population of resplendent quetzals, which can be spotted feeding on the aguacatillo (similar to avocado) trees; best viewing times are early mornings from January until September, and especially during the mating season of April and May. Other forest-dwelling inhabitants include hummingbirds and multicolor frogs

SELVATURA

If your time in Monteverde is limited, consider spending it at Selvatura, a kind of nature theme park—complete with canopy tour and bridge walks—just outside the Santa Elena Reserve. A 100-bird hummingbird garden, an enormous enclosed 50-species mariposario (butterfly garden), a herpetario (frog and reptile house), and insect exhibition sit near the visitor center. The only zip-line tour built entirely inside a cloud forest has 13 lines and 18 platforms, with an optional Tarzan swing at the end to round out the excursion. The Tree Top Walkway takes you to heights ranging from 36 feet up to 180 feet on a 2-mile walk. These are some of the longest and strongest bridges in the country and run through the same canopy terrain as the zip-line tour.

CAÑO NEGRO NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

It’s a shame that Caño Negro doesn’t grab the same amount of attention in wildlife-viewing circles as other destinations in Costa Rica. Due to the recent saturation of visitors at Tortuguero National Park to the east, Caño Negro has finally gained recognition among bird-watchers and nature lovers for its isolation, diversity, and abundant wildlife. As a feeding ground for both resident and migratory birds, the refuge is home to more than 350 bird species, 310 plants, and at least 160 species of mammals. The reserve is a splendid place to watch waterfowl and resident exotic animals, including cougars, jaguars, and several species of monkeys. It’s also one of the best places to see a basilisk, more commonly known as the “Jesus Christ Lizard” because of its ability to run on water. Comprising the vast wetland sanctuary is a web of channels and lagoons ideal for exploring by boat, and even more so by canoe to reach remote lowlands, swamps, and seasonal floodplains.