The Northern Plains of Costa Rica are one of the most visited regions by international tourists for nature, adventure and ecotourism. Protected forests, lakes, lagoons, volcanoes, rivers and waterfalls abound here. Over the past 10 years, there has been a boom in tourism service development and adventure sites across the region. Thanks to frequent rains, the rainforests and fertile plains are always lush and green. These natural sanctuaries for waterfowl, reptiles, mammals, and the prehistoric Alligator gar fish, are important sites for wildlife enthusiasts.
Volcano and Lake Arenal, Chato Volcano (Cerro Chato), Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, the Sarapiqui area, Tenorio Volcano National Park, and the Braulio Carrillo National Park attract visitors from all over the world to experience their unique attributes. The region is a magnet for adventure and nature devotees, with rushing rivers that are highly popular for whitewater rafting and kayaking, and observing nature – including the Peñas Blancas, San Carlos, Toro, Celeste, Puerto Viejo and Sarapiquí rivers.
The area of Sarapiquí is known throughout Costa Rica for its rich and amazing biodiversity. Sarapiquí is an internationally-recognized site for scientific research, especially for plants, insects and birds; it also is one of the last habitats for the endangered Great Green Macaw. Famous in the area are outdoor festivals (“turnos”) in the villages, which include fairs, bull riding, and livestock and cattle auctions.
Popular things to do in Sarapiquí include: observing flora and fauna, birds and butterflies, horseback riding, hiking, recreational cycling, mountain biking, river boat tours, exploring caverns, hanging bridges tours, canopy zip line tours, photography, hot springs and spas, and rural community tourism activities.
Northern Plains Major Attractions
Arenal Volcano National Park
With its perfect cone shape, the Arenal Volcano is one of the world’s most visited volcanoes and a major tourism destination in Costa Rica. Located near the town of La Fortuna, Arenal is Costa Rica’s third most active volcano. The 12,016-hectare Arenal Volcano National Park features several hiking trails through the surrounding forest, and viewpoints to see the volcano and old lava flows. There is actually a second volcano in the national park – the extinct Chato Volcano (Cerro Chato). Chato’s crater collapsed years ago, and in its place is a beautiful emerald lake.
Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge
Caño Negro is a spectacular internationally-designated wetlands preservation site, and of vital importance for the environmental maintenance of the northern region of Costa Rica. Its habitat sustains a large variety of flora and fauna, many of which are unique or endangered species. Lying very close to the Nicaraguan border in northern Costa Rica, Caño Negro is an 800-hectare sweet water lagoon. During the dry season, the refuge is a key supplier of food for thousands of migratory aquatic birds arriving from the north. The wetlands are home to rare birds like the northern jacanas, ibises, jabiru storks, anhingas, cormorants and roseate spoonbills, as well as jaguars, pumas, ocelots, giant anteaters, caimans, river turtles, iguanas, emerald basilisks, and rare fish like the prehistoric Alligator gar fish.
Juan Castro Blanco National Park
This national park, near Quesada City, features three volcanoes – Platanar Volcano, Porvenir Volcano, and the inactive Viejo Volcano. Its pastures and rainforest are an excellent place to enjoy wildlife and bird watching. You can see such species as the Resplendent Quetzal, black turkey, falcons, peacocks, monkeys, armadillos, agoutis, tapirs, and a variety of frogs, snakes and lizards. Approximately 50 rivers are born in the park, which also hosts some of Costa Rica’s largest waterfalls: Toro, Aguas Gatas, Sparrow and Rio Claro.
Bosque Alegre (Happy Forest) National Wildlife Refuge
The dormant Congo Volcano and three beautiful lakes – Congo, Hule and Bosque Alegre – are the major features of the Bosque Alegre National Wildlife Refuge. The habitat is primary and secondary tropical wet forest. There is an organized ecological community which cares for the conservation of the refuge.
Tilarán Wind Energy
Famous for its winds, the area around the town of Tilaran – on the southern end of Lake Arenal – has become in recent years a major centre for windmills generating electric power. Rows and rows of these gigantic wind towers are quite impressive. There are four private projects in the area, plus the large wind farm of “Tejona” owned by the Costa Rican Electrical Company (ICE).
Beautiful and picturesque, Lake Arenal is surrounded by forests and verdant green meadows, while its blue waters are dotted with a few islands here and there. The islands are actually former hilltops since the lake was artificially made in 1973 when the Arenal dam was built to generate hydroelectric power. The ensuing flooded area became Lake Arenal, now covering 87.8 sq. km. Lake Arenal is highly popular for boating, kayaking, stand up paddling, canoeing and fishing; Rainbow Bass and other freshwater fish are plentiful. Windsurfing on Lake Arenal is world-class. Strong winds – reaching an average speed of 72 km an hour — blow from November to April, attracting adventurous windsurfers from all over the planet to visit Costa Rica.
Less than 1 km north of Lake Arenal sits Lake Cote, a 3 sq. km very deep heart-shaped lake that is actually an extinct volcanic crater. It has a diameter of approximately 1 km, and is a popular destination for fishing.
Flowing naturally from Volcano Arenal through a series of natural hot springs and tributaries, the Tabacon River has become world-famous for the Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort that has developed this marvellous resource. The Tabacon Hot Springs are one of the major attractions at La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano. The volcanically-heated river, with an average temperature of 37 degrees C°, flows through cascading waterfalls into steaming pools surrounded by an oasis of lush tropical gardens. These mineral waters will relax your muscles, soothe your skin and eliminate stress. Tabacon’s on-site spa is world-class and award winning.
La Fortuna Waterfall
The breathtakingly beautiful La Fortuna Waterfall plunges 70 meters from dense rainforest into a brilliant turquoise blue pool. Located 5.5 km from La Fortuna, the waterfall is another striking attraction in the area. There is a steep staircase trail leading from an observation point down to the waterfall pool and river below. While swimming is no longer permitted in the waterfall pool itself due to strong currents, there are many pools down river where you can enjoy the cool rainforest water.
Just east of the Arenal Volcano National Park, the Venado Caves are a unique geological marvel. The limestone caves were formed 15 to 20 million years ago and are a strange and exciting underground world of stalactites and stalagmites, caverns, rivers, fossils, and curious subterranean creatures. Exploring these caves on an adventure tour is a must for adventurers and nature lovers.
Maleku Indigenous Reserve
Centuries ago in Costa Rica, the Maleku Tribe was divided into 23 villages. Over the past 100 years the population has diminished, and today there are only the villages (called “palenques”) of Sol, Margarita and Tonjibe, located 6 km from the town of San Rafael de Guatuso, an hour north of La Fortuna. The Maleku Tribe today numbers about 600 and is one of the smallest indigenous groups left in Costa Rica. Their economy primarily relies on indigenous art: carvings, paintings, and musical instruments. Tours are offered to one of their villages to learn more about their culture, language and traditions.
Celeste (Sky Blue) River
The Rio Celeste is one of Costa Rica’s most spectacular rivers for its unique sky blue colouring. In the shadow of the Tenorio Volcano, an hour northwest of La Fortuna and Volcano Arenal, the Celeste River is a must-see attraction. At the confluence of two rivers, the Celeste River appears a bright sky blue to the human eye (and cameras) from volcanic minerals in the water reflecting the sunlight. There is a beautiful waterfall and also natural thermal springs in the area. Trails lead you through picturesque forest to the river.
La Marina Wildlife Rescue Center (Zoo Costa Rica)
The privately-funded animal rescue centre houses over 200 species of birds, mammals and reptiles that have suffered accidents or loss of habitat, or been repossessed from being illegal pets. Managers develop protection and breeding programs for endangered animals. Tapirs, spider monkeys, Great Green Macaws, Scarlet Macaws, and a few different types of felines are just some of the animals that are bred here. The La Marina Wildlife Rescue Centre is located near the city of San Carlos/Quesada.
Laguna Río Cuarto (Fourth River Lake)
This lake is located about 8 km northeast of San Miguel de Sarapiquí at an elevation of 400 meters. It spans an area of 40 hectares and has a depth of approximately 75 meters, making it the deepest natural lake in Costa Rica. Scientists suggest that the lake occupies the crater of a dormant volcano. Combined with a rich biodiversity, the area has tremendous geological, biological and tourism interest.
Bajos del Toro community
Lying in the valley between the Poas and Viejo volcanoes, Bajos del Toro is ideal for those who enjoy a mixture of nature and rural communities. Its typically damp, rainy climate lends itself perfectly to the surrounding natural beauty and abundant wildlife. Rivers, waterfalls, hydroelectric projects, nature reserves and agricultural landscapes give visitors to the area a unique look at some of Costa Rica’s plant and animal species. Activities in Bajos del Toro include biking, trout fishing, hiking, waterfall climbing and rappelling, hot springs, and observing flora and fauna.
La Paz Waterfall (Peace Waterfall)
The La Paz Waterfall is located between the communities of Vara Blanca and Cinchona on the road to Sarapiquí. The waterfall cascades into a pool immediately alongside the road from Alajuela that leads to the northern plains, and is a favourite spot for travellers to stop and take photographs. The waterfall is extraordinarily beautiful with two tiers and lush rainforest all around. Upstream is La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge, a luxury boutique hotel and adventure park, where you can observe many different species of local wildlife, plus walk trails past four more stunning waterfalls.
San Fernando Waterfall
The San Fernando Waterfall is a scenic view from the road near the community of Cinchona on the route from Vara Blanca to San Miguel de Sarapiquí. A ribbon of white tumbling through dense forest, which is part of the Braulio Carrillo National Park, the waterfall drops approximately 70 meters.
On the way from Vara Blanca to San Miguel de Sarapiquí, the Angel Waterfall can be observed from a point on the road. You can get close to the waterfall following a path parallel to the Angel River on the outskirts of the Cariblanco community. Angel Waterfall has a height of approximately 100 meters, but only its upper part is visible.
Town of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí (Old Port of Sarapiquí)
Although traditionally the town’s main activities revolved around agricultural activities, such as coffee, corn, cacao, cardamom, citrus, banana, palms, fruit trees and livestock, nowadays pineapples and tourism are its main activities. Tourists are attracted by Sarapiqui’s exuberant nature, the rainforest, and the kindness and cordiality of its residents. Sarapiqui is a major site for tropical scientific research and ecotourism. Adventure tours also are very popular, especially whitewater rafting the rapids of the pristine and picturesque Sarapiquí River. The Sarapiquí flows into the San Juan River, which is Costa Rica’s northern border in this area with Nicaragua, and eventually out to Barra del Colorado and Tortuguero.
La Selva Biological Station
Located in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, at the confluence of two major rivers, the La Selva Biological Station is an amazing international Neotropical biological research station. It comprises 1,600 hectares of tropical rainforest and recovered lands. Created and operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies, La Selva Biological Station receives annually more than 250 scientists and researchers from 26 different countries. The area is home to an unbelievable amount of animals. There are over 120 species of mammals, including jaguars, tapirs, agoutis, bats and three monkey species. Walking 57 km of trails, you can spot more than 420 species of resident and migratory birds – nearly half of the bird species that exist in Costa Rica. There are 500 butterfly species, roughly 2,000 different kinds of vascular plants, and according to recent studies, more than 400 ant species have been found to live here. Thousands of species of arthropods are currently being recorded at La Selva. The area is one of the rainiest in Costa Rica, with an average of 4 meters per year.
Many years ago, when there were no roads, the only way to start a tour of Central America was via the Sarapiquí River. The landscape along its banks is lovely and well-suited for nature lovers. The Sarapiquí flows 84 km out to the San Juan River, which is the border with Nicaragua, and on to Barra del Colorado and Tortuguero on the Caribbean Coast. Besides having fun rapids for an exciting whitewater rafting tour, and calmer sections for nature float trips, the Sarapiquí River is a good place to see birds, monkeys, turtles, caimans and otters.
Recommended Partners in the Northern Plains