North Central Costa Rica is a watery world of lagoons, rivers, and rainforests. This area is hot and humid and prone to flooding during the rainy season (May to January). Despite the weather, nature lovers find pure nirvana. This wetland ecosystem is great for birding, watching crocodiles, and fishing. You will find caverns to explore and hot minerals springs, and of course, Arenal Volcano.
Arenal Volcano National Park – this park encompasses a large area of northwest Costa Rica. The most remarkable feature – one of the most impressive sights in the country – is Arenal Volcano. Arenal has been active since a surprise eruption in 1968, and it’s not advisable to climb all the way to the top of the mountain, even though some daring guides will offer to take you. One of the safer places for viewing Arenal is at its base. This is where a volcano-heated stream flows into a small waterfall and then diverts into a series of mineral baths that are part of Tabacon Hot Springs (a resort complex with eight swimming pools that accepts day visitors and overnight guests). You can lie in the pools at night and watch the glowing lava flow down the mountainside. Because eruptions and weather are unpredictable, it’s best to spend at least one night near the volcano, either in the town of La Fortuna or at one of the lodges in the area. La Fortuna has a good selection of accommodations, and a nearby waterfall is a worthwhile excursion for experienced hikers. You also can ride horses up to the lava flow if it’s a clear day.
Lake Arenal is just west of the volcano and is a great spot for fishing. Here you will find some hotels and, at the western end of the lake, windsurfing. Some rate it as a world-class spot for windsurfing because of the strong and constant winds. Traveling between the volcano and the western end of the lake is difficult because of the rough roads navigable only by four-wheel-drive vehicles with high clearance. Although it’s only 20 mi/30 km (as the crow flies) from Arenal Volcano to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the indirect roads and bus connections take the better part of a day. If you’re not driving, it’s possible to travel via a more direct route, taking a boat across Lake Arenal.
La Fortuna – a great area for ecological and adventure tourists. This has a feel of a college town with many happening bars and restaurants. Whitewater rafting is a popular adventure hers with some excellent Class III and Class IV (even Class V) rapids. Take a guided hike to the La Fortuna Waterfall or mountain bike to explore the Venado Cavern. Horseback riding is available and you can ride over the mountain to Monteverde.
Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge – a haven for birds and wildlife in north-central Costa Rica. The best way to see it is from the water: Narrowboats leave from Los Chiles near the Nicaraguan border for an enchanting trip down the Rio Frio. Shorebirds cruise the banks alongside caimans and iguanas while entertaining Jesus Christ lizards dance across the surface of the water. In the treetops above, howler monkeys can be heard warning of intruders. Of Costa Rica’s six types of kingfishers, four are found along the Rio Frio, as are roseate spoonbills and jabiru and wood storks. Cano Negro is one of the best places to spot birds and animals because they are more concentrated along the river banks due to the fact that much of the land around the water has been cleared for farmland. Efforts to return the forests are underway. Be prepared for a long, bumpy ride to Cano Negro – the road to the refuge is rough.
Los Chiles – is a border settlement just 3 km from the Nicaraguan frontier. This is the town from which you can rent a boat or horse to go to Caño Negro, 25km downstream on the Río Frío. Another reason you might come to Los Chiles is to cross the Nicaraguan border, although the majority of travelers still cross at Peñas Blancas, further west on the Interamericana. Two buses per day run from La Coca-Cola in San José to Los Chiles (at least 5hr). The San José bus stops right outside the Mercado Central, while buses arriving from Ciudad Quesada often stop close to the docks.
Rincon de la Viejo National Park – covers the upper slopes of a forest-draped volcano, the park’s main attraction is a 125-acre/50-hectare expanse that contains small geysers, bubbling mud pots, and hot springs. The forests above contain waterfalls and a wealth of wildlife, including quetzals, three-wattled bellbirds, blue morpho butterflies, tapirs, tayras, peccaries, coatis, and three species of monkeys.
Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui – is the place to find banana plantations. Take a guided hike or horseback ride through 450 acres of rainforest. See a magnificent variety of wildlife on a boat ride down the Rio Sarapiqui.