Northwest Costa Rica, Costa Rica - Stein Travel

Northwest Costa Rica

    • 16+ years

    • 12-15 years

    • 2-11 years

    • 0-23 months

Welcome to Northwest Costa Rica

The Northwestern region of Costa Rica is renowned for its dramatic contrast in topography. Mountain ranges, volcanoes, lakes, rivers and fertile plains support numerous varieties of bird and wildlife, each offering different types of activities. The two Cordilleras, or mountain ranges, are very different from each other. The Cordillera Tilarán has rolling mountains that used to be covered in cloud forests; those remaining are protected reserves of which the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is the most popular with visitors, offering nature trails, horse riding and canopy tours. The Cordillera de Guanacaste is an impressive string of volcanoes, some protected within national parks. Between the ranges are Lake Arenal and the nearby active Arenal Volcano and surrounding hot springs. Further north, in the tropical humidity of the lowland plains, lies the remote wildlife refuge of Caño Negro, a vast wetlands area that is one of the best places in the Americas to see river wildlife, including numerous birds, mammals and reptiles. The fertile plains are dotted with a mixture of agricultural fields, cattle ranches and expanses of protected areas serviced by a maze of streams and rivers.

Spanish is the official language, but English is widely spoken.

The Costa Rican Colón (CRC) is divided into 100 céntimos and is the official currency, although US Dollars are also widely accepted. US Dollars and travellers cheques can be exchanged in banks and many hotels. Banks charge a service fee for cashing travellers cheques and currency other than US$ is difficult to exchange. Using black market exchange options is risky as they have been known to pass on counterfeit bills printed in Colombia. Banks close anywhere from 3pm to 6pm. Major credit cards are widely accepted, although American Express and Diners Club might be more limited. ATMs are available in major towns throughout the country, but it is advisable to always have some local cash handy.

Local time is GMT -6.

The Arenal Volcano National Park is situated within the Arenal Conservation Area, also known as 'the Energetic Heart of Costa Rica'. At its centre is the 5,356 foot (1,633m) Volcán Arenal, a typically cone-shaped image despite being highly active, with some huge eruptions and larva flows that killed thousands of people in 1968. Although perpetually active the degree of activity is unpredictable, ranging from rumbling and ground shaking to a smouldering red glow best visible at night. Sometimes visitors are treated to a fiery display of red-hot rocks being thrown into the air. The park has some good trails that go through forests, passing through the area that was flattened in the 1968 eruption, or across lava fields, but fences are in place to stop people from venturing too far up the dangerous slopes. There is also a good chance of seeing some of the wildlife in the forest. The Visitor Centre has video displays of the volcano's more exciting activity. It is not possible to stay overnight in the park or visit it after dark unless on one of the night tours from Fortuna.

Fortuna is the nearest village to the spectacular Volcán Arenal and the main reason for visiting the area. It has uninterrupted views of the volcano and provides a comfortable but touristy base for visiting the national park and other attractions in the area. There are many tour operators in town offering night trips to see the red hot volcanic activity from up close, or tours combining a luxurious soak in the hot springs while taking in the astounding show of bright red larva coursing down the slopes. Trips to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge are also a popular excursion, as well as horse riding to the nearby waterfalls. Close to Fortuna is Lake Arenal, a picturesque lake offering watersports, fishing and stunning scenery.

Located 135 miles (220km) northwest of San Jose, Liberia is not so much a tourist destination as a convenient travel hub and gateway to the stunning beaches of Northwest Costa Rica. The small city does offer some colonial charm in the form of pretty buildings and churches along with a selection of restaurants and nightclubs, but one of its main attractions is the Rio Negro Hot Spring. Liberia is also ideally situated as a base to explore some of the stunning national parks in Costa Rica, including Rincón de la Vieja Volcano and Santa Rosa National Park. Home to Costa Rica's second largest international airport, many tourists travel through Liberia on their Costa Rica holiday.

Monteverde is a small community scattered along several kilometres of road that leads to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. It was founded by North American Quakers in 1951, having bought over 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) of land for their dairy farming. Today they are an integral part of the Costa Rican society and are known especially for their distinctive cheese that is sold throughout the country. In 1972 about 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) were added to their land, which became the famous cloud forest reserve that has become so popular among visitors today. The village of Santa Elena is the closest settlement to the reserve and has a cloud forest reserve of its own, although much less visited.

Monteverde has a number of other attractions, such as the Butterfly Garden, the Serpentarium, a cheese factory and a number of art galleries. CASEM Handicrafts Cooperative, made up of 140 local artisans, sells handmade goods and the profits go towards supporting the local community. There is also the Hummingbird Gallery near the entrance to the reserve that has feeders attracting several species of hummingbird providing some excellent photo opportunities. Several nature and hiking trails allow visitors to amble through coffee and banana plantations or up onto the hilltops for views of the cloud forest and, on a clear day Arenal Volcano, and provide a good chance of seeing lots of birds and wildlife.

The cloud forest is one of the most famous ecotourism areas in Central America. It is called a cloud forest rather than a rain forest because of the altitude. At an elevation of between 3,840ft and 5,120ft (1,200m to 1,600m) the clouds go through the forest creating a misty and often dripping, mystical habitat supporting a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna. It has been acclaimed as one of the most outstanding wildlife refuges in the New World Tropics. Because of the fragile environment there are restrictions on the number of visitors allowed into the reserve at any one time. The canopy is alive with over 400 species of birds, including the resplendent quetzal most easily seen during the March/April nesting season, as well as thousands of insect species and plants. In the shadows below are over 100 species of mammals, including five species of cats, although a glimpse of a jaguar is a very rare thing.

There are a number of good walking trails that lead through the six distinct ecological zones varying from swamp forests and deep gorges, past waterfalls and streams and onto forested outcrops traversing the Continental Divide. Exploration need not be restricted to the ground as various companies offer visitors a unique and exhilarating way of viewing the cloud forest - Sky Trek is a canopy adventure with a system of platforms connected by zip lines and suspension bridges criss-crossing the top of the forest, providing a vantage point from in and above the canopy. There is also the more sedate option of a ski lift traversing the treetops.

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