The Northern Zone
For those not interested in the ocean, or who want to avoid the heat and
prices of the Pacific coast by living a rural life away from the traffic of
the Central Valley, Northern Costa Rica – particularly around the visually
stunning lake and volcano – is a great choice for either a vacation home or
a permanent residence.
Verdant rainforest blankets the hills in a chaotic tangle of vines,
canopy, and aerials. Beneath it, delicate flowers bloom at various times of
year, swaying in the slightest breeze. Countless species of animals dwell in
this wilderness. The majestic cloud forest of Monteverde is an important
ecosystem whose inhabitants are being threatened by climate change. Other
parts of the area consist of endless cattle pastures demarcated by fence lines.
Further north, in the flatlands, lie the fruit plantations.
The quaint mountain town of Zarcero is famous for its sculptured
bushes. The park in front of Zarcero’s church is full of shrubs that have
been sculpted into the shapes of arches, animals, people and even an oxcart
complete with oxen.
San Carlos, or Ciudad Quesada is about two hours from San José
and is considered the capital of the country’s Northern Zone. Note here
that San Carlos often refers to two things: The city, which also goes by the
name Cuidad Quesada, and San Carlos the area around the city, including
towns such as San Isidro. It’s easy to get the two mixed up, as locals (los
Sancarleños) and expatriates familiar with the area really use the two names
interchangeably. So ask if you’re not sure which is which. The climate is
mild and there are a few North Americans who own ranches in this area.
Almost everything of importance is found within several blocks of the
town’s main square. Plaza San Carlos is a new mall with about 143 stores
including a supermarket, movie theaters, food court, travel agencies and
Around the San Carlos area, you might notice lots of black sheets
covering large portions of steep or sloping farmland on the drive up from
San José. These are ornamental plant farms, and there are quite a few of
them in the region. They take advantage of the region’s heavy rains by
growing plants that they either export to other countries or sell in booming
real estate markets in Northwest Guanacaste and the Central Pacific.
Northern Costa Rica’s crown jewel is the Arenal Volcano, an active
volcano that trickles lava and smoke almost constantly, giving the landscape
a sense of mystery found nowhere else in the country.
Here, the four medieval elements are found in abundance: fire from the
volcano, water from Lake Arenal, fresh air thanks to the work of the rain
forest, and rich soil from the volcanic ash that has blanketed the ground
since the volcano’s last big eruption in 1968.
The 48-square-mile, man-made Lake Arenal is northwest of San Carlos.
It is surrounded by rolling hills covered with pastures and patches of tropical
forest. The very active Arenal Volcano can often be seen in the distance with
plumes of smoke emanating from the top.
Lake Arenal is the largest lake in Costa Rica and the second-biggest
in Central America, after nearby Lake Nicaragua. It receives water from
at least three rivers in the region, in addition to a 400-meter tunnel that
connects it with the beautiful (and natural) Lake Cote.
Lake Arenal was created to be a reservoir when engineers flooded a
large valley. The lake was an engineering feat for Costa Rica at the time and
generates 70% of the country’s electricity. Water from the lake is also used
for irrigation in the Pacific area of Guanacaste, which is the most arid part
of the country and goes months without rain.
There are many enjoyable things to do around Arenal. The lake and
surrounding area offer excellent fishing, sailing, hiking, windsurfing, mountain
biking, bird-watching and other outdoor activities. With all the area has
to offer, it is not surprising that this area is rapidly becoming popular with
Land around the lake is readily available. Prices vary per square meter
depending on location and views. There are several large developments in
the area like the one being built by my good friend John Wilson from Santa
Monica, California. He owns quite a bit of prime real estate with spectacular
views of the lake.
Several interesting towns are found in this area. Nearby Tilarán is home
to a number of foreigners, as are Nuevo Arenal and La Fortuna. The latter
is a tourist-oriented town east of the volcano and a good place to view the
volcano. The town has numerous small hotels, restaurants, tour companies
and many souvenir stores.
The Catarata La Fortuna is a spectacular waterfall that plummets some
100 feet into a deep pool surrounded by luxuriant foliage. To get there you
have to hike down a steep trail.
At the Tabacón Resort you will find a hot spring in a lush valley at the
base of the picture-perfect Arenal Volcano. This is the place to soak your
tired bones after a day of participating in one of the many activities this area
has to offer.
Nuevo Arenal (which will herein be referred to simply as Arenal) is a
relatively pretty town on the northern tip of the lake that was built with
government funding after the original town got in the way of the planned
lake. The center of the town lies just up the hill from the lake and is on
the main road linking Tilarán (and the main part of Guanacaste) with the
Arenal Volcano. It’s therefore a route much traveled by tourists. The little
community has a bullring and neighborhoods of prefab houses, each with
its own unique garden, porch extension, colorful facade and ironwork.
The town is a typical one-of-everything small town, with a handful of
shops and restaurants near the lake that are obviously aimed at tourists. The
town has a bank, a post office, a couple of grocery stores and some construction
supply stores. Like many places in Costa Rica, you will need to visit San José
for a good selection of furnishings, appliances, and nice clothing.