ABOUT SARAPIQUI

 

SARAPIQUÍ VALLEY

This flat, steaming stretch of finca-dotted lowlands was once part of the United Fruit Company’s vast banana holdings. Harvests were carried from plantations to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, where they were shipped downriver on boats destined for North America. In 1880 a railway connected rural Costa Rica with the port of Puerto Limón, and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí became a backwater. Although it’s never managed to recover its former glory, the river again shot to prominence as one of the premier destinations in Costa Rica for kayakers and rafters in the 1990s. In addition to tasty raging rapids, there are a slew of stellar lodges in the region, featuring rainforest trails, suspension bridges, pre-Columbian ruins and chocolate tours.

San Miguel

If you’re driving up from San José or Alajuela, Hwy 126 curves up the slopes of the Cordillera Central, leaving behind the urban bustle and passing Volcán Poás before descending again into pastureland. This is campesino country, where the plodding hoofbeat of cattle is about the speed of life, as the hard-to-spot rural speed bumps will remind you if you take those curves too quickly. You’re off the beaten track now, and if you’re self-driving, you may as well linger, because there are few Costa Rican corners quite this beautiful and unheralded.

Albergue El Soccoro (Tel 8820-2160; www.albergueelsocorrosarapiqui.com; per person incl meals US$75; p i ) is 9km south of San Miguel, 1000m above sea level, on a plateau surrounded by a magnificent knife’s edge of green mountains, tucked between the looming Cerro Congo and Volcán Poás. The owner was born and raised a rancher here, but in January 2009 a massive earthquake struck the area, destroying the road from Vara Blanca to San Miguel along with the family’s home and dairy. This wonderful family rebuilt the ranch from scratch and incorporated a tourism component. Guests stay in one of three cozy A-framed cabins, from which you can explore 4km of trails in primary and secondary rainforest. It also has a working dairy. Kids (and grown-ups) can milk the cows and ride horses.

 

A GREEN-GREEN SITUATION

The gorgeous green plumage, electric-blue wing tips and red forehead of the great green macaw (Ara ambiguus) have long attracted collectors of exotic birds. The (illegal) sale of just one macaw can fetch several thousand dollars, despite the fact that the species’ nervous personality causes them to fare poorly in captivity. International trade has depleted the population, even though the macaw is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Deforestation also threatens the great green macaw. The northern lowlands have suffered from heavy deforestation in recent years due to the demand for increased agricultural and pasture land. Furthermore, the almendro tree (Dipteryx panamensis), whose nut provides 90Tel of the macaw’s diet and whose high hollows are far and away the preferred nesting tree for breeding pairs, is highly sought after as a luxury hardwood. Extensive logging of the almendro has severely cut back potential nesting sites, and as a result the great green macaw is endangered. It’s estimated that Costa Rica’s population is as low as 200, with as few as 30 breeding pairs left.

But all is not lost! With the leadership of the Tropical Science Center (www.cct. or.cr), a coterie of nonprofit organizations and government agencies established the San Juan–La Selva Biological Corridor to protect existing green macaw populations as well as other species in the area. The corridor bridges the gap between existing protected areas. Eventually, all of these protected areas will form a Mesoamerican biological corridor that will stretch from Mexico through Central America.

In 2005 the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Mixto Maquenque was officially declared by then-president Abel Pacheco. Owing to this victory, Maquenque
now protects an estimated 6000 species of vascular plant, 139 mammals, 515 birds, 135 reptiles and 80 amphibians. And as a ‘mixed-use’ wildlife refuge – the first of its
kind in Costa Rica – it allows human residents to continue living and working within its boundaries. However, most of the refuge’s approximately 500 sq km, which are privately owned, are now bound to certain regulations, such as the drastic reduction of activities including logging. So where does this leave the residents, who depend on forestry and agriculture for subsistence?

Enter the Costa Rican Bird Route (www.costaricanbirdroute.com), a project initiated by the non-profit Rainforest Biodiversity Group in partnership with several other nonprofit organizations. The Costa Rican Bird Route has been working with and educating communities within these protected areas to help create viable and sustainable ecotourism opportunities, as economic alternatives to habitat-destructive agriculture and logging. While promoting locally owned lodges throughout the region, the Costa Rican Bird Route is also helping to establish new, community-based ecolodges from the Río San Juan to Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo. The hope is that green tourism will be more financially beneficial to these poor communities, and will also be salvation for the great green macaw.

La Virgen

Tucked into the densely jungled shores of the wild and scenic Río Sarapiquí, La Virgen was one of a number of small towns that prospered during the heyday of the banana trade. Although United Fruit has long since shipped out, the town remains dependent on its nearby pineapple fields, and it still leans on that river. For over a decade, La Virgen was the premier kayaking and rafting destination in Costa Rica. Dedicated groups

of hard-core paddlers spent happy weeks running the Río Sarapiquí. But a tremendous 2009 earthquake and landslide altered its course and flattened La Virgen’s tourist economy. Some businesses folded, others relocated to La Fortuna. But independent kayakers are starting to come back and there are now three river outfitters offering exhilarating trips on Class II–IV waters. There are cheap digs in town, or consider staying in one of the more interesting lodges on the outskirts or on the road to Puerto Viejo.

Sights

Snake Garden Zoo (Tel2761-1059; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; adult/ student/child US$15/10/10, night tour US$24/18/18; h9am-5pm) This wildlife center is an entertaining rainy-day outing. Get face to face with 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, including poison-dart frogs, rattlesnakes, crocs and turtles. The star attraction is a gigantic 80kg Burmese python.

Nature Pavilion wildlife reserve, Bird-watching (Tel 2761-0801; www.costaricanp.com; without/ with guide US$20/30; h 7am-5pm) Father and son Dave and Dave greet all comers to this 10-acre reserve on the Río Sarapiquí. It’s a lovely setting in which to spy on feathered friends. There are several viewing platforms, with feeders attracting toucans, trogans, tanagers and 10 species of hummingbird. From here you can follow (or be guided) along a trail system that winds through secondary forest all the way down to the river.

Santuario de Mariposas Aguas Silvestres wildlife reserve (Tel 8720-1074, 2761-1095; www.santuariomariposas.jimdo.com; admission US$8.50, guided hikes US$18) You’ll need your own wheels to visit this butterfly sanctuary in the mountains. Guided hikes (in Spanish) take you through the rainforest along a waterfall trail, including a tour of the butterfly garden. You can also stay overnight in the rustic bunkhouse (per person US$24) and swim in the nearby lagoon. However long your stay, be sure to bring bug repellent, as butterflies are not the only insects living up there.

To get here, turn onto the Pozo Azul road and follow the brown wooden signs to the sanctuary, which is about 10km up the mountain, near the village of San Ramón.

Activities

The Río Sarapiquí isn’t as wild as the white water on the Río Pacuare near Turrialba, though it will get your heart racing. Even better, the dense jungle that hugs the riverbank is lush and primitive. You can run the Sarapiquí year-round, but December offers the biggest water. The rest of the year, the river fluctuates with rainfall. The bottom line is: if it’s been raining, the river will be at its best. Where once there were nearly a dozen outfitters in La Virgen, now there are three. All offer roughly the same Class II–IV options at similar prices.

Sarapiquí Outdoor Center rAFTiNg (Tel 8506-6889, 2761-1123; www.costaricaraft.com; 2/4hr rafting trip US$65/90, guided kayak trips US$90-120) Here is your local paddling authority. In addition to offering its own rafting excursions, it offers kayak rental, lessons and clinics. Indie paddlers should check in for up-to-date river information. If you need somewhere to sleep before you hit the water, you can pitch a tent here.

Aventuras del Sarapiquí rafting (Tel 2766-6768; www.sarapiqui.com; river trips US$55-80) A highly recommended outfitter, Adventuras del Sarapiquí offers mountain biking, and canopy, hiking and horse-riding tours, as well as a variety of river trips. It’s set just out of town on the main highway in Chilamate.

Hacienda Pozo Azul 
Adventures Adventure Tour (Tel 2438-2616, in USA & Canada 877-810-6903; www.pozoazul.com; tours US$55-85; c) Hacienda Pozo Azul Adventures specializes in adventure activities, including horse-riding tours, a canopy tour over the lush jungle and river, rappelling, mountain biking, and assorted river trips. It is the most polished and best-funded tour concession in the area, catering largely to groups and day-trippers from San José.

Inflatable Duckies Kayaking (Tel 2761-0095, 8760-3787; adult/child US$65/50; h departs 9am & 1pm) Highly recommended for beginners and families, this outfit does tours and instruction in inflatable kayaks, which allow for a fun paddle even when the river is low. Paddle on flat moving water or Class III rapids (or somewhere in between). Reserve ahead.

4

Bar & Cabinas El Río Bungalow (Tel2761-0138; r with fan/air-con US$15/20; pa) Located at the southern end of town, these seven A-frame bungalows have tiled floors, clean hot-water bathrooms and TV. About 100m further down the steep hill is the lovely open-air Bar El Río, on rough-hewn stilts high above the river.

Cabinas El Bosque Cabina (Tel2761-0204; r US$10) Basic but sparklingnew cabinas set off the main highway, 1km south of town. Rooms are in little square houses with cold-water bathrooms, fans, new tiles and sweet window treatments.

Hacienda Pozo Azul 
Adventures Bungalow (Tel 2438-2616, 2761-1360; www.haciendapozoazul.com; s/d incl breakfast US$80/92; p i W ) S Located near the southern end of La Virgen, Pozo Azul features luxurious ‘tent suites’ scattered on the edge of the tree line, all on raised polished-wood platforms and dressed with luxurious bedding and mosquito nets. At night, the frogs and wildlife sing you to sleep as raindrops patter on the canvas roof.

Pozo Azul also has a restaurant-bar in town with a lovely riverside veranda.

Restaurante y Cabinas Tía Rosita (Tel 2761-1032; meals US$2-6; p W ) Tía Rosita is the best soda in La Virgen, with excellent casados and Costa Rican–style chiles rellenos (stuffed fried peppers). The family also rents several cabinas with private hot-water bathrooms and plenty of breathing space, located about 100m down the road.

Restaurante Mar y Tierra (Tel 2761-1603; mains US$4-11; h 8am-10pm) La Virgen’s favorite fine-dining (but still very relaxed) option is this comfortable seafood and steak restaurant that’s popular with both locals and travelers.

Information

Most of La Virgen’s businesses are strung along the highway, including a gas station, a Banco Nacional with 24-hour ATM, and a couple of small supermarkets.

Getting There & Away

La Virgen lies on hwy 126, about 8km north of San Miguel and 17km southwest of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí. Buses originating in San José, San Miguel or Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí make regular stops in La Virgen. if you’re driving, the curvy road is paved between San José and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, though irregular maintenance can make for a bumpy ride.

La Virgen to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí

This scenic stretch of Hwy 126 is home to a few excellent ecolodges. Good news for budget travelers: you don’t have to stay at them to take advantage of their private trails and other interesting attractions. Any bus between La Virgen and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí can drop you off at the entrances, while a taxi from La Virgen will cost from US$8 to US$10.

Sarapiquí al Natural (Tel 8635-7645; admission US$10; h 7am-5pm Mon-Fri & 8am-5pm Sat & Sun) In the tiny village of Las Palmitas, Leo Herra welcomes guests to his family farm to spot frogs in the pond, to marvel at spiders, and – most intriguing – to spy on the amazing cutter ants as they go about their business in their nest. Aside from the critters, the farm is dedicated to the cultivation of vanilla beans and peppercorns, so there’s a lot to learn (and taste) here.

Finca Corsicana (Tel tours 2761-1700; www.fincacorsicana.com; adult/ child US$22/18) The world’s largest organic pineapple plantation, Finca Corsicana was founded by the owners of Collin Street Bakery, a Texas-based confectioner famous for fruit cakes. Take a ride through 3000 acres of pineapple fields, learn about planting and harvesting, see the processing and packaging, and – of course – taste the sweet, juicy product. Take the turnoff to La Quinta and follow the signs for 2km to the facility.

Sleeping & Eating

Chilamate Rainforest 
Eco Retreat (Tel2766-6949; www.chilamaterainforest.com; dm US$29-35, s/d incl breakfast US$85/102; pW) Family-run and family-friendly, this is an inviting and truly innovative retreat, where owners Davis and Meghan are dedicated to protecting the environment and investing in community. Built on 20 hectares of secondary forest, the solar-powered cabins are basic but full of character, with hand-crafted furniture and natural air-cooling. The restaurant serves incredible, fresh breakfast and dinner buffets, using local, organic ingredients.

Covered, flat walkways allow you to move between buildings in the complex without ever getting wet (after all, this is the rainforest!). Behind the cabins, 6km of paths wind through the jungle, where you’re likely to spot sloths, monkeys, toucans, frogs, snakes and more. And when you can’t take the heat, head to the nearby river swimming hole, complete with Tarzan swing from the bridge. Trail access is US$12.

Centro Neotrópico Sarapiquís (Tel 2761-1004; www.sarapiquis.org; d incl breakfast US$94;) About 2km north of La Virgen, this ecolodge offers a place to stay and eat, as well as an education in environmental conservation and pre-Columbian culture. Modeled after a 15th-century pre Columbian village, the palenque-style thatched-roof buildings each contain a clutch of luxuriously appointed rooms with huge solar-heated bathroom and private terrace. The restaurant incorporates ingredients used in indigenous cuisine, many grown on the premises.

What’s really special about the lodge is the other attractions scattered about the grounds. The Alma Ata Archaeological Park is a Maleku archaeological site, estimated to be around 600 years old. Currently about 70 small stone sculptures marking a burial field are being excavated by Costa Rican archaeologists who have revealed a number of petroglyphs and pieces of pottery. Nearby is the Sarapaquís Gardens & Museum (www.sarapiquis.org; self-guided adult/child 4-16yr US$8/4, with guide US$15/8; h 9am-5pm), which chronicles the history of the rainforest and of human interactions with it. It also displays hundreds of indigenous artifacts. The gardens boast one of the largest scientific collections of medicinal plants in Costa Rica.

La Quinta de Sarapiquí Lodge (Tel 2761-1052; www.laquintasarapiqui.com; d incl breakfast US$95; p a W s ) S At this family run lodge on the banks of the Río Sardinal, covered paths crisscross the landscaped garden, connecting thatched-roof, hammock strung rooms. You can swim in the pretty saltwater pool or in the nearby river swimming hole; observe the creatures in the frog house, the caiman nursery and the butterfly garden; or hike the trails through secondary forest. Day passes are US$10.

Tirimbina Rainforest 
Center & Lodge (Tel 2761-1579; www.tirimbina.org; d incl breakfast US$85-105; p a i W ) Located 2km from La Virgen, this is a working environmental research and education center. The spacious, comfortable accommodations are located at the lodge or at a more remote field station. Tirimbina reserve has more than 9km of trails (access US$15/9 per adult/child), and tours (US$22 to US$27) include bird watching, frog and bat tours, night walks and a recommended chocolate tour.

The 345-hectare private reserve is connected to the nearby Centro Neotrópico Sarapiquís by two long suspension bridges. Halfway across, a spiral staircase drops to an island in the river. Explore!

Selva Verde Lodge (Tel 2761-1800, in USA & Canada 800-451-7111; www. selvaverde.com; incl breakfast s/d US$116/134, bungalow s/d US$133/163; p s ) In Chilamate, about 7km west of Puerto Viejo, this former finca is now an elegant lodge protecting 200 hectares of rainforest. Choose to stay at the river lodge, elevated above the forest floor, or in a private bungalow, tucked away in the nearby trees. Rooms have shiny wooden floors, solar-heated showers, and wide verandas with views to the forest.

There are three walking trails through the grounds and into the pre-montane tropical wet forest, as well as medicinal and butterfly gardens, various boat tours on the Río Sarapiquí, and an onsite Italian kitchen.

Rancho Magallanes (Tel 2766-5606; chicken US$5-12; h 10am-10pm) Rancho Magallanes is a sweet roadside restaurant with a wood-burning brick oven where they roast whole chickens and serve them quite simply with tortillas and banana salsa. You can dine with the truckers by the roadside or in the more upscale riverside dining area, painted with colorful jungle scenes.

Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí & Around

At the scenic confluence of Ríos Puerto Viejo and Sarapiquí, this was once the most important port in Costa Rica. Boats laden with fruit, coffee and other commercial exports plied the Sarapiquí as far as the Nicaraguan border, then turned east on the Río San Juan to the sea. Today, it is simply a gritty but pleasant palm-shaded market town. The town is adjusting to the new economy, as the local polytechnic high school offers students advanced tourism, ecology and agriculture degrees. The school even has its own reserve, laced with trails. Visitors, meanwhile, can choose from any number of activities in the surrounding area such as bird-watching, rafting, kayaking, boating and hiking. The migración (immigration office) is near the small wooden dock.

Activities & Tours

Taking the launch from Puerto Viejo to Trinidad, at the confluence of Ríos Sarapiquí and San Juan, provides a rich opportunity to see crocodiles, sloths, birds, monkeys and iguanas sunning themselves on the muddy riverbanks or gathering in the trees. This river system is a historically important gateway from the Caribbean into the heart of Central America, and it’s still off the beaten tourist track, revealing rainforest and ranches, wildlife and old war zones, deforested pasture land and protected areas.

Ruta Los Heroes (Tel 2766-5858; 2hr tour per person US$20; h 7am3pm) The pink building near the dock is a boat-captain cooperative, offering river tours with ecological and historical emphasis. Make arrangements to leave as early as possible to beat the heat and see more wildlife. If the office is closed (as it sometimes is in the low season), you can negotiate directly with the captains you find at the dock. Or, try calling Oscar (Tel 8365-3683) or Rafael (Tel8346-1220) directly.

Green Rivers (Tel 8884-0187, 2766-5274; tours US$50-70) Operating out of the Posada Andrea Cristina B&B, this is a new outfit run by the everamiable Kevín Martínez and his wife. They offer a wide variety of rafting and kayaking tours, from family-friendly floats to adrenaline-pumping, rapid-surfing rides. They also know their nature, so they do natural-history and bird tours, too.

Aguas Bravas (Tel 2766-6524; www.costaricaraftingvacation.com; Class iii-iV US$85, safari float US$65; h9am5:30pm) Aguas Bravas no longer maintains an office in the Sarapiquí area, but it does run the river (book at the Souvenir Río Sarapiquí in town). There are two tours on offer: take a gentle safari float to spot birds, iguanas, caimans and other wildlife, or sign up to splash through 14km of ‘extreme rapids’ on the San Miguel section of the river.

Lago Jalapa (Tel 8955-8869, 8973-8488; per person US$20-45) S Located about 8km north of town, this is a grassroots ecotourism effort, offering hiking and canoeing on the Lago Jalapa. It’s not the most professionally run operation, and guides speak no English, but it offers access to the stunning lake in the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Tapiria, surrounded by forest teeming with wildlife.

Sleeping

This stretch of jungle boasts quite a range of accommodations, from budget bunks in town designed for local long-term plantation workers to several excellent lodges on the outskirts.

Cabinas Laura (Tel 2766-6316; s/d US$24/30; p a W ) Quiet and cheap; located on the road to the pier. Rooms are simple but spotless, with new tiles, wooden furnishings and cable TV.

Mi Lindo Sarapiquí (Tel 2766-6281; s/d US$26/36; p a i ) On the southern side of the soccer field, rooms here are simple, spacious and clean, with hot water and ceiling fans. The onsite restaurant offers some of the freshest seafood in town.

oPosada Andrea Cristina B&B (Tel 2766-6265; www.andreacristina.com; s/d incl breakfast from US$38/55; pW) On the edge of town and at the edge of the forest, this charming B&B is a gem. The grounds are swarming with birds, sloths and monkeys, not to mention the frogs that populate the pond. Quaint cabins all have high, beamed ceilings, colorful paint jobs and private terraces. Or opt to stay in a funky tree house, built around a thriving Inga tree.

Your delightful host, Alex Martínez, is also a bird guide. He’s active in environmental protection and runs Tierra Hermosa (www.tierrahermosacenter.org), a nearby wildlife reserve and rescue center. You’ll see some of the ‘clients’ around the posada (guesthouse).

Hotel Gavilán (Tel 2234-9507; www.gavilanlodge.com; d US$65-75; p a W s ) Sitting on a 100-hectare reserve about 4km northeast of Puerto Viejo, this former cattle hacienda (estate) is a bird watching haven, with 5km of private trails on the grounds. The cozy rooms have pastel paint jobs and wide porches, some with river views. Management is quite charming, offering private boat tours (US$50) and bird walks (US$18) upon request.

Hotel Ara Ambigua (Tel 2766-7101; www.hotelaraambigua.com; d/tr/q incl breakfast from US$86/106/128; p a i s ) About 1km west of Puerto Viejo, this countryside retreat offers oddly formal but wellequipped rooms, set on gorgeous grounds. There are birds buzzing in the luscious, blooming gardens, poison-dart frogs in the ranario (frog pond) and caimans in the small lake. Even if you’re not staying here, the onsite pizzeria, La Casona, is an excellent place to grab lunch and spy on your feathered friends.

Hotel El Bambú standard/This big hotel is smack dab in the middle of town, with a popular restaurant and an inviting pool. The rooms are spacious and attractive enough, though it’s worth springing for the ‘superior’, which has a jacuzzi tub

and a private balcony facing the trees.

Eating

Most of the lodgings in and around Puerto Viejo have onsite restaurants or provide meals. Otherwise, there are several sodas in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí and a Palí supermarket (h8am-9pm) at the western end of town.

Soda Judith (mains US$2-5; h6am-7pm) The excellent Soda Judith, one block off the main road, is where early risers grab brewed coffee and big breakfasts or an empanada to start their day.

Bar y Restaurante Real Sarapiquí (Tel 2766-5590; mains US$3-8; h 7:30am-10pm) A popular local Chinese greasy spoon decorated with Christmas lights and Chinese fans emblazoned with caballos (horses). It’s a bit kitsch, but does roast quarter-chicken plates, fried rice, wonton soup, chow mein and all the noodle dishes. Located 150m east of Hotel El Bambú.

Restaurante La Casona (Tel 2766-7101; www.hotelaraambigua.com; meals US$8-16; h 8am-10pm; W c ) At the Hotel Ara Ambigua, this place is particularly recommended for its oven-baked pizza and typical, homemade cuisine served in an open-air rancho. The deck offers a sweet view of the gardens, where birds flutter by as you enjoy your meal.

8 Information

Banco Popular (Tel2766-6815) has an ATM and changes money.


Banco de Costa Rica At the entrance of town; has an ATM.

Cruz Roja (Tel administration 2764-2424, emergency 2766-6212) Provides medical care.

Gecko.Net (Tel 2766-7007; per hr US$1;
h 8:30am-7pm Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm Sun; W ) Across from Cruz Roja; has the newest and fastest internet access in town.

Getting There & Around Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí has been a transportation center longer than Costa Rica has been
a country, and it’s easily accessed by paved major roads from San José, the Caribbean coast and other population centers. There is a taxi stop across from the bus terminal, and drivers will take you to the nearby lodges for US$5 to US$10.

BOAT

The small port has a regular service to the small ranching outpost of Trinidad just across the rio San Juan from Nicaragua. The five-hour trip to Trinidad departs at 12:30pm and returns the following morning at 5am (US$10 per person). There is one guesthouse in Trinidad where you can stay overnight. You can also arrange transportation anywhere along the river (seasonal conditions permitting) through independent boat captains. To get to the dock, make a right from the main road at Banco Nacional and follow it until it ends.

BUS

right across from the park, the bus terminal (Tel 2233-4242; h 5am-7pm) sells tickets and stores backpacks for a few hours, but not overnight. Local buses run hourly between La Virgen and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí (US$1, 30 minutes) from 6am to 8:15pm.

Ciudad Quesada (Transportes Linaco) US$3, two hours, departs eight times daily from 4:40am to 6:30pm.


Guápiles (Empresarios guapileños) US$2, one hour, departs 10 times daily from 5:30am to 5pm.

San José (Autotransportes Sarapiquí and Empresarios guapileños) US$2.50, two hours, departs 5am, 5:30am, 7am, 8am, 11am, 1:30pm, 3pm and 5:30pm.

Estación Biológica La Selva

Not to be confused with Selva Verde Lodge in Chilamate, Estación Biológica La Selva (Tel 2524-0607; www.threepaths.co.cr; r per person incl meals from US$98; p ) is a working biological research station equipped with laboratories, experimental plots, a herbarium and an extensive library. The station is usually teeming with scientists and students researching the nearby private reserve. La Selva does welcome drop-ins, though it’s best to phone ahead and reserve your accommodations. Rooms are simple but comfortable, and rates include guided hikes.

The area protected by La Selva is 16 sq km of premontane wet tropical rainforest, much of which is undisturbed. It’s bordered to the south by the 476-sq-km Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo, creating a protected area large enough to support a great diversity of life. More than 886 bird species have been recorded here, as well as 120 mammal species (including 70 species of bat and five species of big cat), 1850 species of vascular plant (especially from the orchid, philodendron, coffee and legume families) and thousands of insect species – with 500 types of ant alone.

La Selva is operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies (oTS; Tel 2524-0607; www. ots.ac.cr), a consortium founded in 1963 to provide leadership in the education, research and wise use of tropical natural resources.

Horquetas & Around

South of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, plantations line Hwy 4 and sprawl all the way to the marshes and mangroves of the Caribbean coast. To the west, the rugged hills of the Cordillera Central mark the northeastern boundary of Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo. Most travelers on this scenic stretch of highway are either heading to the Caribbean coast or to the Central Valley. However, some are pulling off the road to visit one of the area’s unique offthe-beaten-track destinations, such as the world-class botanical garden at Heliconia Island or the backyard frog habitats at Frog’s Heaven.

About 12 smoothly paved kilometers from Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí is the village of Horquetas, around which you’ll find the turnoffs for Frog’s Heaven, Heliconia Island and the other resorts. From Horquetas it’s another 15km to Hwy 32, which connects San José to the Caribbean coast and bisects Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo on the way to San José.

Sights

Frog’s Heaven (Cielo de ranas; Tel 8891-8589, 2764-2724; www. frogsheaven.com; h 8am-8pm) The frogs hop free in this lovely tropical garden, which provides a perfect habitat for more than 20 species. On guided tours you’re likely to see old favorites including the red-eyed tree frog and poison-dart frogs, as well as some lesser-known exotic amphibians, such as the translucent glass frog and the wrinkly Mexican tree frog. Come for the night tour to see a whole different frog world.

This place is also excellent for birding and – occasionally – spotting other creatures. Reserve at least a day ahead.

Heliconia Island (Tel 2764-5220; www.heliconiaisland.com; selfguided/guided tours US$10/18; h 8am-5pm; p c ) This self-proclaimed ‘oasis of serenity’ is a masterpiece of landscape architecture that is home to more than 80 varieties of heliconias, tropical flowers, plants and trees. The 2.3-hectare island overlooking the Río Puerto Viejois is also a refuge for 228 species of bird, including a spectacled owl who returns every year to raise her family. There are resident howler monkeys, river otters, sloths, and a few friendly dogs that will greet you upon arrival.

Dutch owners Henk and Carolien offer guided tours to show off the most memorable plants, including rare hybrids of heliconia found only on the island. They also own swatches of secondary forest on either side of the garden, which offers a wild forest buffer and attracts wildlife. The admission fee is waived for overnight guests, who stay in immaculate raised cabins with stone floors and breezy balconies (without/ with air-con US$78/90). Heliconia Island is about 5km north of Horquetas.

4 Sleeping & Eating

Sueño Azul Resort (Tel2764-1000; www.suenoazulresort.com; d standard/superior US$150/180) Sueño Azul has a stunning perch at the confluence of the Ríos Sarapiquí and San Rafael. The vast property has hiking trails, a suspension bridge, a canopy tour and a waterfall, as well as an enormous stable of gorgeous horses. Rooms are huge, with terracotta floors, log beds and river views. Adventure groups make up the majority of the clientele here.

Rara Avis (Tel 2764-1111, 2200-4238; www.rara-avis.com; incl meals casitas per person US$70, s/d US$84/160) When they say remote, they mean remote. This private reserve, 13 sq km of highaltitude tropical rainforest, is accessible only to guests who make the three-hour tractor ride up a steep, muddy hill. Accommodations are rustic: there’s no electricity, though the kerosene lamps and starry skies are unforgettable. Prices include all meals, transportation from Horquetas and two guided hikes per day.

The private reserve borders the eastern edge of Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo and has no real dry season. Bird-watching here is excellent, with more than 350 documented species, while mammals including monkeys, coatis, anteaters and pacas are often seen. Since getting here is time-consuming and difficult, a two-night stay is recommended. You can also arrange to travel on horseback instead of by tractor, but you’ll have to hike the last 3km yourself.

 

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