Vast by Costa Rican standards, the Zona Norte (Northern Zone) spans the hundred-odd kilometres from the base of the Cordillera Central to just short of the mauve-blue mountains of southern Nicaragua. Historically cut off from the rest of the country, the Zona Norte has developed a distinct character, with large segments of the population consisting of independent-minded farmers and Nicaraguan refugees. Neither group journeys to the Valle Central very often, and many here have a special allegiance to and pride in their region; indeed, the far north, which for years was mauled by fighting in the Nicaraguan civil war, feels more like Nicaragua than Costa Rica.
Topographically, the Zona Norte separates neatly into two broad, river-drained plains (llanuras) stretching all the way to the Río San Juan on the Nicaraguan–Costa Rican border: in the west, the Llanura de Guatusos is dominated by Volcán Arenal, while to the east the Llanura de San Carlos features the tropical jungles of the Sarapiquí region. Less obviously picturesque than many parts of the country, it nonetheless has a distinctive appeal, with lazy rivers snaking across steaming plains, and flop-eared cattle, originally imported from India, languishing beneath riverside trees.
Most visitors use the flourishing town of La Fortuna as a gateway to the active Volcán Arenal, which looms over the eastern end of Laguna de Arenal. The multitude of activities on offer here makes it the most popular destination in the Zona Norte, though the Sarapiquí region, with its tropical-forest eco-lodges and the research stations of La Selva and Rara Avis, also draws significant numbers of visitors. The regional capital, San Carlos, lies between the two; though devoid of actual sights, its easy-going nature – and the fact that it’s a transport hub for the region – make it a decent place to stop off en route. In the north, the remote flatlands are home to the increasingly accessible wetlands of the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro, home to an extraordinary number of migratory and indigenous birds. Few visitors venture any further, though a steady trickle passes through the small border town of Los Chiles en route to Nicaragua.
One of the prime agricultural areas in the country, the Zona Norte is carpeted with vast banana, pineapple and sugar-cane plantations (this is the home of TicoFrut, Costa Rica’s major domestic fruit grower) and expansive dairy-cattle farms. The worst excesses of slash-and-burn deforestation are all too visible from the roadsides and riverbanks, with the matchstick corpses of once-tall hardwoods scattered over stump-scarred fields patrolled by a few cattle. Legal and illegal logging over the last two decades has cleared more than seventy percent of the region’s original forest, making the creation of the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Mixto Maquenque in June 2005, which helps link protected areas in Nicaragua with the Valle Central, all the more essential.
The Zona Norte’s climate is hot and wet, more so in the east than in the west near Guanacaste, where there is a dry season. You’ll be drenched by regular downpours, but the rain always makes for an enjoyable respite from the heat. Although many roads in the region are seriously potholed, getting around is easy enough, and there’s a good bus network linking La Fortuna and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí; if you plan on travelling outside these areas, you’re better off with a car.
For thousands of years before the Conquest, the original inhabitants of the Zona Norte were tribal groups – chief among them the Corobicí and Maleku – who made contact with one another via the great rivers. The Spanish presence was first felt in the early sixteenth century, when galleons meandered up the Río San Juan and into Lago de Nicaragua, looking for a route to the east. Pirates (mainly British) soon followed, wreaking havoc on the riverside communities. It was another two hundred years before the Spanish made a settlement of any size, the Quesada family coming down from San Ramón in the nineteenth century to found a village at present-day San Carlos, or Ciudad Quesada as it’s also known. In the meantime, cross-border commerce carried on as it had for thousands of years via the San Juan, Frío, Sarapiquí and San Carlos rivers – the Río Sarapiquí in particular remained a more important highway than any road well into the eighteenth century, carrying coffee for export from Heredia out to the Caribbean ports of Matina and Limón.