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Relatively few tourists drive the route between La Fortuna (or, more correctly, Tanque, eight kilometers east of La Fortuna) and Upala, in the extreme northwest of the Northern Zone. The region is fast evolving, however, as a tourist mecca focused on the natural delights of Tenorio Volcano National Park.
From Tanque, a major crossroads town eight kilometers east of La Fortuna, paved Carretera 4 (Hwy. 4) shoots northwest to San Rafael de Guatuso, an agricultural town on the Río Frío, 40 kilometers northwest of Tanque. There is little of interest in San Rafael (often called Guatuso), which subsists largely on cattle ranching and rice farming.
You can rent boats and guides here for trips down the Río Frío to Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge, reached via dirt road from Colonia Puntarenas, 25 kilometers northwest of San Rafael.
El Venado Caverns
At Jicarito, about 25 kilometers northwest of Tanque and 15 kilometers southeast of San Rafael de Guatuso, a paved road leads south seven kilometers to the mountain hamlet of Venado, nestled in a valley bottom and famous for the caverns (tel. 506/2478-9081 or 24780-8008, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. daily, $15) two kilometers farther west.
The limestone chambers, which extend 2,700 meters and feature stalactites, stalagmites, and underground streams, weren’t discovered until 1945, when the owner of the farm fell into the hole.
A guide will lead you on a two-hour exploration of the caverns. The admission includes a flashlight, safety helmet, and rubber boots. Bats and tiny, colorless frogs and fish inhabit the caves, which also contain seashell fossils and a luminous “shrine.” Expect to get soaked—you’ll wade up to your chest!—and covered with ooze (bring a change of clothes). The farm has a rustic soda, a swimming pool, and changing rooms with showers.
You can also reach Venado via a rough dirt road from the north shore of Lake Arenal. Tour operators in La Fortuna offer tours, as does Cavernas de Venado Tours (tel. 506/8344-2246, www.cavernasdevenado.com).
A bus departs Ciudad Quesada for Venado at 1 p.m. daily; it returns at 4 p.m.
Malekú Indigenous Reserve
Two kilometers east of San Rafael, a dirt road leads south to the 3,244-hectare Malekú Indigenous Reserve, in the foothills of the cordillera. Here, the Centro Ecológico Malekú Araraf (tel. 506/8888-4250, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. daily) has trails and a cultural presentation. Competing Eco-Adventure Tafa Malekú (tel. 506/2464-0443, 7 a.m.–4 p.m. daily, $1) has a museum on indigenous culture. And Rancho Típico Malekú Araraf (tel. 506/2839-0540) has a traditional music and dance performance ($35 pp, including a tour) by reservation only.
The three indigenous communities are gracious in the extreme—these lovely people, who speak Malekú Jaica, helped me immensely when I seriously injured myself falling through a rotten bridge.
Rustic Pathways (U.S. tel. 440/975-9691 or 800/321-4353, www.rusticpathways.com/costarica/maleku.php) offers a volunteer and study program for schoolchildren and students, whereby you can contribute to and learn from the Malekú culture.
Hotels and Restaurants
Hospedaje Las Brisas (public tel. 506/2460-8107, $10 s, $15 d), in the hamlet of Venado, has six basic but clean and appealing rooms, with pastel wooden walls and shared bathrooms with cold water. It is run by a delightful older woman, María Nuñoz, whom you may join on rockers on the patio. Nearby Soda Venado (7 a.m.–8 p.m. daily) makes simple meals, including casados (set lunches, $3).
There are several basic hostelries in San Rafael, including Cabinas Tío Henry (tel. 506/2464-0344, $12 pp with shared bath, $18 s or $20 d with a/c, cable TV, and private bath), two blocks southwest of the soccer field.
By far the nicest place is Leaves and Lizards (tel. 506/2478-0023, U.S. tel. 888/828-9245, www.leavesandlizards.com, $135 s/d low season, $150 s/d high season, including breakfast), in the hills of Monterrey de Santo Domingo, 18 kilometers northwest of Tanque and three kilometers south of Highway 4. Run by Steve and Debbie Legg, an eco- and community-friendly couple from Florida, it has six simply furnished but delightful hillside cabins with decks for enjoying volcano views over 26 acres of property. Meals are provided at the main lodge, which has WiFi. Cabins have iPod docks, coffeemakers, and microwaves. A minimum three-night stay is required.
Getting to San Rafael
Buses (tel. 506/2256-8914) for San Rafael de Guatuso depart San José from Calle 12, Avenidas 7/9, at 5 a.m., 8:40 a.m., and 11:30 a.m. daily ($4). Buses also depart for San Rafael from Tilarán at noon daily.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition