Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Barra del Colorado (tel. 506/2710-1070) protects 91,200 hectares of rainforests and wetlands extending north from the estuary of Lagunas del Tortuguero to the Río San Juan, the border with Nicaragua .
About 30 kilometers from the sea, the Río San Juan divides, with the San Juan flowing northeast and the main branch—the Río Colorado—flowing southeast to the sea through the center of the reserve. Dozens of tributaries form a labyrinth of permanent sloughs and ephemeral waterways that have made the region inaccessible to all but boat traffic.
Barra del Colorado is a replica of Tortuguero National Park —to which it is linked by canal—on a larger scale, and it protects a similar panoply of wildlife. Great green macaws wing screeching over the canopy, mixed flocks of antbirds follow advancing columns of army ants, and jabiru storks with two-meter wingspans circle above. Large crocodiles inhabit the rivers and can be seen basking on mud banks. However, there are virtually no facilities for exploring, and no ranger station.
Unexciting and ramshackle Barra del Colorado village sits astride the mouth of the 600-meter-wide Río Colorado. Barra del Norte, on the north side of the river, has no roads (just dirt paths littered with trash and a broken concrete walkway down its center between cabins made of corrugated tin and wooden crates).
The slightly more pleasant Barra del Sur has an airstrip and most of the hamlet’s few services. The village once prospered as a lumber center but went into decline during two decades of Nicaraguan conflict, when the village became a haven for Nicaraguan refugees. Locals mainly rely on fishing or serve as guides for the half dozen sportfishing lodges, but drug trafficking is also entrenched.
The rivers are famous for their game fishing; all of the lodges specialize in sportfishing. Local tarpon are so abundant that a two-meter whopper might well jump into your boat. Gar—with an ancestry dating back 90 million years—is also common; growing up to two meters long, these bony-scaled fish have long, narrow crocodile-like snouts full of vicious teeth. The Río San Juan is entirely Nicaraguan territory (when you are on the water you are inside Nicaragua), but Costa Ricans have right of use.
Local expat resident Diana Graves at CyD Souvenirs (tel. 506/2710-6592, 8 a.m.–9 p.m. daily) is the best source of tourist information; she has an Internet café.
The sportfishing lodges rely on group business. When there are no groups, they can be lonely places. All offer multiday packages.
Hardy budget travelers might try the basic Tarponland Lodge (tel. 506/2710-2141 or 8818-9921, $15 pp), beside the airstrip in Barra del Sur. A bed, a fan, and a shower are all you get; at least it has reasonable local fare. Ask owner Guillermo Cunningham to take you on a tour of his small coconut plantation.
Far nicer is Cabinas Brisas del Mar (tel. 506/2794-116, $30 pp including three meals), on the east side of the airstrip and run by a pleasant Tico couple. It has two rooms upstairs (with carpets) and two below, all with screened windows, local TV, ceiling fans, and clean bathrooms with hot water. Seafood, Chinese, and local dishes are served in a simple thatched soda.
The venerable Río Colorado Lodge (tel. 506/2232-4063 or U.S. tel. 813/931-4849 or 800/243-9777, www.riocoloradotarponfishing.com , $475 pp including meals, or $2,158 s, $3,816 d all-inclusive of meals and fishing for a 5-night/6-day package) at Barra del Sur has 18 rather Spartan air-conditioned rooms open to the breeze; all have no-frills baths, hot showers, and electric fans. The rooms and public areas are connected by covered walkways perched on stilts (when the river rises, the lodge extends only a few inches above the water). There’s an open-air restaurant, TV and VCR room, bar, game room, whirlpool tub, and tackle shop. The lodge offers five-, six-, and seven-night packages.
Silver King Lodge (tel. 506/8381-1403, U.S. tel. 800/335-0755, www.silverkinglodge.net , from $2,820 s, $4,510 d all-inclusive of meals and fishing for a minimum 3-night/3-day package), 300 meters upriver, offers 10 spacious, modestly furnished duplexes linked by covered catwalks. All have queen-size beds with orthopedic mattresses, ceiling fans, coffeemakers, plus private baths with their own water heaters and large showers. Other features include a small swimming pool and sundeck with hammocks, a masseuse, a huge colonial-tiled indoor whirlpool tub, tackle shop, a restaurant serving all-you-can-eat buffets, and a bar with wide-screen TV and VCR. A heavy-duty offshore craft permits deep-sea fishing. The lodge closes mid-June–August and in December.
Food is available at all of the lodges listed in this section.
Both SANSA and Nature Air fly daily from San José  if they get two or more passengers. You can also charter a light plane from San José. A rough road leads from Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí  to Pavas (at the juncture of the Ríos Toro and Sarapiquí), where you can also charter a boat.
Water-taxis serve Barra del Colorado from the dock at La Pavona and from Tortuguero . Lodge boats will also pick you up by prior arrangement.