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Although not centrally located, the Northern Plains can be easily tacked onto stays in other regions of Costa Rica. Fairly decent—decent for Costa Rica, that is—transportation links the region to San José, the Central Valley, and the North Pacific. (Always the exception, Monteverde sits isolated, approached only by rugged roads from all directions.)
If your stay here is limited to two or three days, make La Fortuna your base. Don't miss the volcano, the Tabacón Hot Springs, or a day trip to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge.
Most tour operators who have volcano hikes end the day at one of the various thermal springs in the area. "Half-day" tours to Caño Negro actually take most of a day, from around 7:30 am to 4 pm.
A week in the Northern Plains is more than enough time to experience a great deal of this area—especially if you're longing to get out and get moving. Give yourself four days in La Fortuna/Arenal, a great base for exploring the region. Devote the rest of your week to Monteverde Cloud Forest.
Driving yourself between Monteverde and Arenal means negotiating some pretty horrendous roads. Tour operators can arrange for boat or even horse transfers.
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