It’s the stuff of legend: misty cloud forests descend upon dormant volcanoes and their age-old lava fields, pristine lakes, and healing hot springs. These are the wonders of Costa Rica’s fertile northern lowlands, where diverse plantations of agricultural produce, ornamental plants, and cattle ranches jut against colorful waterfalls and behemoth volcanic beasts.

The Arenal Volcano is perhaps the most unavoidable presence in this part of the country. Arenal’s perfectly symmetrical shape makes it a sightseer’s dream, while its abundance of outdoor activities makes it an easy place to check things off your “must-do in Costa Rica” list. Arenal is considered Costa Rica’s most active volcano and has been studied by seismologists for many years and while the activity nowadays is less damaging, you can still see ash columns and underground rumbling. The area is an important watershed for the massive Arenal Lake Reservoir, which satisfies the country’s electricity and water sport demands. It is also the cradle for the spectacular La Fortuna waterfall and the heat source behind the nearby Tabacon River hot springs, a bubbling oasis regarded around the world for its healing powers.

To the north of Arenal Lake is Tenorio National Park, best known for the multi-cratered Tenorio and Montezuma volcanoes and the beautiful Rio Celeste whose light blue waters are something out of a dream. Legend states that after God was done painting the sky, he washed his brushes in the river, but scientists now know that the amazing light blue coloration is actually caused by the emanation of sulfur and the precipitation of calcium carbonates in the area.

While the primary cloud forests and rainforests can be found in Tenorio, nothing surpasses the widely popular Monteverde Cloud Forest further south. Within the haunting mists, you may catch sight of a Quetzal, one of the most beautiful birds in the world.