Ciudad Quesada (pop. 30,000), known locally as San Carlos, hovers above the plains at 650 meters elevation on the north-facing slope of the Cordillera de Tilarán, with the lowlands spread out at its feet.
Despite its mountainside position, the bustling market town is the hierarchical center of (and gateway to) the entire northern region. It is surrounded by lush pasture grazed by prize-specimen dairy cattle.
Ciudad Quesada is a center for saddle-making; check out this craft at Talabatería Jesús Hernández (Avenida 3 at Calle 1).
Termales del Bosque (tel. 506/2460-4740, www.termalesdelbosque.com , 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, $12 adults, $6 children), about five kilometers east of Ciudad Quesada, is billed as an “ecological park” with hiking trails through botanical gardens, plus horseback rides ($15–45) and thermal mineral springs. It offers aromatherapy, mud applications, and massage, and plans to offer hikes into Juan Castro Blanco National Park .
There’s a small casino in the Hotel La Central. The annual Feria del Ganado (Cattle Fair) in April is one of the largest in the country, with a horse parade (tope) and general merriment.
There’s no shortage of budget accommodations in town, most offering a choice of shared or private bathrooms for around $10 per person. Try Hotel del Norte (Calle 1, Avenidas 1/3, tel. 506/2460-1959), though as is typical of these Spartan hotels, the small rooms have thin partition walls; those with private bathrooms also have TVs.
Somewhat nicer, Hotel El Parqueo (Avenida 7, Calles Central/2, tel. 506/2460-2573, $18 s, $25 d) has 10 clean and spacious double rooms in a converted home. All have modern tiles and small bathrooms; some have refrigerator and cable TV. It has secure parking—a bonus if driving.
Better yet, and favored by business travelers, Hotel Don Goyo (Calle 2, Avenida 4, tel. 506/2460-1780, fax 506/2460-6383, $20 s, $30 d) offers 21 clean, modern rooms that stair-step down a hillside. Each has cable TV and private bath with hot water; most have heaps of light. It has a pleasant restaurant.
The Hotel y Casino La Central (Calle 2, Avenidas Central/2, tel. 506/2460-0301, www.hotellacentral.net , $30 s, $38 d), on the west side of the plaza, has 48 clean, meagerly furnished rooms (some with balconies), with fans, TVs, and hot-water showers.
The best place in town is Hotel Loma Verde (tel. 506/2460-1976, www.hotellomaverde.com , $30 s or $34 d with fan, $42 s or $50 d with a/c), about two kilometers north of the town center and set in a pretty garden atop the scarp face overlooking the lowland plains. This well-kept, clinically clean, peaceful, modern facility has whitewashed walls. The 18 rooms vary in size, but all have nice fabrics, cable TV, and private bathrooms with hot water. Some rooms offer views. There’s an ascetic open-air TV lounge with a pool table, and parking is available. Rates include breakfast.
Termales del Bosque (tel. 506/2460-4740, www.termalesdelbosque.com , $60 s, $75 d), an ecological park with hot springs, has 44 attractive, albeit small, modern air-conditioned cabins with private bathrooms with hot water, and balconies amid landscaped grounds. Rates include breakfast. Four deluxe bungalows are planned for 2011.
The reasonably priced Hotel Occidental El Tucano (tel. 506/2460-6000, www.occidentalhotels.com , $70 s/d standard, $84 s/d superior year-round) promises healing for those dipping their toes into the hot springs that hiccup out of clefts in the rocks on which the hotel is built. Located eight kilometers east of Ciudad Quesada, the riverside hotel is built around a large open-air swimming pool and is styled loosely as a Swiss chalet complex, with wrought-iron lanterns and window boxes full of flowers. The 87 guest rooms are rather ho-hum in decor, despite beautiful hardwoods and king-size beds; master suites are wood-paneled. It has a restaurant, casino, full-service spa, forest trails, gym, tennis, miniature golf, and horseback riding.
The clean and modern Restaurante Steak House Coca Loca (tel. 506/2460-3208, 11 a.m.–11 p.m. daily, $5–11), on the west side of the plaza, specializes in lomitos (steaks).
The nicest place in town is La Terraza (Calle Central and Avenida 3, tel. 506/2460-5287, 11 a.m.–midnight daily), three blocks north of the plaza. The upstairs restaurant has a terrace, with an old cast-iron stove and lanterns for ambience. The menu is heavy on surf and turf ($4–10).
For a coffee break, make it to Café Italiano, 1.5 kilometers north of town on the road to La Fortuna. This lovely wooden coffee shop has lunch specials and open-air seating.
You can buy fresh bread and pastries at Musmanni (Avenida Central, Calles Central/1) and Panadería La Sancarleña (tel. 506/2460-6150), on the northeast side of the plaza.
Buses (tel. 506/2255-4318 or 506/2460-5064) depart San José  from Calle 12, Avenidas 7/9, every 45 minutes 5 a.m.–7:30 p.m. daily (three hours via Zarcero, $2.30).
In Ciudad Quesada, the bus terminal is one block northwest of the plaza. Buses (tel. 506/2460-5032) serve La Fortuna  at 6 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 3:30 p.m., and 5 p.m. daily; Los Chiles  every two hours 5 a.m.–5 p.m. daily; and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí  at 6 a.m., 10 a.m., and 3 p.m. daily.
You can rent cars from Alamo Rent-a-Car (Avenida 5, Calle Central, tel. 506/2460-0650).