The forested slopes of Braulio Carrillo  rise to the west. The flatlands to the east are carpeted with banana plantations.
El Gavilán Lodge and Forest Reserve, a 180-hectare private forest reserve on the east bank of the Río Sarapiquí, is splendid for bird-watching, although readers report that the guides here aren’t particularly knowledgeable. It offers horseback rides, guided hikes, and fishing trips.
If driving, it is accessed by a dirt road about two kilometers south of town and one kilometer north of La Selva. The lodge is about two kilometers north from the junction.
The only community of note is the hamlet of Las Horquetas, located 17 kilometers north of the Guápiles Highway and 17 kilometers south of Puerto Viejo. Horquetas is a setting for the Jardín Ecológico Pierella (tel. 506/2764-7257, www.pierella.com , visits by appointment, $15), a butterfly breeding center set in a manicured garden. Visitors also get to see animals such as peccaries, agoutis, and toucans.
Isla Las Heliconias ($62 s, $72 d with fan, $85 s/d with a/c) has four lovely albeit smallish cabins furnished with black-stone floors and creative bamboo pieces; one has a king-size bed, and all have windows on three sides, plus spacious verandas and modern bathrooms. Breakfast and lunch are served, as is dinner on request.
The peaceful, no-frills El Gavilán Lodge and Forest Reserve (tel. 506/2766-6743 or 506/2234-9507, www.gavilanlodge.com , $50 s or $60 d standard, $70 s or $75 d superior, including breakfast) has four rooms in the main two-story structure (with hardwood verandas and rockers), plus bungalows with 13 simply appointed rooms with private bathrooms and hot water. Simple meals are served in an open-air restaurant. It has an open-air whirlpool tub and playground. Boating, hiking, and excursions are offered. You can take a boat to El Gavilán from the wharf in Puerto Viejo.
La Selva has comfortable dormitory-style accommodations (reservations c/o OTS, tel. 506/2524-0627, www.ots.ac.cr , $89 s, $168 d, including meals, tax, and guided hike) with four bunks per room and communal bathrooms; some are wheelchair-accessible. It also has private rooms, but researchers and students get priority; tourists are allowed only on a space-available basis. Meals are served bang on time and latecomers get the crumbs. Reservations are essential.
Farm-style rusticity and elegant accommodations combine at Hotel Sueño Azul (tel. 506/2764-1000, www.suenoazulresort.com , $76 s or $92 d low season, $103 s or $125 d high season), near Horquetas. Rattan and bamboo features enhance the 55 graciously appointed rooms with rich earth-tone decor; suites have outdoor whirlpool tubs. The magnificent rancho restaurant (with limited menu) is converted from a cattle corral and overlooks a free-form pool with cascade. There’s a lagoon and trails into adjacent forest, plus horseback riding, a canopy tour, a rodeo, a folkloric evening, a Museum of Local Legends, and even a full-service spa and yoga studio.
Jean-Pierre Knockeart, who created the Centro Neotrópico Sarapiquí , has opened a sensational 15-room boutique hotel, Hacienda La Isla (tel. 506/2764-2576, www.haciendalaisla.com , $105 s/d standard, $119 s/d suite low season; $116 s/d standard, $145 s/d suite high season, including tax) near Rancho Roberto, three kilometers north of El Cruce. Themed to Costa Rica’s colonial past, this former hacienda exudes the feel of yesteryear and is set in amid orchards and lush gardens. The 14 rooms and one suite are exquisitely furnished, with hardwood pieces and ochre color schemes. The restaurant delivers gourmet fusion cuisine. It has trails, and horseback riding is a specialty here. The rates are an absolute bargain compared to competing hotels.
The Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí  buses travel via Horquetas and will drop you close to any of the above places. To get to Rara Avis  in time, you will need to take the 6:30 a.m. or 11:30 a.m. Empresario Guapileños (tel. 506/2222-2727, $2) buses from San José ’s Terminal Caribe (do not take the Puerto Viejo de Talamanca bus).
These two buses will drop you at Horquetas in time for the tractor-hauled transfer to Rara Avis from Las Horquetas at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. If driving, you can leave your car in a parking lot at the Rara Avis office in Las Horquetas. Later arrivals can rent horses ($35, four hours), but not after noon.