San José sits in a mile-high mountain valley ringed by volcanoes whose ash has fertilized the soil and turned the region into Costa Rica’s historic breadbasket. This will always be the land that coffee built, and the small cities of the Central Valley exhibit a tidiness and prosperity you don’t see in the rest of the country. The valley is chock-full of activities and is Costa Rica at its most típico, giving you the best sense of what makes the country tick.
You can’t find a more ideal climate than out here in the valley. When people refer to Costa Rica’s proverbial “eternal spring,” they’re talking about this part of the country, which lacks the oppressive seasonal heat and rain of other regions. It’s no wonder the Central Valley has drawn a growing number of North American and European retirees.
There’s no shortage of terrific lodgings out here—everything from family-run boutique hotels to the big international chains are yours for the night. It used to be that everyone stayed in San José and took in the various attractions in the Central Valley on day trips. With the good selection of quality accommodations out here, why not base yourself in the Central Valley, and make San José your day trip instead?
POINTS OF INTEREST
CARARA NATIONAL PARK
One of the last remnants of an ecological transition zone between Costa Rica’s drier northwest and more humid southwest, Carara National Park holds a tremendous collection of plants and animals. Squeezed into its 18 square miles is a mixed habitat of evergreen and deciduous forest, river, lagoon, and marshland. Much of the park’s terrain is blanketed with dramatic primary forest, massive trees laden with vines, and epiphytes. This is a birder’s and plant lover’s haven. The sparse undergrowth makes terrestrial wildlife and ground birds easier to see. The most famous denizens—aside from the crocodiles in the adjoining Río Tárcoles—are the park’s colorful and noisy scarlet macaws, which always travel in pairs. An oxbow lake (a U-shaped body of water that was once part of a river) adds an extra wildlife dimension, attracting turtles and waterfowl—and the crocodiles that dine on them. Bring lots of drinking water; this park can get very hot and humid.
Towering north of Alajuela, the verdant Poás Volcano is covered with a quilt of farms and topped by a dark green shawl of cloud forest. That pastoral scene disappears once you get to the 8,885-foot summit, and you gaze into the steaming, bubbling crater with smoking fumaroles and a gurgling, gray-turquoise sulfurous lake. You’ll swear you’re peering over the edge of a giant witches’ cauldron. That basin, 1 mile in diameter and nearly 1,000 feet deep, is thought to be the largest active volcanic crater in the world.
Poás is one of Costa Rica’s five active volcanoes—it has erupted 40 times since the early 1800s—and is one of those rare places that permit you to see volcanic energy this close with minimal risk to your safety. Authorities closely monitor Poás’s activity following several eruptions in March 2006, the first significant increase in activity since 1994. The most recent activity took place in October 2012 and involved phreatic eruptions and landslides. Access is normally open, but park officials close the route up here on those occasions of any activity they deem “irregular.”
The word Irazú is likely a corruption of Iztaru, a long-ago indigenous community whose name translated as “hill of thunder.” The name is apt. Volcán Irazú, as it’s known in Spanish, is considered active, but the gases and steam that billow from fumaroles on the northwestern slope are rarely visible from the peak above the crater lookouts. The mountain’s first recorded eruption took place in 1723; the most recent was a series of eruptions that lasted from 1963 to 1965. Boulders and mud rained down on the countryside, damming rivers and causing serious floods, and the volcano dumped up to 20 inches of ash on sections of the Central Valley.
When conditions are clear, you can see the chartreuse lake inside the Cráter Principal. The stark moonscape of the summit contrasts markedly with the lush vegetation of Irazú’s lower slopes, home to porcupines, armadillos, coyotes, and mountain hares. Listen for the low-pitched, throaty song of the yigüirro, or clay color thrush, Costa Rica’s national bird. Its call is most pronounced just before the start of the rainy season.
Costa Rica’s wealthiest community and the Central Valley’s most prestigious address, Escazú (pronounced es-cah-SOO) nevertheless mixes glamour with tradition, BMWs with oxcarts, trendy malls with farmers’ markets, Louis Vuitton with burlap produce sacks. As you exit the highway and crest the first gentle hill, you might think you made a wrong turn and ended up in Southern California, but farther up, you return to small-town Central America. Narrow roads wind their way up the steep slopes, past postage-stamp coffee fields and lengths of shoulder-to-shoulder, modest houses with tidy gardens and the occasional oxcart parked in the yard.
Unfortunately, the area’s stream of new developments and high-rises has steadily chipped away at the rural landscape— each year you have to climb higher to find the kind of scene that captured the attention of many a Costa Rican painter in the early 20th century. In their place are plenty of fancy homes and condos, especially in the San Antonio and San Rafael neighborhoods. Escazú’s historic church faces a small plaza, surrounded in part by weathered adobe buildings. The town center is several blocks north of the busy road to Santa Ana, which is lined with a growing selection of restaurants, bars, and shops.
Santa Ana’s tranquil town center, with its rugged stone church, has changed little through the years, even if metro development, with the accompanying condos and shopping malls, spreads out in all directions. The church, which was built between 1870 and 1880, has a Spanish-tile roof, carved wooden doors, and two pre-Columbian stone spheres flanking its entrance. Its rustic interior—bare wooden pillars and beams and black iron lamps—seems appropriate for an area with a tradition of ranching. Because it’s warmer and drier than the towns to the east, Santa Ana is one of the few Central Valley towns that doesn’t have a good climate for coffee—it is Costa Rica’s onion capital, however—and is instead surrounded by pastures and patches of forest; it isn’t unusual to see men on horseback here.
The quiet farming community of Grecia—the name means “Greece” in Spanish —is reputed to be Costa Rica’s cleanest town, and some enthusiastic civic boosters extend that superlative to all of Latin America, but the reason most people stop here is to admire its unusual church. A growing number of ex-pats now call the town home.
Tranquil Sarchí is Costa Rica’s premier center for crafts and carpentry. People drive here from all over the country to shop for furniture, and tour buses regularly descend upon the souvenir shops outside town. The area’s most famous products are its brightly painted oxcarts—replicas of those traditionally used to transport coffee. Sarchí, as Costa Rica’s consummate day-trip destination, has developed little acceptable lodging of its own. There are plenty of places to stay, however, in the nearby communities (San Ramón, Atenas, and Alajuela).
San Ramón hides its real attractions in the countryside to the north, on the road to La Fortuna, where comfortable lodges offer access to private nature preserves. There’s not much to see in the town other than its church, but if you happen to be in San Ramón on Friday or Saturday, walk through the bustling farmers’ market, La Feria del Agricultor. An abundance of locally grown fruits, vegetables, flowers, and even livestock is for sale, and this is a good place to buy fresh handmade tortillas.
By the time you get this far west in the Central Valley, you’re likely headed for Costa Rica’s famed Central Pacific beaches, but the countryside holds some splendid scenery, from the steep coffee farms around Atenas to the tropical forests of the lowlands. Known for its excellent climate—National Geographic once dubbed it the world’s best—Atenas (“Athens” in Spanish) is a pleasant, friendly town surrounded by a hilly countryside of coffee and cane fields, cattle ranches, and patches of forest. The small city is off the tourist circuit, which means that here, unlike other highly popular destinations, you’ll walk alongside more locals than foreigners and get a more authentic idea of the country. Gazing at the tree-covered peaks and exploring the coffee farms are the main activities in this traditional town. Atenas’s center has a concrete church, some well-kept wooden and adobe houses, and a park dominated by royal palms.
Because of its proximity to the international airport (5–10 minutes away), many travelers spend their first or last night in or near Alajuela, but the beauty of the surrounding countryside persuades some to stay longer. Alajuela is Costa Rica’s second-most-populated city and a mere 30-minute bus ride from the capital, but it has a decidedly provincial air compared with San José. Architecturally, it differs little from the bulk of Costa Rican towns: it’s a grid of low-rise structures painted in dull pastel colors.
Between Heredia and San José, the pretty town of Santo Domingo de Heredia, established in the early 19th century, has wide streets and fine examples of traditional, tile-roof houses, and a monumental church, the Basílica de Santo Domingo, that stands out as a brilliant white landmark against the surrounding sea of green coffee farms. There’s a level of tranquility here that belies its proximity to the capital, a mere 30-minute drive away if the traffic gods smile upon you.
The lively city of Heredia, capital of the important coffee province of the same name, contains a couple of the country’s best-preserved colonial structures, along with a contrasting, youthful buzz provided by the National University (UNA) and century-old colegios (high schools) scattered around the town. Heredia is nicknamed the City of Flowers (La Ciudad de Flores in Spanish), which refers less to the flowers that decorate the city than to a leading founding family named Flores. Flores also refers to beautiful women, for which Heredia is known. (On the topic of names, remember that “h” is always silent in Spanish. Pronounce the small city’s name air-AY-dee-ah.) Founded in 1706, the city bears witness to how difficult preservation can be in an earthquake-prone country; most of its colonial structures have been destroyed by the tremors and tropical climate—not to mention modernization. Still, the city and neighboring towns retain a certain historic feel, with old adobe buildings scattered amid the concrete structures. Nearby Barva is also notable for its colonial central square and venerable adobe structures. From Heredia, scenic mountain roads climb northeast, passing through the pleasant, high-altitude coffee towns of San Rafael and San Isidro, each centered by a notable, Tico-style Gothic church and a pleasant central park.
Although earthquakes have destroyed most of its structures from the colonial era, Cartago still has some attractive restored buildings, most of them erected after the devastating 1910 earthquake. The city served as the country’s first capital until 1823 when the seat of government was moved to the emerging economic center of San José. Today, Cartago is a bustling market town, shopping center, and vibrant student hub. Most visitors see Cartago on their way to or from the Orosi Valley or Turrialba, and there is little reason (or place) to stay the night. The Orosi Valley, a short drive away, has better choices.
THE OROSI VALLEY
If you have a day to spend near San José, this idyllic valley makes a classic day trip, passing through coffee plantations shaded by poró trees—their flame-color flowers make a stunning sight during the dry season—oceans of chayote-squash vines, and small towns backed by verdant landscapes, with countless breathtaking views. It’s a popular weekend drive for Costa Ricans, but still relatively off the beaten tourist path. The region is one of the few areas in Costa Rica that has remnants (ruins and churches) of the 17th-century Spanish colonial era. Paraíso, the valley’s not-so-interesting metropolis, is your first point of access. Heading counterclockwise around the loop road are the area’s real gems: Orosi, Tapantí National Park, Cachí, and Ujarrás.
The relatively well-to-do agricultural center of Turrialba is a bustling town, with a youthful vibe from the nearby university, a colorful open-air market, and a tree-shaded central park filled with an intriguing collection of large-scale animal sculptures. The region’s moist cheese made in nearby Santa Cruz is famous all over Costa Rica. As you begin the descent to Turrialba town, the temperature rises and sugarcane alternates with fields of neat rows of coffee bushes. Turrialba also has a factory you may have heard of: Rawlings makes all the baseballs used in the major leagues (unfortunately, it does not offer tours). Thanks to some spectacular scenery, patches of rain forest in the surrounding countryside, and a handful of upscale nature lodges, ecotourism is increasingly the focus of the town’s efforts. Significant numbers of kayakers and rafters also flock here to run the Pacuare and Reventazón rivers. And looming above the town is Volcán Turrialba. Recent eruptions of ash, along with a heavily damaged road, prevent visitors from going to the top.