Central Valley – San Jose Travel Guide
Nestled in a vast valley and surrounded by massive, verdant mountains and electrifying volcanoes sits the cultural center of Costa Rica, the Central Valley. This stunning plateau includes the four adjoining provinces located right in the middle of this exotic and captivating Central American nation. These provinces include San Jose, Heredia, Alajuela and Cartago.
The Central Valley extends to San Ramon, Alajuela to the west and Paraiso, Cartago to the east. This area serves as the commerce, education, industry, service, transportation, and political hub for Costa Rica. Central valley is home to the capital city of San Jose and the international airport named after national hero Juan Santamaria. It sees thousands of visitors coming in and out of the “Switzerland of Central America” each day.
Approximately ¾ of all Costa Ricans call the Central Valley home due to the area’s job availability, the near-perfect climate, and the fertility of the land in this region. The variety of volcanoes and rivers that run through the region contribute to its fertility, evidenced by the picturesque farms and coffee plantations that dot the area.
The Central Valley boasts four main volcanoes; Poás, Barva, Irazú and Turrialba. Irazu is known for its emerald green lagoon which is the perfect setup for nature photography. The thrilling Turrialba Volcano is the most active. The most recent eruption occurred in September 2016. Due to Turrialba’s heightened activity since 2014, the Turrialba National Park is now closed.
Culture & Nature
The Central Valley of Costa Rica offers a grand variety of cultural and nature, and adventure- centered activities for visitors of all tastes.This is truly the area of Costa Rica where city, nature, and tradition unite. This area encompasses a natural terrain that is both gorgeous and enamoring. It also offers events, conferences, tours and activities enjoyable for both locals and visitors. Explore the region’s multitude of cultural events, theater and music presentations, nature tours and excitement!
The capital of Costa Rica, capital of the San Jose province, and Costa Rica’s largest city provides a great opportunity to experience the heart of metropolitan Costa Rica. The number of people residing in the city’s center is not large. However, the city is without a doubt the most popular working part of the country, with over a million people entering the city daily.
Universities and Different Nationalities
Because of its population and central location, San Jose encompasses the largest number of universities in the country. The University of Costa Rica and the main campus of the University for Peace is located in Ciudad Colon’s (Columbus City) breathtaking El Rodeo section. San Jose also boasts restaurants that feature the savory cuisine of countries from all over the world. Costa Rica is also home to its own “China Town”, which offers delicious dishes from China and other Asian cultures. There are a wide variety of lodging options to choose from in the San Jose area.
San Jose serves as the central transportation hub of entire Costa Rica. Here you can catch a bus to essentially any point in the country that you would like to visit. We can arrange private shuttle transportation to anywhere in Costa Rica if you prefer. Additionally, San Jose is an excellent starting or ending point for various tours, such as our Pacuare River Whitewater Rafting Tour, the Tortuguero National Park Tour, the Rainforest and Chocolate Adventure, the Isla Tortuga Tour, and many more. Should you prefer to stay right in San Jose, be sure to join our San Jose City Tour, The Art of Craft Beer Tour, or The Bird’s Nest Walking Tour.
Art & Museums
In 2006, the city of San Jose was appointed Ibero-American Capital of Culture. San Jose has no shortage of museums, art galleries and theaters for those interested in experiencing a true Costa Rican Cultural event. Just in the city of San Jose alone, you will find a multitude of elegant and intriguing museum. The Gold Museum, Jade Museum, National Museum, The National Gallery of Contemporary Art and Design, The Museum of Costa Rican Art, The Peace Museum and the always-engaging Children’s Museum, all call San Jose home.
Art & City Tour
If you are lucky enough to be in San Jose at the right time, you must partake in the Art City Tour. Offered 6 times per year, this free tour allows art enthusiasts to choose from 4 different routes. You’ll peruse over 20 museums, galleries, exhibitions and more. The entrance to each location is free and free shuttles are offered throughout the evening. It is generally easiest to begin the tour at the Costa Rican Museum of Art. Then, work your way east. This museum is located on the eastern-most section of La Sabana Park.
No tour of San Jose is complete without a visit to Costa Rica’s National Theater. Completed in 1897, the National Theater is a great source of pride for Costa Ricans. It depicts the joy of a community that values art, education and culture. The theater is an exquisite, elegant building with ornate architecture and unique beauty. The foyer or vestibule features Carrara marble floors with bronze trim and gold overlay.
There is no shortage of stunning gold details throughout the theater. Also in the foyer is the original statue of “Fame.” You can appreciate the replica from outside the theater, as well. The replica stands on atop the roof of this majestic theater. Should you not be in town during a play or performance, be sure to tour the building anyways, either with a tour or on your own. While visiting the theater, relax and enjoy a delicious cup of local Costa Rican coffee in the theater’s alluring coffee shop.
La Savana – Central Park
Sometimes thought of as the “Central Park of Costa Rica,” La Sabana, or “The Savanna,” was declared a National Architectural Heritage Site in 2001. This large, remarkable park encompasses a large, man-made lake, a pool, running/skating/biking trails, basketball courts, soccer fields, the National Gym, the Sports Museum, The Museum of Costa Rican Art, and the ever-famous home of Costa Rica’s National Soccer Team (La Sele), the National Stadium. It is the first modern sport and event arena to be built in Central America and was completed in 2011. The Stadium not only hosts soccer games, but many concerts and events as well.
Whether you have a few days or just an afternoon to spend in San Jose, you will find a plethora of tours and activities to explore.
Central Valley city of Heredia is often called la Ciudad de las Flores, or “City of the Flowers.” It’s located just a few kilometers north of the city and province of San Jose. Heredia is the capital of the smallest of Costa Rica’s seven provinces. The city of Heredia also served as the capital of Costa Rica for a brief period in the 1830s! Home to misty and densely forested mountains Heredia has plenty of look-out points with vast panoramic views.
Places of Interest
Much of Heredia used to serve (and still serves) as the home of many verdant, lush coffee plantations. Thanks to the climate and fertility of the land in Heredia, it makes an ideal setting to grow coffee plants. Home to the famous Cafe Britt, Heredia’s coffee is world-class. Heredia is also home to the National Monument, El Fortin (“small fort”). Its accompanying amphitheater sits next to the Heredia Post Office and across the street Central Park.
Also found in Heredia is the National University, or UNA. It is one of the largest universities in the country. Ever year, it hosts thousands of study abroad students from all over the world. Heredia is also the site of the future “La Estacion” (The Station) Mega-Mall and entertainment center.
Enthusiasts of Gothic Architecture will love Heredia’s many Catholic Churches built in the Gothic style, including the church of San Rafael de Heredia, San Isidro de Heredia, and most notably, Coronado de San Isidro de Heredia.
Located just a few miles north of the city of Heredia sits the quaint town of Barva. The neighborhood of Santa Lucia de Barva is home to the country’s Museum of Popular Culture, which hosts educational events and tours, and features a restaurant serving typical Costa Rican food. Travelling north into the mountains of Barva, you will arrive at the Barva Volcano section of the Braulio Carrillo National Park. This national park marks the juxtaposition of lush rainforest and misty cloud forest. Words cannot describe the beauty of this park.
Land of the Strays
Not far from the Barva Volcano and right on the border of the Heredia and Alajuela Provinces sit three amazing places that are definitely worth a visit. First is the now famous “Territorio de Zaguates, or the “Land of the Strays,” which is a non-profit animal rescue center that is currently home to over 900 stray dogs. Here, the dogs are given care and love to run and play throughout the stunning mountains of Heredia. Dog lovers should be careful when visiting this center as they may end up bringing a new friend back home with them!
La Paz Waterfall and Gardens
The second site located on the Heredia/Alajuela border is the La Paz (Peace) Waterfall and Gardens located in Vara Blanca of Heredia. This awe-inspiring wildlife refuge is home to various species of jungle cats, butterflies, birds, monkeys, snakes, frogs and a magical, flowing rivers and a misty waterfall known as Peace Waterfall. Located next to the refuge is the lavish and majestic Peace Lodge.
Neighbor to San Jose, Heredia, Guanacaste and Puntarenas is the scenic province of Alajuela. Alajuela is known as having the “best weather in the world” due to its moderate year-round temperatures and lower humidity level. Also home to the Juan Santamaria (“San Jose”) International Airport, Alajuela provides many opportunities for lodging and dining to suit any taste and budget.
Mall & Markets
Reachable by taxi from San Jose Airport is the recently completed City Mall, Central America’s largest mall. Alajuela has seen important investment in free zone parks and heavy industry companies. This has brought many employment opportunities to Alajuela. Another “claim to fame” for Alajuela is the area’s fresh farmer’s markets. Those of Alajuela are thought to be some of the best in the country.
Alajuela is a province large in area and borders Nicaragua to the north. The Central Valley portion of Alajuela is thought to end in the stunning mountain/farming area of Palmares or San Ramon. The province of Alajuela also houses parts of Costa Rica’s Northern Zone. Here, you will find the famous La Fortuna and also Tenorio National Park. This is home to the “too beautiful to be real” Celeste River.
Located in the southern part of Alajuela are the quaint yet inviting towns of Zarcero, Grecia and Sarchi. Zarcero is well-known for its charismatic church. A delightful park sits directly in front of the church. The pink and blue church of Zarcero is fascinating and appears to contain a brick exterior that is in fact metal siding. The Francisco Alvarado Park in front of the church features a whimsical topiary garden. Shrubs in the park have been trimmed into the shapes of various animals. Some that are quite abstract and bizarre!
Grecia (Greece) is a lovely town that is home to a one of a kind church. This famous metal church is known for its unique architecture. This includes classical lines, vibrant stained-glass windows and high ceilings.
Sarchi is home to the world’s largest ox cart as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records. Standing at 2 stories high, this ox cart is quite a sight to see! It should come as no surprise that the largest ox cart is housed in Sarchi. Sarchi is where Costa Rica’s famous ox carts are made. Ox carts are an integral part of Costa Rica’s culture and history. During the mid-nineteenth century, oxcarts were used to transport coffee beans from Costa Rica’s central valley over the mountains to Puntarenas on the Pacific coast. This journey took ten to fifteen days! Sarchi is recognized for its arts and crafts.
For a relaxed cultural tour, be sure to try our Doka, Grecia and Sarchi tour. It will allow you to visit some of the country’s largest coffee and sugar cane plantations. You’ll also see the towns of Grecia and Sarchi. This tour is educational, cultural, and very enjoyable!
Last but not least in this area rich in natural beauty is the Poas Volcano. The Poas Volcano National Park is sometimes credited with being the most-visited National Park in the entire country. The Poas Volcano and Botos Lagoon are a gem of the Central Valley.
Poas Volcano is 1,050 feet deep and nearly a mile wide. It is the largest active crater in the world and a perfect opportunity for photographs. Be sure to bring a sweater and umbrella! It can get quite chilly and rainy in this refreshing national park.
In April of 2017, Poas Volcano began erupting again after decades of rest. Eruptions still continue to present day and the status of the volcano has changed from active to erupting. The government of Costa Rica decided to close the Poas Volcano National Park indefinitely.
As a result, we will not be able to offer our Poas Volcano Half Day tour until further notice. The Poas Volcano, Doka Coffee Estate and La Paz Waterfall Tour can still be enjoyed in its shortened form of Doka Coffee Estate and La Paz Waterfall. However you choose to adventure into this region, you will not be disappointed that you came!
Nestled between San Jose and the Caribbean province of Limon sits the cool, green, lush province of Cartago. Cartago played an important role in the history of Costa Rica. Cartago served as the first establishment and also original capital of Costa Rica from 1574 to 1824, before it moved to San Jose.
Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles
Also located in Cartago is the ethereal and enormous Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles. This is a massive house of worship. It is immaculate and fascinating from the inside out. On August 2nd, the feast day of the Virgin of the Angels, the Basilica is the destination of an extensive pilgrimage. About 2.5 million believers throughout the country (and outside the country) make the trek. Many of the devout believers partake in the celebrated 22-kilometer walk to the basilica during the “Romería”. The church houses a statue of a Black Madonna known as “La Negrita”, who supposedly possessed great healing powers. The sick come to her statue in hopes of a miracle from La Negrita.
For those who seek adventure in the form of “haunted” sites, Cartago contains what is considered as one of the most haunted places in Costa Rica, the Duran Sanitorium. The sanitorium was once featured on an episode of “Ghost Hunters International.” Dr. Carlos Duran built this creepy, ghostly building in 1915. People deemed it to be ideal for those suffering from consumption. It served as a hospital for tuberculosis patients for many years. Then, it was utilized as an asylum for the mentally ill. The Sanatorium terminated operations after 1963, since tuberculosis was no longer an issue. During a brief period, the place operated as an orphanage, and then later it was turned into a prison.
Cartago is rich and blessed with natural beauty. Rolling green mountains, active volcanoes, hot springs and gardens are plentiful in the country’s coolest province. Home to the active Turrialba and photogenic Irazu volcanoes, Cartago is certainly not short on excitement.
The national park at Turrialba is unfortunately closed due to the volcano’s activity in the last few years. Most recently, it erupted in September 2016. Irazu has not seen an eruption since 1994 and is the main attraction of the Irazu Volcano National Park. Irazu has an irregular sub-conic shape and is the highest of all active volcanoes in Costa Rica. The volcano boasts several craters. One crater is home to the emerald crater lake. It’s often featured in photographs and videos all over the world.
Another natural splendor of Cartago is the Orosi Valley, situated on the Reventazon River.The Orosi region offers some of the richest scenery to be found in Costa Rica. Explore forests, meandering rivers, volcanoes and rolling verdant hills. Or, take a walk through alleys dotted with rows upon rows of coffee plants and sugarcane. Orosi is also home to the oldest Catholic Church of Costa Rica that is still in use today. Also found in Orosi are several natural hot springs. The muddy clay is considered therapeutic by all.
Should you only have one free day in the Central Valley and wish to discover Cartago, we offer an exciting and scenic one-day tour of Irazu Volcano, Orosi Valley and Lankester Gardens. Lankester Garden serves as a University of Costa Rica Institute for investigation and houses over 800 species of plant life. If you enjoy natural beauty and culture, this tour is an excellent way to get to know the gorgeous province of Cartago.