Regions: Central Valley

The Central Valley is truly the heart of all political, geographical and economical aspects of Costa Rica. This region holds the nation’s most important cities. San Jose, the capital; Heredia; Cartago and Alajuela, are home to half of the country’s entire population.

The Central Valley is the heart of Costa Rica. In it, among the green highlands and ample valleys, lies the nation’s capital. San Jose sits at an altitude of 3.770 feet above sea level, and is said to have an almost perfect climate. In some ways it is a modern area, but in others, it still holds the charma of an old town with amicable residents.

San Jose was the third city in the world to have public electric lighting. The progressive mentality of the country went further. It was one of the first nations to have public telephones; the first in Central America to start an initiative for free and obligatory education for all of its citizens; and the first to allow women to attend school.

During the last years of the 1950’s, the country’s main influences switched from Europe to the United States. For this reason, several of the most graceful and ornate buildings in the city were torn down and replaced by harsh copies of American modern architecture.

Upon first glance, the city might appear as a dense and unattractive area. But, you only have to be patient and allow yourself to be surprised by the interesting mix of modern buildings and classical architecture.

The heart of the country

If there’s a pleasant city to get to know on foot, this is certainly it. It offers a full range of restaurants, shopping malls, varied styles of accommodations, museums and a very active nightlife.

Here are a couple of things you need to know in order to move around successfully in San Jose. The city is divided into streets and avenues that follow a grid pattern. Avenida Central (Central Avenue) separates the north and south, while Calle Central (Central Street) separates the East and West. References are commonly made to meters, not blocks. So remember: one block is the equivalent of 100 meters; and it doesn’t matter how long it actually is; it will always be referred to as 100 meters.

This unique city offers a variety of interesting destinations. City tours include a visit to the remarkable National Theater. This architectural jewel celebrated its 105th birthday in the year 2002. Neoclassic in style, it has four levels, a very well equipped stage system and excellent acoustics.

It was modeled after the grand Paris Opera House, and the main audience seating floor is adjustable to different heights. All of the details were done by Spanish and Italian artisans. The finished product, one of the country’s pride and glory, was built with the contribution of a wide sector of small coffee growers, and the official patronage of 19th century coffee barons. It was inaugurated in 1897. It definitely is a must, and you can stop for a bite at the Theater’s elegant coffee place.

The Past, today

Barrio Amon, a residential area in the center of the city, is both an architectural jewel and a way to relive the older Costa Rica. The distinction and elegance of the houses that used to make up this quiet part of town is amazing, located as they are only a few blocks from downtown San Jose.

Just like the origins of its name, Amon has a French feeling and building style. During the mid1950’s, it became the cultural axis of the capital’s burgeiose. The creation and expansion of this sector of town was strongly linked to the changes in daily life of the people of San Jose.

A short walk through the small streets is enough to get the complete feeling of this group of beautiful houses trapped in time.

The city of mangoes

Beyond the capital you can find smaller cities and many traditional towns. Alajuela is one of them, with its warm climate and abundant mango trees. The Central Park is filled with them, as well as with other fruit trees. Old timers sit among them, giving funny nicknames to passersby. The Festival of Mangoes is held every year in July and lasts for nine days.

This province is the birthplace of Juan Santamaria, a young Costa Rica whose courage was decisive in a battle during the war of 1856 against William Walker and his filibusteros. The museum, located one block from the Central Park, boats his name and tells his story. It’s the city’s former jail.

Alajuela is also home to the butterfly farm, a four acre breeding ground where over 500 different kinds of these exotic insects can be found. Thousands of them are exported to Europe where they are distributed among hundreds of walk-through buttrefly houses along the continent.

As you start getting closer to the pacific, you will be in La Garita, an area which for some has the best climate in the entire country. This is a large area with a majestic, green scenery. It’s filled with beautiful homes and gardens, dark green coffee bushes and plant nurseries. Visitors can stop and walk through rows and rows of magnificent plants such as ferns, palms and varied flowers.

Another interesting visit is not far. Only one hour from San Jose and 20 minutes from the Poas volcano, lies La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Inside, you will come upon five magnificent waterfalls, an impressive enclosed butterfly observatory, 2.5 miles of paved trails with viewing platforms, a hummingbird garden and an orchid garden. Visitors can also take advantage of the gift shop and restaurant, rated 4 forks by the Costa Rican Institute of Tourism (5 is the best in their international category).

From the Central Valley to the tropics

An excellent alternative for anyone who visits San Jose or the other cities within the Central Valley, is a new and recently inaugurated tropical park. Located on the Central Pacific region. Turu-ba-ri Tropical Park can be found right between the towns of Orotina and Turrubares, and is a short 4.6 miles (7.5 kilometers) from the capital.

A 496 acres theme park, this natural playground is perfect for nature lovers, birdwatchers, anyone seeking adventure and visitors willing to learn more about the country’s tropical biology. Acces to the tropical garden is by cable car, and those who dare can descend by swinging above the tree’s in the 24 platform canopy tour.

There is just so much to do! Collection of palms, cactus, cicadae, arboretum, bromeliads, heliconias, crotos and bamboo surround the area. You can walk through butterfly, medicinal plant and orchid gardens, or nature trails giving a taste of the dry and rain forest. Visitors can also get to know indigenous culture. A replica of a Huetar indian’s farm, with domestic animals, is a must.

To Keep busy

Some day tours from San Jose are:

  • City tour.
  • Poas volcano
  • Irazu volcano.
  • Rain Forest Aerial Tram.
  • Tortuga Island cruise.
  • Lankester Gardens and the Orosi Valley.
  • Reventazon white water rafting.
  • Pacuare white water rafting.
  • Sarapiqui.
  • Sarchi artesans.
  • Turu-ba-ri Tropical Park.
  • Coffee tour.

Look out points for bird watching and observing crocodiles are available. The adventure park is a dream place for those looking for an adrenaline rush. Horse back riding, cable express and canopy tour, or a hike to the Turrubares hillsides, now an extinct volcano, will get your blood flowing.

From San Jose, day trips (or longer stays) can be great alternatives to get to know the country. They include active volcanoes, butterfly farms beautiful waterfalls, and walks through forests and biological reserves. There are hundreds of activities for you to enjoy in Costa Rica. Start out in the capital and enjoy the entire country.

Costa Rica Travel: Travel Information & Tips

No matter how beautiful a destination may be, it needs easy access and be reachable within the limitations of an average vacation period. Costa Rica is only two and a half hours away from Miami!