Central Valley Attractions
As Costa Rica’s main point of entry, the Central Valley offers visitors easy access to a wide variety of cultural and natural attractions; from rainforests and volcanoes to colonial landmarks and archeological monuments, from festivals and concerts to theatres and arts - the Central Valley has it all.
San José, Costa Rica’s sprawling capital city, is home to numerous hotels, multinational corporations, shops, restaurants, and the country’s finest cultural attractions, such as the architectural jewel of Costa Rica, the National Theater. Also of note is the National Museum, which features an impressive display of Costa Rica’s cultural heritage.
At 2,900 feet above sea level, San Jose boasts a spring-like climate year around and is an ideal launching pad for visiting the rest of the country. The city enjoys an average temperature of 24 degree Celsius, ideal for taking short walks, shopping or eating out at one of the many commercial centers or small towns near the city, such as Escazu, Santa Ana and Ciudad Colon on the west side; San Pedro, Curridabat and Tres Rios on the east side; Desamparados, Aserri, Tabarca and San Ignacio de Acosta toward the south; or Guadalupe and Moravia on the north side, followed by Santo Domingo, Santa Barbara, Barva or San Rafael in the province of Heredia, less than an hour north of the capital.
The Central Valley harbors some of the country’s most visited national parks, including Poás, Braulio Carrillo, Irazú and Turrialba, which feature the region’s main volcanoes. Visitors will find the roads and park infrastructure well maintained, allowing for quick and convenient access to stunning natural landscapes, majestic craters and exotic rain forests.
As the country’s most visited region, the Central Valley features a number of extraordinarily beautiful areas which are also rich in history and tradition. These include the Orosi Valley with its panoramic views, historic churches and lush coffee plantations; Sarchí, home to a thriving crafts industry; and the pre-Columbian ruins of Guayabo National Park near Turrialba. In addition, several tour operators offer exciting white water rafting and canopy tours, as well as visits to the volcanoes.
The rural towns, for their part, are highly picturesque, and offer a glimpse of the old Costa Rica, with quaint houses, large coffee plantations, sugar mills and dairies.
Although you will notice the fast-paced rhythm of city life in San Jose, as in any other capital city, you will not feel the coldness of indifference of a large city. It is still possible to greet people in the downtown area, to walk from one museum to another, to enjoy restaurants and other tourist sites in relative tranquility, and to strike up a friendly conversation with the locals.
As the most populated city in the country, San Jose has all the characteristics of a bustling city, even though it is relatively small. Currently, an urban renewal program is underway in the capital, but in many of its older neighborhoods you can still appreciate its rich historical background as reflected in the assortment of architectural features.
The historic downtown area underwent significant improvements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a result of the coffee boom. There was continual growth on the outskirts of the city, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the foothills of the mountain ranges that surround the central valley began to get urbanized. Urban sprawl began to take place- the syndrome of a city that has overgrown its limits, the population spread to the suburbs where housing development began in earnest– and San Jose developed into a modern metropolitan area of over one million people by 2000.
It is a relatively orderly city where the influence of modern times is taking over, but a few beautiful places from the past are being preserved that remind us that this was once a small, provincial Central American village.
The most important cultural events take place in San Jose. Most of the theatres and venues for special performances are concentrated in the area between the Antigua Aduana (old custom house), through the famous Custa de Moras where the Legislative Assembly and the National Museum are located, and ending near the Supreme Court complex.
This capital city has only in recent years become a gourmet’s paradise, and a restaurant guide is a must for those on extended visit. Bars with live music are a main attraction – enjoy avant-garde music, dance music, musical groups – while you dine. Costa Rica is a musical country and its nightlife reflects that. In addition to the excellent variety of food, it is easy to find lodging options for a wide range of budgets.
AROUND SAN JOSE
The National Parks located in the Central Valley protect the principal volcanoes in the area – Poas, Barva, Irazu and Turrialba – all with a highway infrastructure leading to them. Visitors will enjoy the scenery, craters, natural forests and wildlife, and the large number and variety of birds.
There are two extraordinary areas in the central valley that are in and of themselves beautiful tourist destinations: Turrialba and the Valle de Los Santos.
Many rural towns have astonishing scenic beauty and offer a peek into the Costa Rica of yesterday, with their adobe houses, large coffee farms, sugar mills, dairy farms and above all, their people – friendly people who will always take time to answer the questions of visitors.
The community of Santa Ana is nicknamed the Valley of the Sun because it is considered by many to have one of the best climates in the country, the area has grown considerably in population and commercial activities since the 1960s. Located between the cantons of Escazu and Mora, at the foot of the Escazu and Puriscal mountain ranges, it has an elevation of 904 meters above sea level.
Its proximity to the capital and to the growing communities of Escazu and San Antonio de Belen (in Alajuela province) has encouraged the development of tourist and lodging services, among which are some wonderful Bed & Breakfast accommodations.
Known as the “Nobel and Loyal City of Cartago,” this was the first capital of Costa Rica, a title it held until 1823. The glory of earlier days still is felt on its streets, thanks to the architectural treasures that have been preserved. The older residents have vivid memories of the terrible moments they experienced during the numerous earthquakes and floods that occurred in the city. These natural phenomena caused great destruction in many of the city’s important buildings, some of which did not survive. To the Ticos, Cartago is still important today for being the city that shelters the patron saint of Costa Rica, ‘Our Lady the Virgin of Los Angeles.’
During the time the railroad to the Caribbean coast was being built in the late 1800s, several cities developed and prospered along the tracks; Turrialba is one of them. For a long time it was the half-way point between the capital city and the main port of Limon on the Caribbean coast. This area boasts several micro-climates within a very limited geographical area, which, combined with its architectural characteristics, city structure, space and ethnicity, looks notably different from other towns in the area.
It has been declared a city of National Architectural Interest because of the Guayabo National Monument located nearby. There are many attractive rural communities in the surrounding area: La Suiza, Aquiares and Santa Cruz, which produce the popular Turrialba cheese. Visitors can also enjoy rafting down the white water rapids of the Reventazon and Pacuare Rivers.
SANTO DOMINGO DE HEREDIA
Usually, if you are going towards Barva from San Jose, you will drive through Santo Domingo de Heredia, a quiet town where it seems like time has stood still, especially if you decide to walk through its streets. The number of old houses, both simple and elegant, some built in the early 19th century, highlight the gracefulness in colonial architectural design.
Santo Domingo is a town of legendary families and stories about farmers and ranchers. Located between the plains of the Central Valley and the slopes of the central mountain range, it was a relatively important town where both campesinos and the owners of large coffee farms settled. That explains why there are such great contrasts between the styles of houses.
THE OROSI VALLEY
Visitors will see an amazing variety of scenery they descend abruptly into the Orosi Valley from Paraiso on this popular tourism route, where they can stop at several viewpoints to see the valley below. They can visit the first communities settled in the central highlands by the Spanish during the Colonial period, Orosi and Ujarras. Although the catholic church at Ujarras is in ruins, the beautiful Orosi church has been preserved, with its thick adobe walls, impressive altar pieces, sacred images and other historical objects.
This is an obligatory destination for many travel agencies because this valley is a place where visitors can fish for trout and prawns, rent boats, enjoy soaking in the hot mineral springs, walk among coffee bushes and admire the engineering work of the Cachi Dam and Reservoir. There are several hotels and a variety of cabins in the area as well as many delightful restaurants where visitors are treated with utmost warmth and courtesy.
SANTIAGO DE PURISCAL
Santiago is an important market center located at an elevation of 1105 meters above sea level to the west of San Jose along a winding mountain road; it is the main town and administrative center of the district of Puriscal. It is said that sunsets at this mountain top have healing powers for the spirit.
This area offers diverse attractions: a string of typical small farming towns, traditional foods and drinks, coffee and tobacco plantations, cattle and dairy farms, sugarcane fields and sugar mills, natural scenery, and handicrafts made of wood, leather, clay and natural fibers. The annual chicharron (fried chunks of fat pork) festival and horse parade in early December is a special event for the locals.
On the road to Santiago, visitors will pass through the Quitirrisi Indigenous Reserve, which is at the top of a ridge between two valleys. This is a recommended stop for those interested in indigenous handicrafts.
The ruins of the old parish church in Santiago are of special architectural interest, with its late-Gothic style, designed by Costa Rican architect Teodorico Quiros who also designed the San Isidro de Coronado Catholic church. The Santiago church was damaged on several occasions by mid-size earthquakes, which eventually led to its closure due to safety concerns by local officials.
Nearby, to the south of Santiago, is La Cangreja National Park. In the same area is Zapaton Indigenous Reserve, composed of a small group of nearly extinct Huetars.