San Jose & the Central Valley
Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, lies in the country’s central valley, a large plateau ringed by mountains. Coffee plantations, pockets of rainforest and cloud forest, and impressive volcanoes all make this region well worth exploring.
We were glad to have a day at the start in San Jose to get our bearings, recover from the flight and look around. We visited the magnificent theatre and the new museum under the adjacent piazza which brought us up to speed on the history of the country. We enjoyed our first Costa Rican coffees too!
San Jose is a friendly, laidback city with a few gems to explore and some great places to eat. However, we have to be honest and say that it’s not the most attractive of cities and so it’s often overlooked by visitors. We feel that’s a shame.
About two-thirds of Costa Rica’s population lives in the Central Valley. Outside of San Jose, most earn a living from work on coffee plantations and other kinds of farming since the soil is very fertile thanks to the ash from nearby volcanoes.
As all holidays in Costa Rica begin and/or end in San Jose, we recommend taking at least a little time to explore this Central Valley and its capital city.
- San Jose: In terms of architecture, earthquakes have sadly destroyed many of the old colonial buildings of this city and even the wider valley. It’s now mostly unspectacular modern buildings which are, frankly, of no great interest to most visitors. However, there is an exception and that is the National Theatre, the country’s architectural jewel. There are also some very good museums: Gold Museum, Jade Museum, Children’s Museum and Costa Rica Art to name but a few. You’ll also find some good restaurants here serving national cuisine and offering international fine dining.
- Staying on your first or last night: Many flights arrive into San Jose in the afternoon (for example, if you’re arriving from the UK on British Airways) and so rather than rushing to escape the city, it can be a more child start to your holiday to either stay in the city or perhaps in nearby in the Central Valley. Likewise, staying here before you fly home tends to be a more relaxed ending to your trip than more significant travels to reach San Jose before catching your flight home.
- In San Jose, consider the luxury Hotel Grano de Oro or the modern Hotel Presidente. In the Central Valley, perhaps have a look at Finca Rosa Blanca or Chayote Lodge.
- Volcanoes: The volcanoes of Irazu and Poas Volcanoes are both good day trips from San Jose if you want to get out and about and like hiking. Read more information about Costa Rica’s volcanoes.
- Coffee plantation tours: Since coffee is one of Costa Rica’s most important exports, and key to the country’s history and culture, a coffee tour is definitely to be recommended, whether here in the valley or perhaps in Monteverde. Many of the Central Valley hotels and lodges are built on or near a plantation so will offer this as part of your stay.
- Pacuare and Turrialba: The Pacuare River rushes through the beautiful Turrialba Valley as it heads from the Central Valley towards the Caribbean Coast. It passes through gorges, rainforest and coffee plantations, and the nearby Turrialba and Irazu volcanoes are an ever-looming presence. This area is great for outdoor activities such as horse riding and canyoning and especially whitewater rafting. Take a look at the incredible Pacuare Lodge, a place where you often arrive by raft!
- Bajos del Toro (& Bosque de Paz Biological Reserve): Bajos del Toro is a small sleepy village about a 90-minute drive northwest of San Jose, in Alajuela Province in the Central Valley between Poas Volcano National Park and Juan Castro Blanco Water Park. It is a beautiful hilly area of cloud forest and rainforest and rivers where you’ll find some spectacular birdwatching (especially hummingbirds) and where howler monkeys and other wildlife can be spotted on hikes and even in the grounds of El Silencio Lodge or Bosque de Paz Lodge which is also the home of an amazing orchid garden.
- Sarchi: This is a central valley town famed for the folk artists who once made colourfully painted oxcarts to carry coffee beans but who now make attractive souvenirs for tourists.