Destination – Central Valley

Central Valley

Approximately two-thirds of Costa Rica’s 4.5 million inhabitants live in the Central Valley. Here is where the capital city of San José is located, as well as the major cities of Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago. The Juan Santamaria Airport, though known as the San José airport, is actually situated in the city of Alajuela, approximately 20 km from downtown San José.

The best museums in the country are in the capital city: the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, the Jade Museum, the Costa Rica National Museum, the Costa Rican Art Museum, the La Salle Natural Science Museum, the Insect Museum at the University of Costa Rica, and the Museum of Contemporary Art & Design. One of Costa Rica’s architectural jewels, the National Theatre, is located in the heart of the downtown in the Cultural Plaza.

The Central Valley is surrounded to the north and south by mountain ranges. National parks located in the valley protect the major volcanoes of Poás, Irazú, Turrialba, and Barva in the Braulio Carrillo National Park. All are reachable by good roads, so you can easily visit to enjoy the birds, landscapes, forests and volcanic craters.

The Central Valley features two areas of extraordinary beauty, which are impressive tourist destinations: Turrialba and the Valley of the Saints. These rural villages hold great scenic beauty and offer a glimpse into life in “old Costa Rica” with its houses of adobe, large coffee estates, sugar cane mills and dairy farms.

Main activities possible in the Central Valley include: Shopping, dining out, visit museums and art galleries, tour historical and architectural sites, photography, language schools, visit butterfly farms and Serpentariums, bird watching, horseback riding, hiking, recreational cycling, observe flora and fauna, visit sugar cane mills, and community-based rural tourism activities.

Central Valley Major Attractions

City of San José

City of San José

San José is located at 1,149 meters above sea level, with an average temperature of 24 C. The city’s downtown features beautiful architecture of many buildings that have been declared national monuments of cultural, historical or architectural interest. Additionally, you have museums, galleries, and the famous National Theatre, built in 1897 by the coffee barons who wanted to provide the city with an elegant venue for exquisite presentations by renowned national and international artists. San José presents a range of high-level dining options and accommodations; there is no shortage of bed & breakfasts or the popular local restaurants known as “sodas,” as well as trendy taverns, nightlife, cinemas and theatres. Religious festivals and popular celebrations in the city of San José are held in December, and are fun traditional activities you can enjoy while visiting.

Braulio Carrillo National Park

Braulio Carrillo National Park

The Braulio Carrillo National Park covers more than 44,000 hectares and is one of the largest protected areas in Costa Rica. Most of the landscape consists of high volcanic mountains swathed in forest and numerous rivers running through deep canyons. The park contains several extinct volcanoes – the Chompipe, the Turu, Cerro Cacho Negro, and Barva, which has several craters collectively known as the “Three Marias” (“Tres Marias”) with an average altitude of 1,725 meters. Visitors’ services at the national park include a park ranger station, trails, restrooms, drinking water, signage and several natural viewpoints.

Poás Volcano National Park

Poás Volcano National Park

Rising 2,708 meters high, the Poas Volcano is one of Costa Rica’s largest and most active volcanoes, attracting thousands of visitors each year. The volcano’s close proximity to the Central Valley, just above Alajuela, and the fact that you can drive right up to the top add to the national park’s popularity. The summit features two craters – the main crater which is 1.5 km in diameter and 300 meters deep, making it the world’s largest crater, and a second extinct crater filled with blue-green cold water that is named Botos Lake (Laguna Botos). Visitors’ services include a park ranger station, trails, several natural viewpoints, and a Visitors Centre offering restrooms, drinking water, a cafeteria, small museum, and large souvenir shop.

Sarchi

Sarchi

The quaint little town of Sarchi is located in the province of Alajuela. It is known throughout Costa Rica for its artisan handicrafts, and you can find many workshops and stores that are fascinating to visit. Wood working, furniture-making, and crafts for souvenirs are the town’s main products. The most famous and popular item is the oxcart, which traditionally carried coffee pulled by teams of oxen from the Central Valley to the Pacific port of Puntarenas. These exquisitely and intricately painted colourful oxcarts of Costa Rica were declared a national symbol in 1988. Sarchi furniture has a design and quality that is internationally recognised, and is a true national icon.

Irazú Volcano National Park

Irazú Volcano National Park

The national park protects the colossus of Irazú, an active volcano of 3,432 meters, which is the highest in Costa Rica. Irazú has a long history of eruptions and eruptive cycles. Its geological features include the main craters of Playa Hermosa and Diego de la Haya, as well as the highest point of the massif from which you can see the Caribbean and the Pacific on a clear day. The nice thing about the Irazú Volcano is you can drive right up to the main crater at the top. Visitors’ facilities at the main crater include bathrooms, picnic tables, and a small snack bar to get food and warm drinks, which can be nice since the average temperature is a chilly 7.2º C. There are trails, a ranger station and parking. The park is open seven days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and it is recommended to visit early in the morning as swirling clouds usually engulf the summit later in the day.

Turrialba Volcano National Park

Turrialba Volcano National Park

The main highlight of this national park is the recently active Turrialba Volcano. With an approximate height of 3,340 meters, it is the second tallest volcano in Costa Rica and shares the same base with the Irazú Volcano – often identified as twin volcanoes. There are three well-defined craters and others that have been disfigured by volcanic activity. Turrialba Volcano is currently active with discharges of gases and water vapour with sulphur deposits. Visitor services include trails and several natural viewpoints.

Guayabo National Monument - The

Guayabo National Monument - The "Lost City" of Costa Rica

The Guayabo National Monument is one of the largest archaeological sites in Costa Rica. It covers 218 hectares and is located at 1,100 meters above sea level by the Turrialba Volcano. It is believed that the city of Guayabo dates back approximately 3,000 years and had a population of about 10,000 people. No one knows why the thriving city was mysteriously abandoned in about 1400 AD. Their complex systems of aqueducts, cisterns, staircases, circular mounds, monoliths, petroglyphs, tombs, cobbled pavements, and pottery and gold artefacts are its most impressive aspects. In 2009, the Guayabo National Monument was declared a World Heritage site.

Orosi Valley

Orosi Valley

Tucked away from conventional tour routes, an hour’s drive from the Central Valley is the Orosi Valley, with its colonial village of the same name. Here, the Spanish conquistadors established their first settlement. Orosi is home to the oldest church (1743) currently in use in Costa Rica. You can combine a visit to this church with a small museum of religious art. Orosi’s strategic location leading into the Reventazón River Valley makes it a good destination for nature and adventure travel. Activities include trout and shrimp fishing, boating on Lake Cachí, natural hot springs in Orosi, and whitewater rafting on the Reventazon.

Reventazón River

Reventazón River

This large tropical river is ideal in many sections for whitewater rafting, fishing and boating. Thick vegetation hugs its shorelines. The middle of this river is important for powering the hydroelectric plant of Cachí.

Hydroelectric Dam of Cachí

Hydroelectric Dam of Cachí

The Cachí Dam is one of the largest hydroelectric plants in the country and sits on the north-eastern side of Lake Cachí. It is the first of its kind in Central America, standing 79 meters high with a reinforced concrete structure and a length of 186 meters. The dam draws the attention of national and foreign tourists passing through the Valley of Ujarrás. In the vicinity of the reservoir, several recreational tourism businesses have formed.

Tapantí National Park - Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of the Dead)

Tapantí National Park - Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of the Dead)

Covering more than 583 sq. km., the Tapantí National Park and Cerro de la Muerte are one of the rainiest places in the country. Located southeast of San Jose near Orosi and Cartago, the area is home to 45 species of mammals, 260 kinds of birds, 30 types of reptiles, and has ancient oak forests. There are more than 150 rivers, many waterfalls and a few swimming ponds in the park. There are several trails, and hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding are popular activities, along with trout fishing and bird watching. Visitors’ services include a park ranger station, trails, restrooms, drinking water, and natural viewpoints.

Los Quetzales (The Quetzals) National Park

Los Quetzales (The Quetzals) National Park

The Los Quetzales National Park covers more than 12,300 acres near Cerro de la Muerte and the small village of Santa Maria de Dota, including what was formerly known as the Los Santos Forest Reserve. The park features three types of rainforest and 14 ecosystems set alongside the Talamanca mountain range and the headwaters of the Savegre River. Diverse flora and fauna reside in the region, including approximately 200 species of birds, such as Resplendent Quetzals, tanagers, hummingbirds and woodpeckers.

Savegre River - San Gerardo de Dota

Savegre River - San Gerardo de Dota

The area of San Gerardo de Dota, in the Savegre River Valley, is renowned for its bird watching, hiking and rainbow trout fishing. At 2,200 meters above sea level, this region is the natural habitat for the Resplendent Quetzal. San Gerardo de Dota is incredibly scenic for photography and video filming.

Recommended Partners in the Central Valley

Aurola Holiday Inn
Barceló San José Palacio
Crowne Plaza Corobici
Roland Hotels Group
Hotel Presidente