San Jose and the Central Highlands
Be sure to take time to appreciate the town’s atmosphere. San Jose is known for its easygoing lifestyle and nightlife. Weekends are the time to experience downtown at its best; the traffic is somewhat less congested than during the week, and Ticos have a more casual attitude as they stroll the streets and congregate in the city’s many parks to chat and relax.
San Jose – most travelers use San Jose as a stepping stone to somewhere else in the country: the volcanoes and mountains that ring the city’s neighborhoods and suburbs, or the cloud forests, raging rivers, and rain forests that lie within a few hours’ drive. But the city has attractions of its own that are worth exploring. The capital of Costa Rica, San Jose is a pleasant place to visit. You will find this to be a more cosmopolitan and prosperous city than most in Central American. Most of San Jose’s important attractions are located within easy walking distance of each other around downtown, which is best navigated on foot. Start your exploration with a tour of the National Museum, the repository of the country’s history. Then move on to the Museo de Oro and the adjacent National Theater. You can take a break for people-watching at the Plaza de la Cultura. Once you’ve hit all the highlights, stroll the back streets of Barrios Amon and Otoya, where refurbished old mansions now house trendy cafes.
The Children’s Museum features hands-on learning about nature and science. There are thirty-nine rooms that contain interactive exhibits th ranging from a TV studio to model ecosystems, plus three working robots. Tuesday-Friday 8 am-4 pm, Saturday and Sunday 10 am-5 pm.
Museo de Oro – this gold museum contains almost 2,000 pieces of pre-Columbian gold sculpture and jewelry, along with a collection of pre-Columbian pottery. Tuesday-Sunday 10 am-4:30 pm. http://museosdelbancocentral.org.
Museo Nacional – this museum contains exhibits about pre-Hispanic cultures, history, and modern Costa Rica. The building itself is an impressive piece of architecture. Tuesday-Saturday 8:30 am-4 pm, Sunday 9 am-4 pm. https://www.museocostarica.go.cr/
Serpentarium – a living museum with poisonous snakes, lizards, frogs, and many other reptiles and amphibians from the Costa Rican jungle. Monday-Friday 9 am-6 pm, Saturday and Sunday 10 am-5 pm. Parks and Gardens
Parque Zoologico Simon Bolivar – this National Zoo is a good place to get acquainted with Costa Rica’s varied wildlife. Some of the enclosures are small by North American standards, but the animals are well cared for. There are also labeled examples of Costa Rican plants.
Cartago – this city was one country’s capital until San Jose took its place in 1823 after a power struggle. After this loss of power, the city suffered more devastating setbacks: two strong earthquakes in 1841 and 1910. The city also rests at the base of Iracu Volcano, which is prone to sporadic earthquakes and eruptions. As a result, a few old buildings remain, but the ruins of a cathedral stand in a park in the heart of the city. A few blocks away is the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles, home of the country’s patron saint, La Negrita (the black-skinned Virgin Mary). This patron saint is honored on August 2nd by Ticos who make pilgrimages from around the country (having started out sometimes weeks earlier), walking (on their knees) to Cartago to pray at the basilica. The Lancaster Botanical Gardens, near the basilica, has an impressive collection of orchids, most of which bloom in the dry season. It’s generally considered the world’s best collection of epiphytes. A popular picnic spot with Cartagoans is the hot spring in Aguascalientes.
Irazu Volcano National Park – the Irazu Volcano poured smoke between 1963-65 and deposited ash and mud as far away as the capital city. Today, the volcano is surrounded by trees and wide plains where you may see foxes and other animals hunting and grazing. the volcanic eruptions have given the slopes very fertile soil and farmers have used every inch of the land. The summit is as desolate as a moonscape. Irazu is the highest peak in the central mountain range, making it chilly even in bright sunshine – so bring warm clothes to layer. Try to visit early in the day, as the crater becomes covered in fog and mist later on. It’s a wonderful place to watch the sunrise. On the trip to the volcano, you also can visit the Ujarras ruins, near the town of Paraiso. The ruins are the remains of a small church built-in 1693. From Ujarras you can drive around the scenic Orosi Valley. Sights include the Cachi Dam, a variety of farms, patches of forest, and the rocky Orosi River. The town of Orosi has an interesting colonial church with a small museum of religious art, and there are hot springs nearby.
Orosi – green and dramatic best describes the Orosi Valley. You will find steep dark green valley walls with coffee bushes and shade trees. Here is where the late actor Michael Landon made his summer home. The peaceful little village of Orosi was founded in 1561 by Franciscan Monks. You will find a couple of spring-fed swim clubs as well as a colonial church.
Ujarras – is a simple village with a great little ruined colonial-era church. This little church was built of limestone between 1575 and 1580 and resides where an Indian fisherman claimed to have found a box with the image of the Virgin Mary. The people were unable to move this box and built a classic Spanish colonial church – Nuestra Senora de la Limpia Concepcion – on the site. The Virgin Mary is said to have performed several miracles for the villagers. In 1833 a devastating flood damaged the village so badly that the people abandoned it and rebuilt on higher ground. Today this church is beautifully landscaped and makes a great visit for those who love old church ruins and lovely gardens.
Heredia – nicknamed the “City of Flowers,” this is Costa Rica’s fourth-largest city.
Braulio Carillo National Park – this largely undeveloped park lies in the mountains between San Jose and Limon and is sometimes referred to as “the lungs of San Jose” because its greenery helps process the considerable diesel fumes generated in the capital city. Some of its beautiful mountain scenery and waterfalls can be seen from the San Jose-to-Limon highway. Few travelers make it to the park’s interior, given the lack of trails and the rainy conditions (even beyond the rainy season). You can stop along the highway where you can stop for photos, but break-ins have become a problem around the park – so don’t leave your car unattended.
The easiest way to see Braulio Carrillo is from the Rain Forest Aerial Tram on its eastern border, near the town of Guapiles (about an hour’s drive from San Jose). These buckets carry six passengers ascend into the canopy about 120 ft/40 m off the rain-forest floor. The modified ski-lift system was developed by rain-forest research scientist and author Donald Perry and was reportedly installed with a minimum of disturbance to the forest. The project preserved a rain forest that likely would have been logged. (Perry’s system has been reproduced around the world in places like Australia, Africa, and Alaska.) A local guide joins the passengers in each bucket for the ride. It is advisable to make arrangements to ride the tram at dawn or dusk when animals tend to be more visible. The park is open Tuesday-Sunday 6 am-3:30 pm and Monday 9 am-3:30 pm. The tram ride costs about the US $50 for adults. The tour also includes a guided trail hike through the forest. There is a gift shop, an informal art center, and an open-air restaurant where small animals sometimes drop in to clean up leftovers. Reserve tram rides a day in advance.
Alajuela – this is costa Rica’s second-largest city and is on the slopes of Paos Volcano. Due to its elevation, this city is warmer and sunnier than San Jose. Also, a trip to the Butterfly Farm (www.butterflyfarm.co.cr) is a good place to see and learn about some awesome butterflies native to Costa Rica and stingless bees. If you love orchids then go to Orchid Alley, a nursery of more than 100,000 colorful epiphytes. Here they will gift-wrap and mail orchids worldwide.
Poas Volcano – the world’s largest active crater. After a short hike leads to the rim, you can see the muddy lake that emits puffs of sulfuric smoke. The park closes on occasion (though only twice since the mid-1980s) because of small eruptions. Stone steps lead you up through the lush cloud forest overhang to another crater, Botos Lake, that is extinct and filled with emerald waters. Here you will find a nice sitting area overlooking this spot. During the rainy season, it’s best to visit the park early in the morning, otherwise, you’re likely to sit for hours waiting for the clouds to clear. Restrooms, interpretation centers,s, and cafes are on-site.