Alajuela & the Northern Valley
Volcanoes shrouded in mist, undulating coffee fincas (plantations), bustling agricultural centers: the area around the provincial capital of Alajuela, 18km northwest of San José, seems to have it all – including Juan Santamaría International Airport, just 3km outside the city.
Costa Rica’s second city is also home to one of the country’s most famous figures: Juan Santamaría, the humble drummer boy who died putting an end to William Walker’s campaign to turn Central America into slaving territory in the Battle of Rivas in 1856. A busy agricultural hub, it is here that farmers bring their products to market.
The riverbank setting of the city of Cartago was handpicked by Spanish governor Juan Vásquez de Coronado, who said that he had ‘never seen a more beautiful valley.’ Cartago was founded as Costa Rica’s first capital in 1563, and Coronado’s successors endowed the city with fine colonial architecture. However, the city was destroyed during a 1723 eruption of the Volcán Irazú.
Until recently, microchips produced in Heredia were one of Costa Rica's most important exports. Although Intel has closed its plant here, the region remains a vital coffee producer and a gateway to one of Costa Rica’s largest swaths of highland forest, Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo.
During the 19th century, La Ciudad de las Flores (the City of the Flowers) was home to a cafetalero (coffee grower) aristocracy that made its fortune exporting Costa Rica’s premium blend. Today the historic center retains some of this well-bred air, with a leafy main square, and low-lying buildings reflecting Spanish-colonial architectural style.
In the vicinity of Turrialba, at an elevation of 650m above sea level, the Río Reventazón gouges a mountain pass through the Cordillera Central. In the 1880s this geological quirk allowed the ‘Jungle Train’ between San José and Puerto Limón to roll through, and the mountain village of Turrialba grew prosperous from the coffee trade.
When the railway shut down in 1991, commerce slowed down, but Turrialba nonetheless remained a regional agricultural center, where local coffee planters could bring their crops to market. And with tourism on the rise in the 1990s, this modest mountain town soon became known as the gateway to some of the best white-water rafting on the planet.
Named for a Huetar chief who lived here at the time of the conquest, Orosi charmed Spanish colonists in the 18th century with its perfect climate, rich soil and wealth of water – from lazy hot springs to bracing waterfalls. So, in the typical fashion of the day, they decided to take the property off Orosi’s hands.
Welcome to Costa Rica’s most famous crafts center, where artisans produce the ornately painted oxcarts and leather-and-wood furnishings for which the Central Valley is known. You’ll know you’ve arrived because just about everything is covered in the signature geometric designs – even city hall. Yes, it’s a tourist trap, but it’s a pretty one.
Montes de Oro
Northeast of Puntarenas, the region of Montes de Oro is a gold mining district that’s tucked into the slopes and valleys of the Cordillera de Tilarán. A good number of day-trippers come up from Puntarenas and other coastal towns to fly through the trees on one of the country’s biggest canopy tours.
Parque Nacional Volcán Poás
Just 37km north of Alajuela by a winding and scenic road is Parque Nacional Volcán Poás, ideal for those who want to peer into an active volcano without the hardship of hiking one. Volcán Poás (2704m) had its last blowout in 1953, which formed the enormous crater measuring 1.3km across and 300m deep.