North of Naranjo, the road winds for 20km until it reaches Zarcero’s 1736m perch at the western end of the Cordillera Central. This is a gorgeous location: the mountains look as if they’ve been lifted from landscape paintings and the climate is famously fresh. But the real reason you’re here is to see the country’s most surreal shrubbery.
Parque Francisco Alvarado, in front of the blue Iglesia de San Rafael (built 1895), was just a normal plaza until the 1960s, when a gardener named Evangelisto Blanco suddenly became inspired to shave the ordinary, mild-mannered topiary into a bizarre series of drippy, abstract shapes. Over the years, these have morphed into fanciful chimeras, blobby dancing creatures and a double tunnel of melting arches. In other words, bring your camera.
Zarcero is also a center for Costa Rica’s organic-farming movement. You can find unusual varieties of pesticide-free goodies all over town, and the surrounding mountains are just perfect for an afternoon picnic. If there was ever a place where the roadside stands are worth it, this is it. Winding country lanes in the area are all lined with stands selling fresh cashews, honey, sweets and queso palmito, a locally made cheese with a delicate taste (and goes well with fresh tomatoes and basil).
If you brought your swimsuit, stop at Piscinas Apamar, on the road to Guadalupe (up the hill, behind the Musmanni), where there’s a huge indoor swimming pool and several hot tubs.
Just north of the church is Hotel Don Beto, a comfortable spot housing eight tidy rooms with hardwood floors – many come with private balcony. The helpful Tico owners can organize trips throughout the area, including excursions to the nearby Los Ángeles Cloud Forest Adventure Park or the Parque Nacional Juan Castro Blanco.
Hourly buses traveling between San José and Ciudad Quesada stop at Zarcero, though some buses may be full by the time they reach Zarcero, particularly on weekends. There are also buses from Alajuela, San Ramón and Grecia.