San José isn’t an attractive city, but it makes for a great basecamp.

With hundreds of hotels, Costa Rica’s capital is the ideal spot to drop off your luggage, pick up supplies and rent yourself a car. Then you’re free to roam around the Central Valley, day-tripping to one bucolic spot after another, reassured that you can double back to your room come nightfall.

This region is the most populous in Costa Rica and it’s full of destinations that can engage you for a morning or afternoon. Whether you’re wanting local cuisine or natural wonders, the Central Valley makes short-term excursions accessible and rewarding. You may feel like you’re leagues from civilization, but the big-city conveniences are never far away.

Here are the best day trips from San José, Costa Rica.

1. Roam the coffee groves at Hacienda La Chimba

Travel time: 30 minutes

In the hills above suburban Santa Ana, Hacienda La Chimba is both a coffee farm and a hidden retreat. You could spend hours zip-lining through trees, taking the coffee tour, and enjoying an exquisite meal at the on-site restaurant. For a more contemplative visit, hike the Mantra Trail through rolling groves and find playful sculptures scattered along the path.

How to get to La Chimba from San José: Drive or taxi to the middle of Santa Ana, then drive up a steep road to the property. You can also take the bus to the Río Oro supermarket in Santa Ana and walk 2km (1.2 miles) to the entrance.

A sign at a volcanic crater filled with blue-green water that says "Crater Principal"
There are decent paths to follow to reach the crater at Volcán Irazú © James R.D. Scott / Getty Images

2. Hike to the crater lake at Parque Nacional Volcán Irazú

Travel time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Volcán Irazú is both the tallest volcano in Costa Rica and one of the most visited. Well-maintained roads and walking paths make Irazú accessible to almost any traveler, and the above-the-clouds vistas alone are worth the journey. Gaze into a jade-colored crater lake, stroll the lava fields, then pop into the on-site souvenir shop. Note that the air is pretty thin at 3400m (11,155ft), and you’ll be glad you packed a sweatshirt.

How to get to Irazú National Park from San José: Irazú is easiest to reach by private car and takes about 90 minutes from downtown San José. Before departing, you should make an online reservation with Sistema Nacional de Áreas de Conservación (SINAC) to save time at the entrance.

3. Learn about Costa Rica’s war hero at the Museo Histórico Juan Santamaría

Travel time: 45 minutes

This colonial compound in downtown Alajuela pays homage to a legendary 19th-century drummer boy. The Museo Históríco Juan Santamaría is built into a former prison, and exhibits tell the tale of the Filibuster War, an 1856 conflict between Central American freedom fighters and an invading band of US mercenaries. Learn how Santamaría sacrificed himself in order to help defeat the fortune-hunter, William Walker.

How to get to the Juan Santamaría Museum from San José: Take a bus or taxi to the suburb of Alajuela. The museum is located right in the center of town, adjacent to Parque General Tomás Guardia and the Cathedral of Alajuela.

A woman stands on a rock at the edge of a pool with a waterfall plunging into it
Follow the pathways to the wonderful waterfalls at La Paz © Jakub Maculewicz / Shutterstock

4. Feel the spray at La Paz Waterfall Gardens

Travel time: 1 hour 30 minutes

This private park invites visitors to walk right up to several distinct waterfalls, thanks to a sophisticated network of paths and stairways. The La Paz Waterfall Gardens triple as a wildlife refuge and luxury resort, where visitors can stay in top-notch lodging and dine at acclaimed restaurants. You can also score a day pass, allowing you to explore the falls and animal exhibits at your leisure.

How to get to La Paz Waterfall Gardens from San José: La Paz lies about 90 minutes north of San José, and it’s best reached by private car.

5. Get to know the fine art of cultivation at the Britt Coffee Tour

Travel time: 45 minutes

One of Costa Rica’s best-known coffee brands, the Britt Coffee Tour is headquartered in Heredia, just north of San José. This little campus houses an aromatic souvenir shop, a sleek-looking cafe, and a multimedia coffee tour. Learn how Britt coffee is grown and sample brews with local cupping experts.

How to get to the Britt Coffee Tour from San José: You can ride the bus to downtown Heredia, then walk another kilometer (0.6 miles) north to the Britt property. Most taxistas should know the location and can take you right to the front gate, and there’s a secure lot for private cars.

6. See underground artwork at Anfiteatro de Villa

Travel time: 30 minutes

One of the most eccentric attractions in the Central Valley is the Anfiteatro de Villa, a series of artificial caverns in the small town of Ciudad Colón. Six subterranean chambers pay tribute to Egyptian burial sites, medieval castles, and the Trevi Fountain, among other architectural inspirations. You can also enjoy an elegant dinner at one of the on-site restaurants.

How to get to Anfiteatro de Villa from San José: You can reach Ciudad Colón by bus and walk one kilometer (0.6 miles) north to the Anfiteatro. Most travelers, however, will find it easier to drive or take a cab to the entrance.

Two children gaze down into a crater at an active volcano
Take a hike to the epic caldera of Volcán Poás © Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

7. Gaze at an active volcano at Parque Nacional Volcán Poás

Travel time: 1 hour 30 minutes

With its kilometer-wide caldera and acid lake, Volcán Poás is the second-largest volcanic crater in existence. Hike to the scenic overlook and gaze into the steam-spewing depression below. The national park is a scientific wonder, both for its seismic activity and the biodiversity of its plants and bird species.

How to get to Volcán Poás from San José: The best way to reach Poás is to drive the 90-minute route from San José. Before you go, make sure to make a reservation with SINAC and check for conditions. The volcano is known for sudden eruptions, and cloud cover is common, obscuring the view.

8. Explore the cloud forest in Parque Nacional Volcán Barva

Travel time: 1 hour 40 minutes

The least-known volcano in the Central Valley is also one of its best hikes. Volcán Barva went extinct eons ago, and the crater has become a peaceful lake wreathed in cloud forest. You can spend a whole day exploring the paths in this corner of the Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo, which offers visitors two lagoons and multiple lookout points.

How to get to Volcán Barva from San José: The trailhead stands at the end of a long and winding road, which is best reached by a private 4WD vehicle. Make sure to reserve with SINAC ahead of time.

9. Follow the trails at Adventure Park Costa Rica

Travel time: 45 minutes

Rappelling, trail-running, canopy tours – you can do them all at Adventure Park Costa Rica, a discreet swatch of forest in the hills above Heredia. But the park is best known for mountain biking, and these epic trails draw thrill-seekers from all over the world. Whether you’re looking for a place to set up a tent with your family or you plan to flip from wooden ramps, Adventure Park is an exciting suburban getaway.

How to get to Adventure Park Costa Rica from San José: Drive about 45 minutes north of San José and keep an eye out for the roadside sign and gateway.

This article was first published Apr 1, 2021 and updated Mar 29, 2023.

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