The Costa Rica Central Valley consists of the area’s surrounding the capital, San Jose as well as the other main cities of the area (Alajuela, Cartago, and Heredia).
See, San Jose is located in a valley. If you head out of the city to the nearby mountains you will be blessed with amazing views, cooler temperatures, coffee plantations, volcanos, great hikes, and more!
It is said that 70% of the Costa Rican population lives in this area, and for good reason. It is beautiful here! Personally, we love this area and it reminds us of a lot of Switzerland (well, summer in Switzerland of course).
However, there are some things you should consider before deciding if it is the right destination for your Costa Rican vacation.
Let’s go through the best places in each area of the Central Valley, discover all the things you can do, and decide ultimately if it is a good place for you.
Map of the Central Valley
The Cartago province is located to the southeast of San Jose. This area is home to Irazu and Turialba volcanos as well as several great hiking spots and amazing views.
The downtown area of Cartago can be really hectic. We suggest driving straight through the city and enjoying the beautiful countryside.
Best Things to do in Cartago
Get ready for amazing views, cute little towns, volcanos, and more!
Visit Irazu Volcano
The most popular activity in Cartago is a visit to Irazu Volcano. This volcano is easily accessible to visitors. You can get up close and personal to the crater as well as walk up a hill to check out the volcano from above. We think that seeing a volcano is a definite Costa Rica bucket list item and Irazu is definitely one of the best to see.
You can find out more with our guide to visiting Irazu Volcano.
Hike at Prusia Forest
Prusia Forest is located near Irazu Volcano. In fact, it is actually considered part of the Irazu Volcano National Park. There are several hiking trails here including one trail through the unique pine forest pictured above.
You can find out more about Prusia Forest on its official website.
Visit a Trucha
A trucha is a small man-made lake that is stocked with trout. Upon arriving you will be given some line with bait. You can then try to catch a fish. Once you catch a fish you can either take it back to your accommodations with you (if you’d like to cook it yourself). Or you can have it cooked up directly at the trucha and enjoy it with some tasty side dishes such as rice, beans, and vegetables for a reasonable price.
Just search “trucha” on Google Maps to find some in the Cartago area.
Visit an Abandoned Mental Hospital
This is not an activity I would go out of my way for, but this mental hospital is located in between Irazu Volcano and the Prusia Forest. It costa about $2 per car to park. Thomas and I like to bring a picnic lunch and enjoy it here after visiting the other two sites.
There are several nice fields to sit in and you can also walk through all of the abandoned buildings. Some of them are really eerie!
Visit the Cathedral
Our Lady of the Angels cathedral is located in downtown Cartago. People all over Costa Rica pilgrimage to this cathedral on foot once a year on August 2nd.
It is open to the public throughout the year if you would like to check out the inside of this beautiful religious building.
Orosi is a small mountain town in the Cartago Province. This area is known for its excellent coffee and beautiful views.
If you are looking for a quiet place to spend a few days in Cartago, this town would be our pick for you.
Check Out Lancaster Botanical Garden
This garden was created in 1940 and is maintained by the University of Costa Rica. It is filled with tons of beautiful plants, but is especially known for its orchid collection and the Japanese section.
You can find out more about visiting on the Lankester Garden website.
For more info on where to stay, places to eat, transportation tips, and more; check out our complete guide to Cartago.
Heredia is located just north and a bit east of San Jose. This area is beautiful and not heavily visited by tourists. The province of Heredia extends all the way up to the Nicaragua border, but today we are only going to be focussing on the bit of Heredia near San Jose.
Best Things to do in Heredia
You can’t go wrong with the views here!
Hike Barva Volcano
Barva Volcano is an inactive volcano which is considered part of Heredia’s large national park, Braulio Carillo. There are four trails here which total about 6 miles. That may not seem like a lot, but some of these trails are steep and will give you a good work out!
Every time we have visited this area there has been nobody else around. It is not a very popular place to hike because it is a bit remote. However, we love it for that reason.
There is a ranger station which is open daily from 8:00am until 3:30pm. I believe the entrance fee is $12 for adults and $5 for children.
Visit Sibu Chocolate
Have you ever wanted to learn how chocolate is made? Sibu offers excellent tours that will teach you all about the history and process of creating chocolate from bean to bar.
They also have an amazing cafe that they advertise as “fresh comfort food.” Yum!
You can find out more on the Sibu website.
The Province of Alajuela is actually very large and extends all the way up to the border of Nicaragua. It includes the popular tourist town of La Fortuna. However, the portion of Alajuela which is considered part of the Central Valley is much smaller.
Best Things to do in Alajuela
Look at all those beautiful coffee plants!
Visit Poas Volcano
Poas volcano is the most popular volcano to visit in Costa Rica. The views here are amazing! However, in the past few years, there have been several eruptions. Poas has changed its entire system for buying tickets and sometimes the park is closed now due to volcanic activity.
You can find out about visiting and stay up to date on if Poas is open in our guide to Poas Volcano.
Visit Downtown Alajuela
Downtown Alajuela is actually pretty cute. There are some nice shops, tasty restaurants, and a nice central square with a church.
You probably won’t spend more than a few hours here, but it doesn’t hurt to stop and walk around a bit if you are driving through.
Check out the cute towns of Grecia and Sarchi
Grecia and Sarxhi are both cute towns to walk around. Sarchi is known as the place to go to buy unique handcrafted wood furniture and crafts. It is also home to the worlds largest oxcart. This cart is painted in traditional Costa Rican style like above.
Visit the Farmers Market
There is a huge farmers market in Alajuela every Friday evening and Saturday morning. We love going there to get our usual produce for the week, but you can also find some crazy Costa Rica fruit that you have probably never tried before. It is fun to just walk the aisles and see what you can find.
Here is a map so you can figure out exactly where to go. There is a large parking lot as well.
Tour a Coffee Plantation
Visit La Paz Waterfall Gardens
The La Paz Waterfall Garden is a great place to see a waterfall (obviously) and to learn about the history, animals, and plants of the country. This is a really great place for families.
You can find out more with our La Paz Waterfall Gardens guide.
Visit a Trucha
Just like Cartago, Alajuela has several truchas. Just search “trucha” on Google maps to find one near you in Alajuela.
Buy Cheese and Strawberries
The best cheese and strawberries come from the mountains of Alajuela. If you are anywhere in the mountains you will see locals selling strawberries and cheese on the side of the road. Definitely buy some!
The cheese comes in a round ball and can be pealed kind of like string cheese. It is a bit hard and salty. The name is palmito. Thomas is obsessed and always buys several balls of it when he sees it.
In fact, we have two balls of it in our refrigerator right now. I can even include a picture ↑ of what it looks like for you guys! 🙂
For more info on where to stay, places to eat, transportation tips, and more; check out our complete guide to Alajuela.
Is the Area Worth a Visit?
We think the Costa Rica Central Valley is definitely worth a visit, but we also understand you probably have very limited time for your Costa Rican vacation. Is it worth a visit over other areas of the country? That is difficult to say.
Downtown Alajuela is located about 10 minutes away from the San Jose airport. If you spend a night or two in this area at the beginning or end of your trip you can easily explore some of the fun Alajuela activities we listed above. You can easily check out Heredia as well.
Cartago is a bit more difficult to access because it involves driving through San Jose (which can be pure insanity). However, if you are willing to brave the craziness, it really is a beautiful little corner of the country.
Another option is to actually spend a few nights up in the mountains of any of these locations.
Typically accommodations are a bit cheaper and you will encounter fewer tourists in these areas in comparison with some other areas of the country.
As you can see, you will also find plenty to do. If you would like to see a volcano up close and personal or visit a working coffee plantation, the Central Valley is definitely the best place for that.
Most tourists head to La Fortuna as their interior trip destination in Costa Rica, but the Central Valley is a great alternative that will require far less driving time from the San Jose airport.
Our Tips for Visiting the Central Valley
– Expect it to be a bit cool. You will be in the mountains and at a semi-high elevation.
– Speaking of that semi high elevation, there are certain parts of the Central Valley that are really high. In fact, Irazu Volcano has an elevation of 11,260 feet (3,432 meters) high. Just remember to take things slow and drink a lot of water to help you combat the altitude.
-Our favorite time to enjoy the Central Valley is actually during the rainy season (May until early December). You will have almost daily afternoon rainstorms, but everything is green and actually looks beautiful.
Here is a picture ↑ of Cartago during the dry season. Now just imagine how beautiful it would be with lush green grass and blooming trees instead.
-It is possible to visit these sights with a private shuttle but it tends to be cheaper to get around by renting a car. However, please keep in mind that you may have to do a bit of city driving to get to the more remote parts of the Central Valley.
I hope this post on the Costa Rica Central Valley helped you plan your trip! I just realized it includes an insane amount of pictures, so I hope you enjoyed those too. 😉 If you have any questions about visiting this area just leave them in the comment section below. We are always happy to help you out!
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