San Jose and the Central Valley Costa Rica Guide
The Central Valley of Costa Rica 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 hills you will be blessed with amazing views, cooler temperatures, coffee farms, 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).
The Central Valley at a Glance
Nearest International Airport
Juan Santamaria International Airport in Alajuela
Popular Things to Do
visit Poas Volcano, take a coffee tour, visit La Paz Waterfall Garden
Best Way to Get Around
Rental car, day tours with transportation
Best Time of Year to Visit
Dry season is from late December until mid-April
Spanish. Most people in tourism speak English
Costa Rica Colones, but USD is widely accepted
110v/60 (the same as the US)
Map of the Central Valley
Towns and Cities in the Central Valley
Alajuela Costa Rica
The city of Alajuela located in the Province of Alajuela (yea thanks for that confusion Costa Rica) is not a city that really needs to be on your list of places to visit, but the beautiful Central Valley surrounding the city is amazing!
We suggest staying here for a few nights at the very beginning or end of your trip if flying in/ out of Juan Santamaria International Airport.
San Jose Costa Rica
San Jose Costa Rica does not exactly have a reputation as the nicest city in the world. However, it definitely has its charms.
If you find yourself with a day or two near the San Jose airport, there are plenty of places that are worth a visit.
This area is home to great restaurants, museums, historic buildings, green spaces, and plenty of day trip options. You won’t get bored!
The vibe of the downtown area is hectic and not really the nicest. If you head out of the city area you will find beautiful rolling fields and mountains.
We like to come here when we need a break from city life and want to spend several days surrounded by nature that isn’t beaches.
Plus, we love that it isn’t filled with people like some other areas of the country.
San Gerardo de Dota
If you are looking for a quiet cloud forest getaway, this place is a must-visit. It’s a great place for birding, hiking, fishing and relaxing.
If you are interested in bird watching and the words “Resplendent Quetzals” actually mean something to you, this is the place you should visit.
The Central Valley Weather
The dry season and main tourism season in Costa Rica is from late December until late April.
During this time of year it gets windy here.
From May until August prices go down a bit, the crowds go home, and the weather turns somewhat rainy.
You can expect afternoon rainstorms to last about one to two hours.
Rarely will there be a full day of rain.
From August until December prices usually get even lower. At this time of year, you are more likely to experience rainy days.
The temperature year-round is usually in the upper 80°F (around 30°C) during the day and dips to about 65° F (19°C) at night.
Year-round the sun rises between 5:15 and 5:45am and sets between 5:30 and 6:00pm.
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Things to Do in The Central Valley of Costa Rica
Here are 11 fun things to do in the Central Valley region:
- Explore San José: Visit the vibrant capital city, with its cultural attractions, museums, and historic sites like the National Theater.
- Discover Poás Volcano: Take a trip to Poás Volcano National Park and witness the stunning crater, sulfur pools, and beautiful surrounding cloud forest.
- Visit La Paz Waterfall Gardens: Explore this nature park, which features spectacular waterfalls, animal exhibits, botanical gardens, and hiking trails.
- Experience Coffee Farm: Take a tour of a coffee farm in the Central Valley and learn about the rich coffee culture of Costa Rica.
- Discover the Irazú Volcano: Hike or drive up to the Irazú Volcano, the highest active volcano in Costa Rica, and enjoy panoramic views from the summit.
- Explore Cartago: Visit the historic city of Cartago, the former capital of Costa Rica, and explore its colonial architecture and the beautiful Basilica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles.
- Enjoy the Orosi Valley: Experience the natural beauty of the Orosi Valley, with its lush landscapes, coffee plantations, and picturesque Orosi Church.
- Visit the Lankester Botanical Garden: Discover a wide variety of orchids, bromeliads, and other tropical plants at the Lankester Botanical Garden, located near Cartago.
- Explore the Los Quetzales National Park: Venture into this cloud forest reserve, known for its rich biodiversity and the chance to spot the resplendent quetzal bird.
- Visit the National Museum of Costa Rica: Learn about Costa Rica’s history and cultural heritage by visiting the National Museum in San José.
- Explore the Central Market: Wander through the bustling Central Market in San José, where you can find local produce, crafts, and traditional food.
The Central Valley Transportation
There are multiple transportation options to get to and around in the Central Valley region.
We usually suggest renting a car because it will give you the most flexibility in getting around between locations and it will allow you to explore more on your own.
Just keep in mind that we do not suggest driving in San Jose. If exploring the city, either take a taxi or walk. People drive like crazy.
You can book your rental car with a 10% discount plus other great perks here.
However, if you are planning on staying at a resort or plan to mostly take day tours with transportation included, it is most likely not necessary to rent a car.
In this situation, you could opt for a private shuttle.
You can book your private shuttle with our favorite shuttle company here.
If you are on a tight budget, the public bus is always an option. Here is the best place for the bus schedule.
Is the Central Valley Worth Visiting?
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 Central Valley activities we listed above.
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 farms, 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.
You Might Also Like Visiting
The Nicoya Peninsula: A remote corner of Costa Rica filled with nice beaches. This is a popular place for yoga enthusiasts and surfers
The Caribbean Coast: The Caribbean Coast has a completely different feel than the Pacific Coast. There is a strong Afro-Caribbean culture here.
The Guanacaste Province: A popular beach area and home to Costa Rica’s other international airport. There are several nice resorts here.
….if none of those appeal to you, check out our Destination Guide page for more ideas of places to visit.