Costa Rica is by far the most popular tourist destination in Central America, favored for its relatively good infrastructure, its friendly people, and its safety and stability. Eco-tourism flourishes, and Costa Rica eventually realized that its greatest asset lay in preserving the country’s natural places – about 25% of the country is protected by parks and preserves, more than any other nation on earth. But while visitors flock to famous parks like Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica’s Central Valley region is often overlooked.
One reason for this, of course, is that since 70% of Costa Rica’s population lives in the Central Valley, many areas lack the biological diversity – particularly mammalian – that can be found in other parts of the county. And biological wonders are largely what draw people to Costa Rica. The region, however – less a valley than a high plateau hemmed in by the Cordillera Central and the Talamanca mountain ranges – is an excellent base for exploration and a blessed relief from the searing heat of the Pacific coast and the stifling humidity of the Caribbean side.
Many international flights arrive in San Jose late at night, which precludes a long drive from the capital to your final destination. One way around this is to stay overnight near the airport, then set off in the morning to wherever you’re going. And believe me, after multiple flights (three in our case) with the kids the last thing you’re looking for is a three or four-hour expedition in the dead of night in a country that is completely unfamiliar to you, and where the populace seems to have a philosophical aversion to naming streets or providing more than the most sporadic and meager of road signs. Directions are often whimsical, and frequently end with an encouraging but not particularly reassuring ‘Good Luck!’ Directions to our rental house, for example, went something like: Turn right at the top of the hill after the church. When you come to a conical-shaped tree, bear right. After the pasture with the brown horse…. “Good luck!”
Another option is to scout around for locations nearer the capital, and spend some time in the Central Valley. There are some outstanding destinations within easy striking distance of a base near San Jose, and some of the best of them are outlined below.
The town of Grecia lies only 40 minutes from San Jose, and makes an excellent base for exploring the area. Grecia, like most of the towns we saw in Costa Rica, is not in itself outstandingly attractive. It has in interesting metal church, imported in pieces from Belgium, and a popular and shaded town square, but most of the buildings are utilitarian concrete cubes. But you didn’t come to Costa Rica for the Colonial architecture (you go to Mexico for that), so you’re not all that disappointed.
What to Do:
About a 20-minute drive from Grecia brings you to Los Chorros waterfalls, which are magnificent. From the large parking lot it’s an easy 15-minute hike along a ridge trail that drops down to the falls. There is a ranger on guard there who will collect the fee – 1,500 colons or about 3 USD – so bring a bit of cash. Although it isn’t marked, if you cross the suspension bridge and turn left, a semi-aquatic trail passes fissures in the rock which spout cool, clear water and leads to a second set of thunderous falls just around the bend. We ended up going there twice while we were in Grecia, because it was absolutely gorgeous, you can swim in the river, and we had the place entirely to ourselves. You’re likely to see morpho butterflies, basilisks and other lizards, and lots of birds.
The nature reserve Bosque de Paz is about an hour from Grecia, and forms an important biological corridor between Poas Volcano NP and Juan Castro Blanco NP. You’re now in transitional cloud forest, and the trees are draped with hundreds, perhaps thousands of species of epiphytes, orchids and lianas, the larger trees containing entire micro-ecosystems in their branches. This private reserve has a lovely hotel and restaurant next to the river, and has put out feeders that attract hundreds of hummingbirds, which flit about the foliage like blue and green tips of flame. It’s not cheap – entrance to the reserve and a three-course, all-inclusive lunch cost us (two adults, one junior, and one freebie) 113 USD – but if you’re a birder it can’t be missed, the trails are all well-marked and maintained, and the lunch was perfect. Plus, they’re good folks doing good work in protecting pristine forest and providing jobs and education to local communities.
Although we didn’t make it there, Braulio Carillo National Park is a little over an hour’s drive from Grecia, and has several hiking trails.
We did get to Poas Volcano NP, which makes an excellent day trip. From the parking area it’s an easy walk up a paved path – more of a road, really- to the overlook, but be sure to bring a light jacket as it’s fairly chilly at almost 9000 feet (2740 meters). The lake in the crater is extremely acidic, sometimes reaching a pH level of 0, and rests on a layer of liquid sulfur. Acid fog and rain generated by the lake kill all vegetation in the immediate vicinity. Occasional geysers blast superheated caustic steam as much as 250 meters (800 feet) into the air. Not the ideal place for a swim. Get there as early as you can, since it’s a popular destination and can get pretty crowded, and clouds often envelop the peak later in the day. There are short trails nearby, one which leads to Lake Botos, an impossibly azure body of water that fills the extinct crater of a volcano. Avoid the paved path back down to the visitor’s center, and take the Escalonia cloud forest trail – it’s a much nicer route. If you’re looking for a place to have lunch in the area, the Poas Lodge and Restaurant, just down the road from the park, is a good choice. The food is great, and the glass-enclosed dining room offers lovely views of the valley. While you’re waiting for your food, take the kids downstairs to the garden, which thrums with hummingbirds visiting the feeders.
The town of Sarchi is mentioned in a lot of tourist literature on the area, associated mainly with wooden furniture and intricately painted oxcarts. The town is rather unlovely, but it does have a number of shops that sell locally-made products, and they do indeed have gorgeous stuff on offer. It’s worth half a day, but doesn’t quite live up to the hype. If you tire of shopping, the nearby Else Kientzler Botanical Gardens are stunning, and offer some excellent birding.
Just outside the center of Grecia is The World of Snakes, a small zoo and breeding center that also houses poison dart frogs, iguanas, crocodiles and other cold-blooded creatures. Now, I’m a fairly passionate herpetophile, and have caught snakes, kept snakes, bred snakes, and spent a significant portion on my time in Costa Rica looking for snakes. But I didn’t visit the Mundo de las Serpientes. It just never seemed to work out, but now I wish I had gone. From all that I’ve read, it’s probably worth a visit.
Where to Stay:
We rented a house on the outskirts of town which was excellent value for money, with two bedrooms, a swimming pool and a large covered pavilion, all set on a lovely, quiet property with a stream running through it. With families, home rentals are the way to go, and we weren’t disappointed with this one. VRBO.com has a couple of options, and the place just next door to our house can be found here.
There are also several B&Bs in town, if you want to go that route. We can’t personally vouch for any of them, but Tripadvisor has a good selection. The B&B Grecia Hotel looks quite nice, and the folks there are very helpful.
Where to Shop:
There’s a large SuperPali supermarket (the chain is owned, reassuringly or sadly, depending on your disposition, by Wal-Mart) on the road from Grecia to Sarchi, part of a new shopping complex, and a large covered market just off the town square, but the real action is at the farmer’s market held Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Don’t miss it. You can grab yourself a fresh coconut and drink the juice with a straw and wander one of the most remarkable markets I’ve seen. There’s a cornucopia of tropical fruit, some of it completely unfamiliar, so don’t be shy – try anything and everything. At one stall the proprietress beamed as I asked for a handful sampling of all the things I’d never seen before – some of it tasted like yesterday’s socks, but some was deliciously revelatory.
Where to Eat:
By far the best restaurant in town is the Galeria Steakhouse, just up the hill from the main square. They have a pleasant terrace at the back of the restaurant, and their fried calamari was amaaazing. They also serve, as you might guess, excellent steaks and burgers.
Nelson’s serves typical Tico food (I know, the term sounds mildly pejorative, but it’s what Costa Ricans call themselves) like grilled meats and casado, a platter of meat, rice, red or black beans, salad, often fried plantains, and potatoes in one form or another.
The rather oddly-named BRO restaurant sits on a corner of the main square, and is large, airy, and has the best casado in town. A huge platter of delectability will run you about 4 USD.
While I know you’re in a rush to get to the Pacific or Caribbean coasts or Lake Arenal, take a second look at Costa Rica’s Central Valley. There are some world-class destinations there, and you may – no, you will – be pleasantly surprised.