Costa Rica’s Central Valley is both the geographical and cultural center of the country. Home to approximately 70% of the population, it boasts coffee-cultivated hills, fertile soils, elegant residential communities and luxurious hotels and restaurants, a sampling of the country’s wonderful natural wonders including rainforests and volcanoes, and – with an altitude of 3,000 to 5,000 feet – a most idyllic climate for someplace in a country that can get quite hot. More a plateau than a valley, the region is enclosed by the Cordillera Central mountain range to the north and east, and the Talamanca range to the south and west. As the country’s primary agricultural region, coffee farms paint the rolling hillsides, some portions of the area appearing alpine-like in character, with villages nestled among mountains, forests, and farms. The region includes the capital of San José and its suburbs as well as prominent surrounding towns such as the provincial capitals Heredia, Alajuela, and Cartago. The central location of the Valley finds the capital and its suburbs just within about 1-1.5 hours reach from almost anywhere in the region, making it an ideal launch point for visiting Costa Rica’s destinations. While most find 2 days in the Valley is long enough, many make the commute from here to take advantage of attractions found in the surrounding highlands such as the Poás and Irazú volcanoes, and Braulio Carillo National Park.
Located in the middle of the country’s fertile Central Valley, Costa Rica’s capital enjoys a spectacular setting of encircling volcanoes and soaring mountains, and a spring-like climate year round. More cosmopolitan than other Central American capitals, the city, which was founded in 1737, sat forgotten until the coffee business took flight in the late 19th century. By the 20th century, Costa Rica’s only major urban center came to quickly establish itself as the heart of Costa Rican life – today the country’s political, social and cultural center. While San José itself pales considerably against the splendor of its surroundings – a visit to the city a chaotic and often stressful experience of noise and traffic, unimpressive concrete buildings and poorly maintained streets, where street crime proves a serious problem and bus pollution ever-crowns the sky –, a closer look reveals San José’s own bag of charms, where among the disorder – excellent museums and galleries, world-class restaurants and more humble Tico eateries, countless theaters and cinemas, a range of accommodations, leafy parks, the best shopping in the country and a fabulous nightlife exist. A privileged location makes it an ideal base for day trips to the surrounding Central Valley, and a good hub for visiting the country’s national parks, rainforests and beaches – the Pacific only an hour or so away.
San José is comprised of several neighborhoods or barrios, each with their distinct personalities and amenities. Despite the severe gridlock, the city’s downtown centre, known as “El Centro” (or “Chepe,” as the locals call it), is primarily the business and political sector, where few live due to lack of housing. It is also the city’s cultural center with many worthwhile museums including the Jade, the National, and the Gold (featuring over 2,000 pieces of Pre-Columbian gold) Museums; and the beautifully-preserved, 1894 Teatro Nacional, funded by the revenues of the coffee and banana industries and crafted of the finest European materials. North of downtown, Barrio Amon & Aranjuez are the city’s historic neighborhoods, showcasing grandly-restored 18th and 19th century colonial mansions built by rich coffee barons, and converted into contemporary art galleries, refined restaurants, boutique hotels, and more. The eastern suburbs of Los Yoses, Bario Escalante, and lively university town San Pedro boast upper middle-class residencies and San José’s largest selections of restaurants and nightlife. Western La Sabana’s beautiful park offers a quiet retreat from the bustling city, while Santa Ana, with its ideal weather and noted mountain views, is the perfect combination of city and nature, with a bounty of outdoor activities. The sophisticated Escazu suburb, often referred to as “Little America,” is home to a large English-speaking expat community, with several American chain restaurants and some of Costa Rica’s finest restaurants.