Things to Do in Central Valley
While zip-line tours that take you swishing through the treetops at squeal-inducing speeds certainly have their charm, there are other ways to appreciate Costa Rica’s wondrous wilderness. Unbeknownst to most tourists, the life of the rain forest largely takes place overhead, in the thick jungle canopy of sunlight and opportunity.
Most of Costa Rica’s birds, monkeys, giant anteaters, sloths, snakes and amphibians spend the better part of their lives in the distant treetops, far from the snapping cameras of junior photographers. The key to seeing these creatures (and getting the best shots) is ascending into the trees yourself.
Hence these 16 elegantly constructed Arenal Hanging Bridges—some suspended high above gorges and others stretching far across jungle floors—that line the winding paths of this epic Costa Rican hike and stretch a total of 2.6 km (1.6 miles) across the steeply pitched landscape.
This popular jungle oasis is the number one ecological attraction in Costa Rica. With incredible hiking that’s easily accessible from the capital city, as well as stunning waterfalls and indigenous wildlife, it’s a destination that’s truly worthy of a visit. Travelers can explore the 3.5 kilometers of rugged trails and 10 animal exhibits on site to gain a deeper appreciation of Costa Rica’s famed biodiversity and natural beauty. Whether it’s hiking to the five waterfalls that give this garden its name, wandering through the cloud forest or venturing into the aviary, there’s plenty to do, see and discover at La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
The grounds are easy to navigate, and most visitors choose to self-guide their tours. But travelers looking to gain a deeper understanding of conservation efforts, as well as to learn more about the unique flora and fauna here can also opt for a guided tour.
Plunging down the side of Cerro Chato, Volcan Arenal’s dormant and thickly forested twin, is one of the most impressive, and easily accessible, waterfalls in all Costa Rica. Cascada La Fortuna pours some 65m (200ft) down a sheer, volcanic gray cliff face, perpetually bathed in mists and carpeted in abundant and exotic vegetation.
The trailhead for the falls is located just 5.5km (3mi) from La Fortuna proper, a popular bike ride or horseback trek. The descent from the parking lot to the jungle floor isn’t a long or difficult hike; it’s about 20 minutes down, and generally a bit longer climbing back back up. Just keep in mind that the staircase is steep, and sometimes slippery. A the mirador, or viewpoint, allows almost anyone to appreciate this natural wonder no matter what their fitness level.
The lively San Jose Central Market was founded in 1880. For free entertainment and a real taste of the local atmosphere, there’s no better place in the city! The market has more than 200 stalls, selling everything under the sun from souvenirs and cowboy boots to herbal remedies and handicrafts. Inside you’ll also find cafes and bars for a welcome break between browsing. Pick up some coffee beans for a tasty souvenir.
The most famous national park in Costa Rica, Arenal Volcano National Park protects the still sizzling Arenal Volcano, one of the world’s 10 most active volcanoes. The park also encompasses 16 reserves and an amazing dozen different ecological zones, proof of Costa Rica’s incredible biodiversity.
A visit to the national park reveals an active cone topped with flows of red lava, belching columns of ash. As you’d expect it’s an unforgettably dramatic sight, especially if you take a visit to the park at night. Arenal’s 140-metre (460-foot) wide crater was dormant for centuries until catastrophically blowing its top in 1968. The most recent major eruption occurred in 1998.
In this well-watered rainforest pierced by the perfect gray cone of Volcan Arenal, it is not only lava that wells up from the depths of the Earth. Steaming hot springs pour like a river from the great mountain’s barren flanks, coursing through the lush tropical grounds of famed Tabacón Grand Spa.
Mineral-rich waters, fresh from the earth, cascade with picturesque through a lavishly landscaped setting. Costa Rica’s most beautiful flowers are woven through a world of quiet pathways and wooden bridges that connect the different pools. Some are warmer, others more isolated; the main pool, with fantastic views of the volcano, has a fabulous bar and water slide. A cold spring hidden away in a shady corner of this marvelous spot is the perfect place to recharge.
There aren’t too many places in the world where you can almost touch the rim of an active volcano, but at Poas Volcano National Park you can get up close to the smoking crater.
One of the world’s most accessible volcanoes, Poas Volcano is filled with an amazing aquamarine lagoon, blanketed in ferns and ringed with hiking trails leading to panoramic lookouts and picnic areas.
The park is filled with wildlife to spot, including the famous quetzal, toucans and hummingbirds.
The best visibility is December to April, and especially in the early morning.
The vast protected forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park may be divided by one of the nation’s busiest highways, but this just means easy access for travelers, as well as the possibility of picturesque views without ever having to leave the car.
Lazy travelers can traverse the highway snapping photos of lush landscapes from the comfort of their car seats, while those eager to get back to nature can embark on one of the miles of trails leading to the waterfalls, open pastures and mountain stations that dot the rainforest. An Aerial tram on the eastern side of the park offers open gondola rides through the dense understory and canopy of the woods, where its possible to spot the sloth and other forest creatures that call Braulio Carrillo National Park home.
Perhaps the most famous (and certainly most prized) public building in all of San Jose, the National Theater of Costa Rica in the city’s Catedral district, is home to the nation’s cultural community. Classical music, theater and dance performances take place several times a week. And while it’s always worth catching a show, the theater’s traditional Renaissance architecture, breathtaking ceilings and grand interiors make it a must-see stop even if you can’t get tickets for the symphony.
Free tours of the historic building, which was built in1897, take place daily at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and the theater’s highly regarded café with picturesque San Jose views, is a perfect spot to grab lunch before exploring the rest of the city.
More Things to Do in Central Valley
The National Museum, housed in the barracks of the Bellavista Fortress, has been proudly displaying indigenous and pre-Columbian artifacts, religious artwork and geological and archeological pieces linked to Costa Rica’s rich and colorful history since 1950.
Separate rooms explore ancient cultures dating back some 12,000 years, as well as collections of ornate jewelry, medallions and statues made of gold. And while the Museum’s impressive collection of grinding stones and other artifacts from ancient Costa Rica grant tourists a chance to travel back in time, visitors should be sure to explore the grounds, too. Nationals fought at the barracks during the Civil War in 1948, and damage from bullet holes and warfare can still be seen in the Spanish-style courtyard.
With its 175 acres of green space and network of forested walking trails, Parque La Sabana is San José’s version of New York’s Central Park. The large open lawns are perfect for Frisbee, soccer, or tossing a ball, and the walking trails and running tracks are where to work up a sweat. This site once housed the city’s airport until the 1940s, and today the former terminal building houses the Costa Rican Art Museum. Also within the leafy park is the country’s national stadium, where concerts and national soccer matches are held for up to 40,000 people. On most days, however, the park plays hosts to groups of locals all feeding the geese by the pond, or families simply enjoying a picnic beneath the shade of a tree. It’s a calming place to escape the crowds and the urban city bustle, and a comfortable perch for people watching and mingling with San José locals.
As far as city squares go, Plaza de la Cultura leaves much to be desired. That’s because its unremarkable architecture and mostly concrete designs tend to make it one of the less visually pleasing squares in this colorful city.
Still, travelers in search of a true taste of San Jose life will do well to visit this busy square, where locals gather after weekend shopping trips and stay well into the night. Ice cream vendors sell sweet, cool treats, which are perfect for taking the edge off a steamy afternoon. Plaza de la Cultura is typically teeming with street performers and vendors and a nearby police tower means that even with the crowds, it’s still one of the safest places in the city.
Built using funds donated by Andrew Carnegie in 1912, Costa Rica’s Yellow House is a noteworthy (and noticeable!) building that houses the Central American Court of Justice. It has since been appropriated for use as a presidential home, a temporary facility for the Legislative Assembly and, most often, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cult.
Travelers can explore the grounds on their own or take a self-guided tour through one of San Jose’s most famous buildings. Once a week, local history experts offer official tours, which include a visit to the Museum Marques Manuel Maria Peralta, a gallery named after one of the country’s most important diplomats that is stationed on site.
Costa Rica is known for its diverse wildlife, breathtaking waterfalls, dense rainforest and endless outdoor adventures. But the Central Valley neighborhood of Escazu offers travelers a taste of a different Costa Rica—one that’s filled with modern architecture, posh homes and even an exclusive country club. Visitors say this hip spot is the perfect place to enjoy the best of big city life in a neighborhood that rocks a more laidback country vibe.
Travelers can wander the main streets lined with big name stores and unique boutiques or tuck into a meal at one of Escazu’s exclusive restaurants for a relaxing lunch or world-class dinner. State of the art gyms and well-kept bed and breakfasts mean visitors looking to escape the city for a weekend and experience a slice of true Costa Rican life can have it all in Escazu.
The thick green forests, fertile coffee plantations and scenic mountains of the Orosi River Valley draw bird watchers, freshwater fishermen and nature lovers to the banks of the Reventazon River, as well as the pristine lake formed by the Cachi Dam.
Travelers can spend the morning wandering through Iglesia de San Jose de Orosi Church, where Spanish Colonial artifacts and religious paintings line the interior of Costa Rica’s oldest church still in use. Adventurers will enjoy an afternoon at the Irazu Volcano. Crater lakes and lush farmland make for scenic hikes and picturesque views.
The Ruins of Ujarras, with peaceful gardens and even a nearby public swimming pool, prove another popular destination for both travelers and residents. Buy lunch from one of the local women selling fragrant arepas before exploring the historic ruins and cooling off with a refreshing dip.
Costa Rica’s jade is world famous, and the Jade Museum - or Museo de Jade - displays arguably the world’s largest collection of the precious stone. At this museum you’ll not only see a huge array of jade jewelry and artifacts, you’ll also discover why the precious stone was revered in pre-Columbian times, and how it was used and traded. There are examples of jade from all over the Americas, including the Mayan Empire.
This lush public park at the center of San Jose was named after Francisco Morazan, an old-school general who tried to unite all of Central America into one common country. And while Morozan Park was once a hub for San Jose’s grit and grime (it used to be a known for drug sales and prostitution), the park has recently undergone a complete renaissance.
Travelers can safely wander through the green gardens that make Morazan Park a respite from the otherwise urban feel of San Jose and stretch out for an afternoon picnic on thick lawns under massive shade trees. The Templo de Musica, a concrete gazebo at the center of the land, is the highlight of any visit to Morazan Park—especially when live local musicians are playing.
More than 1600 pre-Columbian artifacts, including Costa Rica’s very first coin, handmade ceramics and a life-sized warrior, are housed in this museum that was opened in 1985.
The museum’s collection displays indigenous works dating from 500 AD to 1500 AD, including traditional jewelry and culturally relevant pieces from other Latin American countries. Displays on the second floor explore the influence of these artifacts on the social and cultural development of the nation, as well as a history of Costa Rica’s currency. Signs in both Spanish and English easily guide guests through hallways filled with rich history.
Explore the works of some of Costa Rica’s greatest artists from the colonial era through today at the Costa Rican Art Museum, including almost the entire body of work from prolific local artist Juan Manuel Sanchez. The museum is housed in the building that once served as the main terminal of San Jose’s original international airport and outside, toward where the tarmac once sat, is a lovely sculpture garden where visitors can walk around an enjoy the tropical weather. The museum often has chamber music concerts playing in the Golden Hall.
This easy-to-spot structure was built in Brussels and imported to Costa Rica via France in 1896. Upon arrival in San Jose, it served as one of the country’s very first schools. Because the original site was mostly swamplands, the Belgian company constructed the individual iron pieces overseas before assembling them onsite, once they arrive in Costa Rica.
Today, Metallic Building serves as homage to public education and two primary schools—Buenaventura Corrales and Julia Lang—still operate inside its historic halls. Visitors can explore the grounds on their own, or participate in one of the city’s historic walking tours to learn more about this iconic building.
Things to do near Central Valley
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