Over two-thirds of Costa Rica’s population live in the Central Valley area, a high plateau surrounded by mountains and volcanic peaks. The main cities of this area are San Jose, (the capital), and the three surrounding cities of Alajuela, Heredia & Cartago.
Founded in 1738, San Jose found wealth through tobacco, and later coffee trading, giving it the edge over Cartago the former capital, and the other two cities. After a period of conflict San Jose tentatively became the capital in 1823, and remains so today.
Twenty minutes from San Jose International airport (actually near Alajuela), at an altitude of 1,1161m, modern San Jose is a bustling city with little classic architecture apart from the spectacular colonial National Theatre building and some colonial houses and villas. The Gold Museum with its pre-Columbian collection and The Jade Museum are also worth a visit if you are passing through. Far more enticing however, are the natural attractions of the Central Valley.
Three of Costa Rica’s most famous volcanoes: Irazu; Turrialba; and Poas; lie in the Central Valley within 2 hours of San Jose. At 3,432m, 3,339m and 2,704m respectively, they nestle amongst farm lands and dense vegetation, ideal for walking and horse riding.
Two of the most spectacular white water rafting rivers, the Pacuare and Sarapiqui are also to be found in this area, winding down to the Caribbean sea through miles and miles of virgin, tropical rainforest.
Near to Poas volcano are the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a wonderful introduction to Costa Rica’s flora and fauna with a butterfly house, an orchid garden, a frog house, a humming bird garden, and a trail to the waterfalls. It is also possible to visit a coffee plantation in this area for those wanting to learn more about where their morning coffee comes from.
Near to Cartago are the Lankester Botanical Gardens founded in 1917 by an Englishman, Charles Lankester Wells, whose flora includes over 700 species of orchid. Also in this valley is the Inbio Institute, which celebrates Costa Rica’s bio-diversity.