Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Central Valley
Although visitors once flocked to Arenal Volcano for its impressive lava shows, the 5,437-foot (1,657-meter) volcano has stayed quiet since its last eruption in 2010. However, Arenal and the surrounding Arenal Volcano National Park remain a hot spot for visitors to Costa Rica, and is especially popular among those seeking hiking trails, swimming holes, hot springs, bird- and wildlife-watching, and sweeping views of the tropical rain forest.
The 16 hanging bridges that line the paths of Costa Rica’s Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park stretch a total of 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers) across the steep landscape. See the birds, monkeys, sloths, snakes, and frogs that call the forest canopy home by ascending these spans, suspended above gorges and stretched across jungle floors.
Poas Volcano National Park houses one of the more popular volcanoes in Costa Rica—a telling superlative for a country with world-famous geothermal activity. But with its spectacular wildlife, informative museum, and variety of hiking trails, the accolade comes as no surprise.
La Fortuna Waterfall cascades 200 feet (61 meters) down the sheer cliff face of Cerro Chato, the Arenal Volcano’s dormant and thickly forested twin. One of the most impressive and accessible waterfalls in Costa Rica, La Fortuna is a great place to picnic, swim, and photograph the waterfall’s perpetual mists and nearby exotic vegetation.
Tumbling waterfalls, luxury spa and dining options, and the dramatic backdrop of Arenal Volcano set Tabacon Hot Springs apart from Costa Rica’s many thermal springs. Numerous pools dotting the Tabacon River create a completely natural hot spring experience on a private rain forest reserve, perfect for a day of pure relaxation.
From jaguars to capuchin monkeys, more than 100 animal species reside at this scenic nature park. Stop by to take in the animal exhibits, dine at the restaurant, and walk the 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers) of well-maintained trails, which take you past five waterfalls scattered throughout the rain forest and cloud forest.
Home to the highest active volcano in Costa Rica, Irazu Volcano National Park serves up some extraordinary panoramas. Think lush tangles of forest, gnarly cliffs of volcanic rock, and emerald-green crater lakes, all beneath an ethereal canopy of clouds.
The vast protected forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park is a natural for toucans, eagles, armadillos, sloths, monkeys, and jaguars. Catch a glimpse of its rugged beauty from the comfort of your car, or hike along the trails that lead to thundering waterfalls, towering mountains, and rapid rivers.
Bountiful produce stalls, local-approved cafeterias, and vendor stalls selling everything from coffee beans to cowboy boots give visitors to San Jose’s Central Market (Mercado Central) a taste of real Costa Rican culture. Visit as part of an epic errand run or for a chance to look behind-the-scenes at everyday life in Costa Rica.
Modelled after the Paris Opera House, the National Theater in San José’s Catedral district is a neo-classical masterpiece representing Costa Rica’s greatest era of extravagance and sophistication. The historic building has been the epicenter of the city’s fine arts scene including opera, symphony, and other performing arts since its inaugural performance by Fausto de Gounod in 1897.
More Things to Do in Central Valley
In 1856 this iconic Costa Rican river transported weapons, soldiers and food during the war against the filibusters. Today, Sarapiqui River (Rio Sarapiquí) has been named a national monument and is one of the country’s top destinations. Adventurous travelers can navigate the raging rapids of level III and IV white waters, while laid back visitors and families searching for fun can opt for a relaxing day tour or rive safari.
The surrounding mountains, as well as the La Selva Biological Reserve are home to scenic landscapes and plenty of wildlife. During a river safari, keep eyes peeled for turtles, sloths, monkeys and iguanas, as well as colorful tropical birds found only here! And travelers who prefer to keep their feet on land can still catch their share of rugged beauty on hikes on the reserve’s epic trails.
Housed in a historic building and managed by the Central Bank of Costa Rica, the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum holds one of the largest collections of gold artifacts in Latin America. In total, the museum holds more than 1,600 pre-Columbian items, including Costa Rica’s very first coin, handmade ceramics, jewelry, and religious icons dating from 500 AD to 1500 AD.
These ancient caves were carved by tectonic movement and water currents passing over limestone for millions of years. Inside this deep network of tunnels, visitors will find stalactites, stalagmites, rock formations, and subterranean rivers and caverns. There’s also a chance to spot wildlife, including bats, fish, insects, and frogs.
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 Jade Museum (Museo del Jade) proves to Costa Rica visitors that this small Central American country is as rich in its history and cultural offerings as in biodiversity. The museum, located in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, showcases more than 1,000 years’ worth of artifacts from Mesoamerica dating from 500 B.C. to 800 A.D.—including pre-Columbian jade, wood, and ceramics—in a renovated space.
Orosi River Valley is a tranquil, secluded area filled with rural charm and scenic landscapes, not far from the hustle and bustle of San José. With the silhouette of the volcanoes as a backdrop, the mountainous area has green forested hills covered by coffee plantations, natural hot springs, andxa0 colorful colonial towns in the middle of the lush vegetation.
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.
Housed in the barracks of the Bellavista Fortress, the National Museum (Museo Nacional), displays indigenous and pre-Columbian artifacts, religious artwork, and geological and archaeological 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 gold statues.
Offering scenic views of Volcan Arenal and Lake Arenal, the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges are a series of tall suspension bridges that form meandering trails through the rain forest, providing access to remote areas filled with natural beauty. The bridges immerse you deep into the heart of the forest, close to the extraordinary biodiversity of the jungle.
With its 175 acres of green space and network of forested walking trails, La Sabana Park 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.
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.
Built using funds donated by Andrew Carnegie in 1912, Costa Rica’s Yellow House(Casa Amarilla) 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 has some of the world’s most flavorful coffee and travelers who favor this bold brew can see how these prized beans make it from farm to table on a tour of Doka Estate. This iconic plantation puts visitors right up close to the production and practices of this age-old crop. Travelers can tour the grounds, see where workers hand-pick coffee berries from prized plants and even sample some of the eight roasts the Doka Estate creates on site.
Organized small-group, on-site tours ensure visitors receive personalized attention and loads of information, while the plantation’s gift shop, Casa de Artesanias, is filled with unique and flavorful items picked fresh from the farm that are perfect souvenirs for friends and family back home. The Doka Estate is also home to a Bonsai Tree and Orchid Garden, as well as a Butterfly Farm, making it the ideal place to spend the day exploring some of Costa Rica’s natural wonders.
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