At first sight, it may be hard to distinguish ALAJUELA from San José, until the pleasant realization dawns that you can smell bougainvillea rather than petrol fumes as you walk down the street. Alajuela was founded in 1657 and remains a largely agricultural centre, with a Saturday market (6am–2.30pm) that draws hundreds of farmers who come to sell fruit, vegetables, dairy products and flowers.

Alajuela’s most cherished historical figure is the drummer-boy-cum-martyr Juan Santamaría, hero of the 1856 Battle of Rivas and subject of his own museum, about the only formal attraction in town; he also has his own festival, the Día de Juan Santamaría (April 11, the anniversary of the great battle), when the townsfolk kick up their heels with bands, parades and fireworks.

Alajuela can be seen in half a day or so, but it makes a convenient base for visiting the surrounding sights (most of the Valle Central’s main attractions lie within a 30km radius, and the city is considerably warmer than San José) or a useful place to stay if you’ve an early-morning flight to catch – the airport is just a five-minute bus ride away, compared to forty minutes or more from the capital.