Valle Central and the highlands travel guide
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Costa Rica’s Valle Central (“Central Valley”) and the surrounding highlands form the cultural and geographical fulcrum of Costa Rica. Rising between 3000 and 4000m, this inter-mountain plateau has a patchwork-quilt beauty. This is especially so when lit by the early morning sun, with green coffee terraces set in sharp contrast to the blue-black summits of the nearby mountains. Plan your trip to the Valle Central with our guide to the Valle Central — based on the The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, your travel guide for Costa Rica.
Many of the mountains in Costa Rica’s Valle Central are volcanoes. Running from Poás in the north to Turrialba in the east, their volatile nature can sometimes give the region an air of unease.
The sight of Poás, Irazú and Turrialba spewing and snorting, raining a light covering of fertile volcanic ash on the surrounding farmland, is a fairly common one. In recent years, seismic activity has been a lot more significant.
For example, in January 2009 an earthquake devastated the area around Poás. A year later Turrialba erupted for the first time in nearly 150 years, causing nearby villages to be evacuated. In 2017, Volcán Poás was closed to visitors for around two years after increased volcanic activity. It reopened in 2019 with more safety measures in place.
Although occupying a relatively small area, the fertile Valle Central supports roughly two-thirds of Costa Rica’s population. The majority live in San José, or one of the provincial capitals of Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago.
Away from the big cities, the countryside is blanketed by coffee plantations, several of which can be explored on tours.
Alongside the visiting volcanoes and their surrounding national parks, the Valle Central boasts a rich range of activities. These include whitewater rafting, soaking in hot springs in the bucolic Orosí valley, and being wowed by waterfalls.
Meanwhile, the ancient ruins at Monumento Nacional Guayabo are one of Costa Rica’s most significant archaeological sites, In addition, wherever you're based in the Valle Central, you'll find tours to give you tasty insights into the finer points of Costa Rican coffee production.
Here are some of the best things to do in the Valle Central, Costa Rica.
Easily accessible from Alajuela, Parque Nacional Volcán Poás is home to one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes, with a history of eruptions dating back eleven million years.
Though measuring just 65 square kilometres, Poás packs mighty punch. It’s a strange, otherworldly landscape, dotted with smoking fumaroles, and tough ferns and trees that survive regular scaldings.
When you’ve finished snapping shots of the crater, explore the short trails that lead off the main route — there's a reason we included Volcán Poás in our run-down of the best hikes in Costa Rica.
Birds ply this temperate forest, among them the colourful quetzal and several species of hummingbird, including the endemic Poás volcano hummingbird.
Although a number of large mammals live in the confines of the park, including wildcats, you’re unlikely to spot them around the crater. One animal you will come across, however, is the small, green-yellow Poás squirrel, which is unique to the region.
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15km east of Poás, La Paz Waterfall Gardens is one of Costa Rica’s most popular attractions. Self-guided tours meander through a pretty garden planted with native shrubs and flowers.
There’s also a butterfly observatory, orchid display, frog house, snake garden, hummingbird garden, and jungle cat enclosure. The 35 felines here were brought to La Paz when the rescue centre housing them closed, and it’s now home to five of Costa Rica’s six cat species — only the oncilla is absent.
Beyond the frog house, an immaculate series of riverside trails links five waterfalls on the Río La Paz. These start with Tempio, and wind past Magia Blanca – the highest, which crashes down 40 into swirling whitewater.
Lastly, you’ll reach the top of the eponymous La Paz Waterfall, one of the best waterfalls in Costa Rica.
32km north of Cartago, the blasted lunar landscape of Volcán Irazú National Park reaches its highest point at 3432m. On clear days, it offers fantastic views all the way to the Caribbean coast.
While its main crater is far less active than Volcán Poás, its deep depression creates an undeniably dramatic sight, and makes for a scenic trip from Cartago, especially in the early morning before the clouds roll in (about 10am).
While the main crater draws the crowds, it’s worth noting that the shallow bowl to its right, the Diego de la Haya crater, is the remnant of Irazú’s first and largest eruption. When it blew in 1723, the eruption lasted ten months and showered San José in ash.
Be aware that the volcano’s altitude is just high enough that some people might feel the first effects of altitude sickness. If you are one of those, descend immediately. Visitors should also stay behind the barriers at all times — volcanic ash crumbles easily, and you could end up falling in.
Occupying a deep bowl 9km to the southeast of Cartago, Valle Orosí is a veritable Garden of Eden, and Orosí is one of the most picturesque villages in Costa Rica. Especially enchanting on clear mornings, when the lush hillsides are drenched in sunlight, its bucolic charms have a way of seducing visitors.
Turrialba has two of Central America’s finest whitewater rafting rivers on its doorstep. Indeed, the scenic Río Pacuare’s adrenaline-inducing mix of open canyons and narrow passages has made it one of the best on Earth. When rapids are called “Double Drop” and “Upper Pinball”, you know they’ve earned their names.
Most day-trips on the Pacuare run the 29km stretch of Class-IV rapids on the Lower Pacuare and give you up to five hours on the river. Trips down the Reventazón tend to hit the Class-III rapids at the Caribbean-side section of Florida, offering up to 2hr 30 minutes on the water.
Experienced rafters will want to tackle the 24km of Class-IV+ rapids at Pascua. You could also consider taking a multiday trip on the Pacuare.
Into adventure? You'll love our customisable Costa Rica Eco Adventure trip.
It;s fair to say that most people use San José as a base for forays into the Valle Central, or stay at one of the appealing lodges scattered throughout the countryside.
That said, if you want to see more of Costa Rica, it's worth spending some time in one (or more) of the Valle Central's key provincial capitals. Here are our accommodation tips for those hubs, which make great bases from which to explore the Valle Central.
While Alajuela can be seen in half a day or so, it makes a convenient base for visiting the surrounding sights — most of the Valle Central’s main attractions lie within a 30km radius.
The city is warmer than San José, and it's a useful place to stay if you’ve an early-morning flight. The airport is just a five-minute bus ride away, compared with forty minutes or more from the capital. This means accommodation in Alajuela fills up quickly, and it’s important to reserve ahead even in the rainy season.
The best options are actually just outside town, including the Xandari Resort & Spa, which is one of Costa Rica’s loveliest hotels.
Explore places to stay in Alajuela.
11km northeast of San José lies the lively city of Heredia, boosted by the student population of the Universidad Nacional. Although there’s not a great deal to see in town, Heredia is a natural jumping-off point for excursions to Volcán Barva in Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo. Many tourists also come for the Café Britt tour, hosted by the nation’s largest and most famous coffee exporter.
It's fair to say that decent accommodation in downtown Heredia is pretty sparse, but there are several country hotels nearby, including Finca Rosa Blanca, one of Costa Rica's finest hotels.
Browse places to stay in Heredia, the Valle Central, Costa Rica.
Founded in 1563, Cartago functions mainly as a busy market and shopping centre, with some industry around its periphery.
While most of the city was demolished during the seismic events in 1823 and 1910, this city still has enough attractions and things to do to keep you busy. The star attraction is its soaring cathedral, or basílica, dedicated to La Negrita, Costa Rica’s patron saint.
See places to stay in Cartago, the Valle Central, Costa Rica.
Many Ticos commute from the Valle Central and the surrounding highlands to work in San José via an efficient bus and train network. That said, some interesting areas — notably Irazú and Tapantí — remain frustratingly out of reach of public transport.
This means, in many cases, you'll need to rent a car, but bear in mind that car rental is expensive. In addition, the mountainous terrain and narrow, winding, unlit roads can make driving difficult, if not dangerous. Also note that congestion around the capital is increasingly bad, particularly during the morning and late afternoon rush hours.
A better option, perhaps, is to take a taxi from the nearest town. Alternatively, you could join an organized tour from San José, or one of the provincial capitals.
Need help planning your trip? Check our Costa Rica itineraries, or talk to our Costa Rica experts.
The number of days you need to visit the Valle Central, Costa Rica, all depends on your interests and the kind of activities you fancy doing.
To take in some of the Valle Central’s main attractions, you’ll need at around 5-7 days, at the very least. In that time, you could spend a day trekking the trails of Volcán Poás National Park, and a second day visiting Volcán Irazú National Park.
Nature-lovers also won’t want to miss La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and the awe-inspiring Valle Orosí. In fact, devoting a few days to exploring Orosí village and its stunning environs comes highly recommended, especially if you love getting out and about in the beautiful outdoors.
Add to that spending a day in the Valle Central’s provincial capitals — Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago — and you’re looking at a week-long trip that could easily be extended and still packed with diverse, memorable experiences. These include the likes of white-water rafting and visiting Monumento Nacional Guayabo — one of Costa Rica’s most significant archaeological sites — both of which are near Turrialba.
The best time to visit the Valle Central is during the dry season, which runs from December to April.
At this time, you can expect blue skies, warm temperatures, and little rain — all the better for enjoying outdoor activities.
That said, the May—November rainy season brings lusher vegetation and more powerful waterfalls. It also means fewer crowds and lower prices, so you could consider visiting during these months. Just come prepared for showers and muddy roads.
For more on the best time to visit different destinations in Costa Rica, read our guide to when to go to Costa Rica.
Chances are, if you’re planning to explore the Valle Central, you’ll have landed at Juan Santamaría International Airport. This is 17km northwest of San José and 3km southeast of Alajuela. From here, you have several options to travel elsewhere in the Valle Central.
The fastest way to get into central San José or Alajuela from the airport is by taxi, which takes about 20–30min. Official airport taxis are orange and line up outside the terminal. It’s currently a little chaotic, so take a deep breath and be sure to agree the fare before getting in the cab.
Shuttle buses are a cheaper alternative to taxis. These can be arranged in advance, and drop off at hotels. If you haven’t arranged a ride in advance, Interbus specialises in linking areas of tourist interest across the country.
The Alajuela–San José public bus stops right outside the airport’s undercover car park. Drivers will indicate which buses are on their way to San José (a 30min journey) and which to Alajuela (5–10min).
If you’re already in San José itself, you also have a few options.
Most of the nation’s shuttle bus operators run routes from San José to all the major tourist destinations. They offer smaller minibuses that will pick up from your hotel. However, they are much more expensive than public buses, and can take longer, depending on the pick-up schedule and the traffic in towns.
From San José there are few places in Costa Rica that can’t be reached by bus. Get a complete timetable at the tourism office when you arrive or check routes online at Visit Costa Rica.
San José’s current urbanrail system is infrequent and targeted primarily at commuters. There are just 5–6 daily trains on lines that snake around the centre, with extensions to Alajuela (50min), Heredia (30min) and Cartago (45min) from Estación del Atlántico. See incofer for more information.
For more transportation tips, read our guide to getting around Costa Rica.
Looking for more inspiration? Read up on the best things to do in Costa Rica, and get yourself a copy of The Rough Guide to Costa Rica. Our Costa Rica travel tips will also help you plan your trip.
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Top image Irazu volcano, the Valle Central, Costa Rca-© alexilena/Shutterstock