At first sight, it may be hard to distinguish Alajuela from San José, but slowly the pleasant realization dawns that you can smell bougainvillea rather than petrol fumes as you walk down the street. The city was founded in 1657 and remains a largely agricultural centre. Plan your trip to Alajuela with our guide to Alajuela — based on the The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, your travel guide for Costa Rica.

The best travel tips for visiting Alajuela

Alajuela’s most cherished historical figure is the drummer-boy-cum-martyr Juan Santamaría. Hero of the 1856 Battle of Rivas. he also has his own museum, which is about the only formal attraction in the centre of town.

Juan also has his own festival, the Día de Juan Santamaría (11th April, 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.

The city is considerably warmer than San José, and 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 with forty minutes or more from the capital.

In addition, Alajuela is within reach of one of the world's most accessible active volcanoes (Volcán Poás), and one of Costa Rica's most off-the-beaten-track national parks (Parque Nacional Juan Castro Blanco). It's also at the centre of the country's coffee production industry

All that considered, if you're into natural attractions, national parks, and outdoor adventures, consider including Alajuela in your Costa Rica itinerary.

Poas Volcano, Costa Rica

Poas Volcano, Costa Rica, is one of the top attractions around Alajuela © Shutterstock

Top attractions and things to do in Alajuela

#1 Explore Museo Juan Santamaría

Most impressive of the old colonial buildings that fringe the Parque Central is the sturdy whitewashed former jail that now houses the Museo Juan Santamaría. It's entered through a pretty tiled courtyard garden lined with long wooden benches.

The curiously monastic atmosphere of the rooms is almost more interesting than the small collection, which runs the gamut from mid-nineteenth-century maps of Costa Rica to crumbly portraits of figures involved in the battle of 1856.

Temporary exhibitions showcase local crafts or modern art, while the auditorium hosts cultural lectures (in Spanish) on regional topics.

#2 Visit Catedral de Alajuela and Iglesia de Santo Cristo de la Agonía

Flanking the eastern end of the square, the white-domed Catedral de Alajuela has a finely painted interior, pretty floor tiles, round stained-glass windows and a large cupola decorated with trompe l’oeil balconies.

Meanwhile, the Iglesia de Santo Cristo de la Agonía was constructed in 1935, but looks much older, with a Baroque exterior painted in two-tone cream.

Head inside for a look at the lovely wooden, gilt-edged altar, with naive Latin American motifs and gilt-painted columns edging the bright tiled floor.

Realist murals, apparently painted from life, show various stages in the development of Christianity in Costa Rica. epicting monsignors and indigenous people gathering with middle-class citizens to receive the Word.

La Agonía Church in Alajuela, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

La Agonía Church in Alajuela, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

#3 Experience Costa Rican football

Football (fútbol) is big in Costa Rica, even more so since the country’s stirring performances in the 2014 World Cup.

In good news for footie fans, Alajuela is home to one of the most historic teams in the country. Namely, Liga Deportivo Alajuelense, who ply their trade at the impressive 18,000-seat Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto.

One of the original founders of the national league in 1921, LDA have won the Primera División 29 times, most recently in 2014. Their great rivals are Deportivo Saprissa from San José. Derbies between the two teams, known as the Clasíco de Costa Rica, can be fiery affairs, and are certainly worth catching.

Matches are played on Sundays during the winter (late July to late Dec) and summer (mid-Jan to mid-May) championships; tickets start around US$20 and can be bought at the stadium.

#4 Enjoy world-class Costa Rican coffee

Some of the world’s finest coffee grows on the cultivated slopes of the Valle Central, and a number of the region’s fincas and estates run good-value tours of their plantations.

The following fincas and estates are open year-round but are best visited during the picking season (Oct–Feb).

  • Café Britt Barva, Valle Central: slick group tours from the country’s largest coffee exporter.
  • Café Cristina Paraiso, Orosí: owner-led tours of an environmentally sound set-up.
  • Doka Estate San Luis de Sabanilla, Valle Central: offers ox-cart tours around its estate.
  • Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation, Valle Central: insights into an organic farm and sustainable practices.
  • Hacienda Espíritu Santo Naranjo, Valle Occidental: part of a co-operative of producers in the Naranjo area.
Coffee beans, Guatemala

© Shutterstock

#5 Explore Parque Nacional Juan Castro Blanco

7km north of the village of Bajos del Toro, Parque Nacional Juan Castro Blanco is one of Costa Rica’s least-explored national parks.

This is partly due to its isolated location, but mostly because of its status as a national-park-in-waiting. Scant marked trails and minimal tourist infrastructure in the surrounding villages has made it something of an off-the-beaten-path destination for hikers and wildlife enthusiasts.

Created in 1992 to protect the Platanar and Porvenir volcanoes from logging, more than half the park consists of lush primary forest.

Rare species of bird, such as resplendent quetzal and black guan, can be spotted here. Armadillo, tapir, red brocket deer and white-faced capuchin monkeys also roam the park.

The five rivers in Juan Castro Blanco are also filled with trout, which has made the park a popular destination for anglers.

Catarata del Toro waterfall in Bajos del Toto, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

Catarata del Toro waterfall in Bajos del Toto, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

#6 Watch wildlife at Parque Nacional Volcán Poás

38km north of Alajuela, Parque Nacional Volcán Poás is home to one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes, with a history of eruptions that goes back eleven million years. Its last gigantic blowout was on 25th January 1910. 

Though just 65 square kilometres, Poás packs a punch. It's an otherworldly landscape, dotted with smoking fumaroles, tough ferns, and trees valiantly surviving regular scaldings. 

As a result, Parque Nacional Volcán Poás made it into our run-down of the best hikes in Costa Rica. If that wasn't enough, Poás features in our overview of the top volcanoes around the world.

Accessible to wheelchairs and pushchairs, the Crater Overlook Trail winds around the main crater. A side trail heads through the forest to the emerald Lago Botos that fills an extinct crater. 

Birds ply this temperate forest, from the colourful, shy quetzal, to several species of hummingbird, including the endemic Poás volcano hummingbird.  

Around the crater, you might also come across the green-yellow Poás squirrel that's unique to the region.

Into nature? Discover the most beautiful national parks in Costa Rica, and be inspired by our customisable Costa Rica Eco Adventure trip.


North of Alajuela, Parque Nacional Volcán Poás offers opportunities to see the quetzal © Shutterstock

Best areas to stay in Alajuela

Due to its proximity to the airport, accommodation fills up quickly, and it’s important to reserve ahead even in the rainy season.

Hotels in Alajuela itself are generally underwhelming. The finest options are actually just outside town, including the Xandari Resort & Spa, which is one of Costa Rica’s loveliest hotels.

Most places can organize tours of the surrounding attractions.

    In town

  • Hotel Martino Spa and Resort: The Italian-style club is set in tropical gardens and offers an outdoor pool and spa with sauna and gym.
  • Hotel 1915: Alajuela’s oldest hotel is also one of its finest, with elegantly subtle rooms.
  • Los Volcanes: once home to the Red Cross, this townhouse is now a charming low-cost hotel.

    Out of town

  • Pura Vida Retreat & Spa: this yoga-oriented retreat offers swish pagodas with jacuzzis and luxury “tentalows”.
  • Tacacori EcoLodge: this has a strong environmental ethos and bright casitas in orchid-filled gardens.
  • Xandari Resort & Spa: a luxury hotel with splendid views over the Valle Central and villas in tropical gardens.

Explore more places to stay in Alajuela.

Best restaurants and bars in Alajuela

Alajuela has several decent restaurants, and you can dig into particularly tasty ceviche and casados at the friendly Mercado Central (daily 11am–6pm).

Around here, you'll also find several inexpensive Chinese joints.

Note that Alajuela’s nightlife is fairly limited, and most bars close around 11pm.

  • Le Café: run by a local producer, this “Brew and Espresso Bar” serves coffee, cakes, pastries and sandwiches.
  • El Chante Vegano: the menu features wholesome vegan soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas, and juices.
  • Jalapeños Central: this cheerful Tex-Mex joint offers fajitas, quesadillas, tacos, burritos and enchiladas.
  • Restaurante Chiwake: an excellent Peruvian restaurant with a wide range of fish, prawn and octopus ceviches.

Find out more about eating and drinking in Costa Rica.


Seafood ceviche is a feature of menus in Alajuela, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

How to get around Alajuela

Most car rental agencies in and around the airport will bring your car to your hotel in Alajuela.

Otherwise, try the in-house travel agency at Hotel 1915.

Alongside some of the better hotels and hostels, the best source of information in town is Goodlight Books on Av 3, C 1/3. It's open daily 9am–6pm; T2430 4083. Here staff can usually help with public transport questions.

How many days do you need in Alajuela?

While it’s true to say you can see Alajuela’s sights in around half a day, it's the perfect base for exploring many sights around the Valle Central. Given that most of these can be found within a 30km radius of town, we’d recommend allowing at least 3-4 days.

As a suggested itinerary, you could spend your first day in town, before heading to Parque Nacional Volcán Poás for day two.

Come day three, walk the trails of Parque Nacional Juan Castro Blanco, perhaps planning to watch a football match in the evening (fixtures permitting, of course). You could also look to fit in a coffee plantation tasting tour. 

What is the best time to visit Alajuela?

If you’ve come for the coffee, the best time to visit Alajuela is during the October— February picking season. 

And the reason? If you tour one of the region’s estates at this time, you can often get involved in harvesting the bright red berries and roasting them yourself.

Happily for outdoor adventurers travellers who love trekking as much as good coffee, this partially coincides with Costa Rica’s dry season. Extending from December — April, this presents better condition for hiking the region’s trails. 

If you’re keen to experience Costa Rican culture, April is one of the best times to visit Alajuela. On 11th April, the town comes alive with parades and fireworks for the Día de Juan Santamaría festivities.

For more on the best time to visit different destinations in Costa Rica, read our guide to when to go to Costa Rica.

Hummingbird, Rara Avis Reserve, Costa Rica

National parks near Alajuela, Costa Rica, are blessed with a bounty of hummingbirds © Shutterstock

How to get to Alajuela

By plane

Most international flights arrive at Juan Santamaría International Airport, under 3km from Alajuela. Most hotels and hostels include airport pick-up, or you can take a taxi or catch a bus into town.

By local bus

The Tuasa buses that run frequently to and from San José and Heredia use the station on C 8, four blocks west of the Parque Central.

Station Wagon Alajuela buses from San José drop you off on Av 4, 50m southwest of Parque Juan Santamaría, a few minutes’ walk from the centre.

The daily bus to Volcán Poás uses the Tuasa terminal. Other local services leave from the Estacíon al Pacífico on Av 2, C 8/10, or from one of the surrounding jumble of bus stops.

By long-distance bus

Buses for destinations further afield depart from La Radial station (officially known as Multicentro La Estacíon), 75m south of the Shell station, on C 4. Many other buses travelling from northern Costa Rica to San José stop at the airport, from where you can quickly and easily reach Alajuela.

By car

If you’re driving from San José, head in the direction of the airport on Hwy-1 (the Interamericana, or Autopista General Cañas). The turn-off to Alajuela is 17km northwest of San José – don’t use the underpass or you’ll end up at the airport.

By train

Roughly five train per day run between Alajuela and San José's Atlantic Railroad Station. The trip takes roughly 50min. Check for updates.

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. Alternatively, if you're not a fan of planning, you'll love our customisable Costa Rica itineraries.

We may earn commission when you click on links in this article, but this doesn’t influence our editorial standards. We only recommend services we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.

Top image: Poas Volcano, Costa Rica © Michal Sarauer/Shutterstock

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written by
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updated 21.02.2023

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