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 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.
Set amid rolling coffee fields 10km north of Alajuela, signposted off the road to Volcán Poás, the Doka Estate is one of the most historic coffee farms in the country. The Vargas family have been growing beans here for over seventy years – their beneficio (water mill) is the oldest in Costa Rica – and today produce a variety of roasts for Café Tres Generaciones. Enthusiastic guides cover the entire coffee-making process (the longer Friday morning tour also includes an ox-cart ride around the plantation), and finish with a free tasting – look out for their Peaberry Estate, a smooth medium roast containing the caracolillo bean, a mutation that gives the cup a sweeter flavour. You can also visit their new butterfly farm (included in the price), and grab lunch at the on-site restaurant.
Doka has its own café a couple of kilometres beyond the turning off the main road to Poás, where you can sample the estate’s various brews in an attractive setting.
Football (fútbol) is big in Costa Rica, even more so since their near-qualification for the 2010 World Cup (they lost in a play-off to eventual semi-finalists Uruguay), and Alajuela is home to one of most historic teams in the country: Liga Deportivo Alajuelense, who ply their trade at the impressive 18,000-seater Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto, northeast of the centre on C 9, Av 9. One of the original founders of the national league in 1921, LDA have won the Primera División 24 times but have lost out in recent seasons to Deportivo Saprissa, their great rivals from San José – derbies between the two teams, known as the Clasíco de Costa Rica, can be fiery affairs, and are certainly worth catching if you can.
Parque Nacional Volcán Poás, 38km north of Alajuela, is home to one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes, with a history of eruptions that goes back eleven million years. Poás’ last gigantic blowout was on January 25, 1910, when it dumped 640,000 tons of ash on the surrounding area, and from time to time you may find the volcano off-limits due to sulphurous gas emissions and other seismic activities – it was closed for a while following the Chinchona Earthquake in January 2009. It’s worth checking conditions with the park before you set off, but even if all’s well, you’ll still need to get to the volcano before the clouds roll in, which they invariably do at around 10am.
Though measuring just 65 square kilometres, Poás packs a punch: it’s a strange, otherworldly landscape, dotted with smoking fumaroles (steam vents) and tough ferns and trees valiantly surviving regular scaldings with sulphurous gases – the battle-scarred sombrilla de pobre, or poor man’s umbrella, looks the most woebegone. The volcano itself has blasted out three craters in its lifetime, and due to the more-or-less constant activity, the appearance of the main crater changes regularly – it’s currently 1500m wide and filled with milky turquoise water from which sulphurous gases waft and bubble (with a ph value of 0.8, this is reputably the most acidic lake on earth). Although it’s an impressive sight, you only need about fifteen minutes’ viewing and picture-snapping; otherwise, you can take one of the short trails that lead off the main route to the crater.
The park’s visitor centre shows film of the volcano – handy if the real thing is covered by cloud – and has a couple of displays explaining the science behind it; there’s also a simple snack shop, but you’re probably better off packing a picnic or grabbing lunch at one of the nearby restaurants.
Birds ply this temperate forest, from the colourful but shy quetzal to the robin and several species of hummingbird, including the endemic Poás volcano hummingbird, distinguished by its iridescent rose-red throat. Although a number of large mammals live in the confines of the park, including wildcats such as the margay, you’re unlikely to spot them around the crater; one animal you will come across, however, is the small, green-yellow Poás squirrel, unique to the region.
In the early afternoon of January 8, 2009, an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale struck the area just west of Volcán Poás, leaving at least 34 people dead and making thousands homeless. The worst quake to hit Costa Rica in nearly 150 years, it destroyed the village of Cinchona and scythed through nearby Vara Blanca; Poasito and Fraijanes were also damaged, while landslides affected Parque Nacional Volcán Poás and buried parts of La Paz Waterfall Gardens, stranding some 300 tourists in the process.
The area’s return to normality has been slow. Aftershocks continued in the Valle Central throughout the year – more than 2000 tremors were registered along the Chinchona fault line in 2009 – and workers were still repairing damage to the region’s roads and buildings more than a year on; at the time of writing, the road north to San Miguel remained closed. The national park and gardens have long since reopened, though, and from the dust, a new community, Nueva Cinchona, is rising – built in Cariblanco, 6km from the original, it will house 1200 of the survivors who lost their homes in the surrounding area.
Touted as Costa Rica’s centre for arts and crafts, Sarchí, 30km northwest of Alajuela, is famous for producing the brightly painted ox-carts, or carretas, that have become the country’s national symbol. The setting is pretty enough, between precipitous verdant hills, but don’t expect to see picturesque scenes of craftsmen sitting in small historic shops, sculpting marble or carving wood – Sarchí is an overly commercialised village, firmly on the tourist trail, and most of the factories are rather soulless showrooms. In a few of them, however, you can watch carts and furniture being painted and assembled, and at the very least, the ox-carts and rocking chairs are less expensive here than anywhere else in the country.
The red berries lining the fields at Hacienda Espíritu Santo, a co-op coffee plantation just outside the town of Naranjo, 5km northwest of Sarchí, end up in the bags of Café Bandola that you’ll see in all the stores around here. Thanks to the local climate, the beans are of the Valle Occidental variety – something that is explored in greater depth on one of the hacienda’s tours, which also cover the nursery, mill and roasting room, as well as a walk around the plantation itself. Tours end with that all-important tasting.
The Carreta de Sarchí or Sarchí ox-cart was first produced by enterprising local families for the immigrant settlers who arrived at the beginning of the twentieth century to run the coffee plantations. The original designs featured simple geometric shapes, though the ox-carts sold today are kaleidoscopically painted square creations built to be hauled by a single ox or team of two oxen. Moorish in origin, the designs can be traced back to immigrants from the Spanish provinces of Andalucía and Granada. Full-scale carts are rarely sold, but many smaller-scale coffee table-sized replicas are made for tourists, while dinky desktop versions can be picked up for under $5.
Top image: Poas Volcano, Costa Rica © Michal Sarauer/Shutterstock