The market town of San Isidro de El General, 136km southwest of San José, sits amid a lush agricultural landscape, and makes for a welcome respite after negotiating the rigours of the Interamericana, also known as Hwy-2. The Interamericana winds its way about 2000m up from the bowl of Cartago’s enclosing valley to the chilly heights of the 3491-metre Cerro de la Muerte (“Mountain of Death”) pass. En route, it passes turn-offs for the beguiling mountain village of San Gerardo de Dota and Costa Rica’s newest national park, Parque Nacional Los Quetzales, one of the few places in the world where you stand an excellent chance of spotting quetzals in the wild and a must-stop for birders.
The Hotel del Sur Country Club and Casino is set in quiet, pleasant grounds about 6km southwest of San Isidro on the Interamericana and has en-suite rooms, wi-fi, tennis courts, a swimming pool and a good restaurant.
San Isidro’s main bus terminal is adjacent to the town’s central market at Av 6, C 0/2, but most buses from here head to local destinations. To and from San José, TRACOPA buses stop at the terminal on the Interamericana and Calle 2, while MUSA buses pick up passengers across the road. The Banco Nacional on the main square changes travellers’ cheques and has an ATM, as does the Banco de Costa Rica on Av 4, C 0. There are two internet cafés on the main square and you’ll find the post office on C 1, Av 6/8.
Information about the Parque Nacional Chirripó and Parque Internacional La Amistad is available from the regional office of the national parks service at C 2, Av 4/6, south of the Parque Central. It’s worth stopping off here to ask about current conditions and, if possible, to make reservations for Chirripó. On C 4, Av 1/3 are the offices of CIPROTUR, a nonprofit organization, with a useful website, that promotes ecotourism mainly in the Zona Sur: its helpful staff can book hotel rooms and answer queries.
About 80km south of San José, a turn-off leads to the lovely hamlet of San Gerardo de Dota – you’ll need a 4WD to get here, since the road down from the Interamericana is treacherously steep in parts. The village enjoys a spectacular setting along the Río Savegre, with lush valley walls looming on either side of it. Though it has long been known by ornithologists for the staggeringly high number of species found in the area, particularly the striking resplendent quetzal, it has always had a bit of a forgotten feel to it, and makes an ideal base for visiting the nearby Parque Nacional Los Quetzales.
There’s not much to the village itself, beyond a preponderance of apple and peach trees. Other than making trips to the Parque Nacional Los Quetzales, the most popular pastime around here is fishing – lure fishing from December to March and fly-fishing mostly in May and June; Hotel de Montaña Savegre rents out equipment and is a good choice for fishing outings on the river.
If you’re travelling south from San Isidro to Palmar (2 daily; 4hr), Golfito (2 daily; 5hr) or Paso Canoas (2 daily; 6hr), it’s better to get a bus that originates in San Isidro rather than one that’s coming through from San José, as they’re often full and you could find yourself standing all the way to Panamá. If you want to try for one of the through-services, visit TRACOPA’s ticket office (Mon–Sat 7am–4pm) at Calle 3 and the Interamericana; you can buy tickets if there are seats available, and schedules are posted telling you what time the buses pass through town. Buses for Quepos (4 daily; 3hr 30min) and Dominical (5 daily; 1hr 20min) leave from the TRACOPA terminal, at Calle 2 and the Interamericana. Buses for San Gerardo de Rivas leave at 5am and 2pm (1hr 40min) from the main (El Mercado) bus terminal at Av 6, C 0/2. For all local services, buy your ticket on the bus.
Top image: Resplendent Quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno, Savegre in Costa Rica © Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock