Just 11km northeast of San José lies the lively city of Heredia, boosted by the student population of the Universidad Nacional (UNA), at the eastern end of town. The town centre is a little run-down, with the Parque Central flanked by tall palms and a few historical buildings. Overlooking the Parque is the Basílica de la Inmaculada Concepción, whose unexciting squat design – “seismic Baroque” – has kept it standing through several earthquakes since 1797. North of the parque, the old colonial tower of El Fortín, “The Fortress”, features odd gun slats that fan out and widen from the inside to the exterior, giving it a medieval look.
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Although there’s not a great deal to see in town, Heredia is a natural jumping-off point for excursions to Volcán Barva, and many tourists also come for the Café Britt tour, hosted by the nation’s largest coffee exporter, about 3km north of the town centre.
Finca Rosa Blanca
For an interesting alternative to large-group coffee tours, follow the road through Barva and northwest to Santa Bárbara de Heredia and the coffee fields at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Inn. The plantation at this fantastic hotel is one of the country’s few organic setups – the beans are fertilized using rich soil from the hotel’s vermiculture and compost made from their restaurant refuse, while the fields are planted with various trees and plants that help the crop’s growth: pejibaye to deter insects, bananas to help retain moisture during the dry season, palms for shade. The resident expert passionately guides visitors through the science behind this, plus there’s the chance (in season) to join in the harvesting or roasting. As a renowned barista, his tasting tips at the closing cupping session are second to none.
Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo
Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo, 15km northeast of Heredia, covers nearly 500 square kilometres of virgin rainforest and dense cloudforest, but draws few visitors on account of its sheer size and lack of facilities – most tourists experience the majestic views of thick foliage only from the window of a bus on their way to the Caribbean coast. Those that do spend any length of time here tend to spend it tackling Volcán Barva, which dominates the southwest corner of the park and is accessed from the village of Sacramento.
The park is named after Costa Rica’s third, and rather dictatorial, chief of state, who held office in the mid-1800s. It was established in 1978 to protect the land from the possible effects of the Guápiles Highway, then under construction between San José and Limón, a piece of intelligent foresight without which this whole stretch of countryside might have been turned into a solid strip of petrol stations and motels.
Note that, unfortunately, security is a growing problem in the park; if driving, never leave anything in your car, and always use a guide for longer hikes – though these are only available at Quebrada Gonzalez.
Watching wildlife in Braulio Carrillo
Due to its enormous size and varied altitude, Braulio Carrillo has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in Costa Rica, with over 530 species of birds, including the rare quetzal (mostly seen at higher elevations), toucans, trogons and eagles, and some 135 species of mammals, such as collared peccary, paca, jaguar and ocelot. The park, particularly the Barva area, is one of the few places in the country where the bushmaster (matabuey), Central America’s largest venomous snake, makes its home, along with the equally poisonous fer-de-lance (terciopelo).