Known locally as La Meseta Central or El Valle Central, the long, thin, doglegging Central Valley is Costa Rica’s most densely populated region. In addition to San José, it is home to both Alajuela and Heredia, numerous smaller cities, suburbs and towns, and the country’s principal international airport. Most visitors start and end their Costa Rican vacations in the Central Valley.

The hills, mountains, and volcanoes that ring the Central Valley are an agricultural wonderland, with farms, fields, and plantations growing a wide range of crops, most prominently coffee. These towns, cities, hillsides, and volcanoes are home to a wide range of compelling attractions, from volcanic national parks and La Paz Waterfall Gardens, to pre-Colombian ruins and colonial-era churches. And this is a perfect place to tour a working coffee farm. Although technically one valley over, the colonial-era capital city of Cartago is included in this chapter, because of its general geographic location and proximity to San José. With its ornate and locally revered Basilica, earthquake-damaged Central Park ruins, and the lovely, neighboring Orosi Valley, this is an area well worth exploring.

The Best Central Valley Experiences


Dining at a Mirador: Grab a window seat at a mirador, and enjoy your meal with the lights of San José at your feet. You’ll find miradores set up on most of the foothills surrounding the Central Valley.

Visiting a Volcano: Several of Costa Rica’s most impressive and accessible volcanoes are found in the mountains that define the Central Valley. These include Poás, Irazú, and Turrialba, all active volcanoes with their own namesake national parks.

Visiting La Paz Waterfall Gardens: This place is akin to a Costa Rican tropical theme park. I enjoy combining a visit here with a stay in their luxurious on-site Peace Lodge. Its multiple attractions also make this a great day-trip option.

Touring the Orosi Valley: Arguably one of the most picturesque drives in Costa Rica, a trip around the Orosi Valley offers up stunning vistas, ancient ruins, charming small towns and several top-notch attractions.

Getting Wet & Wild in Turrialba: This small, rural city is Costa Rica’s main base for white-water rafting and kayak guides. From here, trips leave on both the Pacuare and Reventazón rivers. You’ll also find a thrilling canyoning operation, and plenty of opportunities for other adventure activities.