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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 Alajuela and Heredia; numerous smaller cities, suburbs, and towns; and the country’s principal international airport. Most visitors start and end their vacations here.

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. 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 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 these restaurants with a view 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. Consider combining a visit here with a stay in the luxurious on-site Peace Lodge (p ###). Its multiple attractions also make this a great day-trip option. 

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

* Getting Wet & Wild in Turrialba: This small, rural city is Costa Rica’s main base for whitewater rafting and kayaking, especially on the nearby Pacuare River. You’ll also find a thrilling canyoning operation and plenty of opportunities for other adventure activities.