San José and the Central Valley

Costa Rica’s Central Valley is both the geographical and cultural center of the country. Home to approximately 70 percent of the population, it boasts coffee-cultivated hills, fertile soils, elegant residential communities, luxurious hotels and restaurants, a sampling of the country’s wonderful natural wonders, including rainforests and volcanoes, and—with an altitude of 3,000 to 5,000 feet—a most idyllic climate for a country that can get quite hot.

More a plateau than a valley, the Cordillera central mountain range to the north and east encloses the region, and the Talamanca range to the south and west. As the country’s primary agricultural region, coffee farms paint the rolling hillsides, some portions of the area appearing alpine-like, with villages nestled among mountains, forests, and farms.

The region includes the capital of San José and its suburbs and prominent surrounding towns, such as the provincial capitals Heredia, Alajuela, and Cartago. The central location of the Central Valley finds the capital and its suburbs within about 1–1.5 hours of almost anywhere in the region, making it an ideal launch point for visiting Costa Rica’s destinations. While most find two days in the valley is long enough, many make the commute from here to take advantage of attractions found in the surrounding highlands, such as the Poás and Irazú volcanoes, and Braulio Carillo National Park.

In the middle of the country’s fertile Central Valley, Costa Rica’s capital enjoys a spectacular setting of encircling volcanoes and soaring mountains, and a springlike climate year-round. More cosmopolitan than other Central American capitals, the city, which was founded in 1737, sat forgotten until the coffee business took flight in the late-19th century. By the 20th century, Costa Rica’s only major urban center quickly established itself as the heart of Costa Rican life—today the country’s political, social, and cultural center.

While San José itself pales against the splendor of its surroundings—a visit to the city can be a chaotic and often stressful experience of noise and traffic, unimpressive concrete buildings, and poorly maintained streets, where crime is a serious problem and bus pollution fills the sky—a closer look reveals San José’s own charms. Among the disorder, excellent museums and galleries, world-class restaurants and more humble Tico eateries, countless theaters and cinemas, a range of accommodations, leafy parks, the best shopping in the country, and a fabulous nightlife exist.

A privileged location makes it an ideal base for day trips to the surrounding Central Valley and a good hub for visiting the country’s national parks, rainforests, and beaches—the Pacific only an hour away.

San José is composed of several neighborhoods or barrios, each with distinct personalities and amenities. Despite the severe gridlock, the city’s downtown center, known as “El Centro” (or “Chepe,” as the locals call it), is primarily the business and political sector, where few people live due to lack of housing. It is also the city’s cultural center, with many worthwhile museums, including the Jade, the National, and the Gold Museum (featuring over 2,000 pieces of pre-Columbian gold); and the beautifully preserved 1894 Teatro Nacional, funded by the revenues of the coffee and banana industries and crafted of the finest European materials.

North of downtown, Barrio Amon and Aranjuez are the city’s historic neighborhoods, showcasing grandly restored 18th- and 19th century colonial mansions built by rich coffee barons and converted into contemporary art galleries, refined restaurants, boutique hotels, and more.

The eastern suburbs of Los Yoses, Bario Escalante, and lively university town San Pedro boast upper-middle-class residences and San José’s largest selection of restaurants and nightlife. Western La Sabana’s beautiful park offers a quiet retreat from the bustling city, while Santa Ana, with its ideal weather and noted mountain views, perfectly combines city and nature, with a bounty of outdoor activities. The sophisticated Escazu suburb, often referred to as “Little America,” is home to a large English-speaking expat community, with several American chain restaurants and some of Costa Rica’s finest restaurants.

Central Valley Essential Information

Reasons to Visit

  • Arts & Culture
  • Family Travel
  • Honeymoon & Romance
  • Multisport Adventures
  • Spa & Wellness
  • 1-2 nights

When to Visit

  • Good: September-October
  • Better: May-August / November
  • Best: December-April