Things to Do in Central Valley
The 16 hanging bridges that line the paths of Costa Rica’s Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park stretch a total of 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers) across the steep landscape. See the birds, monkeys, sloths, snakes, and frogs that call the forest canopy home by ascending these spans, suspended above gorges and stretched across jungle floors.
From jaguars to capuchin monkeys, more than 100 animal species reside at this scenic nature park. Stop by to take in the animal exhibits, dine at the restaurant, and walk the 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers) of well-maintained trails, which take you past five waterfalls scattered throughout the rain forest and cloud forest.
La Fortuna Waterfall cascades 200 feet (61 meters) down the sheer cliff face of Cerro Chato, the Arenal Volcano’s dormant and thickly forested twin. One of the most impressive and accessible waterfalls in Costa Rica, La Fortuna is a great place to picnic, swim, and photograph the waterfall’s perpetual mists and nearby exotic vegetation.
Although visitors once flocked to Arenal Volcano for its impressive lava shows, the 5,437-foot (1,657-meter) volcano has stayed quiet since its last eruption in 2010. However, Arenal and the surrounding Arenal Volcano National Park remain a hot spot for visitors to Costa Rica, and is especially popular among those seeking hiking trails, swimming holes, hot springs, bird- and wildlife-watching, and sweeping views of the tropical rain forest.
Home to the highest active volcano in Costa Rica, Irazu Volcano National Park serves up some extraordinary panoramas. Think lush tangles of forest, gnarly cliffs of volcanic rock, and emerald-green crater lakes, all beneath an ethereal canopy of clouds.
More than 1600 pre-Columbian artifacts, including Costa Rica’s very first coin, handmade ceramics and a life-sized warrior, are housed in this museum that was opened in 1985. The museum’s collection displays indigenous works dating from 500 AD to 1500 AD, including traditional jewelry and culturally relevant pieces from other Latin American countries. Displays on the second floor explore the influence of these artifacts on the social and cultural development of the nation, as well as a history of Costa Rica’s currency. Signs in both Spanish and English easily guide guests through hallways filled with rich history.
Poas Volcano National Park houses one of the more popular volcanoes in Costa Rica—a telling superlative for a country with world-famous geothermal activity. But with its spectacular wildlife, informative museum, and variety of hiking trails, the accolade comes as no surprise.
In 1856 this iconic Costa Rican river transported weapons, soldiers and food during the war against the filibusters. Today, Sarapiqui River (Rio Sarapiquí) has been named a national monument and is one of the country’s top destinations. Adventurous travelers can navigate the raging rapids of level III and IV white waters, while laid back visitors and families searching for fun can opt for a relaxing day tour or rive safari.
The surrounding mountains, as well as the La Selva Biological Reserve are home to scenic landscapes and plenty of wildlife. During a river safari, keep eyes peeled for turtles, sloths, monkeys and iguanas, as well as colorful tropical birds found only here! And travelers who prefer to keep their feet on land can still catch their share of rugged beauty on hikes on the reserve’s epic trails.
Tumbling waterfalls, luxury spa and dining options, and the dramatic backdrop of Arenal Volcano set Tabacon Hot Springs apart from Costa Rica’s many thermal springs. Numerous pools dotting the Tabacon River create a completely natural hot spring experience on a private rain forest reserve, perfect for a day of pure relaxation.
This lush public park at the center of San Jose was named after Francisco Morazan, an old-school general who tried to unite all of Central America into one common country. And while Morozan Park was once a hub for San Jose’s grit and grime (it used to be a known for drug sales and prostitution), the park has recently undergone a complete renaissance.
Travelers can safely wander through the green gardens that make Morazan Park a respite from the otherwise urban feel of San Jose and stretch out for an afternoon picnic on thick lawns under massive shade trees. The Templo de Musica, a concrete gazebo at the center of the land, is the highlight of any visit to Morazan Park—especially when live local musicians are playing.
More Things to Do in Central Valley
Perhaps the most famous (and certainly most prized) public building in all of San Jose, the National Theater of Costa Rica (Teatro Nacional) in the city’s Catedral district, is home to the nation’s cultural community. Classical music, theater and dance performances take place several times a week. And while it’s always worth catching a show, the theater’s traditional Renaissance architecture, breathtaking ceilings and grand interiors make it a must-see stop even if you can’t get tickets for the symphony.
Free tours of the historic building, which was built in 1897, take place daily at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and the theater’s highly regarded café with picturesque San Jose views, is a perfect spot to grab lunch before exploring the rest of the city.
Bountiful produce stalls, local-approved cafeterias, and vendor stalls selling everything from coffee beans to cowboy boots give visitors to San Jose’s Central Market (Mercado Central) a taste of real Costa Rican culture. Visit as part of an epic errand run or for a chance to look behind-the-scenes at everyday life in Costa Rica.
The vast protected forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park is a natural for toucans, eagles, armadillos, sloths, monkeys, and jaguars. Catch a glimpse of its rugged beauty from the comfort of your car, or hike along the trails that lead to thundering waterfalls, towering mountains, and rapid rivers.
The thick green forests, fertile coffee plantations, and scenic mountains of the Orosi River Valley (El Valle del Rio Orosi) draw bird watchers, freshwater fishermen, and nature lovers to the banks of the Reventazon River, as well as the pristine lake formed by the Cachi Dam.
Travelers can spend the morning wandering through Iglesia de San Jose de Orosi Church, where Spanish Colonial artifacts and religious paintings line the interior of Costa Rica’s oldest church still in use. Adventurers will enjoy an afternoon at the Irazu Volcano. Crater lakes and lush farmland make for scenic hikes and picturesque views.
The Ruins of Ujarras, with peaceful gardens and even a nearby public swimming pool, prove another popular destination for both travelers and residents. Buy lunch from one of the local women selling fragrant arepas before exploring the historic ruins and cooling off with a refreshing dip.
These ancient caves were carved by tectonic movement and water currents passing over limestone for millions of years. Inside this deep network of tunnels, visitors will find stalactites, stalagmites, rock formations, and subterranean rivers and caverns. There’s also a chance to spot wildlife, including bats, fish, insects, and frogs.
The Jade Museum (Museo del Jade) proves to Costa Rica visitors that this small Central American country is as rich in its history and cultural offerings as in biodiversity. The museum, located in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, showcases more than 1,000 years’ worth of artifacts from Mesoamerica dating from 500 B.C. to 800 A.D.—including pre-Columbian jade, wood, and ceramics—in a renovated space.
Explore the works of some of Costa Rica’s greatest artists from the colonial era through today at the Costa Rican Art Museum, including almost the entire body of work from prolific local artist Juan Manuel Sanchez. The museum is housed in the building that once served as the main terminal of San Jose’s original international airport and outside, toward where the tarmac once sat, is a lovely sculpture garden where visitors can walk around an enjoy the tropical weather. The museum often has chamber music concerts playing in the Golden Hall.
With its 175 acres of green space and network of forested walking trails, La Sabana Park is San José’s version of New York’s Central Park. The large open lawns are perfect for Frisbee, soccer, or tossing a ball, and the walking trails and running tracks are where to work up a sweat. This site once housed the city’s airport until the 1940s, and today the former terminal building houses the Costa Rican Art Museum. Also within the leafy park is the country’s national stadium, where concerts and national soccer matches are held for up to 40,000 people. On most days, however, the park plays hosts to groups of locals all feeding the geese by the pond, or families simply enjoying a picnic beneath the shade of a tree. It’s a calming place to escape the crowds and the urban city bustle, and a comfortable perch for people watching and mingling with San José locals.
The National Museum, housed in the barracks of the Bellavista Fortress, has been proudly displaying indigenous and pre-Columbian artifacts, religious artwork and geological and archaeological pieces linked to Costa Rica’s rich and colorful history since 1950.
Separate rooms explore ancient cultures dating back some 12,000 years, as well as collections of ornate jewelry, medallions and statues made of gold. And while the Museum’s impressive collection of grinding stones and other artifacts from ancient Costa Rica grant tourists a chance to travel back in time, visitors should be sure to explore the grounds, too. Nationals fought at the barracks during the Civil War in 1948, and damage from bullet holes and warfare can still be seen in the Spanish-style courtyard.
The hot springs of Termales Los Laureles offer visitors a relaxing experience surrounded by tropical forest. The complex, which comprises thermal baths and cold pools accessible by water slide, is a cost-effective alternative to the more expensive hot springs of Monteverde. Plus, you can see Arenal Volcano from the baths.
Proyecto Asis is a wildlife rescue center focused on the protection and rehabilitation of native animals. Visitors can tour the facilities, take Spanish classes, or volunteer to help care for the animals, whose natural habitats are often threatened by expanding development in the region.
Costa Rica has some of the world’s most flavorful coffee and travelers who favor this bold brew can see how these prized beans make it from farm to table on a tour of Doka Estate. This iconic plantation puts visitors right up close to the production and practices of this age-old crop. Travelers can tour the grounds, see where workers hand-pick coffee berries from prized plants and even sample some of the eight roasts the Doka Estate creates on site.
Organized small-group, on-site tours ensure visitors receive personalized attention and loads of information, while the plantation’s gift shop, Casa de Artesanias, is filled with unique and flavorful items picked fresh from the farm that are perfect souvenirs for friends and family back home. The Doka Estate is also home to a Bonsai Tree and Orchid Garden, as well as a Butterfly Farm, making it the ideal place to spend the day exploring some of Costa Rica’s natural wonders.
Spread over 36 acres (14.6 hectares) near San José, Rescate Animal Zooave is a conservation park that primarily houses rescued animals that wouldn't be able to survive in the wild on their own. The focus here is on conservation, and park tickets help fund other initiatives, including a rescue center and breeding programs.
Nestled in the rainforest of northern Costa Rica, the Butterfly Conservatory lets visitors discover diverse butterflies and flowers via a network of trails and gardens. Dedicated to the preservation of butterflies and other tropical rainforest species, the conservatory has a learning center and educational exhibits.
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