Cities of the Central Valley, Featuring Naranjo #TravelTuesday
The Central Valley of Costa Rica is the country’s heartland and a tour through the small towns nestled in the hills leads the visitor on a journey through the cultural, economic, and culinary heritage of this diverse country.
Naranjo de Alajuela, a small town founded in 1886 with a population of 35,000 and a consistently cool climate, is tucked into the rolling hills of the Central Valley above the Colorado River. Only 47 kilometers from San Jose, but far away from the hustle and bustle of the capital city, visitors can enjoy the relaxed and tranquil lifestyle here. As one of the most important coffee-producing regions in Costa Rica, there is no shortage of quaint cafes to sip a freshly roasted cup of the dark brew. Historically, Naranjo is an agricultural town, whose first cash crop was oranges, which then gave way to the staple crops of the Costa Rican diet, such as: plantains, corn, rice, beans, sugar cane, and of course, coffee.
- Espiritu Santo Coffee Tour takes visitors through the history of how Costa Rica has honed its coffee production skills and processes over the last 200 years to produce an award-winning bean. This coffee plantation is set on 247 hectares of farmland, surrounded by rolling hills with rich volcanic soil that produces some of the most flavorful coffee worldwide. Learn about the process and take in the beautiful scenery, and of course, enjoy a freshly made coffee or two.
- Be sure not to miss the photo opportunity of the breathtaking views at the Lookout at Mount Espiritu Santo
- In years past, bungee jumping over the Colorado River was a major attraction, but for a less heart-in-your-mouth experience, Los Bajos del Toro Waterfall is nothing short of amazing! Hike down to Costa Rica’s largest waterfall into this volcanic crater at the base of the Poas Volcano. Take in the views of the naturally-painted, red crater walls from various lookout points on your way down to the pool below.
- Naranjo is surrounded by local farms, so take advantage of their fresh produce. Head down to the local Municipal Market in town for fresh fruit and vegetables direct from the farm to the table.
Where to Stay:
We recommend Chayote Lodge which was established on an interesting concept of educating its guests on the lifestyle and cultural history of the Central Valley coffee plantations, that were the livelihood and identity of the region, by recreating it. Located right in the middle of rows and rows of verdant green coffee fields, with views of Poas and Irazu volcanoes, and accompanied by the brilliant colors and melodic calls of birds. It is only 50 minutes away from the Juan Santamaria Airport, but in that short distance the visitor transcends into colonial Costa Rica.
The twelve bungalows incorporate the feel of the coffee receiving stations or “recibidores” — where during Spanish rule, the coffee pickers would weigh their sacks filled with coffee berries at the end of each day. One of the best features of the suites is the ample, airy deck. Enjoy the incredible views from the wood floor balcony, reaching out to gather the morning sun, while safely overhanging the ground. The suites, decorated by local artisans, are designed with an elegant mix of modern and textured hardwood details. Coffee wood are used in the suites’ trim, from the partially thatched roof, to the beds’ headboards, to even the toilet paper dispensers and tissue boxes.
Price: Colonial luxury at affordable rates.
Directions: Getting there is straight-forward, take Route 1 to Route 414 in Llano Bonito, Naranjo.
Where to Eat:
Quelites Restaurant at The Chayote Lodge sits four hundred meters above the rest of the property for some incredible views from its all-glass walls. The seating area next to the bar is a cozy place to enjoy the fireplace for a drink before dinner. As with the suites, wood from the coffee plant along with other recognizable items from the trade, like measuring cups or burlap sacks, highlight the ambiance. The fusion menu offers many of the seasonal produce grown on the grounds or sourced from local farmers. Try the artichoke and spinach salad with passion fruit dressing to start, or the ceviche with guacamole and fried plantains. For a main course, go for the steak marinated in spices and cooked on a grill at the table over a volcanic rock. This dining experience is entertaining as well as delicious.
Perhaps the central town for a cultural journey is Sarchi, the undisputed capital for the craft of making oxcarts in Costa Rica. Located in the eastern part of the Central Valley, the 46 kilometers drive from San Jose passes through coffee plantations and fields of sugarcane.
Oxcarts were used primarily in colonial times to transport coffee, which was the main industry of the town, to market. Eventually, the artisans who created the carts began creating uniquely painted designs and “chimes” for each cart to distinguish themselves from one another.
- Sarchi is home to the world’s largest oxcart, so a visit to the Joaquin Chaverri Oxcart Factory built in 1902 is a treat. Oxcarts are a national symbol of Costa Rica and consistently displayed in parades and national celebrations throughout the country. Learn how the trademark large wheels have been crafted for more than a century, and watch artists in action decorating them.
- Souvenirs may be found in over two hundred family-owned shops selling arts and crafts that blanket the town. On the north side of town is Artesenia Mercado (Artisan Market) a large artists’ cooperative located in a large indoor convention center, and to the south, the outdoor market of Plaza de Artesenia (Artisan’s Plaza). Choose from a bevy of beautifully designed Costa Rica specialties such as: boxes, jewelry and figures carved from tropical hardwoods; ceramics painted with the traditional Chorotega indigenous designs and colors, or rocking chairs fitted with hand-tooled leather.
Just a 20 minute drive from Sarchi on Route 118 is Grecia, a small town that is quickly becoming a popular destination for expats from the U.S. and Canada. Its eternal spring climate, between 65-85 degrees, small town feel with a population of around 17,000, plethora of restaurants and cafes, and its proximity to beaches and San Jose are inviting. The breathtaking scenery atop the Cordillera Mountain chain and the short journey from Alajuela City are additional appealing characteristics.
- Check out the World of Snakes — housing a collection of over fifty species of snakes from all over the world. Learn to identify the venomous varieties from their less dangerous cousins.
- The Regional Museum displays a collection of artifacts from pre-colonial and colonial times with a mission to educate its visitors about the culture, traditions and history of the region.
- Los Chorros (“The Jets”) Waterfalls is a fifteen minute drive southeast of Grecia in the Municipal Recreational Park, protecting a large stretch of jungle including the waterfalls, Cataratas Prendas and Zamora. Interestingly, it is a source of drinking water for the nearby town of Atenas. The first waterfall is Zamora, only a twenty minute walk from the parking area. The water crashes impressively from 40 meters (130 feet) into the pool below, leaving a misty haze in the air. There is a picnic area with twelve tables near a calm part of the river for kids to explore and the family to pass the day. Depending on the water levels, the Prendas Waterfall can be accessed via a short walk along the riverbed from the Zamora, although this may be a challenging walk for junior or senior hikers. For the more adventurous, leaping from the rocks into the cool pool below is a local sport for daredevil youngsters.
Next stop is a small village whose most notable attraction is its topiary garden, in central park, which leads to the Catholic church. The same gardener, Don Lista, has been artfully shaping these hedges for the last fifty years and can usually be found there tending to his craft. Dinosaurs, arches, dancing people and traditional faces are all represented here. Strike a pose for this fun photo opportunity.
Known as “the city of presidents and poets”, San Ramon is a small farming community 1,057 meters (3,468 feet) above sea level in the cloud forest. Coffee and agriculture are still the main economic resources here, although many visitors come to relax…enjoying the scenery and nature walks into the cloud forest.
- El Silencio Los Angeles Cloud Forest Reserve begins at 700 meters (2,300 feet) elevation and climbs to 1,800 meters (5,900 feet). The trails are well-maintained and several species of birds, like Trogans, Aracaris and the very rare Quetzales may be seen along the way, as well as ocelots, jaguars, jaguarundi and three species of monkeys. Two trails are short with wooden walkways, but a third is for hardcore hikers who need to go prepared with plenty of water and supplies. It can take up to 9 hours to complete that trail which descends into waterfalls and natural swimming pools.
These Central Valley towns offer an eclectic mix of the natural wonders that are the trademark characteristics to any visit to Costa Rica, but also provide a look into the history of the country with an understanding of their culture.
Recommended Car Category:
While a Sedan is sufficient for driving between the small towns, we recommend an Intermediate SUV or above to explore the natural wonders of the area as roads may not be completely paved, and the region is mountainous. During the Green Season, some attractions may only be accessible with a 4x4 vehicle.