About 20 km northwest, Alajuela is central to exploring sites in the central valley and only 2.5 km southeast of the Santamaria International Airport where most visitors arrive anyway. Hotels, hostels and B&Bs in all price ranges abound, many perched in the midst of the lush rolling hills of the coffee plantations. The fresh air is free and the views of Volcán Poás to the north can be spectacular.
At an elevation that in places exceeds 1100 metres, the Central Valley is spectacularly enclosed by mountain ranges to the north, east and south. To the west, the valley slides gently into the lowlands that meet the Pacific Ocean.
It would be easy to make Alajuela the base camp and take day trips from there, but that would mean missing the experience of waking up in Costa Rica’s small towns and villages.
Grecia, for example, while just an hour or two from San Jose is a world away in terms of its culture and sensibility. According to the guide books, Grecia’s only claim to fame is the “big red church” so it is a small town that simply goes about the business of being what it is. Looming over it all, the big red church anchors the town centre and presumably, the people.
Costa Rican churches always seem to be fronted by a large park, the centre of social activity. These parks are formal in design, with walkways, benches and statues, fountains and topiary. The park is where it all happens ...youngsters chasing each other in games of tag, young lovers nuzzling, mothers parading their new babies and old men playing checkers. This is where the religious festivals happen and also where the drunken debauchery of fiesta plays out.
My favourite Costa Rican church-park was in Zarcero. This church is renowned for its elegant formal topiary. No doubt about it ...absolutely awesome. But over to the side I noticed a year-round nativity set-up. Yes, there was the requisite stable and donkeys, shepherds and wise men. But there were also fish ponds and waterfalls and a miniature village complete with baby Jesus’ nappies snapping in the wind – way over the top, that nativity. But that is the charm of Latin America – to our North American sensibilities, it is all, way over the top.
There is a special pleasure in staying put in a small town ...at the least over a 24-hour cycle. There is a hum to a town, a rhythm that reveals itself when you sit quietly and watch life unfolding around you.
For instance, we learned, from local signage, that Grecia had been voted the “cleanest town in Latin America” and while we haven’t seen every town for comparison, Grecia has our vote. Every man had a rake, every woman a broom, all industriously cleaning the patch of pavement in front of their establishments.
It seems that the shops try to cover as many categories as possible. It’s not unusual to see what is primarily a shoe store, for example, with a display of pots and pans in one corner, ladies underwear in another. To purchase a long distance telephone card we were directed to the veterinarian’s shop where there was also a display of table linens.
Our quest for a notebook led us into a hardware store that
also carried stationery where we lined up with all the moms and overexcited
kids stocking up on school supplies. Education is mandatory to grade 9
and the new year was about to begin on Monday. Costa Rica has a 95% literacy
rate, the highest in Latin America.
Winding up down and around the narrow little roads between towns, Costa Rica often evokes memories of shabby little European villages. But it is still Latin America and that demonstrates itself in sidewalks that while spotlessly clean are often hazardous. Open manholes, uneven pavements and cement slabs that buckle up against each other. It is a matter of keeping a sharp look out in front of your feet. The litigious concept of “suing the city” obviously has not migrated this far south yet.
Roads between villages follow the original pack trails through the coffee fields. The terrain is one of gently folding rich green hills, the sky is invariably bright blue and the temperature a balmy 22 degrees on average in the central valley. It’s a virtually perfect climate.
The best part of road tripping through the central valley is the travelling itself, meandering from one small town to another, taking lunch in the small cafes called sodas, stopping for photos, stumbling on local markets, discovering the charms that hide in the corners of the country that other travellers, buzzing by on the bus will miss.
That said, there are a few spots worth putting on your “not to be missed” list:
Volcán Poás consists of a 14,000 hectare national park that is also a protected wildlife area. Public access to the crater has been facilitated with easy-to-walk paths and viewing platforms of the crater. The main crater is 1.5 km across and 300 m deep. When you look into the crater from the viewing platform you see a thermo mineral lake, some 350 metres in diameter with temperatures that reach 60 to 95 degrees C. Underneath all that, in the depths of the crater is a dome whose temperatures reach 900 deg C.
The last patch of real excitement at the volcano was in 1995 when the crater spewed volcanic ash. Since then, it’s confined itself to venting vapour.
La Paz Waterfalls
Braulio Carrillo National
Their strategy was to persuade local farmers to become guardians of their own forests by developing a business that was dependant on the integrity of the habitat – to ensure that they earned more from protecting the environment than they would by chopping down trees. Each specie of butterfly flourishes on specific vegetation. Encouraging rather than destroying this vegetation results in prolific butterfly populations, ensuring the financial success of the farmers.
Today, what started as a tenuous backyard experiment has become a source of livelihood for 90 families scattered across Costa Rica. They breed the butterflies then deliver the pupae to CRES for sorting and shipment to markets all over the world. Today, CRES ships over 20,000 butterflies a week.
It’s a fascinating story, told well at their demonstration farm in La Guácima de Alajuela. Tours begin with a 25 minute film detailing the process through macro photography that offers views otherwise unattainable. From there, a walk-through tour of the process from breeding to packing and shipping, concluding with as much time as you wish for enjoying and photographing the many species of butterflies flitting freely through the netted enclosure. The enclosure, by the way, is not to keep the butterflies in, but to keep predators like wasps and lizards out. In the wild, butterflies have a survival rate of 2%. At the farm they boost that likelihood to 90%.
Stay calm. Navigating through San Jose is stressful. Newlyweds should avoid it if they want to survive the honeymoon. The rest of us will manage with some interspousal sniping and shouting. But we all survive ...and then we tell people, “Stay out of San Jose.”