48 Hours in San Jose

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Costa Rica is home to innumerable bird species.
Costa Rica is home to innumerable bird species.

For most visitors, almost all routes lead to and from San Jose, a central and interior city—ringed by low mountains and a profusion of flowers and greenery—that is high enough (3,600 ft.) to be chilly at night. It’s also a casual place where it is said that “no one wears a tie except first-time tourists and clerks.”

Yet, San Jose is a capital nonetheless that offers its guests high-caliber business-class hotels, from the Marriott Costa Rica Hotel (marriott.com) to the Doubletree by Hilton Cariari San Jose (cariarisanjose.doubletree.com), and first-rate boutique prop-erties, fitted handsomely into old homes—Grano de Oro Hotel (hotelgranodeoro.com) at the top in the category, Hotel Le Bergerac (bergerachotel.com), and an excellent pick, Hotel Aranjuez (hotelaranjuez.com).

In the capital, vacationers will find sophisticated and informal restaurants serving up local and international cuisines; interesting craft boutiques (Galeria Namu, for one, Galeria 11-12 in the Escazu suburb, for another); and performances by the National Symphony Orchestra held in a gem of a belle epoque building, the Teatro Nacional. And top in capital attractions are some excellent museums—the spectacular, 1,880-piece collection of the Gold Museum, located beneath the Plaza de la Cultura; the National Museum, occupying the former Buenavista fortress and displaying pre-Columbian artifacts in stone, ceramic and gold, as well as colonial religious art; the Fidel Tristan Jade Museum, housing the Americas’ largest assemblage of jade pieces; and the Costa Rican Art Museum, showcasing works of the country’s most celebrated artists. In San Jose, no visit is complete without a lunch break at the Mercado Central, San Jose’s most colorful indoor market and a good spot to find excellent local food.

A Day Away from San Jose

San Jose sits in the Central Valley, a region with a number of attractions that are a half- to a full-day away:

Northwest of the capital head for the picturesque town of Grecia, with its unusual metal church, painted deep-red with white gingerbread trim. Five miles farther is Sarchi, whose workshops produce the decorative miniature oxcarts—once used to haul coffee beans to market—seen all over the country. Other wooden items made here turn rare hardwoods into beautifully hand-carved items such as salad bowls and jewelry. Sarchi also has its own distinguished church, this one painted pink with aquamarine trim. Cartago is the third interesting town on this route, offering an essential visit to the impressive Basilica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles, dedicated to Costa Rica’s patron saint and home to the shrine of the Black Virgin (La Negrita). Not far from Cartago is a must-stop for clients interested in gardening and flowers, the Lankester Botanical Gardens, where hundreds of species of orchids are cultivated in different ecosystems, keeping company with bromeliads, and all on view along marked trails.

Extend the three-towns tour above to the 11,260-ft.-tall Irazu Volcano, the highest in Costa Rica. It’s still considered active, although its last major eruption was on March 19, 1963—the day President John F. Kennedy arrived in the country. Today, a few puffs of steam and smoke are the most activity your clients are likely to see. A good paved road leads right to the rim to look down into the largest crater filled with pea-green sulfur-laden water, while a short trail leads to and loops around two craters. The feeling is one of being in a barren, eroded moonscape. Clouds gather around noon; come early.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
Your clients can take off from San Jose to Alajuela province, home to the Poas Volcano, through a long, panoramic road that twists its way up to the mountainside to Poas Volcano National Park. The volcano crater, a half-mile wide and partially filled with turquoise water, is said to be the second-largest active volcano crater in the world. Nearby are the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a private nature reserve whose five spectacular waterfalls are on view along an easy walking trail. This large tourist park also embraces an enormous Butterfly Garden with as many as 4,000 butterflies flitting about, and the Hummingbird Garden, home to more than two dozen of this tiny bird species. In other corners of the extensive gardens, visitors can find a serpentarium housing 30 of the most beautiful and deadly snakes in Costa Rica; an orchid garden; and a special exhibit on frogs. Clients have every reason to spend a night at the deluxe Peace Lodge (peacelodge.com), which is part of the extensive gardens complex.

Gourmet Costa Rica

Typical Costa Rica cuisine (known as comida tipica—check out Restaurante Nuestra Tierra in San Jose) is easy to find throughout the country and often quite delicious. The most representative dish is cassado, consisting of a choice of meat or fish with a large number of vegetables as side items, including plantains, rice and beans, cabbage, avocados, corn and fruit. Tropical fruit lovers will be happy as hummingbirds in Costa Rica, where roadside stands present cornucopias of papayas, pineapples, mangoes, melons and other exotic delights. Onsite they are blended into drinks called refrescos naturales. Tres leches, a custard flan, is the national dessert. And in a country with coffee plantations starting just outside the capital, an espresso is just the brew to end any meal. Your clients can learn more about the country’s coffee production on tours and tastings to one of the plantations near the capital: Cafe Britt Farm, Doka Estate and Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation.

Tour Talk

One of the best ways to understand a country and its culture is through its food, and Costa Rica is no exception. On Latin American Escapes’ (latinamericanescapes.com) new 7-day Costa Rica Culinary Adventures program ($2,095 pp), clients learn directly from the experts about the extraordinary history, cultivation and production of each of its most coveted food products: coffee, chocolate and cheese. They’ll stay at Finca Rosa Blanca Resort (fincarosablanca.com), with its own coffee plantation, and Monte Azul Luxury Boutique Art Resort/Hotel (monteazulcr.com), while participating in cooking workshops, touring markets, gardens and farms.

Sarchi oxcart.
Sarchi oxcart.


Preparing to expand its international visitor horizons, Costa Rica is hard at work building the country’s first National Convention Center, located seven miles from the center of San Jose and five miles from Juan Santamaria International Airport.

Boasting 19,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space and smaller breakout rooms, it’s designed to become a smart event space for small or large functions and gatherings. Integral to the center’s design planning is environmental sustainability in such features as energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, as well as LED lighting and reuse of rainwater. Other assets Costa Rica enjoys in targeting the meetings market include a solid core of expert DMCs, hotels and attractions, all poised to provide first-class services to meetings attendees and to offer meeting planners fantastic services for large or small meetings, as well as creative opportunities for team-building activities. The National Convention Center is slated for completion in 2015.