Central Highlands - Major Cities

Central Highlands Region



Major Cities of the Central Highlands / Greater San José Area

San José

Located in the heart of the Central Highlands, San José rests upon the plateau at 3,773 feet, surrounded by forested mountains and volcanoes. It was actually this advantageous location that prompted the transformation of the city from a modest, little village to a bustling boomtown. Following the nation's coffee explosion at the beginning of the 19th century, San José proved to be closer to the action than the rival, then-capital Cartago. After a short civil war, the city utilized its political momentum and prosperity, generated by its flourishing coffee industry, to take the country's capital title.

What followed was sort of a renaissance in San José, marked by the construction of plazas and parks and the city's most distinguished public buildings. Influenced by the nations that were importing Costa Rica's coffee, the city adopted the design and architecture of Europe's finest metropolitan areas. These structures, symbols of the progressive and democratic vision shared by Costa Rica and the western world, make up a majority of San José's points of interest.

Many tourists, anxious to hit Costa Rica's natural attractions, will altogether skip San José, opting to spend only one night before shoving off the next morning. But if exploring Costa Rica's culture is an important objective of your vacation, San José can not be ignored. What follows is a summary of the city's most admired points of interest. View a map of the city center.

The heart of San José is a dense amalgamation of businesses, markets, public buildings, and parks, organized nicely on a relatively easy-to-navigate grid. If you can stand the smell of diesel exhaust, the hordes of midday pedestrians, and the ever-present automobile traffic, this is the place to start. The Plaza de la Cultura is probably the true epicenter of San José, located within the city's pedestrian-only shopping center. This bustling plaza features a fountain, a clock tower, and a host of talented and intriguing people: musicians, artisans, jugglers, mimes and the like.

On the south end of the plaza stands what many believe is the nation's finest architectural treasure, the Teatro Nacional. The spare-no-expense theater was conceived in 1890, after the world-renowned opera star, Adelina Patti, skipped Costa Rica during her Latin American Tour, noting the lack of a suitable venue. Modeled after the Paris Opera House, the expenses for the theater were generated by an export tax the then-ruling coffee barons placed on themselves. By 1897, the Teatro Nacional was being inaugurated with a Paris Opera production of Faust. Today, the National Symphony Orchestra performs there, including a regularly-scheduled Sunday morning concert. In addition, daily tours are offered, highlighting the theater's lavish central staircase, crystal chandeliers, and, most appropriately, a magnificent ceiling fresco depicting a pleasant coffee harvest.

Directly east of the Plaza de la Cultura stands a popular tourist attraction and the capital's best museum, the Museo de Oro Pre-Colombiano, or the Gold Museum. Over 2,000 pieces of pre-Columbian gold, from jewelry to tokens to coinage, are on display.

Opposite the Teatro Nacional to the north, the Gran Hotel Costa Rica is an altogether unexceptional place. It does, however, house an outdoor cafe that draws scores of tourists for both its food and its convenient location as a rendezvous spot. There is a 24-hour casino in the hotel's lobby.

West of the Plaza de la Cultura, you'll find the Parque Central, or Central Park, along Avenida 2. There is a domed bandstand that was donated by the Somoza family of Nicaragua in the center of the park. There are concerts there on the weekends. Directly east of the park, the Catédral Metropolitana, or Metropolitan Cathedral, is built in the Greek Orthodox style and possesses a stunningly elaborate altarpiece. Across Avenida 2 from the Parque Central, the Teatro Popular Melico Salazar is a good place to see a concert. Named after the Costa Rican tenor, Melico Salazar (1887-1950), the concert hall boasts an ornate, marble lobby and lavish murals.

Just north of Central Park, the Correos, or Central Post Office, is a beautiful, old building that houses the Museo de Postal, Telegráfico y Filatélico. This an interesting, little museum displaying antiquated communications machines and relics of the early postal service.

West of the Post office stands one of San José's coolest attractions. The bustling Mercado Central, dating back to 1881, offers many tourists their first truly Costa Rican experience. For a fraction of what visitors would pay at the tourist shopping centers, everything from produce and fresh fish to handicrafts, household items and authentic Tico fare is available.

Along Calle 5 to the east, you'll find Parque Morazán, featuring the beautiful Temple of Music. Next door, the Parque España offers a tree-packed green with statues of Juan Vásquez de Coronado and Simón Bolívar.

To the north, within the INS Building, is the remarkable Museo de Jade, offering an extensive collection of pre-Columbian jade amulets, pedants, and other treasures.

About 350 meters east of the Plaza de la Cultura, the Plaza de la Democracia is the city's largest plaza. Designed and constructed for the 1989 Hemispheric Summit, the center features a bronze statue of Don Pepe Figueres and a small handicrafts market. Open-air concerts are sometimes held in the amphitheater-style bandstand. Further east, the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica, or National Museum, was once the Bellavista Fortress, and is still peppered with bullet holes from gunfire during the civil war of 1948. The former fortress was built in 1870 and served as a military base until the dissolution of the army in 1949. It now holds several exhibits, mostly a apropos Costa Rica's history and culture. From pre-Columbian treasures and the mysterious spheres of the southern provinces to Colonial furniture and antiquated military hardware, the National Museum displays an interesting cornucopia of historical bits and pieces.

Moving north across Avenida Central, you'll find the Palacio Nacional, a Moorish-design structure that is the location of the Legislative Assembly. Further north, Costa Rica's Parque Nacional, San José's largest park, is a pleasant and relaxing retreat from the tireless buzz of the city. Here, you can walk among more than 50 indigenous tree species and check out the various monuments. A couple of these effigies commemorate Costa Rica's triumphant defeat of the widely-reviled American soldier of fortune, William Walker. The Monumento Nacional is a white-marble structure and official edict of the victory, and, in the southwest corner of the park, there is a statue of Juan Santamaría, drummer boy and posthumous national hero.

Past the northeast region of the park and across Avenida 3, stands the Biblioteca Nacional. This is the nation's principle library, and location of a fine artwork exhibit in the Galaría Nacional de Arte Contemporáneo. To the east of the library there are three large art galleries at the Centro Nacional de Artes y Cultura.

If you wish to catch a glimpse of wildlife while in San José, you're better off venturing out to one of the National Parks. But if you absolutely insist, the Parque Zoológico Simón Bolivar does have caged animals on display. This pathetic excuse for a zoo houses animals in tiny, antiquated cages, and it resembles some of the worst zoos of the third world. However, there are plans to revamp the park, and the venture seems very promising. Rightfully so; it's a shame to keep such a dismal zoo in a country that prides itself on the protection of its rich and diverse natural resources.

West of the city core on Paseo Colón, Parque La Sabana is a large multifaceted park occupying what was the old International Airport. The departure terminal and control tower has been converted into the Museo de Arte Costarricense, which displays everything from pre-Colombian artifacts to the works of some of Costa Rica's best 19th- and 20th-century artists. The Museo La Salle, or Museum of Natural Sciences, is located in the southeast corner of the park, and is certainly worth a visit. More of a house of oddities than a museum of wildlife, the Museo La Salle features a weird collection of taxidermal curiosities and even a model of a U.S. space shuttle.

The park itself is a popular getaway for Ticos and tourists alike, offering a nearby retreat from the chaotic pace of the city. People come to La Sabana Park to bike and run along the trails, fly kites, feed ducks, and have picnics by the lakes. There is also a swimming pool, soccer field and tennis courts.

North of the city center, near the Simón Bolivar Zoo, San José's recently restored historic district includes some of the country's most beautiful mansions, built by the cafeteleros (coffee barons) during their heyday. Many of the French Quarter-inspired mansions of Barrios Amón and Otoyo have been converted into small, quaint hotels, offering tourists a regal setting for exploration of old-world San José, as well as superlative urban accommodations.

Taking a walk through the historic barrios can be an insightful and enjoyable experience, and should take no more than a couple of hours. The area includes the blocks between Calles 1 and 15, and Avenidas 7 and 11. Wind your way along the narrow, hilly streets and peek into the mansions for glimpses of fine antiques, artwork, and extravagant interior design. The Hemingway Inn, a charming, 17-room hotel, is a popular spot for tourists. Kitty-corner, the Hotel Don Carlos is an exquisite wooded hotel, dressed up with an impressive collection of pre-Colombian artwork. The Casa Amarilla, or Yellow House, is the popular attraction for its beautiful stucco work. Closer to the Simón Bolivar Zoo, the Hotel Alóki is one of the pioneer hotels of this area, while the magnificent house next door is now the National Dance Company. Nearby, on Calle 5, the Café Mundo is a great place to stop for refreshments. This eclectic establishment offers a variety of thirst-quenchers, and is housed in one of the most striking cafeteleros homes in the city.

The mansions of Barrio Amón, located in the western half of the historic district, present a fusion of Caribbean and Victorian styles. Le Chambord and the Britannia Hotel are among the beautiful manors in this area, many of which offer comfortable accommodations. Castillo del Moro and Casa Morisca are extravagant, Moorish-style structures, the latter offering a magnificent open-air atrium as the centerpiece of the hotel.

Santa Ana

West of San José on the Carretera Próspero Fernández expressway, Santa Ana possesses a delightfully bucolic and rustic charm. Most of the homes, hotels and restaurants are basic structures constructed of wood or adobe, and traditional handicraft production is still a significant industry in this small town. In fact, along with the sweet onions that are grown here, the town is famous for its ceramics, mostly turned out on kick-wheels at Cerámica Santa Ana.


The literal meaning of the name Escazú is "resting place", referring to the town's importance as a location where traveling Indians would take a breather and replenish their water supply. The Spanish conquistadors would later make this one of their first settlements, taking advantage of the the area's fertile soil. Since that time, a small community of people practicing something resembling witchcraft has had a slight presence in the town, which, after embellishments and amplification, has given Escazú the fallacious reputation as "the city of witches". Still today, despite censure by the church, the charming township displays elements of the magical and the mystical.

Over the past decade, Escazú has become a hot-spot for international residents and wealthy Ticos. Today, it's old-world, country charm is combined with modern chic and luxury living to create residential communities that are attractive to those who can afford them. The homes of Bello Horizonte, Escazú's older neighborhood in the hills to the east, are large and elegant, and many of them possess beautiful gardens. Biesanz Woodworks, creating exquisite boxes and bowls made of Costa Rican hardwoods, is located here and is worth a visit.

At the base of the hills of Bello Horizonte, San Rafael de Escazú is the new, trendy section of town, offering residents the best of Costa Rica's homes, condominiums, and shopping centers. In fact, the nation's largest mall is located here. At the Multiplaza, visitors will find international boutiques, books stores, jewelry shops, and even interior design consultants. San Rafael also boasts the healthy concentration of nightlife establishments. Residents of the area revel in the many hip and trendy nightclubs, and enjoy the international cuisine served at most of the restaurants.


Known as the La Ciudad de los Flores, or The City of Flowers, Heredia is located 7 miles northwest of San José. Quaint and rustic, this former coffee capital of Costa Rica offers visitors a quiet and relaxing retreat from the chaos of San José. The Parque Central and Basílica de la Immaculada Concepción form the pleasant atmosphere of the heart of the city. Not far away, El Fortín offers visitors a glimpse of Costa Rica's military past, before the dissolution of the national army. The Universidad Nacional occupies a large portion of the east side of Heredia. This institution trains the teachers of Costa Rica, and churns out some of the best veterinarians in Latin America. In addition, it houses the Museo Zoológica Marina, exhibiting an impressive collection of over 2,000 species of marine fauna.


Just north of Heredia, Barva is a historic, bucolic village that is now the location of the coffee giant, Café Britt, which turns out the greatest amount of export-quality coffee in Costa Rica. A tour is offered to visitors, presenting the roasting process, and offering insight into the connoisseurship of coffee tastes. The city core is marked by the Basílica de Barva, built on an Indian burial ground in 1767.



Known for the mango trees that shade its Parque Central, Alajuela is appropriately nicknamed the "City of the Mangoes". In fact, for nine days in July, the city celebrates its admiration of the mango during the colorful Festival of Mangoes. Alajuela is also an important town for its relative position and its historical significance. Located one mile from Juan Santamaría International Airport, it is a popular first stop on the way into or out of San José. The city itself is nestled against the base of Volcán Poás, which provides tourists with hours of exploration and scenic driving. Within the city proper, Alajuela's Parque Central and Mercado Central are tourist highlights. The latter is a small, open-air market offering fresh produce and superlative people watching.


The town's historical significance stems from it being the birth place of Juan Santamaría, the drummer boy who sacrificed his life to help the Costa Rican militia defeat William Walker and his band of mercenaries. In the old city prison, on the northwest side of town, the Museo Cultural y Histórico Juan Santamaría houses a modest collection of artifacts from the William Walker saga. In the small Parque Juan Santamaría, the famous statue of the national hero stands as a sign of Costa Rica's strong will and resilience.



Ascending the western border of the Central Highlands leads to towns like Grecia and Sarchí. The former, which is on the way to the latter, is a small, clean town and well worth the visit. In fact, Grecia, also known as the former pineapple capital of Costa Rica, holds the title of the cleanest town in all of Latin America. A charming, yet peculiar point of interest is the town's twin-towered metal church. This rust-colored structure, which now occupies the central plaza, was imported from Belgium in 1897.


Known as Costa Rica's preeminent capital of crafts and furniture-making, the mountain town of Sarchí is divided into two sections. To the south, Sarchí Sur is the artisan half, packed with tiny shops selling goods made of leather and wood, colorfully painted pottery, and a host of snacks, including fudge, honey and sugared fruit.


Costa Rica's oldest settlement and former capital was established in 1563 by Juan Vásquez de Coronado, the Spanish conquistador still revered for his fair treatment of the indigenous population. The city of Cartago remained Costa Rica's capital until the Battle of Ochomongo in 1823, a short-lived civil war waged by the power-hungry cafeteleros of San José in order to bring political control to their turf.

Cartago city proper is an altogether unattractive place; the city is frequently ash-swathed from the nearby Volcán Irazú, and the streets are riddled with holes and ruts from a chronic history of devastating earthquakes. In fact, it is this history of destruction by earthquakes that accurately illustrates two of the Cartagans greatest attributes - they are both religiously devout and tenaciously resilient. The patron saint of Spain, James the Apostle, was first honored here in 1570 by the construction of a church in his name. The structure took eight years to build, yet was leveled only two years after its completion. Subsequently, a second, stronger attempt was completed in 1580, and again, flattened within a few years. Several more efforts were destroyed, and it wasn't until the city's most extravagant venture, an enormous cathedral, fell to the earthquake of 1910, that the Cartagans threw in the towel. Today you can visit Las Ruinas, a beautiful park designed around the ruins of the cathedral, to pay homage to sheer power of human stubbornness.

Today, Cartago represents the religious capital of Costa Rica with its massive Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles, a gray-and-white city centerpiece of Byzantine design. It is here that Costa Rica's patron saint, La Negrita (mixed-blood), is located. The Procesion de Los Milagros (The Procession of the Miracles) takes place here on August 2, and penitents from as far as Panama and Nicaragua come to the basilica to worship.

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Regional Overview

Costa Rica Maps - Central Highlands Major Cities

Located in the heart of the Central Highlands, San José rests upon the plateau at 3,773 feet, surrounded by forested mountains and volcanoes.

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