Not far from the bustling city of San Jose you will find the charming town of Atenas. This medium-sized town in the Central Valley offers a glimpse at local life. From a bench in the picturesque central park or over coffee at a local restaurant, you can see Costa Ricans in their daily life. While Atenas isn’t exactly on the tourist trail, it has drawn many expats over the years due to its favorable climate and offers visitors several interesting things to do. Below, we’ll share more about this local town and why you might want to add a stop on your next visit to Costa Rica.
Atenas is located about 45 minutes west of the city of San Jose and about a half-hour from the international airport in Alajuela. Although it is close to urban areas, Atenas itself couldn’t be more different. The town is surrounded by rolling green hills, speckled with rows of coffee plants and sugarcane. Just a short drive from these quiet barrios (neighborhoods) is the central area of town, which has a lot going on. Here, you will find many restaurants, grocery stores, shops, and other conveniences. The downtown is the hub of local life, with a scenic park and church as the focal point.
A couple of things that make Atenas noteworthy are its climate and coffee. The town is said to have one of the best climates in the world, with average temperatures in the mid-70s°F (21°C) year-round. The climate, combined with the area’s rich volcanic soil, also makes Atenas an excellent location for coffee production. Many of the producers you will find are small, family-run operations and there are even some that you can tour (more on this below). Interestingly, Atenas was located along the original oxcart trail. This route was used in the late 1800s to transport coffee beans from the Central Valley to ports on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts for export. Various references to the oxcart trail can be seen around town. One notable example is the monument of a boyero, an oxcart driver, about a kilometer east of downtown.
You can spend hours just soaking up the local culture in the downtown, but here are some other ideas for things to do.
El Toledo Coffee Tour
If you’re visiting Atenas, a coffee tour is a must. El Toledo is a small coffee farm owned by a Costa Rican family. They are one of the few growers in the country to go completely organic. On a tour of the family farm, you’ll learn from the passionate farmers themselves about the importance of biodiverse coffee production and, of course, see how it is made from plant to cup. The tour ends with a tasting of El Toledo’s three different roasts. We really enjoyed this coffee tour because it is so personalized and non-commercial. $20 per person.
Many communities in Costa Rica have a farmers market and Atenas is no exception. Every Friday, both locals and expats gather to shop and chat about local happenings. Under the newly built, modern structure, you will find an assortment of produce as well as baked goods, artisanal products, coffee, souvenirs, and even flowers. A local bus runs to and from the center of town for free if you don’t have a car. Click for a map with the location.
Las Minas Waterfalls
Just 20 minutes outside Atenas is a set of secluded waterfalls. Las Minas Waterfalls (The Mines Waterfalls) is located in the village of Desmonte. This set of waterfalls and swimming holes is so named because of an old gold mine in an upper area of the river. Although this spot is located deep in the country, it is not hard to find with good directions.
Take Highway 3 west out of Atenas. At a flashing yellow light, take a right (look for the restaurant Chicarronera El Minero). Follow the windy road for about 1.5 miles (2.4 km), staying left at two forks. The road turns to dirt, then back to paved, but wasn’t in bad shape even in the rainy season. When you get to a large bridge, you have arrived at the parking area. Here’s a map with directions. Don’t leave anything valuable inside your car.
To get to the pools upriver, you will have to walk along the riverbed, up over large boulders and through water, depending on the season. Sturdy boots or sandals like Keens are best. This isn’t a recommended hike for everyone. Jenn had to stay behind with our one-year-old son because the rocks were too tricky.
Botanical Orchid Garden
If gazing at hundreds of beautiful orchids is more your speed, check out the Botanical Orchid Garden in nearby La Garita. This outdoor garden cultivates orchids in a lab setting and lets them propagate in the wild on their property. The different nurseries have orchids in all stages of growth, allowing visitors to learn about the complex life cycle of these interesting plants. The property also has paths through the forest that showcase local trees and host a variety of birds. To learn more about visiting the Botanical Orchid Garden, including the best times of year to go, read our separate post.
Train Museum (Museo Ferroviaro Rio Grande)
In nearby Rio Grande, you can visit a historic train museum. This isn’t a huge attraction, but if you have a free hour, it is interesting to learn about the old railroad that ran from San Jose to Puntarenas. The small museum at the train station houses photos and artifacts like generators, radios, railway parts, and devices used for Morse code. The attendant will also take you up inside the old engine car for some great photo ops. Those wanting to explore can walk the tracks over the Grande River. Open only on Sundays. Click for a map with the location.
If you have children, Zoo Ave is a wonderful stop. This wildlife center rescues and rehabilitates animals that have been injured, orphaned, or confiscated from the illegal pet trade. Some examples include Scarlet Macaw parrots, white-faced monkeys, and even a few species of jungle cats. If animals are unable to be released back into their natural environment after being treated, they live the rest of their lives on the property. One notable inhabitant is a toucan named Grecia that lost most of her beautiful beak in an abusive incident. Grecia now shows off a one-of-a-kind, high-tech prosthetic beak along the trail at Zoo Ave. $20 per person.
Atenas doesn’t have a big restaurant scene but there are some delicious options.
Pizzeria La Finca
Whenever we’re passing through Atenas, we always seem to end up at Pizzeria La Finca. The comfortable outdoor dining area and delicious wood-fired pizza, flatbreads, and bruschetta are obvious draws. They also have craft beer on tap. We recommend the locally brewed El Granero alongside the prosciutto, tomato, arugula, and fresh parmesan pizza.
Etnia is tucked away off the main road and offers contemporary food in a trendy environment. The menu changes regularly, but we loved our chorizo-beef burger with blue cheese and apple and hummus plate. This is the place to go if you’re looking for a little more ambiance in your dining. Etnia is open on weekends only (Friday to Sunday) and often has live music.
El Café de la Casa
For excellent typical Costa Rican food, head to El Café de la Casa. This tiny, charming restaurant occupies the porch area of a historic building in downtown. The menu is small, but you will find classic casados for lunch (plates of meat or fish with rice and beans and side salads) and a rotating daily special. The Olla de Carne on Wednesdays is delicious! Afterwards, be sure to stroll over to check out Jonathan’s handmade jewelry next door.
El Balcon de Café
This German-owned café and bakery is one of the most popular restaurants in Atenas and for good reason. Breakfast and lunch items are fresh and made with quality ingredients that you won’t find everywhere in Costa Rica. At El Balcon de Café, they use their homemade bread throughout the menu. We recommend taking a loaf of the potato bread home. The house specialties like schnitzel and goulash are delicious too.
La Casita del Café
For one of the best views around, head to La Casita del Café. This simple Costa Rican restaurant at the top of the hill on Route 3 has fantastic valley and even ocean views when conditions are right. Go for breakfast and arrive before the clouds roll in. The food is good, nothing fancy, but the scenery more than makes up for it.
Kay’s Gringo Postres
Kay’s Gringo Postres is a well-known expat hangout hidden outside downtown. If you’re interested in moving to Atenas, this is a good place to get the dish on what it’s like to live there. Delicious homemade desserts and cookies are available, plus a full breakfast and lunch menu. The breakfast buffet on Sundays is also popular.
La Trocha del Boyero
La Trocha del Boyero is a Tico-owned restaurant in a quiet neighborhood outside town. Surrounded by lush greenery, you can enjoy upscale typical Costa Rican food from their outdoor dining area. They have a variety of meat and seafood dishes, but their specialty is sea bass with sauce. The food here is solid, but what makes the experience is the friendly owners. Portions are big so come with an appetite.
Located in an old colonial building in downtown, Antaño is another expat favorite. The menu features typical Costa Rican dishes served by friendly wait staff. The environment is very comfortable, making it a good choice for just about anyone.
Atenas has a small selection of cabinas and bed and breakfast-style lodging, as well as a number of vacation rentals. Here are our picks for places to stay. Don’t miss the promo code for Two Weeks in Costa Rica readers, below, to save on accommodations!
Casa Doughty is a gorgeous vacation rental just a short drive from town. With 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms, it is a great option for a group or a couple of families traveling together. The house has a spacious, fully-equipped kitchen and comfortable living area. The outdoor space is well manicured with flowering plants and local fruits, and there is a comfortable pool area to relax. The property is set high on a hill so has a fantastic view of the mountains and Central Valley. At night you can see the lights of San Jose in the distance. We stayed here recently and loved having all the space. $120-175/night.
The owners of this rental also own a beautiful 4 bedroom house in the Pan de Azucar area of Atenas. To book either home, contact them through their website. Mention Two Weeks in Costa Rica to save 10% on your entire stay!
B&B Vista Atenas
This charming B&B is located only about 10 minutes from town, but in a quiet, peaceful location. As the name implies, B&B Vista Atenas also enjoys outstanding views of the Central Valley, especially from the pool. Rooms are bright, clean, and comfortable, and the staff here is friendly and welcoming. $50-70/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Apartamentos Atenas is a group of five cabins set around a small pool. The cabins are nicely spread out, allowing for plenty of privacy, and are surrounded by lush gardens. This hotel is a good pick if you’re looking for a scenic place to overnight around San Jose, but is also set up for longer stays. Each unit has a kitchenette with all the basics. The owner told us that she hosts a lot of people who are interested in moving to the area and many returning visitors as well. $50-70/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
If you’re looking to experience a bit of authentic Costa Rica, check out Atenas. This town not only offers a taste of local life, but also has a lot of interesting attractions. With coffee tours and waterfalls, Atenas is a nice break from the beach or a fun diversion on your way to or from San Jose.
Have you visited Atenas? What did you think? Leave us a comment below (Email subscribers, click here to post your comment online.)
Looking for more information about Costa Rica? Check out these posts:
- Costa Rica Rental Car Discount – Because Atenas is more spread out, it is best explored with a rental car. Check out our discount through one of the major companies in Costa Rica to save 10-25%.
- Monteverde: A Forest in the Clouds – If you’re continuing on to Monteverde after your time in Atenas, this guide will help you get the most out of your visit to the misty cloud forest.
- Life in Costa Rica – If you’re considering a move to Atenas, you’ll want to read posts from our Life in Costa Rica section to know what to expect.