Atenas: A Glimpse of Authentic Costa Rica

Last Updated: October 30, 2019

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 Costa Rica Destination Information

About Atenas

Atenas is located about 45 minutes west of the city of San Jose and 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 spot for growing coffee. Many of the local producers 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.

National Boyero Monument in Atenas Costa Rica
National Boyero Monument on Route 3

Activities

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.

El Toledo Coffee Tour in Atenas Costa Rica
The chorreador or “sock” method of brewing allows the delicious oils of the coffee to come through.

Farmers Market

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 modern looking 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 young son because the rocks were too tricky.

Las Minas Waterfalls near Atenas Costa Rica
The upper set of falls at Las Minas Waterfalls is harder to access but worth the effort.

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 lifecycle of these interesting plants. The property also has paths through the forest that showcase native 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 Ferroviario 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.

Atenas Costa Rica -Train Museum (Museo Ferroviaro Rio Grande)
Our little guy playing conductor at the train museum

Zoo Ave

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. 

Zoo Ave has a comfortable restaurant and small kids’ play area too. $25 per person adults, $10 children ages 2-12.

Restaurants

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.

Pizzaeria La Finca Atenas Costa Rica
The delicious wood-fired pizza at La Finca

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.

El Balcon de Cafe - A great breakfast and lunch spot in Atenas
The German breakfast at El Balcon de Cafe

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.

La Casita del Café near Atenas Costa Rica
An early morning view at La Casita del Café. You can see the ocean in the distance off to the right.

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.

La Trocha Restaurant in Atenas Costa Rica
The filet mignon at La Trocha

Restaurante Antaño

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.

Accommodations

Atenas has a small selection of cabinas and bed and breakfast-style lodging. Here are a couple of our picks for places to 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. $50-75/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.

Apartamentos Atenas

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.

Apartamentos Atenas
The outside living area of our cabin at Apartamentos Atenas

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.

Last Updated: October 30, 2019

Have you visited Atenas? What did you think? Leave us a comment below.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you book a hotel using one of the links, we receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Read our Privacy Policy for more information.

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%.

Jaco: Costa Rica’s Booming Beach Town If you’re looking for ideas for day trips from Atenas, check out Jaco on the central Pacific coast, about 1 hour away. This area has everything from ATV and zip line tours to crocodile tours and national park hikes.

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.

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22 Comments

  1. Good post. I have never been to Atenas. My son loves trains. We might have to stop at the Train Museum. The waterfalls looks like a good spot too for when he gets older and can make the hike.

    1. Hi Todd, The train place was cool. Small and rustic, but very authentic and fun seeing the old car. If your son likes trains, I think he would enjoy it. Yes, I’d wait a bit on this waterfall but luckily there are some others in CR that are more kid-friendly. Thanks again for reading!

  2. I stayed at the Double Tree Hilton in San Jose. I had injured my leg and could not walk very far, I was in a lot of pain. This happened the first day there and I could not take any tours because I could not walk. I found Miguel in Transportation at the hotel, he said we can drive you around in the van and you can see somethings not like the tour. I was staying for 12 days I wanted to do anything. He said Jorge would pick me up he speaks very good English. Jorge was so nice and everyday he would find some place to take me, because of him I had a nice vacation. It would have been nice if I could have walked but I made the best of it and it turned out good. The people are really nice people.

    1. Hi Jamie, That’s too bad that that happened and you weren’t able to do what you wanted on your vacation. We’re glad you still had a good time, though. The locals are so nice and helpful! You will have to come back for another trip so that you can really experience the country. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Oh wow! I am really loving your blog thus far. I’ve just recently booked a 7-day trip for my 11-year old son and my husband; their first official “guys’ trip”! I’m pretty excited that they get to experience Costa Rica together. They’ll be staying in a Airbnb located in Atenas, so I couldn’t have discovered your blog at a more opportune time. Loving all of the tips, suggestions, itineraries, and direct links you’re providing. Now I can really solidify that “Mom of the Year” feeling by booking an awesome trip.

    Quick questions: Their trip is scheduled for the end of November. What are their chances of receiving less rain than if they were to go earlier in the rainy season? Also, are their any waterfalls or other cool experiences near Atenas? They’ll be renting a car more than likely, however, I would like to spare them the long hours of travel just to explore.

    Thanks so much for all of the great and helpful information you’ve provided to the world thus far. You guys rock!

    1. Hi Tiani, The end of November is a good time to visit. Any earlier than that between now and then is most likely to be rainier. For waterfalls, there’s the Las Minas we talk about in this post. Los Chorros isn’t too far either (in Grecia) or there’s Catarata del Toro, which is really awesome. They could also check out the oxcarts at Sarchi, hike at El Bosque del Niño in Grecia, go to the Children’s Museum in downtown San Jose, and visit the waterfalls and animal exhibits at La Paz Waterfalls Gardens near Poas Volcano. Zip lining and whitewater rafting can be done out of the San Jose area too. You might find other things in the area by exploring our map.

  4. Spent a few hours in Atenas the evening before going to the airport. Ate at La Finca which was very good and reasonably priced after leaving the restaurants in Manuel Antonio. I was the only “Gringo” around and though I got a few looks everyone was as nice as everywhere else in Costa Rica. After a week in the Manuel Antonio tourist type area you do notice that the prices are less here and you don’t run into many people that speak English. If you do go into town be sure to try to get by the big church there as it is really large and beautiful inside and out.

  5. Jenn and Matt – so glad I found your blog! My husband and I are leaving for Costa Rica on Thursday morning, and we are staying in Atenas! We’ve had the trip planned for months and I’ve been doing my due diligence in collecting information. So glad you wrote this post – among others! We cannot wait to experience Costa Rica – thank you for putting all of this information out there and sharing your lives with us!

  6. Thank you for your suggestions. By chance, do you know the hours of the Friday market. We will be staying in a home, is Uber or taxi service readily available to pick us up at hour home a take us into the town?

  7. My wife and I will be taking a two week Spanish class in Samara in February. After the class finishes, we hope to travel for 5 or 6 days. This will be our 2nd trip to Costa Rica. We were thinking of spending a few days in Monteverde and maybe Atenas and/or Jaco. We’re not too keen on renting a car, so we wondered what Atenas is like without a car? How hard is it to get around without a car?

    1. Hi Eric, Atenas is doable without a car if you can stay near the downtown. Otherwise, it’s better to have a rental since things are more spread out. Monteverde and Jaco are both good options without a car as well.

  8. Hi there,

    So glad I came across your blog. I’m trying to plan a trip to Costa Rica and have found a beautiful home to rent close to Atenas. I’ve been researching how far the main attractions are from the home. From looking at the map is seems main attractions are an hour to 3 hours away from where we might be staying. What would you recommend? Will be staying for 10 days in May.

    1. Hi Sandra, It’s hard to have a home base out of the Atenas area because you really are too far from major attractions like the Arenal Volcano and Monteverde Cloud Forest to do them as day trips. We usually recommend spending at least a couple of nights in those regions if you are interested in exploring them. The central Pacific coast (Jaco area) is a reasonable drive from Atenas so that’s a good option for day trips.

  9. I’m currently in Atenas and I’ve read this page multiple times and really appreciate it! Did the Botanical Orchid Garden today and it was beautiful! Thank you for all the tips for places to eat and places to stay! I just got here last night and can’t wait to adventure some more!

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