Home to almost three-quarters of the country’s population, the Central Valley is Costa Rica’s cultural and economic center. Long ago, farmers used oxcarts and horses to traverse the surrounding green mountains and bring goods to market. Today, while replaced by modern-day vehicles, locals are still using the Central Valley as their hub. For tourists, this region has a lot to offer too, especially culturally. San Jose, the capital city, is home to museums, markets, and parks, while surrounding towns and cities offer a glimpse into everyday life.
In this post, we’ll give you a snapshot of Costa Rica’s Central Valley as well as some resources to help you plan a visit.
Central Valley: Quick Facts
- Closest Airport: Juan Santamaria International (SJO). This is located right in the Central Valley, in the city of Alajuela.
- Best Weather: December to April
- Activity Highlights: Museums, Volcanoes, and Shopping
- Major Destinations: San Jose, Alajuela, Cartago, Atenas, Grecia, Santa Ana, Escazu, San Ramon
Central Valley: Location and Landscape
Practically named, Costa Rica’s Central Valley is located almost in the exact middle of the country. The large and relatively flat valley sits at about 1,000 meters (3,200 ft) in elevation. Steeper volcanic mountains circle the valley to create a beautiful, rolling green backdrop.
Several towns and cities are considered part of the Central Valley. From the west, there is San Ramon, Atenas, Grecia, Santa Ana, and Escazu. In the center, Alajuela, Heredia, and San Jose. Finally, the country’s oldest city and former capital, Cartago, lies to the southeast.
Much of the Central Valley is developed. In fact, this region is where the vast majority of people live in Costa Rica. However, you can still find areas of thick forest, beautiful flower gardens, and expansive farm fields mixed into the landscape.
When to Visit: Climate and Weather in Costa Rica’s Central Valley
The Central Valley is much like the majority of Costa Rica in that it has two distinct seasons. A dry season begins in December and lasts until the end of April. During this time, you will find mostly sunny days and little rain.
The rainy season starts in early May and continues through November, but rain is not always constant.
The climate in the Central Valley is said to be one of the most consistent and comfortable worldwide. During the day, temperatures are generally in the upper 70s or low 80s (around 24-28 Celsius). Nights are cooler and into the middle 60s (around 18 Celsius). With added humidity, temperatures in the evening can feel quite cool at times, so we recommend packing some warmer clothes. See our Packing post for more information.
Weather Breakdown by Month
The driest months in the Central Valley are from mid-December to the end of April.
In April, the first rains typically start, greening the surrounds after months with little rainfall. Rain showers and thunderstorms become more consistent (usually in the afternoons or evenings) by May and continue through August. A brief drier period occurs in July.
The months of September and October have the most rainfall, with some rain most days.
By November, the rains usually begin to taper off, but weather patterns in recent years have made some Novembers wetter than normal.
Around mid-December, the rains in the Central Valley start to lessen dramatically. By the end of December, the rain mostly subsides, and the dry season begins again.
The Central Valley has some months that are quite windy. January is typically the windiest, followed by February and March. This is a nice, moderate, dry breeze.
For a more detailed look at Costa Rica’s weather, including average rainfall totals, check out our post: Weather in Costa Rica: What You Need to Know.
Central Valley: Things to Do
Being in the center of the country, it’s possible to explore many different parts of Costa Rica on longer day trips from the Central Valley. For example, tours starting from downtown San Jose go all the way to the Pacific coast for adventure or ocean excursions, or north to Arenal Volcano for hiking and thermal hot springs. These tours include many hours in a shuttle van, though, so if you have time to visit these areas individually, we’d recommend doing that.
If you are looking to explore the Central Valley itself, here are a few fun things to do.
Downtown San Jose
The capital city of San Jose is perfect for absorbing Costa Rica’s culture and history. In the center of the downtown are blocks of shops, restaurants, and businesses. Mixed in are scenic parks, bustling markets, museums, and even the elegantly designed National Theater.
Some of the most popular museums are the National Museum, Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, and Jade Museum. The hurried life of the city is all around, but you can still find many Ticos (nickname for Costa Ricans) taking time to relax on a park bench or sip coffee at a local cafe. To help plan your visit to the downtown, read our post How to Spend 1 or 2 Days in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Among the rolling green mountains surrounding the Central Valley are several impressive volcanoes. Two popular ones are Poas Volcano and Irazu Volcano.
Poas is located just north of Alajuela and has a large crater lake as well as a few short trails. This volcano has been active in the last few years, so it is best to inquire locally to make sure it is safe to visit.
Irazu, another crater volcano, is located in the southeastern part of the Central Valley. This one is considered dormant since it hasn’t shown activity for many years. On extremely clear days, it is possible to see both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea from the top of Irazu.
Both craters (Poas and Irazu) have beautiful acid lakes with blue water that can be seen from viewing platforms (weather permitting).
Coffee farming has been an important part of Costa Rica’s economy since the 1800s. While many different regions produce coffee, the Central Valley is one of the biggest contributors. Growers in the region produce some of the finest coffee in the world, and have even received international acclaim for their nearly perfect beans.
Several coffee tours are available around the Central Valley to take in this important aspect of the country’s culture and history. Though each is different, they all tell the story of how coffee is grown, harvested, processed, and of course enjoyed. In Costa Rica, that usually means using a device called a chorreador.
Here’s a link to one experience at a larger grower, Café Britt.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens
For nature lovers who aren’t visiting many other areas of the country, a trip to La Paz Waterfall Gardens is a must. This property, located on the back side of Poas Volcano, has beautiful forest, colorful gardens, and several stunning waterfalls.
But the real highlight at La Paz is actually the wildlife center. Here, you can view Costa Rica’s most spectacular animals easily. There are exotic birds and frogs, big cats like jaguars, monkeys, snakes, and even sloths. To find out more and plan your visit, read our post La Paz Waterfall Gardens: Wildlife Up Close.
While volcanoes, beaches, and wildlife are reason enough to visit, some tourists are also interested in Costa Rica’s affordable medical care. Dental work, cosmetic surgery, and knee-replacement operations are just some of what is offered.
Costa Rica has several well-known private hospitals and clinics. Many are located within the Central Valley like Hospital CIMA and Hospital Clinica Biblica. Often doctors and staff are fully bilingual and many even hold degrees from international universities. With prices just a fraction of what some might pay in their home country, these medical trips are becoming more and more popular.
Planning Your Visit
Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) is the closest international airport. It is located within the Central Valley in the city of Alajuela. SJO Airport is about 20-50 minutes (depending on traffic) from downtown San Jose and other major towns in the Central Valley.
Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (LIR) is Costa Rica’s other international airport. It is farther from the Central Valley, at between 4-5 hours.
All major rental car companies in Costa Rica have offices in the Central Valley and offer car pick up from the SJO Airport area as well. If you plan to rent a car during your stay, we recommend Adobe Rent a Car. They are one of the best companies in the country with a very new fleet of cars. Check out our Rental Car Discount to save 10-20% and get free extras like a second driver, car seats, or an emergency cellphone.
If you’re not up for driving, taking a private shuttle van from the airport to your destination in the Central Valley is convenient and easy. Shuttle prices from SJO Airport to destinations in the Central Valley start at around $60/van transfer one way. To check prices and book with a reliable company, see our Shuttle Transfers page.
Other Transportation Options
The Central Valley has an extensive bus system with major stations in each city or town.
Official taxis are also an option throughout the Central Valley. These cars are red with a yellow triangle on the side. Official airport taxis are orange with the yellow triangle.
Uber is also available around the Central Valley. Uber drivers are not allowed to pick up passengers directly at the airport, though.
Here’s a list of the Central Valley’s most popular destinations and their proximity to SJO Airport.
Alajuela is a small city where you will find mostly locals. The downtown has a nice central park and cathedral that is worth checking out if you’re interested in exploring the local culture.
SJO Airport is located in Alajuela, and the downtown area is about 10-20 minutes away, depending on traffic.
San Jose is a sprawling city with many districts. The highlight for most visitors is the downtown, which is the cultural center of the country. This is where you will find museums, the Central Market, National Theater, and Children’s Museum, as well as some excellent restaurants and fun bars. For hotels options in the downtown, read our San Jose post.
San Jose is about 20 to 50 minutes from SJO Airport, depending on traffic.
Atenas is a scenic town located west of San Jose. It has a pretty central park with a vibrant downtown. Lots of locals and expats live in Atenas. Surrounding the main square are rolling green hills of farm and forest.
Atenas is about 30-40 minutes from SJO.
Grecia is just northeast of Atenas. Like Atenas, it’s also popular with expats, especially retirees, and has a busy downtown filled with local shops and restaurants. Quieter communities are located in the hills above town. Grecia is known for its Catholic church, which is made of metal painted red.
Grecia is about 45 minutes from SJO.
Santa Ana and Escazu
Santa Ana and Escazu are two communities just west of San Jose. Here, you will find commercial areas with excellent shopping and gourmet restaurants, as well as some high-end condos and many medical facilities. Both towns also have neighborhoods where working class Costa Ricans live.
Santa Ana and Escazu are about 30-50 minutes from SJO, depending on traffic.
Like Atenas and Grecia, San Ramon is a local city with a charming park and prominent church in the downtown. Though many of the locals in the surrounding area live off agriculture, several of Costa Rica’s presidents have either come from or lived in this authentic town. San Ramon has a diverse landscape, with coffee farms, mountain, cloud forest, and even (distant) ocean views.
San Ramon is about 45 minutes from SJO.
Once Costa Rica’s capital, Cartago is a historic city that hosts some important landmarks. The biggest attraction is a large Catholic church called the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels). Every year in early August, more than a million locals make a religious pilgrimage to this site. Some travel on foot for many days across Costa Rica’s rugged landscape.
Not far from the Basilica is another interesting site, Las Ruinas de la Parroquia (the Ruins of the Parish). This is the remains of a church that was originally built in 1575 but damaged by several earthquakes in the years to come. Today the ruins are used as a park.
Cartago is about 1 hour from SJO Airport, though traffic along Route 39 is often heavy.
While there are a wide range of hotels around the Central Valley, there are no actual all-inclusive resorts. Those looking for this type of accommodation can find the most options in Guanacaste Province.
The Central Valley is often the starting point for visitors arriving in Costa Rica. While many travelers spend little time here, there is a lot to explore and appreciate. And though traffic and congestion often give the area a typical urban feel, the beautiful green mountains remind you that Costa Rica’s natural wonders are just a stone’s throw away.
Planning a visit to the Central Valley and have a question? Leave us a comment below.
Looking for more resources to help you plan? Check out these posts:
Guanacaste, Costa Rica: Regional Snapshot – This regional snapshot covers the northwestern part of the country, famous for its gorgeous beaches.
Central Pacific Coast, Costa Rica: Regional Snapshot – Along the Central Pacific, you’ll find verdant rainforest and plenty of wildlife. Read more in this regional snapshot.
Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast: Regional Snapshot – The Caribbean offers visitors a completely different feel compared to other parts of the country. This regional snapshot with give you a detailed overview.
Best Hotels Near SJO Airport – Looking for hotel options near SJO? Don’t settle for a typical airport hotel. Make it part of your vacation with one of these picks.