Filling a wide valley in the peaceful mountains of Costa Rica’s Southern Zone is San Isidro de El General. This small city is bursting with local culture and has an ideal location just an hour from the beach and only minutes from Costa Rica’s tallest mountain, Cerro Chirripo. Although it’s not really on any tourist map, San Isidro de El General has attracted many expats over the years with its moderate temperatures, beautiful landscapes, and convenience to shops and services.
We have lived a short drive from San Isidro for a while now. Only recently, after making dozens of doctors’ visits there (read: Having a Baby in Costa Rica), have we gotten to explore what this charming city has to offer. In this post, we’ll share some of our favorite parts.
San Isidro de El General is located about 80 miles (130 km) south-southeast of Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jose, right on the Inter-Americana Highway. It lies within the canton of Perez Zeledon, and some people use that as a nickname, calling the city Perez Zeledon or simply Perez. Driving west from San Isidro de El General, you can reach the Pacific Coast town of Dominical in just under an hour or the popular beach town of Manuel Antonio in about two hours. The city is backed by the verdant green Talamanca Mountains, and Costa Rica’s highest peak, Mt. Chirripo, is only a short 25 minute drive away.
The Charm of San Isidro de El General
Like most Costa Rican cities, San Isidro de El General is centered on a square that has a nicely landscaped park and large church. For blocks around this town center, there are shops, restaurants, simple hotels, and just about any type of business you can imagine or need. Candy shops, clothing stores, stationary stores, farm supplies and hardware stores, thrift stores, mechanics, computer repair, dentists, and lawyers are spread out all around town. There is even a McDonalds and Pizza Hut, and a few minutes down the road, a small mall and movie theater.
The roads and avenues near the city center are organized loosely into different districts. One area with an abundance of shoe stores, another with multiple banks, and a whole section near the public hospital with different medical specialists and pharmacies. The farther you get from San Isidro center, the more residential the streets become. Homes are modest, usually only one story, but many have lovely gardens and terraces.
What we like most about San Isidro is that it serves as one central location for all the smaller communities in the area. A huge bus station and the Inter-Americana Highway bring people in from even the smallest villages and towns to do business, run errands, or meet up with family and friends. For this reason, city life here is a lot less rushed and everyone is generally very friendly and helpful, more the feeling you get while in the countryside.
Things to Do
Aside from shopping or running errands downtown, there are some unique things to do in or near San Isidro de El General.
Farmers Market: Known locally as the feria, the San Isidro farmers market is the biggest farmers market in the Southern Zone with over 200 vendors selling every kind of fruit and vegetable you can imagine. There are also booths with crafts, meats, fish, homemade breads, jams, and cheeses. You can even buy seedlings, plants, and flowers. The market is held all day Thursdays and until about mid-day Fridays every week. It’s under a gigantic roof so happens rain or shine.
Located at Avenida 6 at Calle 5. Find the school behind the Mega Super grocery store and the feria building is behind that. Parking is available.
Chirripo National Park: Standing at a whopping 12,533 feet (3,820 meters), Cerro Chirripo is Costa Rica’s tallest mountain. The hike to the top takes you along a steep 10 mile (16 km) trail and is best done in two days with an overnight rest at a ranger station. On clear days it is possible to see both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea from the summit. This challenging hike is still on our bucket list, but we hope to do it soon!
Cloudbridge Nature Reserve: One of our favorite places to hike in the San Isidro area is Cloudbridge Nature Reserve. This 700 acre (283 hectare) reserve has some rugged trails that lead through beautiful gardens, past gushing waterfalls, and into the thick forest around the base of Mt. Chirripo. The peaceful setting makes a nice day trip and there are lots of amazing birds and animals thanks to its remoteness and lack of foot traffic.
Nauyaca Waterfalls: Located on the road to Dominical, about 30 minutes from San Isidro, is one of the country’s most spectacular waterfalls. The two-tiered Nauyaca drops a total of 200 feet (61 meters) and the lower falls have a beautiful pool for swimming. Read our post Visiting the Beautiful Nauyaca Waterfalls for more info.
Los Cusingos Bird Sanctuary: The former home to one of the world’s best known ornithologists, Dr. Alexander Skutch, Los Cusingos is a special place if you are a birder. This 192 acre (78 hectare) reserve has a network of trails that go around the home and property of the late Skutch. Much of the land is tropical forest and the trails are easy to traverse. Besides spotting lots of bird species, you can also see some ancient petroglyphs (carved rocks) on one of the trails. To plan your visit, read our post Los Cusingos Bird Sanctuary: A Living Memorial for a Famous Naturalist.
For more activities within a short drive of San Isidro de El General, see our post 7 Things to Do in Dominical.
Walking around San Isidro de El General, it seems there is a restaurant on each corner and down every side street. We’ll probably never get to try them all but here are some that we have enjoyed.
La Reina del Valley: The Queen of the Valley. This restaurant overlooking the central park serves up typical food for a great price. It has two stories so you can watch the happenings of town from above too. Go for hearty dishes like gallo pinto (rice and beans with eggs) for breakfast or casados (beef, chicken, or fish with rice and beans and side salads) for lunch.
Urban Farm Cafe: This tiny cafe on the road leading out of town towards Dominical focuses on fresh healthy meals made from local ingredients. They even have lettuce growing inside under their menu board. We’ve tried several of their wraps, salads, and the Mexican bowl, and loved everything. The innovative smoothies are great too.
Pizzeria Stella D’Italia: Good pizza is hard to find in Costa Rica, and we can honestly say that Stella D’Italia has the best we’ve ever tasted here. Marco, the Italian owner, is a passionate chef who uses all the best ingredients. Our favorite is the ricotta pizza. A big thanks to Casey from A Dull Roar for recommending this gem on his blog. Located on Calle 4 near Avienda 1.
Cafetería Delicias: This chill coffee shop and restaurant is a great place for breakfast, lunch, or just a tasty snack. It is also located next to the central park so a good place to sip your java, use the Wi-Fi, and watch the people go by. Also a popular expat hangout.
Mi Casita: Another good option for local food like casados, soups, and rice dishes. This small restaurant has locally crafted wooden tables and accents all around. Calle 3 at Avenida 4.
Ricar2: About 10 minutes outside town on the beach road going to Dominical, this restaurant has a stunning view overlooking the valley and San Isidro. Although you might not expect it from the modest exterior, the food here is high quality at an affordable price. The barbeque pork and homemade ravioli dishes hooked us and we’ve been back several times.
KapiBlu: KapiBlu is a modern-looking cafe with a big menu. They serve savory sandwiches, burritos, pastas, soups, and snacks like nachos but put a healthy and local touch on everything. The coffee, fresh fruit drinks, and sweets (even cupcakes) are also delicious. Located near the INS building on Calle 1 across from Super Pan.
San Isidro de El General might not be on any tourist map just yet, but this charming city is one you should definitely check out if you are looking to explore Costa Rica’s local culture. It’s also a great place to add to your itinerary if you are searching for that perfect place to retire. Each time we leave, we always seem to comment on what a great day we had. Maybe it’s the convenience of all the shops or the friendly people we bump into on the streets, but we always look forward to going back.
Have you ever been to San Isidro de El General? Let us know you favorite part in the comments below. (Email subscribers, click here to comment online.)
Looking to add more authentic Costa Rica experiences to your trip? Check out these posts:
- San Gerardo de Dota: A Hideaway in the Cloud Forest – Best known by birders for the opportunity of see a Resplendent Quetzal, this charming hamlet is also the perfect place to just unwind and enjoy nature.
- Guayabo National Monument: An Ancient Pre-Columbian City – Located on the hills of the Turrialba Volcano, this historic sight sheds some light into Costa Rica’s first inhabitants. Like San Isidro, the nearby city of Turrialba has a lot of local character too.
- 7 Off-the-Beaten-Path Things to Do Near Manuel Antonio – Manuel Antonio is definitely a tourist hotspot but there are some lesser known things to do nearby that will keep you away from the crowds.
- Making Organic Chocolate at La Iguana Chocolate – The art of chocolate making is fascinating enough but walking through the farm that grows it, touching, and tasting each element makes this little known tour that much better.