On our last day, we couldn't leave without seeing inside a volcano. Our driver took us a little outside Alajuela to see the Poas volcano. Although I was this close to putting this experience in the Tourist Trap category (because it's really touristic, crowded and paved!), I'm enchanted and more than happy I made the trip.
A little walk will take you up on the volcano's edge to see this beautiful turquoise water in the crater of Poas, above the clouds. Magical! The terrain is rocky and dark, the lake is whimsical, the vegetation scattered to luxious, surrounding unbelievable!
You can take a walk to the Botos crater, a smaller one on the side of the volcano, or attend the museum and giftshop (expensive!) at the entrance.
Go early, as the top of the volcano clouds up quickly some day. If you missed it, wait a little bit as it often clears up in 5 minutes. Or come back later. When we arrived, there was nothing but a sea of clouds. It was quite impressive to see the crater appears before our eyes (and so close!) in a mater of seconds, as the clouds disappeared.
I have to admit, it's worth the trip!
About 6$ to get in. Bring your camera (raincoat if you think it's going to rain, not necessary to have walking shoes). More details and pictures in my travelogue on the alajuela page.
At almost 3500m, Irazu is the tallest volcano in Costa Rica. The perfect cone overlooks the city of Cartago in the Central Valley and the top of it peaks through the clouds.
Ascending the slopes of irazu, through field patchworks and colorful farms, feels like going back in time and allows to discovers the old days of the tico countryside.
And reaching the top is like landing on the moon. Gray rocky flat ground, almost no vegetation and no sight since you are above the clouds, the experience is unique. It's also very cold and very windy.
Irazu has 5 craters and 3 can be easily visited: the Principal, the Fiego de la Haya and the Playa Hermosa. A little dwarf forest also surrounds the area and you can spot local birds like volcano junco and the volcano humminbird (there's a variety unique to the Irazu).
Count about 30-60 minutes over there, maybe a pit-stop at the cafeteria/gift shop to get a hot coffee and a little souvenirs. Not much more to expect from this expedition. I would suggest pairing an irazu volcano visit with something else in the area. I would also strongly suggest you don't go with an organised tour (see the Tropicales Expeditions in my Tourist Trap).
6$ entrance to the park, 2.50$ for parking
35$ per person on organised tour
Bring warm clothes and windbreaker.
See my Alajuela traveogue for pictures of this expedition.
Well, we were lucky but still decided to stop by the zoo in Alajuela, killing some time on an empty afternoon. And we had a blast!
It could be very sad to see all those wonderful creatures behind bars, after traveling through the country and beautiful ecosystems, but it feels right when you know that the zoo is foremost a conservation and restauration foundation. I've seen walls of birds drawing, boards and signs to explain conservation and preservation and games and experience to do the same with kids.
But what you really come for is the animals you can't miss. Here, you WILL get that quetzal picture! The ones we liked the most: 3 kinds of ara, laughing parrot, big green iguanas, many kind of monkeys, 2 kinds of toucan, quetzal, turtles, tayra and big cats. Only the tapir were missing...
We toured the place in 2 hours, but could have taken at least an hour more (they were kicking us out at closing time...). Very small gift shop and restaurant.
Entrance fee 8$ per person
Taxi from Alajuela 5$
See my Alajuela travelogue for my best pics.
I guess if you are really unlucky, you could end your trip with a visit at the zoo. For sure, you'll see the animals you've missed during your expeditions!
We were lucky enough and didn't had to go!
The Nature Restauration Foundation owns the zoo and while allowing you to see numerous animals, educate and helps restaure the fauna by introducing birds species. You could see more than 100 birds species, including toucans, parraquets, eagles and quetzals, the 4 species of monkeys of Costa Rica and many more mammals and reptiles.
The Ojo de Agua is the Disney World for the Ticos. Its an easy taxi from Alajuela, but the bus back was much more interesting. We did not see any fellow North American tourists here at the Ojo de Agua near Alajuela. We did see lots of Costa Rican families, just as Loretta and Dick had 19 years earlier. This time we are a family and the Ojo is even more of a delight with the swimming pools, the park and picnic areas.
There is something about the place (including the modest entry fee of 600 colones - $1,50 Cdn each) that is so much nicer than the lineups and expensive rides at Disney World.
This is a real gem too good to miss!!!
There are numerous companies offering tours of the central valley. Some combine various excursions i.e horseback riding, sarapiqui river boat tirp, Poas Volcano, Selve Verde jungle lodge etc... The one I took was the Highlights tour and included the following visits: coffe plantation, poas volcano, hummingbird centre, La Paz waterfall, lunch at Selve Verde Jungle lodge, boat trip down the Sarapiqui River, and a drive thru Braulio Carrillo National Park. The whole tour was wonderful and included a very informative guide. We drove by many of the industries in this Mountainous range....ie fern growing operations, strawberries, dairy cattle and more. I booked this tour over the internet and
I did not hear back from them despite my email requests for confirmation. I contacted them by phone once in Costa Rica and had no problems dealing with them that way. It is 1,000 colones/$2.00 for a cab ride from Alajuela to the Hampton inn across from the airport. The tour bus can pick you up there. Don't let the person talk you out of a differant drop-off location, unless you want. The guide offered to drop me off at the San Jose bus depot and I would not do that at all. Cost $79.00 US per person. A bargain. This is something you will not regret participating in.
Book through Hotel Santo Thomas! Great all Day tour with 2 meals, guide and entrance to the Hot Springs.. You get to stop in several other cities and see some amazing things- an ox cart that took 6 guys, 6 weeks to hand paint- pretty cool. The really cool thing was an all metal church. Also some beautiful landscapes that you wont forget
Parque Nacional Volcán Poás is the easiest to visit and therefore the most popular. From Alajuela one or more tourist buses daily go the 37 km winding mountain road to the park, fare CRC 2100 both ways. They stop at a souvenir stall on the way, still there is ample time to walk the park at your leasure.
From the parking a well paved road leads upwards to the crater rim; one is not allowed to go down into the crater. Also one s advised not to feed the montane squirrels, but they have become tame anyhow! From the crater we walked the two trails, easy Sendero Botos to crater lake Laguna Botos, and the longer Sendero Escalonia through dense forest, where we sighted many birds and bromeliads.
Admission to the park: USD 10 or CRC 5,150 (February 2012).
The Else Kinzler Botanical Garden belongs to an enterprise specializing in decorative plants from all over the world, Innovaplant de Costa Rica S.A. The German owner established the garden in 1998 and named it after his mother.
So you enter the garden via the enterprise grounds. But then you reach a lush 7 ha garden with well-tended walkways and complete with rivulets and ponds. Although we are no botanists we liked admiring the plants and flowers, several of which are said to belong to endangered species. One of the gardeners pointed out to us Costa Rica's national flower in a tree, the orchid Guaria Morada.
Open: Daily from 8am to 4 pm
Admission: Foreigners CRC 6,600, residents CRC 2,500
Address: From Estadio Eliécer Pérez 400 m north, Sarchi Norte, Provincia de Alajuela.
Just one tip for things to do in Alajuela - although I'm sure it has much more to offer!! If you've already read my intro page then you've probably already made a safe bet that this is about our trip to the mall..
$2 in a taxi from the airport and about 5 minutes drive (if that) and you can go to the local Mall. It's really only worth it if you have a lot of time to kill at the airport but not enough time to see San Jose - we had a seven hour wait so this was perfect for us.
The Mall has plenty of boutique shops ranging from cheap and cheerful to cheekily over-priced to downright extortionate! The only brand names I saw were Roxy and Billabong (Not that I'm a brand freak - I just thought I'd mention it!). Other than shops there is a huge food hall with about 15 fast food resaurants serving burgers, chips and pizzas in different varieties and combinations, a supermarket for beer and cigarettes, and a cinema. I'm a bit of a shopaholic at times but I wasn't mega impressed by the shops at this mall. Still, worth a look if you get stuck at the airport and want to get out for a bit.
True, it is not as big as the Natural Bridge in the State of Virginia, but the Puente de Piedra (rock bridge) of Costa Rica comes with a legend. It is supposed to have been built by the devil himself. Details of the story may differ, but all versions agree that the Tico farmer outwitted the devil. He sold his soul for a bridge to his land, on condition that the devil should finish building the bridge in one night before the crowing of the cock. Of course the farmer nudged the cock to crow just when the devil was about to place the last rock.
The bridge has been used by carts for crossing the river Poró since the 19th century. Walk under the bridge (if the water level permits), to see the hole where the devil failed to place the last rock.
Another day we took the bus from Alajuela to Sarchí, fare CRC 735. The small town is famous for its handicraft, especially oxcarts, lifesize and miniature. The art of oxcart making in Sarchí is recognized by Unesco as an instance of Intangible Heritage of Humanity, together with the craft of keris making in Indonesia and bark cloth making in Uganda.
The use of oxcarts (carretas) in Costa Rica dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, when they were used to transport coffee beans from the central valley over the mountains to the Pacific coast, a journey of ten to fifteen days. In the twentieth century it became customary to embellish them with colourful designs, especially the wheels. But today they only remain as a lure for tourists.
We did not really want to buy a model oxcart for in our home or garden, and found there is hardly any original oxcart left to admire. So we had time on our hands and not much to do with it. Sarchí is stretched out, not very suitable for walking around. Eventually we went to see the Else Kientzler Botanical Garden, the only other attraction in Sarchí.
Juan Santamaría, a humble drummer boy, became a national hero when he gave his life for his country on April 11th, 1856. A certain filibuster or soldier of fortune named William Walker had invaded Costa Rica in his second attempt to make himself a president of a Central American country. A volunteer army of 9000 men opposed him at a farm house in present day Santa Rosa National Park. Walker had taken refuge in the farm house, and two volunteers had been killed in the attempt to set fire to the thatched roof. Juan Santamaría however, succeeded, and by that feat ended the fight by a Costa Rican victory after just a quarter of an hour. But he too was wounded and did not survive.
Alajuela boasts Costa Rica's main museum dedicated to the Central American War and Juan Santamaría. The town also has a statue immortalizing him.
The museum building - which originally may have been a hacienda - is too big to fill with Juan Santamaría and war memorabilia. When we were there several rooms were filled with comic stories on the walls.
Open: Tuesdays through Sundays, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
At the end of a hot day it is always nice to find a waterfall. This one we found on our way back from Grecia to Alajuela, at Carrillos which is about half way between the two.
There is a parking a couple of km uphill from the main road at Carrillos. Here we paid the entrance fee, USD 6 for foreigners (CRC 1500 for locals, February 2012).
From the parking it is a short walk along a gravel road, then left by a footpath through the river valley. At the end of the path two rivers join, one can choose where to take a dip.
Directions: Returning on the bus from Grecia we got off at Carrillos. Taxis were waiting there to bring us to Los Chorros.
From Alajuela one can get on the bus to Carrillos (CRC 270) which brings one all te way to the Los Chorros parking. Remember to inquire when the last bus leaves for your return journey.
For our first day trip from Alajuela we went by bus to Grecia. On the way there we had seen the billboard at the roadside, so we dropped off there on our way back.
'World of Snakes' is a small zoo featuring mainly snakes, but also crocodiles, amphibians and lizards. But their main business is breeding them, for export but also with an eye on preserving rare species.
On a weekday there were few visitors. We were lucky to see some keepers handling snakes in order to clean their cages. Ane we saw one snake swaling another. A keeper explained: 'If a snake dies, we feed it to another, so nothing goes to waste.'
Open: All year rond, Monday to Sunday (holidays included) from 8am to 5pm. Last admission at at 4pm.
Entrance: USD 12 or CRC 5,500. (February 2012).