San José is the capital of Costa Rica and we always recommend spending the first and especially the last night here because, even though Costa Rica is a small country, the distances are longer than they appear to be and it is better to be close to the airport on the day you take the flight back home.
But another advantage of San José is, that it is right in the heart of Costa Rica, and there are many attractions around it, which is great for those who want to start or end their trip slowly. Today I will tell you about the top 5 day trips from San José.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Driving towards the Poás Volcano in Alajuela, you will see how fast nature and vegetation in Costa Rica change. In just one hour from the capital San José, you can see green fields and get amazing views! La Paz Waterfall Gardens has 5 big waterfalls that flow down the mountain in succession. The park is nicely laid out and very clean. You can walk through an animal sanctuary where you can see animals that live in Costa Rica and this is your chance to see them close! They also offer a typical lunch and show you the ox with typical oxcarts, before you take down all the steps to see the stunning waterfalls! I really like this place because you can see so many sides of Costa Rica in just one place: Stunning nature, animals, typical food and a little bit of Costa Rican culture. It is definitively worth a visit!
I recommend you to do this tour together with a coffee tour, which is very close to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Costa Rica´s coffee has a long history and is mostly cultivated in the Central Valley, in the provinces of Cartago, Heredia, and Alajuela, because the soil and temperature show the perfect condition to grow coffee. Since the 1840s, coffee is exported to Europe. At this time, England started to invest in the coffee production of Costa Rica and was one of the most important clients for the country, which helped the Costa Ricans to leave the poverty conditions they were living in, as well as financing the construction of the infrastructure. Today, Costa Rican coffee counts as one of the best and is famous in the whole world. During this coffee tour, you will learn about the ancient techniques and process of the cultivation, harvesting, and roasting of the coffee beans and why coffee has such a special flavour. And of course, you can also try the finished product. It is a very interesting experience, even for children and those who don’t like coffee.
Crater of the Irazú Volcano
Another great tour you can do near San José is to visit the Irazú Volcano, Orosí and the Lankester Gardens. You will start your trip early in the morning and drive towards Cartago. The volcano is at 3´432 meters above sea level and on sunny days, you can see the Pacific AND the Caribbean coast! However, usually, it is quite windy so I recommend you take a warm jacket. The crater has a beautiful green-turquoise lake. When people see the pictures they usually think it is edited but no! This is the stunning nature of Costa Rica!
Basilica de los Angeles, Cartago
Afterwards, you can visit the Basilica “Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles”, a Roman Catholic Church and very important for the Ticos. Every year on August 2nd, the Virgen de Los Angeles holiday is celebrated because the Virgin was declared Costa Rica’s patron saint in 1824. Every year on this date, thousands of Costa Ricans walk through the whole country to this Basilica. Some of them even walk the last few hundred meters of the pilgrimage on their knees.
After admiring the church, you can continue your trip to the Lankester Gardens, a botanical garden that is known for the collection of orchids in different colours, as well as cactus, bromeliads, and heliconias. The botanical garden was named after the British biologist Charles H. Lankester who researched endemic plants and created a unique garden. After his death, the garden was donated to the University of Costa Rica in 1973 to make it a botanical garden. On the way back to San José, you can make a little stop at the oldest church of Costa Rica in Orosi and then, end the day with a lot of new knowledge and experiences!
Aerial Tram Rainforest Adventure
If you want to see a little bit of nature, this tour is perfect for you! After you leave the capital San José, you drive towards the rainforest in the Braulio Carrillo National Park. The Aerial Tram moves about one and a half hours through the treetops and allows you to have a view of the lush rainforest from above. You will see many tropical plants and maybe some animals and birds. In each cabin is space for 5 people and a guide who will tell you a lot of interesting facts. Afterwards, you can hike about 40 minutes through the rainforest and admire the beautiful nature one more time from another perspective. They also offer a delicious lunch before you go back to San José. A great day trip for everyone who loves nature and wants to enjoy the rainforest of Costa Rica!
Carreta in Sarchí
This day trip also combines culture, sights, and nature. The first stop is in Sarchí, a small town in Alajuela, well-known for the traditional and colourful oxcarts that are handcrafted and painted here. In the 19th century, the “Carreta” was used for coffee transportation from the Central Valley to the harbour of Puntarenas on the Pacific coast and at times even for the transportation of people, which makes it an important part of history. In Sarchí, we also find the biggest oxcart in the world and you can find many different souvenirs to bring to your family, friends, or as a memory for yourself.
Afterwards, you can visit the town of La Fortuna, eat a typical lunch there and visit the Arenal National Park. The Arenal Volcano is famous for its perfectly cone-shaped form and on a sunny day, you can see until the top. So after a delicious lunch with a view of the volcano, you could take a little hike and see the beautiful and lush nature around the volcano! There are a lot of activities you can do there, but if you are on a day trip from San José and back, I recommend you to visit one of the hot springs. The waters are heated naturally through the volcano and have many minerals. This has many health benefits, such as reducing stress, helping with circulation problems, reactivating the metabolism, relaxing the muscles and it also opens the pores, which allows the body to absorb the minerals of the volcanic rocks. I think it is a very special activity and something you shouldn’t miss when you are in Costa Rica.
National Theater in San José
If you don’t want to leave San José or you just have a couple of hours before you must go to the airport, I recommend you to do the City Tour of San José.
You could visit the Central Market first. There, you can find “sodas” which are small, typical restaurants that offer the traditional food of Costa Rica. There are also many locals selling their fruit and vegetables and handcrafted things that make a great souvenir! I think it is a great way to see a part of the daily life of the Ticos!
In San José, you find most of the museums in Costa Rica, I recommend the National Museum and the Precolumbian Gold Museum. It is a great way to learn about the culture and history of the Ticos.
Another important part is the National Theater! Its construction started in 1891 and was mostly financed by the coffee export of the country. The first presentation took place in October 1897. It has many marble statues and golden features and is, in my opinion, the most important site of the capital.
Apdo 799 – 1007
San José, Costa Rica
Licenced by the Costa Rican Tourist Board: Lic ICT OT 294
Liability insurance: Instituto Costarricense de Seguros (INS) Coverage: Territory of the Republic of Costa Rica