Most travelers who land at San José’s Juan Santamaria International Airport head out of the capital to make their way to all the sites they’ve seen in Costa Rica’s travel ads: its beautiful beaches or its rainforests, replete with curious and colorful creatures that represent five percent of the world’s biodiversity. They marvel at the fact they can be hiking in a national park and spotting one of the country’s numerous volcanoes or launching a raft into whitewater within an hour of landing; that’s how close to the capital they’ll find so many of Costa Rica’s peak experiences.
Far fewer travelers, however, make a beeline to the country’s Central Valley, where even more pristine territory, including a cloud forest, awaits. “Only one percent of the world’s remaining woodlands are cloud forests,” says Eric Mora, a guide at the Los Angeles Cloud Forest Private Biological Reserve, where the Villa Blanca Cloud Forest Hotel & Nature Reserve is located in the San Ramón region, “so this is a really special place.” The fauna and flora of the reserve are every bit as impressive as those of the rainforest, and what you don’t spot yourself on a guided daytime or nocturnal hike can be seen on video recorded by the reserve’s hidden creature cameras and shown in the research center.
While it’s tempting to stay at Villa Blanca to watch the clouds roll by—literally—and explore the hotel’s other features, including a dairy and a chapel, the Central Valley is full of worthwhile attractions, most of which are easy day trips from the hotel or from San José. You’ll want a good map and a SUV with a full tank of gas to make your way to La Paz Waterfall Gardens, an eco-park featuring a butterfly conservatory, aviary and habitats for big cats, snakes, frogs and monkeys. There’s a house that replicates the experience of rural Costa Rican life a century ago and hiking trails that lead to five waterfalls.
Along the way to La Paz, allow yourself to adjust to Tico time, stopping to shop at roadside stands where you can buy the local cheese, queso palmita, softball-shaped orbs, or other Central Valley confections, such as candied grapefruit filled with cajeta de leche, a milk caramel. Snacks purchased, make your way to the town of Zarcero, whose square is filled with neatly manicured topiaries, both typical (ducks, dinosaurs) and figurative (abstract arches leading to the steps of the San Rafael Arcángel Church).
The Central Valley’s other must-see sights include Sibú Chocolate in San Isidro de Heredia, which, of course, involves plenty of tastings. In the city of Heredia itself, you’ll find some of Costa Rica’s most compelling crafts, handmade masks, which are featured in Masquerade celebrations each October. Traditional masks—typically depicting devils and skulls—are made of papier-mâché, while newer masks are often made with fiberglass. Due north is the dormant Barva Volcano, one of the country’s less-visited volcanoes, with several principal calderas and a crater lake, and to the west (along your way back to San Ramón) is the town of Sarchí, where you’ll find colorfully painted, hand-hewn oxcarts.
With so much to keep you occupied, you won’t miss the beach or rainforest at all—really. It’s a different side of Costa Rica, and one that merits more visitors.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Villa Blanca, the estate of a former president, is an ideal base for exploring the Central Valley. You have to want to get here—it requires navigating unpaved roads pockmarked with potholes and the willingness to get lost (GPS isn’t always accurate)—but you’ll be rewarded with your own individual casita (whirlpool tub included) and exceptional on-site services and amenities, including a spa, a small theater with an extensive movie selection and a restaurant where attentive staff serves delicious Costa Rican specialties.
WHAT TO BUY
In addition to chocolate from Sibú and masks from Heredia, check out the colorful, travel-inspired posters, cards and coloring books made by Priscilla Aguirre, artist and entrepreneur behind the brand Holalola. If you can’t stop by her bricks-and-mortar shop in San José, don’t worry; her postcards, journals and other paper goods are for sale at Casa Tica, a souvenir shop located inside the airport.