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Spending time in the Central Valley of Costa Rica doesn’t necessarily mean spending time in the capital city of San Jose. The Central Valley, or Meseta Central, branches out into different suburbs and colonial towns such as Heredia, Alajuela, and Cartago. There are seven national parks, many volcanoes, historical monuments and landmarks, vast coffee plantations, and rivers with world-class whitewater rafting. 70% of the population is spread out in the Central Valley, which also makes this region a cultural hotspot. Most visitors are eager to get to the coast and completely miss out on this zone. You could spend your whole vacation in the Central Valley and do something new everyday, but if you only have 48 hours, here’s how to make the most of it.
Cartago was Costa Rica’s original capital and is the oldest community in the country. The first president of Costa Rica, Juan Mora Fernandez, relocated the capital to the smaller settlement of San Jose in 1823. Cartago is a city rich in history, landmarks, ruins and museums. Only about 40 minutes from San Jose, it’s a fascinating city to explore. The Province of Cartago is quite large and is an excellent region for those interested in visiting the national parks, volcanoes, small towns, and historical monuments of the heart of Costa Rica. It is easy to spend 48 hours in this part of the Central Valley! Fly into the Juan Santa Maria International Airport and rent a car, hire a private transfer, or take the public bus.
Depending on your plans and your budget, there are many types of accommodation throughout the province for you to choose from. The areas that surround the main metropolitan zone of Cartago offer a more remote, peaceful, and nature-infused setting for travelers wanting to relax and enjoy the serenity of this special part of Costa Rica, as well as embracing its wildlife, landscape, and adventure opportunities.
For your 48-hour stay, the Hotel Quelitales, Rancho Naturalista, Hotel Casa Turire and Orosi Lodge are all phenomenal choices. All four of these boutique eco-harmony hotels offer guests a blend of comfort, exceptional service, and a prime location from which to set off and explore. All four hotels offer delicious food, too.
There are many adorable and picturesque little towns dotted throughout the province of Cartago. Paraiso is one that deserves a visit. This was one of the first areas to be colonized by the Spanish, and still exudes a colonial charm. It is most famous for the Lankester Botanical Gardens. This exquisite garden is home to 600 different types of orchid, as well as many other native Costa Rican plants. The flowering season is between February and April, so this is the best time to visit.
Paraiso also has a fabulous farmers’ market in the middle of town and a non-profit organic farm, Finca la Flor, where you can take a tour and learn about sustainable agriculture. Spending a morning or afternoon in Paraiso is the perfect way to experience a traditional Costa Rican town and way of life. This is a great town to grab a bite to eat, too, as there are many traditional Costa Rican dining options.
There are two nearby volcanoes and national parks to choose from: Irazu Volcano National Park and Turrialba Volcano National Park. At 11,260 feet (3,431 meters), the Irazu volcano is Costa Rica’s highest active volcano, and also its widest. One of the main draws of this volcanic park is the hike up to the Diego de la Hoya crater that has a 984 foot (300 meter) neon-green lake in the center. Once near the submit, there is little vegetation and it is quite chilly, but on the journey up there is dense rainforest and a good chance of spotting animals such as foxes, rabbits, owls, and porcupines.
The Turrialba Volcano National Park is, surprisingly, one of the least visited national parks in Costa Rica. For this reason, it is appealing to those looking to travel off the beaten track. The park is home to rainforest, cloud forest and an active volcano. There is great hiking throughout the park, too. Both parks have guides and tour available to visitors.
The Rio Pacuare and Rio Reventazon both run through the province and are famous for their rapids. There are rafting tours available to get you out on the river with your adrenaline pumping. The Rio Reventazon has 15 class IV rapids, and the Rio Pacuare has 52 class III and IV rapids. This is a day of fun for the whole family. Experienced river-rafting guides will take you and your group down a series of rapids, and in between there will be opportunities to spot wildlife such as frogs, sloths, toucans and parrots. Lunch and transportation is typically included when you sign up for a whitewater rafting tour.
In just 48 hours in the province of Cartago, you will have relaxed at a cute boutique hotel surrounded by nature, explored a local community, visited a botanical garden, shopped at a farmer’s market, took a tour of a non-profit organic farm, visited a national park and active volcano, and experienced whitewater rafting on one of two world-class rafting rivers in Costa Rica. Not bad for a quick trip!