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Travel Costa Rica
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Spending days in Alajuela, Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s second largest city in terms of size, Alajuela lies only 20 km northwest of the capital San Jose in the beautiful Central Valley. We arrived there from La Fortuna one Thursday afternoon in March 2014.
Great Place to Visit
A laidback city with a friendly Tico population, Alajuela is definitely worth a visit. The city of Alajuela is also known as the ‘City of Mangos’ because of its large number of mango trees, specifically around Central Park. This park is lush and green, and is the ideal place to hang out and mingle with the locals, who often come here in the afternoons.
West of the park is Alajuela’s central market, which takes up an entire city block and is a great place to shop. Another tourist attraction in this city is the Juan Santamaria Cultural Historical Museum nearby Central Park. This museum houses many historical maps, artifacts and portraits from the battle of 1856. Visitors will find many other attractions to see, like the Alajuela Cultural Center or the Cathedral that was restored in 2010, whose interior displays beautiful pictorial works of art. Additionally, do try and tour Zoo Ave, the Butterfly Farm, or Poas Volcano, which lie just outside of town. These places are ideal to visit for families with children, as there is plenty to see and do.
Its warm climate and friendly people, as well as many interesting points of interest that can be reached on foot makes the county of Alajuela a place definitely worth seeing.
The Alajuela canton has a population of about 287,000 people. Its diversity of production is the driving force behind the local and national economy. The surroundings of the Juan Santamaría International Airport, the main entry point to Costa Rica, are developing into a large concentration of exporting businesses. Many of these businesses are manufacturing industries that work within the free trade zones.
This city has an important place in Costa Rica’s history, as it was an active supporter of independence from Spain. Known as Villahermosa and La Lajuela, Alajuela was even capital of Costa Rica for a brief period. However, this city’s biggest claim to fame is that it is the hometown of the country’s national hero Juan Santamaria, a drummer boy, who sacrificed his life to save his country during the battle of the Hacienda Santa Rosa, in 1856, against the forces of William Walker.
Next to the San Jose International Airport (SJO)
As capital of Alajuela province, this city lies just a few minutes away from the Juan Santamaria International Airport, San Jose’s only International Airport. With easy access and plenty of bus routes, getting in and out of Alajuela is not a problem. A leading trade center for cattle and the sugar industries of the neighboring areas, Alajuela is also a fantastic summer getaway. This is in part due to the fabulous weather this city experiences throughout the year with its temperate climate. If you wish to stay in Alajuela, there are plenty of hotels and accommodations to suit every budget.
Best Time to Visit
A goodtime to visit Alajuela is in April when the entire town celebrates Juan Santamaria Day with a huge parade and carnival in the city. Also, every year in July, there is a Mango Festival held with concerts, fairs, food stalls and parades. To sample authentic Costa Rican cuisine, visit the Mercado Municipal or any of the local restaurants in the city.
B&B Vida Tropical
When visiting lovely Costa Rica, you have many choices of places to visit and options on accommodations. Me and my group of friends made reservations over the internet at the small B&B ‘Vida Tropical’, which had good reviews on Tripadvisor.com. We stayed there for three nights towards the end of our trip.
How to get there from the airport
Vida Tropical Bed and Breakfast is one of the cheapest budget hotel/hostel in town. Located in the locality of De los semaforos de la Corte de Alajuela, 300 este y 300 norte, at the north end of town. To get there from the highway #1 take the exit for Alajuela to the Boulevard that goes past the International Mall into Central Alajuela. You will have 6 traffic lights on that road thru town. At the 6th light, you will be on a little hill, and you’ll see signs for Poás Volcano straight ahead. Turn right at that light, (the Alajuela Courthouse is there) then you’ll go three more blocks. You’ll be going by the OLD Hospital (on your left) and the Hospital Park (on your right). At the third block, where there’s a parking lot on your left, turn left, then go to the 5th house after the guard shack, and the B&B is there on the right. It is a 2 story house with light green gates and a dark green balcony, big pine-type tree in front. If you miss the house, be careful when making U-turn at the end of the road. This street is very busy and I almost had someone hit me, but it was totally my fault.
This place is within the easy reach of the center of Alajuela and its major attractions. We walked everywhere from the hotel and it took only 10 minutes to the central park. The Vida Tropical Bed and Breakfast is known for its affordable accommodation options, well-kept rooms and common areas, friendly Isabel who runs the place and nearby restaurants.
I can’t say enough good things about this property. First let me start with Isabel. She is a good looking (!) young lady who I think owns this place. She was a great help prior to our trip answering emails with my questions and offering to assist in any way. When we arrived late Thursday evening with a car, we were greeted by Isabel herself as she was waiting for us that evening. She quickly showed the house and our rooms. She also arranged parking spot for our car right across the street in a secured open space parking lot.
Isabel offered us the Bamboo, one large room on the second floor with our own private bathroom. Our friends got the ‘Fish’ room on the same floor and Ljiljana stayed downstairs in the ‘Parrot’ room. All the rooms were very comfortable, but the furniture is little outdated. The Parrot room on the main floor seemed a little stuffy and small at first, but the fan took care of that. However all was well with the fan, and we slept great… let’s not forget, for the price, this was a great place to stay for few days.
Every morning Silvia (house maid) was serving breakfast for all the guests in the dining area of the house, next to the kitchen. They fed us fresh fruit, banana bread, toast, juice and coffee and offered to cook full breakfast for us (eggs in every possible way we wanted!). Thank you Silvia and Isabel for making us feel at home and for taking such great care of our group!
We used next day to walk around the town and visit as much as possible, all the attractions this town has to offer. We also made a half day trip to the Poás volcano, which was easily accessible from the road where our hotel was located. Here are some of the places we visited that day:
Tomás Guardia Central Park
Since 1890, this park has been one of the main meeting point in Alajuela and is considered an historical landmark in “The city of mangos.” The layout of the park displays a renaissance influence from the beginning of the 20th century, where the internal flow starts from the center and works outward.
The interior of the park is made up of green areas in geometric shapes with a beautiful fountain in the middle imported from Glasgow, Scotland.
The nucleus of this space is for social interaction, which is surrounded by buildings of great historical and architectural value. It is common to see artistic or cultural events in this area.
Next to Alajuela Park is the Cathedral, which began as a public prayer building in 1782. Its construction was finished in 1863 and was declared as a cathedral in 1921.
Its neoclassical style and proximity to the park and downtown Alajuela give the area an elegant, but simple character, typical of the Alajuelan town. In the back area of the cathedral is the pinkish dome, also designed in the neo-classical style.
Its interior has a simple and spacious decoration, with the exception of the dome, which has more ornamentation. Made up of three naves, the capitals are decorated with motifs from the local area.
The Theater was built in 1956 and designed by the prominent national architect José María Barrantes. It is a shining example of the Art Deco and Neo-Colonial movement in Costa Rica.
The previous building, The Event Room of the Alajuela Institute, was used as a theater since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1911, the businessman, Buenaventura Casería, brought in theater groups from San José and the rest of the country every Saturday, and, when possible theater groups from abroad. He showed comedies and dramas as well as operas and films.
It was declared a Historical Architectural landmark by Executive Decre. Today, it is home to the Alajuela National Theater and is considered the third most important theater in the country after the National Theater and the Mélico Salazar Theater In San José.
Juan Santamaría History Museum
This fortress was built between 1874 and 1877 by General Tomás Guardia and remodeled in 1936 by then president León Cortes Castro. Various Alajuelan military leaders that commanded the headquarters came to be president of the republic such as General Próspero Fernández and General Bernardo Soto Alfaro.
By 1894 there were enough military weapons to arm 5,000 men. Some believe that the underground tunnels that connect the barracks with the general’s residence and the city hall are from the remodeling in 1936.
After the abolition of the military, it was converted into an education center and after that, it was the main office for the Research and Perfection in Technical Learning Center (CIPET in Spanish). It has been recently set up as the Juan Santamaría History and Culture Museum. It was declared a Historical Architectural point of interest, according to the Executive Decree published in the La Gaceta.
The provisions market in Alajuela was born with the founding of the city of Alajuela on October 12th, 1782. It is located in the center of the city and measures some 25,149 sq. ft. and a total of 249 kiosks with different business activities like watch stores, butcheries, fish markets, mini-diners, clothing stores, shoe stores, etc. It is open from Monday to Saturday, 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The Municipal market in Alajuela is in the process of being remodeled to rejuvenate business in Alajuela from the center of the city.
Alajuela Cultural Center
This building is located where the old Alajuela Municipal Palace once was. It was declared a historical landmark in 1979. It measures one block in diameter and has two levels with a garden in the middle. The center is open to the public from Monday to Saturday. It is home to the Municipal Archive, the Municipal Music Conservatory, the Sports Promotion Office, and the regional office of the Culture department in Alajuela.
Since October of 1996, it has been home to the Alajuela Cultural Center, which has played an important role in developing art and culture in Alajuela. There are many options provided thanks to the efforts of la Escuela Casa de Artista, the Alajuela Municipal Conservatory, the Chess School, among others.
Monument to Juan Santamaría
The Juan Santamaría Plaza is the most important icon for the Alajuelan community and all Costa Ricans because it is home to the Juan Santamaría Historical National Monument. The bronze statue is flanked by two canons and is dedicated to the memory of Juan Santamaría. It was unveiled on September 15th, 1891, and is dedicated to the memory of this hero who gave his life to save the country in the National Campaign against the Filibuster headed by William Walker. He was declared a national hero after the end of the Battle of Rivas on April 11th, 1856.
This historical event in which Costa Rica came out victorious is one of the proud moments of this pacific Costa Rican town that was able to defend its freedom and its ideals of independence.
Public Art Displays
In order to promote culture and create a sense of belonging among Alajuelans to strengthen local identity, the City of Alajuela has created the “Public Art Displays” project in which a contest is held to select various works of art to be displayed throughout the downtown Alajuela areas and surrounding areas.
Located about ½ hour, or 26 km drive from Alajuela, Poás Volcano is a very popular day trip. We were fortunate that our hotel was located on the street which was connecting to the mountain road heading to the Poás Volcano. So, immediately after leaving the hotel, we were outside of the town, driving up the mountain on route #712.
Visitors often make this 52 km round-trip journey from Alajuela, which cruises along never-ending fields of coffee and flower farms that line the area around the park. The best time to visit is during the morning hours from January to April. Weekends are normally crowded and clouds normally roll in around mid-afternoon, making it difficult to enjoy the scenery. But on a clear day it is possible to see both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
Park opens at 8 a.m. By the time we arrived around 09:30AM, the park trails and viewpoints had few visitors already, but not too many. Walking just 15 minutes from the visitor’s center, the main crater supplies guests with a spectacular view. The clouds were covering the vista of the crater, though the sky above was clear and blue. Patience is important here since the Poás Volcano is in the cloud forest. The crater and the lagoon are frequently in the clouds, but the wind whips through and sometimes it clears quickly so it is worth the wait.
At almost a mile in diameter (1.6 km), the crater’s rain-fed sulfuric pool still bubbles and emits smoke into the air, reminding you of its imposing activity. Although the last major eruption was in 1910, visitors can still see geysers explode into the air up to 820 ft (250 m) high. Chances of getting wet are pretty remote as the crater descends almost 1,000 ft (300 m) and is one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. Standing on the rim, visitors often smell the sulfur in the air, which at times has proven to be acidic enough for the park to close. It is from this crater that the effects of acid rain can be seen on the vegetation surrounding the landscape.
We didn’t want to wait for clouds to clear, so we explored the area around. Very pleasant trail leads from the crater viewpoint through the cloud forest to the Botos lake in one of the minor craters. The beautifully blue-green colored Botos Lake (Laguna Botos) is covering a crater, with a diameter of 1,312 ft (400 m) that has a beautiful jade color and is frequented by many of the bird species in the park. Sightings of the 79 species of birds that have been identified inside the protected zone including the quetzal, emerald toucanet, black guan, sparrow, hummingbird and robin are common. We took few pictures enjoyed the view for a while and returned back downhill to the main viewpoint.
By 11 a.m., we were back at first viewpoint and now we had a clear unsecured view of the crater. It was beautiful!! We felt that we were rewarded to be patient and wait a while before we returned here for another look.
The park is well worth the visit, but come early to avoid disappointment. Those who journey here find little adversity in their travels, as it is easily one of the most developed parks in Costa Rica. Here you can learn about the history of the volcano and get current information about the geomorphic processes that shaped the ecological attraction. There are many other services here which include a cafe to grab a snack, restroom facilities and a very informative museum.
Except for the area around the main caldera, the park is full of dense vegetation and small wildlife. Few large mammals are found inside the park, however, smaller, less conspicuous critters such as marmots, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, snakes, frogs and a plethora of insects are present. The different zones inside the protected area mainly include cloud forest, mountain rain forest and very humid low mountain forest. We were fortunate that it was our first stop and we arrived early.
Lunch at Chubascos restaurant
On the way back to Alajuela we were advised by Isabel to stop at the Chubascos restaurant and have a lunch there. It is set in a green paradise near the village of Frajanes on the way to Poás Volcano. As we are always looking for something new we decided to stop there for lunch. The parking area was a garden of natural flowers and plants, large trees and singing birds. Chubascos is more than just a typical tourist restaurant. Upon entering we were greeted by a smiling Senorita and she assisted us to a beautiful corner where we felt like we were sitting in the middle of the forest. Hummingbirds were all around us. Probably the best place we ate in Costa Rica! The portion sizes are generous, the staff lovely, the food fresh and delicious (be sure to try an antojito!), and the prices quite reasonable. If you visit Poás, be sure to stop by for a hearty lunch or dinner!
So, Hasta Luego until next time, mi amigos!!
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