San José, Costa Rica's capital and main international gateway, lies in a valley in the lush rolling hills of the Central Highlands. While the city itself is a bustling, scrappy place with little appeal, the surrounding landscape of terraced coffee plantations makes the ideal place to start your holiday. Easy travelling distances mean you can stay in total tranquility at a rural hotel and still drive into town for dinner or to explore a museum.
From here it’s also just a couple of hours up to the Poás Volcano and the spectacular forests of the Braulio Carrillo National Park. Here, you can spend your days rafting, marvelling at steaming craters, hiking through trees filled with colourful wildlife, and visiting tumbling waterfalls.
At first glance Costa Rica’s capital can seem like little more than a giant traffic jam - its chaotic streets are often gridlocked, and there’s a near-constant haze of pollution. Most visitors therefore try to escape to the countryside as soon as possible, but it’s worth spending a few hours in this bustling city, built on the profits of surrounding coffee plantations. It’s home to several interesting museums and sights, including the ornate National Theatre, which hosts frequent concerts and plays, the Gold Museum, where more than 2,000 stunning gold objects are on display, the Jade Museum of pre-Columbian artefacts, and the Central Market.
North of San José is the Poás Volcano, which has one of the world’s largest active craters. At the top is a steaming caldera lake with vivid turquoise waters, plus great views over to the Caribbean and Pacific. It’s often enveloped in dense cloud, so check conditions before you visit.
On the slopes of the Poás Volcano are La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Five falls thunder through forest-clad ravines, surrounded by a hummingbird garden with 26 of Costa Rica’s 57 species, and a butterfly garden with more than 4,000 species. There's also a laboratory where you can watch beautiful butterflies emerge from pupae, plus a restaurant with lovely views.
Unesco-listed Sarchí is a renowned artisan centre and many of the brightly painted oxcarts which you see all over Costa Rica are produced here (the world’s largest oxcart sits in the Parque Central). It’s a pretty commercial place but worth a trip if you want to buy leather or hardwood furniture to ship home.
The town is also home to a beautiful ‘wedding cake’ church and the Else Kientzler Botanical Garden - an extensive collection of tropical plants, flowers and trees.
Braulio Carrillo National Park receives few visitors, but its low-altitude rainforest, high-altitude cloudforest and deep ravines provide habitats for more than 6,500 species of flora and fauna. The park includes the active Barva Volcano and the dormant Cerro Chompipe, Cerro Cacho Negro and Cerro Las Tres Marias, with wonderful hikes to the craters.
The Central Highlands offer excellent white-water rafting, with rapids of varying grades along the Pacuare, Reventazón and Sarapiquí rivers. There are numerous local operators offering half-day or day-long trips suitable for novices; if you want to combine rafting with a stay in the rainforest then book a few nights at remote Pacuare Lodge, accessible only by river.