Costa Rica’s Central Valley and around

Our very last stop before going home was, well, the ‘Central Valley’ of Costa Rica, where most of the population lives. Most of all that is of course the capital city, San Jose. Together with several other towns and cities in the metropolitan region it forms a rather dense city landscape. Living with relatives in one of these towns, we spent our last few days exploring the area, relaxing, and enjoying not to have to do any planning ourselves for a change. 🙂

San Jose is not a particularly interesting city. That is not necessarily something bad I guess, as life there is calm and peaceful. Most of the buildings nowadays are rather dull concrete blocks, but a few nicer old ones remain. One of the most pretty ones is the old post office.

In the city center there is also a busy pedestrian shopping street.

On one of the main squares, the Plaza de la Cultura, there’s lots of pigeons at any given time. That woman there is attracting them with food, and it seems to work very well.

For Costa Rica, coffee is almost as important as for Colombia. For several decades in the past it even was the main export product of the country. A local specialty is the brewing method with those cotton filters, hung in a wooden construct.

In the same place where we tried above coffee, we also had some traditional tortillas. Damn this stuff is filling. And there’s so many things put on top of it that you’re already full just from eating those.

San Jose has quite a few Chinese immigrants, so there’s also the obligatory little China Town, but there’s really nothing much to see in there. Weird is how there’s actually more Chinese places (shops, restaurants,…) outside the official China town area than inside.

Well, the relative we visited and lived with is a relative of Isa and therefore also Chinese. That means we got our very own Chinese food, far away from China Town. Thinking back how most of the food on our trip was crap, this was actually some of the best food we ate in half a year. OK, not exactly the dish on the photo, as that contains fish, but I just had to photograph that, because I’m pretty sure I’ve never ever seen a dish (any dish, in any cuisine) containing as much garlic as this. 🙂

Even if you live in a Cantonese Chinese household in Central America, getting to eat such nice things as Cheung Fan for breakfast (the white noodle rolls in the background), you’re still in Central America … and that means there’s Chontaduro, this rather local palm fruit that we first got to know (and love) in Colombia. It has different names in almost every country, and so here no one knows ‘chontaduro’, they call it ‘pejibaye’ instead. For breakfast it’s particularly good.

If you’re visiting Cantonese relatives, you will almost certainly go to ‘Yum Cha’ together, as I have shown already in one of the first posts on this blog, from Hong Kong.

Apart from San Jose, one of the other towns we visited in the central valley was Heredia. It used to be one of the most important coffee growing regions in the country and therefore has some architecture from the time when all the big coffee barons lived there. The photo has the main square, and lots of pigeons.

The most iconic building in Heredia is this not exactly spectacular but still nice little fortress tower, called El Fortín.

The main church is from 1797.

It’s once again not exactly spectacular, but still somehow nice.

The same applies to the small central market in Heredia.

Being in the central valley means there are mountains all around. Many of them can be visited. There’s national parks, nature reserves, view points, etc. One place we visited was this wind farm, up in the clouds.

The view on the central valley and many of the towns and cities therein was really nice.

Although Costa Rica is the least dangerous of the Central American countries, crime is still pretty high compared to other parts of the world. And although Costa Rica has one of the best social welfare systems in Central America, wealth is still distributed very unevenly compared to elsewhere in the world. So once again people are turning their homes and their businesses into little fortresses, with barbed wire everywhere.

Even more strange to us was the large number of gated communities in the area, often surrounded by several meters high walls, topped with electric fences and cameras.

With plenty of time and the car at hand, we visited some places that we otherwise wouldn’t even have considered going to. One of them was the fruit and vegetable wholesale market. It opens at midnight and is quite fun to roam around. Here we are in ‘sector piña’, the pineapple sector. Seeing all the pineapples in the background, you probably would have guessed so even without the sign. :-p

Chontaduros / pejibayes as far as you can see.

Costa Rica is also one of those countries in Latin America where manioc is really common and eaten with many dishes.

Onions, lots of onions. The bright illumination could almost make you think it’s daytime, instead of 1:30 at night.

Costa Rica having very close economic ties with the US, you can always find a Walmart somewhere in the neighborhood.

Duff beer. Yep, the one from The Simpsons.

A chocolate fountain in a Britt shop in a big shopping Mall. Britt is the local high end coffee and chocolate brand in Costa Rica. Unfortunately, most of their products are terribly overpriced.

Something we just can’t get used to: the excessive use of single use plastic products. Not that Costa Rica would be very different than other countries in the region, but it still hurts to see it. What I really don’t understand is why it is not at least considered an aesthetic problem. Imagine ordering an expensive ice cream cup at a proper ice cream place in Europe and getting it served in a plastic cup. Unthinkable!! Never gonna happen! It feels so cheap!

The San Jose metro area might not have a subway system, but about 10 years ago they have reactivated some of their old railway lines with decommissioned trains from Spain. The system is slow and feels rather antiquated, but it does the job and it’s currently being expanded.

On our officially last full day (at least according to the plan), we went up to about 3400m to the crater of the Irazú volcano. It was a Sunday, so we were not the only ones with that idea. 🙂

Once there, the landscape is pretty cool.

And the crater quite impressive. The volcano is dormant right now, but altogether still very active with the last eruption in 1994.

On the way back from the volcano we visited Cartago, the former capital of Costa Rica. The most prominent thing to see there is the ‘Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles’. It’s built on a site where supposedly some wonder has happened, and it can be considered the most important religious site in the country.

Many people participated in the church service.

The colorful windows seem to be comparably new, and feature some guy with glasses.

Next to the church there’s a small spring with ‘sacred’ water. People come here specifically to drink this water, some even to bottle it and take it home.

2 thoughts on “Costa Rica’s Central Valley and around

    1. Who are we to say sacred water does NOT come out of a pipe?! 😉

      I also always find it a bit weird, but to be fair: there’s a lot of such places here in the old world too. Usually there’s a natural spring, believed to have some whatever healing powers, and at some point in history someone stuck a pipe in there to make it easier and more sanitary for everyone. I suppose that’s the case in Cartago, too.


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