One thing I’ve enjoyed most about living in Costa Rica is how incredibly welcoming everyone is. Costa Ricans (or “Ticos” as they affectionately call themselves) are extremely proud of their country and want visitors to love it as much as they do. Several coworkers have offered to take us to their hometowns and show us around their favorite sites. Even the couple who owns our apartment have invited us over for dinner.
We may be here for 3 months, but our list of places to see is longer than we likely will have time for and it continues to grow the more I talk to people. Nearly every meeting has started with “Where have you traveled in Costa Rica so far? Let me send you recommendations! How about next week I take to you ___!”
During one such 1:1 meeting, my coworker Jonathan told me about the Cartago area where he lives, about 25 miles to the east of San Jose. The more he told me, the more I was like “this is where we’re going this weekend!” From a volcano to hiking to historic monuments, I was sold. So that evening, Brice and I got everything booked for our adventure and a few days later, off we went!
Despite it being only 25 miles, getting from San Jose to Cartago can take hours especially on weekdays.
It took us nearly 3 hours to get there, with Waze taking us down some windy backroads and tiny neighborhood streets. I have no idea how coworkers do that drive every day. These Ticos have some crazy patience! But at least the views of the farms and valleys was worth being in the car!
What We Did
Drove Through the Orosi Valley: With such lush green mountains and expansive valley views, the 12-mile or so loop is a really lovely drive. Despite the fog and light rain, it was still gorgeous. We made several stops for photos, including one at the pedestrian suspension bridge over Rio Orosi. Brice chickened out walking across it, but I thought it was an awesome vantage point!
Toured Cartago: Jonathan generously played our tour guide, showing us his hometown of Cartago, which was the capital of Costa Rica until 1823. There is a charming city center with the country’s most beloved church Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles, ruins of historic cathedrals, and nice little parks. I loved finally seeing some bike and walking paths around, as well as the cute cafes and restaurants.
Attempted to See Irazu Volcano: A big reason for us selecting this destination was to see the Irazu Volcano which has a huge crater currently filled with a lake. The second day the clouds cleared and we knew it was going to be a perfect morning for seeing the crater. So after a delicious early breakfast at our hotel, we hopped in the car for about an hour drive up and up and up the countryside to the top of the volcano at 11,000 feet in elevation. With only 2km left to drive to the park entrance, we hit a traffic jam that was not moving. AT ALL. We figured, 2km isn’t that far, let’s just park on the side of the road and walk up!
We felt like we were the smartest people in the country, laughing as we walked past all these cars stopped, while they waited for additional parking spots to open up in the park. Little did we know, once we got to the entrance we would be shut down for being pedestrians. “No walking in, only cars” we were told when we tried buying a ticket. UGH.
After wandering around a bit, trying to see if we could find any views of the crater (or ways to maybe sneak in), we reluctantly headed back to our car. We had been gone for over an hour and spotted the same car we were behind when we pulled over. It had only made it 1km!! While we were really disappointed we couldn’t see the crater, we were happy we were not just sitting in a car for 2 hours, especially as the clouds started to roll in which would have ruined the view anyhow.
Perhaps we’ll try another day before we leave!
Hiked Sector Prusia: Fortunately the Irazu Volcano National Park has more to offer, like this beautiful forest filled with 10 miles of hiking trails. There were so many different types of trees and ecology along our stroll. A big portion reminded me of Central Oregon with huge pines trees lining the trail. Only downside was it was one hard hike with steep terrain and high elevation. But as most hikes are, it was worth the beautiful views!
Our delicious and nicely wrapped picnic lunch made for us by Hotel Quelitales!
Where We Stayed
We selected a small inn called Hotel Quelitales after hearing and reading so many positive things about it. And I am SO happy we did. This place was magical, tucked way up in the mountains with a waterfall and ponds on-site. Ducks, geese and birds roamed the property, in particular because of the bananas the hotel staff left them each morning! Each room was a little bungalow, the room was basic but the beds were soft and the views of the valley were stunning.
Especially because it was a few kilometer drive up a steep gravel road to get from town to the hotel, we opted to have dinner there both nights. The chef-owner is so sweet and shared with us stories about his favorite dishes. He recommended the trout, which is caught each morning from the pond just below the restaurant. Served with local mushrooms and a white wine-butter sauce, it was the best meal I’ve had in Costa Rica so far!
As a big fan of breakfasts, this one did not disappoint. We enjoyed delicious Gallo Pinto, the traditional breakfast of seasoned rice and beans, omelettes using local eggs, and fresh fruit, while watching the birds and the gorgeous views.
Should we find a surprise weekend with nothing else to do, that is definitely where I’m returning!