Smack-dab in the middle of the nation, the Central Valley contains the heart and soul of Costa Rica. About 70% of the country's population inhabits this region, which includes the bustling metropolis of San Jose, incorporated suburbs, and prominent surrounding towns such as Heredia, Alajuela, and Cartago. The San Juantamaria Airport (SJO) in Alajuela is the country's largest international airport, and the region's central location serves as an ideal take-off point for destinations throughout the country.
The Central Valley's ideal climate is a blessing in a country that can be drudgingly hot, especially during summer months. It's high plateau offers an escape from Guanacaste's hot summers and the Caribbean's sticky humidity. Conversely, life in the city is more hectic, which discourages visitors who prefer a relaxing beach or secluded natural reserve.
Most visitors spend a very short time in the Central Valley -typically two days max- before moving on to the country's more popular destinations. However, other visitors often commute from the Central Valley to attractions in the surrounding highlands, where active volcanoes (Poas and Irazu) and the Braulio Carrillo National Park are the highlights. San Jose's transportation services allow for cheap and efficient travel to and from any of the surrounding areas. Visitors can make it back to the city in time to catch a movie or dine at one of the city's great restaurants.
San Jose gives way to diverse suburbs outside the city limits. These suburbs include the upscale areas of Santa Ana and Escazu-known locally as the 'Beverly Hills' of Costa Rica. Further outside of San Jose lie the important colonial towns of Heredia, Alajuela, and Cartago. Each is an administrative capital for the province that bares its name. Following independence from Spain in 1821, a brief civil war ensued between two aggressors, and the colonial capital of Cartago lost its federal government status to San Jose.
Historically, Spanish colonists were first attracted to the area's fertile soil. Their crops flourished and plantations prospered, helping farmers to achieve easy sustenance- a reality well known to the region's many indigenous inhabitants. Although it is referred to as the Central Valley, the region is more of a plateau than a valley. Spanish-speaking visitors will probably hear Ticos refer to the area as "Meseta Central," which translates to Central Table. Nevertheless, encompassing mountains endow the central plateau with a valley-like feel. The Mountains of the Cordillera Central (Central Mountains) bind the valley to the north and east, while the massive Talamancas hem the region to the south and west.
Between mountain ranges sits the Reventazon River Valley, where a smooth alluvial plane extends to the Caribbean coast. Guapiles Highway (Hwy 32) fills the gap from an old railway (destroyed in a 1991 earthquake). It runs east to west all the way to the Caribbean's Puerto Limon, a mere 2.5-hour drive from San Jose.
The Juan Santamaria International Airport in Alajuela serves visitors bound to the San Jose area from abroad. From here, major hotels and accommodations are within a short 20-minute drive. Hotels in the Central Valley can be found within any budget range. However, the high season -December to May- presents challenges to visitors without reservations. For the last few weeks of December (Christmas), reservations should be made about three months in advance as hotel space fills quickly.