Stay in San José for a cheaper look at Costa Rica

And see all the natural wonder Costa Rica has to offer

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Most visitors visit San José only fleetingly, using the city as a jumping off point to the tourism centres of Arenal, La Fortuna, Monteverde and the Golden Coast. Yet travellers with less time to spend — or funds to spare — can turn a city stopover into a nature adventure. If you know where to go, you can find the nation’s famed tropical forests and sloths, Blue Morpho butterflies, rare orchids and birds, beaches and hot springs, Indigenous food, volcano views and estate coffee tours all within city limits or an easy day trip.

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Here’s an itinerary to transform your city break into a sampler of all the natural wonder Costa Rica has to offer.

Seeing Wildlife

Lankester Jardin Botanico
There are more than 18,000 orchid species at the Lankester Jardin Botanico.Photo by Elaine O’Connor

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Next, visit the University of Costa Rica which harbours a hidden urban forest ecosystem. Book a tour with a student biologist and spot wild sloths hanging out on campus while learning about native birds, butterflies and Indigenous sculpture.

Blue Morpho
Blue Morpho buttteflies are among the largest butterflies in the world.Photo by Elaine O’Connor

Coffee before the beach

San José — El Chepe to locals — is less than two hours from a once-active volcano (last major eruption,1965; latest hiccup,1994) and the Irazu Volcano peak makes an excellent excursion. There are over 60 dormant or extinct volcanoes in the country — six still active. Drive up the elevation for 360-degree crater-top views and iridescent hummingbirds flitting through silvery cypress trees.

San Jose Urban Tours
San Jose Urban Tours coffee tasting.Photo by Elaine O’Connor

It’s a commitment to get to beaches and hot springs from the city, yet if you’re set on getting your feet in the sand, you can be walking Playa Jaco’s three-kilometre shoreline in under two hours, traffic willing.

A waterfall
A waterfall outside San Jose.Photo by Elaine O’Connor

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City tours

San José boasts a fine food scene with new takes on Indigenous cuisine and traditional Tico fare, plus modern museums, busy markets, buzzing microbreweries, urban parks and coffee shops. For a self-guided tour, head to Barrio Amon to eye old architecture and see coffee baron neo-colonial mansions remade into bars and galleries. Continue to Barrio Escalante’s restaurant strip for a bite — try Arbol de Seda or Huacamole for plant-based fusion with local produce.

For an afternoon pick me up, rest under roble de sabana trees blooming in city squares or pop into a coffee shop for some shade grown to go. Try Cafeoteca in Barrio Escalante for single-estate sips from eight-growing regions or settle in to Cafe La Mancha, a downtown atrium oasis offering six methods of coffee infusion. 

Costa Rica
The National Theater of Costa Rica.Photo by Elaine O’Connor

As night falls, the tour ends in a historic home with an Indigenous ingredients infused meal. Sip chichamiel mead, sample pejibaye palm fruit soup with malanga crisps, savour handmade tortillas with acacia root and chayote squash and enjoy achiote-spiced chicken with patacones. Host Eric Gomez explains these ancestral foods were eaten across Central America before Spanish colonizers introduced the rice and beans of today’s ubiquitous gallo pinto. Serving them again feels like a reclamation of his culture and history — an authentic taste of Costa Rica’s bounty in the heart of the city.

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