Last updated on January 30th, 2021 at 01:33 pm EST
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How to spend a day in Alajuela Costa Rica
If you’re like most Costa Rica travelers who fly into and out of the Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO), you may have some time to spare in and around the Central Valley at the start or the end of your trip. Though the SJO Airport is nicknamed the “San Jose Airport” it is actually located closest to the city of Alajuela, a metropolis that sits roughly 20 kilometers northwest of San Jose (Costa Rica’s capital city). If you’re looking for ways to spend a day around the airport and you’d rather not venture east into San Jose, here are 5 things to do in Alajuela Costa Rica.
Have a free day to spend in San Jose, not Alajuela?
Check out the recommendations we offer for that destination in our related blog post:
Peer into a volcano crater at the Poas Volcano National Park
Whew! The Poas Volcano National Park (Parque Nacional Volcan Poas) has certainly experienced its share of ups and downs. First, it was popular. So much so that it made my travel-loving grandmother’s short list of “attractions to visit” when she explored Costa Rica in 1990. Then, in the late 1900s and early 2000s, La Fortuna’s erupting and lava rock-spewing Arenal Volcano stole the show. When the Arenal Volcano grew quiet in 2010, everyone looked to the Poas Volcano to provide exciting volcano experiences, including crater sightings (on clear days) and hikes to Lake Botos, a picturesque lake within the Poas Volcano National Park. In 2017, following dangerous increases in volcanic activity, the Poas Volcano National Park closed to the public. It didn’t open again until 2019, and when it did, the volcano-visiting experience of years prior was different. This is where things currently stand with trips to the Poas Volcano National Park: visits require advance reservation, protective equipment (a hardhat) must be worn, crater visits are restricted to 20 minutes maximum, and hikes to Lake Botos are prohibited. To learn more about visits to the Poas Volcano, don’t miss our related blog post How To Reserve The Poas Volcano National Park (Screenshots).
As suggested above, the Poas Volcano National Park experience is far more regulated today than it ever was, but it’s still an experience worth having. Because the best time to visit the Poas Volcano is in the early morning (before clouds roll in and mask the crater), and because the park closes mid-afternoon, this attraction isn’t a fitting one for you if you’ll only have an afternoon or evening free to explore the Alajuela region. If your morning is wide open though, you can spend it traveling roughly 30 kilometers up the volcano (from downtown Alajuela) with hope you’ll encounter an exposed crater (and its baby-blue pool) at the top.
Explore waterfalls and wildlife exhibits at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens
One of the busiest and best day tours you can make to and from Alajuela is a trip up to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, which sit roughly 35 kilometers north of the city’s core. Not only can you see 5 tall, beautiful waterfalls slicing through lush forest at this attraction, but you can explore wildlife exhibits that showcase several varieties of rescued species. In a few short hours, you’ll meet jungle cats, sloths, monkeys, birds, butterflies, bulls, frogs, snakes, insects, and more. The photo opportunities are endless, so don’t forget to bring a camera and extra memory cards. You’re welcome to tour the La Paz Waterfall Gardens on you own (i.e., without a tour guide), however if you’d prefer a guided experience, tour guides can be hired in advance through the attraction directly. Alternatively, several San Jose-based tour operators run daily guided tours to and from the La Paz Waterfall Gardens and destinations around the Central Valley, including Alajuela.
Learn about (and taste) cacao during a chocolate tour
If you enjoy eating chocolate, you’ll love Alajuela’s Costa Rica Chocolate Tour, which will teach you all about cacao crops and chocolate-making. This is one of the most convenient experiences you can have in the Alajuela region because it takes place close to the SJO Airport (about a 15-minute drive from the airport) and it only requires about an hour and a half of your time (minus drive time to/from the tour site). During this short period, you’ll see how cacao pods grow on trees, you’ll taste cacao beans direct from the pod, you’ll learn how cacao beans are dried and form “nibs”, you’ll learn how modern-day “white chocolate”, “milk chocolate”, “dark chocolate”, and “cocoa powder” are produced, you’ll learn how cacao was produced and used by Indigenous groups years ago, and you’ll get to make your own chocolate treat to enjoy. For more information about the Costa Rica Chocolate Tour experience, see our related blog post A Costa Rica Chocolate Tour For Your First Or Last Day In The Country.
Stroll around Rescate Animal Zooave
Just up the road from the Costa Rica Chocolate Tour is Animal Rescate Zooave, one of the country’s most trusted bird and wildlife rescue centers. My favorite sign in the place reads “Esto no es una jaula apropiada para un pájaro… Es una cárcel” which translates to “This is not an appropriate cage for a bird… It’s a prison.” To drive home this point, the rescued species at Animal Rescate Zoo Ave reside in large, fenced, outdoor enclosures. Some of the species you’ll see during your visit include monkeys, iguanas, peacocks, spiders, macaws, and other birds (don’t miss the giant mural that displays paintings of every bird species you can see in Costa Rica). Your visit helps pay for their living expenses, treatments, and rehabilitation. Self-guided visits (i.e., visits without a tour guide) are the norm. Simply show up during the center’s operating hours, pay the entrance fee, and tour the network of concrete paths that lead to the various enclosures at your own pace.
Shop at a mall
Surely you didn’t come to Costa Rica to fulfill a dream of exploring a commercial shopping center. But if you have some time to kill in Alajuela, if you’re not up for participating in an organized tour, and if you don’t want to stray too far from the SJO Airport, you can pass time at Alajuela’s City Mall. This modern mall opened in 2014 and is full of brand-name stores and restaurants. If you need a quick bite, it has a decent food court too. The City Mall is sandwiched between the SJO Airport and downtown Alajuela (the mall sits about 1 kilometer north of the airport). Several taxis are stationed at the mall’s entrance in case you need one to bring you to the airport when it comes time for you to fly home.
Map of Alajuela Costa Rica
Want help deciding on an Alajuela / SJO Airport hotel?
We’ve stayed at several. Read about our experiences in our related blog post:
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: What’s your favourite thing to do or see in Alajuela Costa Rica?