Alajuela, the capital of the province by the same name, is the second largest city in Central Valley of Costa Rica, located 20 km northwest of San José.
This city is actually the home of the Juan Santamaría International Airport, where most people land when they come to Costa Rica. This has been the main international airport of Costa Rica since 1955 when it was relocated from San José, the capital of Costa Rica.
The city of Alajuela is known among ticos as the “City of Mangoes,” mainly because the central park has more than 20 mango trees that were planted over 100 years ago. But mangoes are not the only thing this city has to share with visitors. Alajuela is an easy-to-travel town where you can experience urban Costa Rica without the buzz of the capital, it has great weather if you are looking for warmth, and it offers a lot of attractions that are visited by both ticos and foreigners.
Reaching downtown Alajuela from San José is very easy. You can take the train, two different bus lines and drive your rental car west on the General Cañas highway, which is the Interamerican Highway. And from Alajuela it is very easy to get to different parts of the west and north of Costa Rica, either by public transportation or driving from there.
Who was Juan Santamaria?
Alajuela is the birthplace of Juan Santamaría, Costa Rica’s national hero, a very different kind of hero. History says Juan Santamaría was a drummer boy who joined an improvised army of Costa Ricans that in 1856 expelled a filibuster army (from Costa Rican soil) that dreamed of turning Central America into a slavery territory for the United States of America.
William Walker, a very well-educated US citizen from Nashville Tennessee, was the intellectual leader of this filibuster army. He came to Central America a year earlier, under the naive invitation of the Nicaraguan government, with the intention of taking “Manifest Destiny” (the historical belief that the United States is destined, even divinely ordained, to expand across the North American continent, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean) to the next level.
It took Walker six months to take control over the Nicaraguan government, to the point of becoming its 6th president.
Meanwhile, in Costa Rica, the president Juan Rafael Mora Porras, declared war to Nicaragua on February 27th, 1856 and called on the Costa Rican people to defend their country. On March 4th, a small army, led by the president himself, started its way north, to Liberia, to prevent the filibuster army from entering Costa Rican territory. Sixteen days later, they accomplished their mission.
Now, you might be wondering why Juan Santamaría is the hero and not anybody else from that inexperienced army. Well, because when the filibusters were already out of Costa Rican soil, the ticos decided to follow them and make sure they understood they were not wanted anywhere in Central America, which led them to another deadly confrontation in the town of Rivas, Nicaragua, where the filibusters finally surrendered.
How did the ticos manage to do that? Due to Juan Santamaria’s heroic action. On April 11th, 1856, the Costa Rican army had the filibusters surrounded inside a hostel and when the commanding officer asked for a volunteer to set it on fire, Santamaría offered, walking heroically to his death and setting the structure’s roof on fire. After that, the filibusters could do nothing but surrender.
Things to do in Alajuela City, Costa Rica
Every April Costa Rica celebrates Juan Santamaria’s feat with a national holiday and big festivities in Alajuela, including a parade, therefore if you are in Costa Rica around April, it is a good idea to visit Alajuela around the 11th. If you visit Costa Rica during a different month, however, there are still a lot of other things that will make your time in Alajuela well worth it.
Central Park and the downtown
There is more to see and do in downtown Alajuela than mango trees. The Central Park is very charming and always has lots of Costa Ricans passing by and hanging out, a great setting to mingle and get to know ticos better. Right next to the park is the Our Lady of the Pillar Cathedral, a big Catholic church with an impressive dome and beautiful structure, well worth a few minutes of your time to explore.
A couple of blocks west of the park is the Central Market, an entire block of colors, flavors, smells and noises that will delight you. Make a point to find a strange fruit and have another moment of discovery and wonder to remember Costa Rica by.
If you walk south of the park you will find another park created in honor of Juan Santamaría, where there is a statue featuring his deed, a good place for a selfie!
If you forgot something from home or you’re the kind of person that likes see culture through shopping, you will find all kinds of stores just a couple of blocks away from the park that are ready to give you a look into what ticos are really about buying.
Juan Santamaría History Museum
Located in a former prison building, in the northwest corner of the park, the Juan Santamaría History Museum is the perfect place to learn more about Costa Rica’s national hero and the 1856 battles. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, and admission is free.
This attraction is not exactly in downtown Alajuela, but it is worth the 8km (5 mile) drive west to La Garita. Zoo Ave is a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center where visitors can enjoy over 130 animal species, a lush botanical garden, a canopy tour, coffee shop, ice cream shop and a restaurant. Zoo Ave’s mission is to rescue, release and breed endemic animal species to preserve Costa Rica’s fauna. It is open everyday from 9am to 5pm.
Once the most visited National Park of Costa Rica, as of December 2017, this impressive volcano has been closed to the public for eight months do to its activity. So before driving the 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north off the city of Alajuela, make sure to find out if it is open to visitors. If you still want to take the drive, it is well worth it, with beautiful scenery and delicious restaurants all throughout.
The Poás Volcano National Park has a couple of easy trails where one can enjoy lush cloud forest and spot many species of birds. But the main attraction is the volcano’s crater, among the biggest in the world, that can be reached almost to its edge. Learn more about Costa Rica’s volcanoes and mountain ranges.
If you like coffee and want to learn everything there is to know about growing it, harvesting it and processing it, then you have to take a guided tour at Doka Estate, a working coffee plantation on the slopes of Poas Volcano. If you want to see the coffee plants filled with the red cherries, make sure to visit Alajuela between November and February, picking season. The estate is located 12 km north of the city of Alajuela and it offers tours several times a day every day. Learn more about Costa Rica coffee tours.
Restaurants in Alajuela City, Costa Rica
When you are walking around downtown Alajuela, you will find a lot of small coffee shops and eateries where you can taste traditional Costa Rican food. Make a special stop for it at the Central Market where not only food is good but very inexpensive. If you want to get a feel for the Costa Rican Mall vibe, and have some local food, visit the new City Mall right in between the airport and the center of town.
Alajuela City in relation to the rest of Costa Rica
Every bus line that travels to the north Pacific and the north part of Costa Rica stops at Alajuela, so if you are moving around that part of Costa Rica, Alajuela is a great option to lodge if you want to stay away from the capital.
There are no beaches near Alajuela, but the drive from this town to the central Pacific and north Pacific is not only very enjoyable but also very easy, using either the Interamerican Highway or the 27 highway, which rides closer to the coast.
Weather in Alajuela, Costa Rica
Some say that Alajuela hast the best weather of the Central Valley, not only because it is warmer than San José, but because it is consistent all year round. The seasons are the same as the Central and Pacific part of Costa Rica, dry between December and April, very rainy between May and November.