If you have some time in San Jose, Costa Rica we found some fantastic things to see just outside the city. We were meeting my cousin Gemma in San Jose and we had 24 hours together. Over excited about the thought of seeing family, we did some research and found a host of incredible activities to enjoy. Be prepared for an early start, but we think this is the best of San Jose in 24 hours.
In comparison to a lot of the capital cities in Central and South America, San Jose is not a destination where people plan to stay a long time. Usually it is just a stop off for people to arrive in Costa Rica. Most people head off the national parks around the country to see all the spectacular eco-systems teeming with wildlife, rather than stay in the sprawling metropolis.
However there is so much to see near the capital city. Our day around San Jose will include volcanoes, coffee plantations, waterfalls, wildlife and a meal looking over San Jose at night. The places we visited would be a taster for the incredible diversity that Costa Rica has to offer. Get ready for the best of San Jose in 24 hours.
Table of Contents
Formulating a plan and deciding how to get around
With only a short time together, we planned a jam-packed day of sightseeing. We had been exchanging messages to decide what we wanted to do. Luckily Gemma had a host of amazing suggestions, so we were keen to do the activities she’d found.
Firstly it was off to Poas Volcano. We’d heard that early morning was the best time to go because the cloud can come in later in the day and obscure the view of the green lake in the crater of the volcano.
Then afterwards a coffee tour at the Starbucks Hacienda nearby. We are in Costa Rica after all! Then finally to La Paz Waterfall gardens to see some waterfalls and wildlife.
Before we start we should say that we’d been travelling through Central America on quite a strict budget. We’d just arrived from Nicaragua where you can get a huge breakfast of eggs, beans and tortillas for $2 USD. Suddenly you enter Costa Rica and that same breakfast is $10 USD!
The cheap backpacking we had done in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua wasn’t really available in Costa Rica. Nearly everyone we’d met on the road had talked about inflated prices for activities, expensive food and pricey accommodation. Public buses are less common and transfers are expensive, so we’d decided to hire a car so we could see as much as possible.
To see the best of San Jose in 24 hours and in particular to do this day out, you will need a hire car. We got quotes for a taxi but without including entrance fees it was going to cost us over $150 USD per person for the day. $450 USD just on transport. It was significantly cheaper to hire a car and it gave us the freedom to get up early to start our epic day of sight seeing.
What to take
- Warm clothes! Costa Rica is a country with lush greenery and cloud forest, so it does rain. The volcano has a high elevation, so even if it’s warm in San Jose, it might be cooler in the surrounding areas.
- Comfortable shoes. This day involves a lot of walking so make sure you are wearing comfortable footwear. As it may rain, trainers are better than flip flops.
- Water to Go bottle. Reduce your single use plastic waste by getting a Water to Go bottle. With an inbuilt filter that removes 99.999% of all contaminants, you can fill it up from any freshwater source. Use code EATWITHWALKER to get 15% off any of their products.
- Mosquito spray. We use Skin so Soft. Always carry it with you if you’re going into environments where you might get bitten. It’s a lifesaver.
Visiting Poas Volcano to see the beautiful lake in its crater
An early start
So having met up the evening before we had a brief catch up before getting a good night’s sleep. The alarm went off at 6.20 am so that we were up and on the road, ensuring we were at Poas Volcano for the entry time on our ticket. We’d been told to go early because the clouds can come in later, so we’d got 8 am tickets.
Setting off early
In San Jose we’d awoken to bright sunshine. It was already absolutely boiling so on went some shorts and a t-shirt. Knowing we’d be doing a bit of walking we popped on some trainers. Just as we were about to leave we grabbed a jumper. At this point we were already so warm it was nearly laughable to be taking warm clothes, but luckily we all picked up our jumpers.
As we drove out of San Jose, suddenly the sun disappeared. We all looked at each other and commended ourselves on bringing a jumper. Then the rain started. We really hadn’t banked on rain for our day out. Then the rain became mist and as we climbed towards the volcano, we turned the heating on in the car. The bright sunshine had been left behind and we were in an entirely different climate!
Take warm clothes!
When we arrived at the car park, 15 minutes before the time on our ticket we noticed how empty the car park was. Mist hung in the air and it looked like it was about to really start pouring. We got out of the car and were instantly cold. Isn’t Costa Rica meant to be hot?
We went to the waiting area to find the cafe wasn’t open yet. To kill some time we all went to the loo, warmed our hands under the hand dryer and returned to be told it was still a few minutes until our allotted time.
We retreated to the warmth of the car. After 15 minutes we then ventured out to find a few more tourists waiting at the entrance to the park.
They were all wearing wet weather gear, all in jumpers, long trousers, boots and jackets. Only us Brits in shorts and t-shirts then. We obviously hadn’t got the memo. We’d found some towels we’d packed in our bags and now had them wrapped around our legs to guard against the cold.
Going up to look at the crater
Soon the previous group started to return. You have 20 minutes to walk up to the volcano and look into the crater. There are sulphuric gases so the time limit is strict.
Waiting in our helmets with towels wrapped around our blue legs and visibly shaking from the cold, a French group returned and looked at us. “Pointless”, they exclaimed, “You will see nothing.” Then looking us up and down, “In that outfit, you will die!”
Determined to glimpse the crater, we set off and at a pace. Soon we warmed up. It was windy and spitting slightly but having seen a picture of the volcano in our Lonely Planet, we couldn’t wait to see the magnificent crater.
Standing at the viewpoint, trying to see the crater
As we arrived at the viewpoint the only thing we could see was thick, grey cloud. Two French girls in our group took a brief look over the railings and seeing nothing, immediately turned on their heels and went straight back down.
The rest of us were more determined. We searched into the grey cloud, willing something to appear. We took photos with the grey behind us, as the wind tried to blow our helmets off our heads. But we were not giving up.
For twenty minutes we watched the grey clouds running overhead, starring into the abyss ahead, trying to imagine where the crater could be. We noticed that the clouds were moving extremely quickly and suddenly we saw a patch of blue sky.
There was a buzz in the air. Then suddenly we could see the rocks below. The mist was clearing. Ahead we caught a brief glimpse of green. It was the crater!
Excitedly pointing ahead to everyone that hadn’t seen, suddenly the clouds cleared for about 30 seconds. After all the anticipation it was incredible to see the bright colour of the crater through the mist. We were all over the moon and our entire group celebrated our success.
Leaving on a high
Suddenly we had a guard behind us with another group. We had overstayed our allotted time, but we had seen the crater! It was time to head back. We chatted all the way back to the entrance, elated at the experience.
On a totally clear day the view is spectacular, but we were so lucky to get that brief sighting. It rained for the rest of the day, so it’s unlikely that many people were any luckier after our try.
Having visited some other volcanoes throughout Central America this experience was unique in it’s own right. We were so glad that we’d got up early to visit Poas Volcano and see one of the volcanoes closest to San Jose.
We dropped our helmets and raced back to the car to warm up. The heating went on and hungry after the early start, it was time to find some food.
A Costa Rican Breakfast at Freddo Fresas
We found a place just down the hill that had great reviews in the Lonely Planet. There hadn’t been any restaurants open on our way up to the Volcano. We headed down to the restaurant and kept our fingers crossed it was open.
Only a short way down the hill, the rain stopped and the sun reappeared. It instantly felt warmer and we were thawing from the cold in no time. We passed a little shop selling strawberries, stopped off, had a little taste and bought some for a snack later on.
Soon we arrived at Freddo Fresas and it still looked quite empty. We got a table and we were soon pouring over the menu. Having read the recommendation to try the strawberry milkshakes, we didn’t need any more persuading.
We ordered the Costa Rican breakfast, some coffees and milkshakes. A real feast to keep us going for the rest of the day. The food was absolutely delicious. You must try the strawberry milkshake (with milk not water!) which is worth visiting the restaurant for alone.
It was not the cheapest, but Costa Rica is not cheap. It was however a lovely meal in a friendly restaurant. So if you need a pit stop, head here and you won’t regret it.
Learning about coffee at the Starbucks Hacienda
Heading to the Hacienda Alsacia
By the time we left Freddo’s Fresas the place was full. Having warmed up we were keen for a bit more sunshine, so decided to head further downhill. We had the option of a couple of activities further up the hill in the clouds, but we decided to to have a bit of time in the sun.
Being in Costa Rica, we were keen to go to a coffee plantation and nearby was Hacienda Alsacia, the Starbucks coffee farm where they grown their Costa Rican coffee beans. Not only do they grow coffee on the plantation, but they have a tour that shows you how the entire process works.
In addition to growing coffee the Hacienda is working on producing strains of coffee that are disease-resistant to ensure that our love for coffee isn’t affected in the future.
The beautiful Hacienda Alsacia
We arrived at the manicured and aesthetically pleasing looking Hacienda Alsacia. We enquired at the front desk and there was going to be a tour in English in twenty minutes at 11 am. The guide would run through the whole process from picking, to sorting to drying. The tour was interactive and we were encouraged to get involved.
After wandering around the beautiful grounds open to tourists before the tour started, we looked over some spectacular views. Coffee bushes were visible for as far as the eye could see and the landscape was lush and green. The Hacienda itself had colourful flowers dotted throughout and at every turn there was something interesting to look at.
At 11 am the tour began. The guides spoke about the importance of Costa Rica’s coffee production and how much of the world’s coffee they produce. Hacienda Alsacia is extremely large working Hacienda with only a small part open to tourists.
The seasonal coffee workers get good wages, accommodation, healthcare and school for their children whilst their parents are working on the Hacienda harvesting coffee beans.
The tour started with us collecting harvesting baskets and heading into the fields to look at the coffee beans. Looking at the coffee plant, the beans that were red and dark red were the ones we were looking to harvest. The workers receive payment for each basket of coffee beans collected. The more they collect, the more they earn.
The beans then go into water to have the jelly like outer layer removed as it goes around in the equivalent of a coffee bean washing machine. Out the other end comes the clean coffee bean.
The next stage is drying the coffee beans outside in the Costa Rican sun. A flat broom spreads the beans out so that they lie in piles, drying in the sun. After drying the beans, the next stage is roasting. Roasting gives the coffee it’s flavour and we were able to try the different varieties of coffee produced at Hacienda Alsacia.
After seeing the process we got to taste the product. We then went to a tasting room to do a coffee tasting. We were given advice on how to taste the coffee and how to taste the different flavours, which was slightly like wine tasting but with lots of caffeine.
The tour of the Hacienda is a really interesting experience. Seeing the process opened our eyes to the labour intensive process that goes into producing the cup of coffee we drink every morning. We all need our morning cup and it was fascinating to see how coffee is produced.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens
By mid afternoon we had seen a Volcano and a coffee plantation. We had experienced so much and still had some of the best of San Jose in 24 hours to experience.
Our next stop was the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. We headed up the hill and the rain started again. Soon the rain was pouring and by the time we arrived at La Paz Waterfall gardens, it was a heavy downpour. We found some disposable rain coats for sale in the gift shop, but they were $30 USD each so we decided to brave it against the rain.
Entrance was over $48 USD per person, so for an activity it’s expensive. However there is a lot to see here and you could spend the whole day here, so think this activity is good value. They also help to rehabilitate animals that have been rescued from private residences so the work they do is incredibly important.
Exploring the park
After paying the entrance fee, you step outside and see hummingbirds flocking around all the flowers and some feeders. The rain was still pouring so we spent a while just admiring these incredible birds and their fast wings before heading into the park.
There are so many different houses to visit – Jungle Cats, Butterflies, Monkeys, an Aviary, Hummingbirds, Snakes and Frogs. In addition to the animal sanctuary housing over 100 different species they also have an educational programme at the park.
So much wildlife
The website says that you can get around all the animals and the waterfalls in 2 hours, but we suggest you take your time to look at all the animals. Whilst we were there we saw beautiful toucans, fed some active sloths, searched for highly camouflaged frogs and admired the petrifying snakes.
We were lucky to see the feeding of the cats in the Jungle Cat area. These animals were smuggled and kept by private owners before being rescued. Now that they have been domesticated they can’t be released into the wild, so the Sanctuary gives them refuge and works to educate people about endangered species.
In Belize we had visited a Jaguar Reserve, but we had not seen any during our time there. They are absolutely enormous animals. During feeding time, we were able to see these majestic animals and we were so relieved we hadn’t bumped into one in the Jaguar Reserve!
Birds and butterflies
We spent ages in the hummingbird garden, the birds darting around our heads. There were millions of them and they were so elegant. A hummingbird with fluorescent blue on its chest took a shining to Ads and would often stop right in front of his camera. It was absolutely magical.
In the butterfly house we entered and had stunning butterflies of all colours floating around our head. There were flowers everywhere and upon closer inspection, a flock of butterflies would flit off to another flower. They had various chrysalis hanging in the butterfly house showing the process it takes to turn a caterpillar into a butterfly. It was fascinating.
After seeings Boa Constrictors, Cappuchin Monkeys, Macaws, Ocelots and Sloths, we were found by an employee of the park who kindly offered to show us round. He whipped us round the frogs showing us species endemic to Costa Rica and then showed us some magnificent orchids.
After ensuring that we hadn’t missed a thing, he started to guide us towards the waterfalls. Walking through the rain with our towels wrapped around us, he must have thought we were slightly crazy but he didn’t say a thing.
There are five waterfalls you can visit in the Waterfall Gardens. They are Templo (26 m), Encantada (20 m), Magia Blanca (37 m), Escondida (5 m) and La Paz (34 m). We wandered with the guide along the trail with lush green vegetation surrounding us.
Soon we bumped into some other visitors who were trying to go back into the park. The guide advised them the park was closing soon, so asked them to walk forward to the end of the trail where a bus would take people back up to the top. It was at that point we realised he had ushered us down to the waterfalls to ensure we didn’t miss them before the park shut.
Every waterfall was more breathtaking than the last and we took lots of photos along the way. The scenery was stunning and any reservations about the cost of the entrance had now totally disappeared. In one place we’d seen a plethora of wildlife and then five incredible waterfalls. If this day was a taster of our time in Costa Rica, then we were excited! We really had seen the best of San Jose in 24 hours.
Time to head home
After seeing all the waterfalls we headed to catch the bus back up to the top where we’d parked our car. We’d not really noticed how far we’d walked down, but with the rain pouring down still, we were happy to be getting a lift.
After a steep climb back up the hill we were deposited at the entrance. We thanked the guide and the bus driver and headed towards the car. In a few short hours we had seen so much and the time had flown. We suddenly realised we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. It was time to have a shower at the hotel and get some food.
Arriving back at 6 pm, nearly 12 hours after our alarm first went off we chatted excitedly about everything we’d seen. Volcanoes, coffee plantations, wildlife and waterfalls – surely the best of San Jose in 24 hours! But there was still dinner to come. We dried off, changed and jumped in an Uber.
The restaurant Mirador Tiquicia had been recommended because of it’s spectacular views over San Jose. A small Uber had picked us up and we had just started the climb up the hill when we realised that four people in a tiny car might be a little hopeful.
We willed the car on and it slowly chugged up the hill. After a painfully slow ascent, we had arrived. We jumped out in the car park and headed towards the restaurant. As we approached the restaurant we saw the incredible view of San Jose below. A million lights twinkling in the darkness. Without eating a bite, we were happy with our restaurant choice.
We were all ravenous. When the menus came we looked greedily up and down at all the amazing options. After such an incredible day, we all ordered some wine and our mains within minutes of sitting down.
When we’d come in we’d been given the option of a table in the middle of the restaurant to watch the weekend entertainment. Keen to look at the city lights below and have a conversation, we opted for a table with a view instead.
The menu accommodated a variety of budgets, with local Costa Rican dishes in addition to staples like steak, which we opted for. The food was absolutely delicious and after some budget-travelling it was a real treat to go to such a lovely restaurant. The view was dazzling and we would highly recommend you visit.
Time for bed
After a generous meal and a glass of red wine, we all felt our eyelids getting heavier. We took one last look at the view, ordered an Uber and headed outside. We stood looking at the bright lights until the car arrived to take us back to the hotel.
The meal had been the perfect ending to a jam packed day. We felt we’d definitely seen the best of San Jose in 24 hours. Once we were back at the hotel we headed back to our room. We were all asleep within minutes.
San Jose has a number of excellent places to stay. We are going to provide two options we experienced during our travels. A budget option and a splurge option. Whether you want to see the best of San Jose in 24 hours or for a longer stay. Both were excellent establishments and it’s based on our stays that we can recommend them both.
Budget option – Fauna Luxury Hostel
Without a doubt the best value hostel we stayed at during our travels in Costa Rica. The dorms are spacious and the beds are clean and comfortable. The pillows are excellent, as were the blankets provided.
The bathrooms are also huge and the showers hot and powerful, which was a lovely surprise. The dorm we stayed in was air conditioned. A great relief from the humid heat outside.
Check in is easy and the hostel is really nice. With a roof terrace and views extending as far as the eye can see, it’s a lovely place to stay. The WIFI was also impressively fast.
Breakfast was included in our nightly rate and it was hot, yummy and generous. We ate our breakfast looking out over the lush gardens below. The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming. We highly recommend staying here if you are on a budget.
Splurge option – InterContinental Costa Rica at Multiplaza Mall
The InterContinental at Mulitplaza Mall is an elegant hotel. With a large bar area and numerous restaurants on site, you have everything you need in this fabulous hotel. There is a large pool with lots of comfortable seats and a bar serving food and drinks.
WIFI is available through the hotel and works well whether you are in your room or outside. There is a large car park, should you need to park your car securely.
The bedrooms are spacious, comfortable and stylish. The bathroom has large fluffy towels and everything you need for a proper pampering session. The highlight are the large beds and huge pillows. Each room has a large television and a coffee machine, which was essential for the early morning start.
We ate breakfast outside and chose from a huge variety of dishes. With lots of hot and cold options – there were dishes for everyone. We grazed for ages, sitting in the Costa Rican sunshine, enjoying a lazy Sunday brunch. The perfect breakfast to start our day.
How would you spend 24 hours in San Jose, Costa Rica? We think we saw the best of San Jose in 24 hours, but what would you add to our itinerary. Is there anything you wouldn’t want to do? Let us know in the comments below.
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