Bordered by mountains and looming volcanic peaks, Costa Rica's Central Highlands are a curious mix of national parks, vibrant market towns and slow-paced agricultural communities. And as you travel through the region you can see that the nation's coffee heritage, evident in the neat lines of shimmering bushes that rise and fall with the contours of the lowland slopes, is very much alive and well.
Like the 'golden bean', people have flourished in the consistently temperate climate of these fertile valleys and over two-thirds of Costa Rica's population lives in the region. It's home to the towns of Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago - all of whom once fought San José for domination of the country. And although each now lives in the shadow of the capital, they all have a feel that subtly betrays an individual sense of history and purpose: Alajuela's transience, the energy and creativity of Heredia, and the shell-shocked wanderings of pilgrims in Cartago. Heavenly inspiration and coffee wealth created an impressive sense of civic pride and even the smallest towns have churches of cathedral proportions. Equally unusual are the Dalí-esque topiary creations of Zarcero and the frighteningly successful craft centre of Sarchí.
The volcanic national parks of Irazú and Poás huff and fume, keeping everyone on their toes. Braulio Carrillo National Park, a vast area of primary rainforest, is ideal for guided walks, aerial tram rides and hiking up Volcán Barva. The calm of the Orosí Valley and the orchids of Lankester Gardens are worth a few hours of your time and the more adventurous can strike out through the rainforests of the Tapantí National Park, or get soaked rafting down the mighty Reventazón and Pacuare rivers.
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