Alajuela City (pronounced “A-la-who-eh-la”) is a very convenient “home base” for traveling to nearly all of the many popular ecotourism hotspots in Costa Rica. Alajuela is also an excellent introduction to Costa Rican culture. Given its proximity to the Juan Santamaria International Airport, consider staying in Alajuela, Costa Rica’s second largest city.
Very often visitors to Costa Rica believe they are arriving to the nation’s capital of San José. However, it might surprise you to know that the International Airport is not really in San José at all! In fact, it’s actually outside the city of Alajuela and 16 km (10 miles) from San José.
The first thing about Alajuela is its central park. Officially, it is named Tomas Guardia Central Park, but it is referred to as Alajuela Central Park. It is most recognized for its señora mango trees (Madame mangos) that grow throughout the park. But be careful! In mango season, mangos drop at will!
Alajuela Central Park is also known for the sloth family that lives in the mango treetops, and who, in their own slow and tedious way, might be responsible for some of those falling mangos. You can sit on the many park benches and try to see the sloths. There are fountains, usually a breeze, and sometimes craft fairs, musicians, or evangelistic messengers each doing their best to draw crowds. From high school kids to shoppers to retired folks, this park continues to be a community gathering place. It’s clean, safe, and pleasantly well-lit after dark.
Alajuela is the provincial capital and home to the magnificent Cathedral de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. The red roof crown of its cupola is easy to spot at any distance. It sits on the east side of the central park facing east as is the Catholic custom (the main entrance doors are on the west side). Alajuela Central Park is framed by ancient buildings on all sides. Over the years, they have been converted into other uses from what they were originally; but it’s their history that is still interesting.
In just 100 square meters, Alajuela Central Park surely reflects the mild and peace-loving Costa Rican culture. Opposite the Cathedral, is the two-story pink Alajuela Conservatory. It used to be the municipal center. The building resembles a hacienda-style mansion with its horseshoe-shaped architecture. Second-floor balconies overlook the nicely landscaped courtyard at its center. Its architecture is its own beauty and a perfect home for musical arts.
To the left of the Cathedral is a building that in days past was a movie theater and served as the community’s entertainment center. It is now converted into a satellite site for a university and shares the block with McDonald’s –arguably a modern day entertainment center.
And finally to your right, is the still-strong Alajuela fort. Originally it was an army garrison to protect the farming community. However, when the Costa Rican army was abolished in 1948; the fort was converted into the local jail. Given its close proximity to the church and cultural centers, it’s easy to suppose that the “criminals” detained there were probably neither many nor hardcore. It is now the Juan Santamaria Historical Cultural Museum. For a very minimal entrance fee, you can wander through the rooms admiring a collection that blends former military might with art, antiques, and cultural changes.
Whichever direction you’re traveling --airport, beaches, capital of San José or volcanoes-- Alajuela City is a convenient travel home base. Launching from Alajuela can save you travel time and money. From Alajuela, you can plan fun half-day trips to many must-see ecotourism travel hotspots in Costa Rica such as Poás Volcano National Park, the Capital City of San José and the beaches on the Pacific Coast. Convenient day trips from Alajuela into higher regions include the topiary central park in Zarcero town or venturing to La Fortuna Waterfall in the Arenal volcano rainforest, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Costa Rica.
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