The Costa Rican town of Atenas (Athens) is not far from the town of Grecia (Greece) in the Alajuela Province. For Costa Rica, Atenas is a medium-sized small town with an enchantment all its own. Although Atenas is not overrun by tourists, it is has become a favorite vacation and retirement spot for many North American and European expats. It is a nice place to visit, or if you are thinking about staying longer, to make your home. Let me give you some of the reasons why it is popular why you might want to add a stop as you tour Costa Rica.
Atenas is located just outside of, and north from, the capital city of San José by way of the “new” Prospero Fernandez highway (completed around 2009). It is also close to the international airport in Alajuela, traveling by way of the Pan-American Highway (Route 27) which is the main highway from Panama through Central America. The drive to Atenas from San José is relatively quick once you get beyond the traffic congestion that surrounds the capital.
The town is picturesque, surrounded by mountains and coffee plantations. As with most towns around the Central Valley, Atenas is in a prosperous agricultural area. Like most Costa Rican towns, Atenas has a central park that is lined with palm trees and seems to always have a gentle breeze. It is where expats and locals tend to gather daily. The main feature of the park is the church, the Parroquia San Rafael Arcángel. In addition, there is a community health center, pharmacies, doctors, dentists, tennis court, fitness center, swimming pools, parks, banks, shops, bed-and-breakfasts, and restaurants in the village.
No one can mention Atenas without also talking about the town’s climate. Atenas claims to offer the 'best climate in the world'. The world is a big place and I am sure that it is a point that can be debated. Nonetheless, the locals in Atenas hold on to the claim and are happy to leave it to visitors to decide. A main reason for claiming the best climate anywhere is that temperature and humidity in Atenas are very comfortable and stable all year round. Without much variation, the temperatures stay about the mid-70°sF (21°C). It is probably this wonderful tropical climate that brings many expats to make this little town their retirement or vacation home. There are many luxury homes in Atenas. These are usually owned by foreigners who rent them weekly and monthly to vacationers.
If you are considering renting a vacation home in Atenas, but you think it might be too remote and far away from cities, shopping, or beaches; reconsider! From Atenas it is about 45 minutes to San José. En route there are many shopping places such as Multiplaza Mall, Avenida Escazu and PriceSmart (Costa Rica's version of Costco, BJs or Sam's clubs). Along the way is also one of Costa Rica’s internationally accredited and front-line hospitals: CIMA hospital.
Atenas is a little closer, about 30 minutes, from the airport. There always tends to be some traffic near the airport on the Pan-American Highway, so plan for that. The airport is just outside of Costa Rica’s second largest city, Alajuela. Alajuela is home to 5 star hotels (Marriott, Holiday Inn, etc.) as well as smaller hotels and hostels. Next to the airport as you drive into the Alajuela city, there is Walmart. Opposite of Walmart is Costa Rica’s largest mall: City Mall. Alajuela also has many restaurants and 2 first class movie theaters offering VIP seating and comfort.
Finally, traveling from Atenas to the Pacific coast is not only a very beautiful and scenic drive, but also close. It is about an hour depending on which beach you want to visit.
Driving around the various barrios (neighborhoods) of Atenas is like taking a country drive. Essentially, there are ups and downs on rolling green hills, passing small homes, coffee plantations and sugarcane fields. It is not unusual to see pickup trucks parked on the roadside selling a variety of fruits and vegetables that are locally grown. For the most part, downtown Atenas and the central park is the hub of local life.
As you go, you might pass the El Toledo Family Coffee Farm. It is a small coffee farm owned by a Costa Rican family and offers a very personalized tour that is quite interesting. El Toledo is one of the first growers in the country to grow completely organic coffee. It is a story of perseverance because the process of transitioning into organic farming is not not easy or quick. It can take at least a couple years, usually 3 or more. On the tour of the family farm, you’ll learn from the passionate farmers themselves about the importance of bio-diverse coffee production. They will show you how your coffee is made –from the plant to your cup. Naturally, the tour ends with a pleasurable sampling of El Toledo’s three different roasts.
You might notice various references to the “oxcart trail” can be seen around town. Originally, Atenas was located along the main oxcart trail from the countryside into the town. This route was also a main route used in the late 1800s to transport coffee beans from the Central Valley to ports on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts for export. Of course one example that is hard to miss is the monument of a boyero, an oxcart driver, on the east side of town.
Last, but not least, a popular and favorite activity for both locals and resident expats (and tourists, too) is the Atenas Feria (Green Market or Farmers’ Market). The feria happens on Thursday afternoons and Friday mornings. Not only will you likely find cheap, fresh and organic produce, you might run into someone from your country. Locals and resident expats are usually pretty friendly, so feel free to ask questions about where you are traveling next.
Atenas is a charming little country town, not far from the airport or the cities and the things cities have to offer like shopping malls and movie theaters. It is also an easy drive or bus ride to the Pacific coast and the many beautiful beaches there, including Jacó Beach and Manuel Antonio Beach and National Park. From Atenas, you can easily plan a 3 beach tour over a weekend! It is absolutely a nice, safe place to visit and vacation.
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