Besides volcanoes and coastal beaches like Manuel Antonio, Costa Rican rural communities are charming with personalities all their own. One of these is the little mountain town of Zarcero where regional, geographic, and historical attributes blend together to create a farming community with character and charisma.
Zarcero is a short drive up (literally!) into the heart of Costa Rica’s agricultural lands and dairy country. With an elevation of 1,736 meters (5,577 feet) above sea level, Zarcero is a lovely day trip into cool mountain weather. Along the way you’ll see rich, steep coffee fields and sugar cane plantations. Nestled behind Arenal Volcano National Park, Zarcero has astounding views of the surrounding mountainside forests --when low-hanging clouds don’t hide them!
Amazingly, the mountainsides are vertical pasture lands for dairy cows and coffee plantations. The cool climate along with the rich volcanic soils, make Zarcero an important region for agricultural products in Costa Rica. Local farmers take pride in integrating traditional practices with modern, organic farming and organic dairy practices.
Zarcero is a busy country town where you’ll see local kids in blue public school uniforms going independently to or from school. It’s a safe community where everyone is always watching out for everyone, especially the youngsters. Join the locals and pause for a few minutes in the park. It’s where the community’s news gets updated and social life takes place. It’s always been that way
Zarcereños, as the people of Zarcero are called, are welcoming, friendly and sometimes curious --resembling farming communities almost everywhere. As such, they’re quick to help or give you directions --likely to even take or lead you to where you’re going! They might venture to ask you questions. A main one you can expect is, “How do you like Costa Rica?”
It’s easy to say that Zarcero is well known for its dairy products and fresh produce, the magnificent church, and the central topiary park. Before arriving into the town, stop at the line of roadside stands on the main highway traveling by way of Naranjo town. Check out what’s for sale and begin your introduction to the region.
You’ll find typical candies, local pastries, Costa Rican souvenirs and fresh cut flowers for sale. Other fun and delicious local delights are toronjas (candied grapefruits), cajetas (a typical caramel candy often made with coconut), cheese crackers, and natilla (Costa Rican sour cream). Before you have to wonder what they are, those baseball-size white balls hanging outside are balls of mild-tasting cheese called queso palmito. These are distributed in grocery stores all over Costa Rica; it’s a famous product of this region. Zarcero farms are main sources of fresh produce for the nation.
Around Easter time, Zarcero harvests most of the country’s chiverre. Chiverre is a very important part of Costa Rican culture at Easter time. It’s a big white squash. It looks a lot like pumpkins, but white on the outside and inside it’s yellow and stringy when cooked. Like pumpkin for pies, it’s prepared with cane sugar or dulce (molasses) and a wonderful combination of spices. Uniquely delicious Easter breads, pastries, marmalades and candies are made from it. If you are in Costa Rica during Semana Santa (Holy Easter week), go to the Chiverre County Fair in Laguna just outside Zarcero.
The Iglesia de San Rafael (San Rafael Church), built in 1895, is truly elegant with ornate architecture. In its handsome interior are graceful archways. Light shines through glowing stained glass windows to illuminate the traditional paintings telling The Christian Story. The terraced entrance calmly overlooks the fairytale-like topiary garden park below and the town beyond.
Parque Francisco Alvarado, Zarcero’s very distinguished central park, came into being because of an amazing imagination and a local man’s natural gift for sculpting. If you’re traveling with children, the park is a great place for them to run, play and explore while you take lots of photos. Over 50 years ago Mr. Evangelista Blanco began shaping the cypress trees as animals, people, dinosaurs, a helicopter, faces, and even Christ carrying a cross. The abstract shapes and amusing arches are entertaining, especially for children.
A walk up and down the steep streets around the park will give you a feel for the town. The park is surrounded by family-owned businesses where you might discover unusual souvenirs. If you’re looking for places to eat, Rancho Ceci is recommended by locals who’ll point you in the right direction. Walking diagonally through the park is Restaurante El Parquecito offering Costa Rican typical dishes, including breakfast foods at good prices.
Zarcero is on the way! From Zarcero it’s easy to travel on to the town of La Fortuna, the La Fortuna Waterfall and the Arenal Volcano National Park. If you’re already around Arenal, then it’s a pleasant return route through Zarcero to the airport in Alajuela City or San José. Zarcero is only 67 km from San José, so it’s a convenient travel stop to stretch your legs and enjoy the awesome landscapes and relaxing atmosphere of this town.
Another attraction near Zarcero is the Los Ángeles Cloud Forest Reserve. It’s somewhat secluded and often overlooked by tourists, but a wonderful place to peacefully explore. The cloud forest trails are wet, but offer chances for bird watching (258 species), and seeing many different species of wildlife. In fact, you’ll have better chance to see tropical birds and wild animals than you will to see other hikers!
Finally, Poás Volcano National Park is very popular local attraction. At 8,885 feet above sea level, Poás is one of the largest active volcanoes in Costa Rica. Both Poás Volcano and the nearby park La Paz Waterfall Gardens are must-see places for visitors.
Zarcero has certain geographic and historical differences from other regions, but like most Costa Rican towns, it continues to blend traditions and customs into modern lives and livelihoods. It could be compelling that Zarcero doesn’t receive high numbers of international tourists. If you would like to experience a community “as it is”, then do take a trip to Zarcero to enjoy this charming mountain farming town.
Cover Photo © Flickr/Jairo Murillo
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