The ride through the highlands was spectacular. From the high plateau we descended a series of switchbacks down into the valley. The scene could have been the Appalachians or the Mediterranean Alps, except the valley floor was tropical with farms, fields, and forests.
It is a couple of hours by bus from San Jose to Turrialba, well off the tourist track.
In the heart of the fertile central valley, Turrialba makes a great base camp. This town of 35,000 has a laid-back atmosphere, and the surrounding peaks and slopes protect it from the stress of the outside world. The valley is insulated by the jungle and hushed by the murmur of waterfalls and rivers.
Turrialba is Costa Rica’s pre-eminent whitewater river rafting and kayaking destination. The abundant rainfall keeps the Rio Pacuare, the Reventazon and the Rio Turrialba at levels that range from exciting to raging with class three and four rapids.
You can go hiking or ride horseback along the river bottoms and into the surrounding hills. The farmers of the valley are keen equestrians, and you’ll see beautiful horses in almost every field. Tico cowboy culture pervades. After visiting a horse ranch I spent a cheerful evening with some Tico cowboys in a local Karaoke bar.
Another attraction is the volcanoes. Volcan Turrialba, within Turrialba Volcano National Park (Parque Nacional Volcan Turrialba), is a stratovolcano, built up of alternating layers of ash and lava. It is 3,340 meters (10,958 feet) high. There are three craters as well as many fumaroles, vents and bubbling sulfur pits. Turrialba has been increasingly active recently so access to the peak is restricted. The volcano erupted many times in the 19th century.
Neighboring Volcan Irazu at 3,432 meters (11,260 feet) is the highest active volcano in the country. Irazu erupted in the 1960s and lately shows more activity. The system of trails in Irazu Volcano National Park (Parque Nacional Volcan Irazu) traverses many climatic zones through fascinating ecologies. At the peak is a crater lake with florescent green water. There is an observation deck overlooking Irazu’s crater where you can also see both the Caribbean and the Pacific.
The Turrialba valley’s pre-historic gem is Guayabo, the remains of a forgotten ancient civilization dating from 1,000 years B.C. Research is still in its early stages and little is known about the people who built this city in the uplands jungle. Guayabo National Monument is a 30 minute bus ride from Turrialba. The site includes petroglyphs, stone foundations, stone waterworks and cobbled roads. It’s theorized the city was abandoned following extreme volcanic eruptions.
Volcanic deposits, eroded by the rivers, have made the soil in the valley very fertile. Sugarcane, bananas, coffee, mangoes, and vegetables of every type grow to huge sizes. There’s a farmer’s market in the center of town offering a cross section of local produce, and the current crop is usually featured on restaurant menus and sold at roadside stands.
The Catro Agronomía Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza (CATIE) is a farming research center that attracts agronomists from all over the world. Farmers and scientists come here to work, but anyone can enjoy the greenhouses, the experimental forests and plots, seed banks, and landscaped grounds on the banks of the Rio Reventazon.
Other places to visit are the Guayabo Butterfly Garden; Rancho Naturalista where over 400 species of birds have been recorded; and the Viborana Park Serpentarium with a collection of Costa Rica’s many beautiful snakes.
Turrialba is also a popular place to learn Spanish. It is off the gringo trail so it’s a complete immersion experience. There are several language schools around town, and with all the outdoor and cultural attractions in the area it is a great way to combine learning with fun.