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The Greater Metropolitan Area of Costa Rica

Costa Rica has so much to offer the visitor with its unparalleled bio-diversity, the warm and friendly people, the world-class beaches and oceans, and the great sporting and leisure activities to be enjoyed. However, you

Turrialba Volcano in Cartago

Costa Rica has so much to offer the visitor with its unparalleled bio-diversity, the warm and friendly people, the world-class beaches and oceans, and the great sporting and leisure activities to be enjoyed. However, you wouldn’t really know Costa Rica until you have had the opportunity to visit the towns and cities of this beautiful country. The first thing you need to know to find your way around is that Costa Rica is divided into provinces and cantons, many of which are grouped together as the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM).

Even for someone such as myself who’s lived here for 16 years, seeing all of it would take a great deal of time. So, I’ve highlighted below some attributes of the provinces of the GAM in Costa Rica, I’m sure you’ll enjoy as much as I and millions of tourists have enjoyed.

The GAM of Costa Rica consists of the provinces, towns and cantons within the Central Valley of Costa Rica. It covers a geographical area of 686 square miles, consisting of the Central Valley and Guarco Valley, partially including the four provinces of San José, Alajuela, Cartago and Heredia.

With a population of 2.2 million people, the GAM accounts for approximately 50% of the Costa Rican population. It is, therefore, a huge part of Costa Rica, and the beauty, interests and culture of each region can be lost when one only looks at it as a homogenous group. Although there are political, social, and communal connections between each province, canton and town, each of the areas has distinct aspects of character and interest, and I’ve shared only a few of these attractions with you below.

San Jose

Founded in the first half of the 18th century and located in the central area of the country, San Jose is not only a province of Costa Rica, it is the provincial and national capital. With a population of 1.4 m people, it is also the most populous area of the country. San Jose is split into 20 cantons, by far the most of any province. Surrounded by a beautiful panorama of mountains, volcanos and verdant land, San Jose was the first city in Latin America to be illuminated by electric energy, a fact that many Costa Ricans will not tire of imparting! It is the seat of the national government and the hub of social, economic, and political life, including the presidential abode. Not least due to being the economic and political center of Costa Rica, San Jose is home to world-class parks, hotels, museums, and theaters. It also has a vibrant social scene and nightlife, with hundreds of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and theaters. In fact, everything you would expect of a modern capital city can be found here.

For visitors looking for the urban cultural and communal pleasures of the country, most of them are to be found here, including:

∙ The National Theater of Costa Rica (Teatro Nacional)

∙ The Plaza of Culture (Plaza de la Cultura)

∙ The Museum of Gold (Museo del Oro)

∙ The National Library of Costa Rica (Biblioteca Nacional de Costa Rica)

∙ The University of Costa Rica (Universidad de Costa Rica)


Located close to San Jose Airport, Costa Rica’s second-largest city, Alajuela is popular with visitors as they enter and leave Costa Rica. Boasting the impressive red-domed cathedral, Alajuela is a relaxed and friendly place that, in July, holds a nationally famous Mango Festival, with fairs, concerts, and parades.

Known as much for what surrounds the city as what’s in it, Alajuela is a wonderful introduction to Costa Rica’s phenomenal natural environment, including La Paz Waterfall Gardens, which sit approximately 35 kilometers north of the city center. Home to five high, magnificent waterfalls carving through verdant forest, the Gardens also boasts an impressive wildlife exhibit that showcase several species of rescued creatures. Over an afternoon, you can spend time with jungle cats, monkeys, snakes, insects, bulls, butterflies, birds, and sloths.

The city is also near to the Poas Volcano National Park with its steaming, active volcano. The volcano is a mile wide and a thousand feet deep and is truly an awesome sight. Occasionally it is closed due to volcanic activity, so check before you make the trek up.

And, if like me, you enjoy chocolate, there are few pleasures equal to the Alajuela Chocolate Tour, where you will learn about cocoa crops and making chocolate. See how cacao pods grow on trees, taste cacao beans direct from the pod, learn how modern-day white chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and cocoa powder are made, learn how cacao was produced and used by Indigenous groups hundreds of years ago, and enjoy making your own chocolate treat to eat there or take home to share. I know which I would do!


Cartago is located near the foothills of the Irazu Volcano in the Central Valley and is one of the oldest towns in the country and is notable for its beautiful riverside setting. Cartago was once the capital of Costa Rica, but it was partially destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1732, and San Jose later succeeded as the capital of the country in 1832.

Today, you can visit ruins that date back to the 16th century, most remarkably in the city’s Central Park area, including La Negrita at La Basilica de La Señora de Los Angeles and the impressive La Ruinas de la Parroquia.

A far more traditional and historic city than San Jose, it is home to genuine traditional Costa Rican food, and for those of you with a penchant for plants and flowers, the Lankester Botanical Gardens, one of the most active scientific institutions of the American tropics, are well worth a visit.


If the Central American heat is beginning to get to you, Heredia is the perfect spot to enjoy because of its mild weather and temperature. Many Ticos themselves enjoy it for this reason, not least the opportunity to enjoy winter clothes. Popular with international visitors due to the National University of Costa Rica, Heredia is nicknamed the ‘City of Flowers’ due to the many beautiful gardens and wonderful plants to be found here. Heredia is a much more relaxed place than San Jose, for example, with a laid-back atmosphere and some beautiful colonial architecture.

At the center of the city, standing in Heredia’s Central Park, is the historic La Inmaculada Concepción, a splendid church built in the eighteenth century, with bells imported all the way from Cuzco, Peru. The stained-glass paintings in the church are some of the oldest in Costa Rica.

Heredia is known for its many excellent restaurants and hotels. Even if you’ve located somewhere else in the country, Heredia is a nice spot for a weekend get-away.

Each of these provinces possesses its own identity and areas of beauty and interest. Visitors to the country who have social, family or business reasons to remain in the Central Valley area have chosen to live in one of these four relaxed and friendly provinces. If you are considering the same future, check out in further detail these fine historic provinces.



William Harris has lived in Costa Rica (on and off) since 2004. He has a Masters in Applied Linguistics and has worked in the ESL/EFL field for 20 years. His interests include writing fiction and poetry, playing bass, and traveling locally and internationally.

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