Not far from the bustling city of San Jose you will find the charming town of Atenas. This medium-sized town in the Central Valley offers a glimpse at local life. From a bench in the picturesque central park or over coffee at a local restaurant, you can see Costa Ricans in their daily life. While Atenas isnt exactly on the tourist trail, it has drawn many expats over the years due to its favorable climate and offers visitors several interesting things to do. Below, well share more about this local town and why you might want to add a stop on your next visit to Costa Rica.
Atenas is located about 45 minutes west of the city of San Jose and about a half-hour from the international airport in Alajuela. Although it is close to urban areas, Atenas itself couldnt be more different. The town is surrounded by rolling green hills, speckled with rows of coffee plants and sugarcane. Just a short drive from these quiet barrios (neighborhoods) is the central area of town, which has a lot going on. Here, you will find many restaurants, grocery stores, shops, and other conveniences. The downtown is the hub of local life, with a scenic park and church as the focal point.
A couple of things that make Atenas noteworthy are its climate and coffee. The town is said to have one of the best climates in the world, with average temperatures in the mid-70s°F (21°C) year-round. The climate, combined with the areas rich volcanic soil, also makes Atenas an excellent location for coffee production. Many of the producers you will find are small, family-run operations and there are even some that you can tour (more on this below). Interestingly, Atenas was located along the original oxcart trail. This route was used in the late 1800s to transport coffee beans from the Central Valley to ports on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts for export. Various references to the oxcart trail can be seen around town. One notable example is the monument of a boyero, an oxcart driver, about a kilometer east of downtown.
You can spend hours just soaking up the local culture in the downtown, but here are some other ideas for things to do.
El Toledo Coffee Tour
If youre visiting Atenas, a coffee tour is a must. El Toledo is a small coffee farm owned by a Costa Rican family. They are one of the few growers in the country to go completely organic. On a tour of the family farm, youll learn from the passionate farmers themselves about the importance of biodiverse coffee production and, of course, see how it is made from plant to cup. The tour ends with a tasting of El Toledos three different roasts. We really enjoyed this coffee tour because it is so personalized and non-commercial. $20 per person.
The chorreador or sock method of brewing allows the delicious oils of the coffee to come through.
Many communities in Costa Rica have a farmers market and Atenas is no exception. Every Friday, both locals and expats gather to shop and chat about local happenings. Under the newly built, modern structure, you will find an assortment of produce as well as baked goods, artisanal products, coffee, souvenirs, and even flowers. A local bus runs to and from the center of town for free if you dont have a car. Click for a map with the location.
Las Minas Waterfalls
Just 20 minutes outside Atenas is a set of secluded waterfalls. Las Minas Waterfalls (The Mines Waterfalls) is located in the village of Desmonte. This set of waterfalls and swimming holes is so named because of an old gold mine in an upper area of the river. Although this spot is located deep in the country, it is not hard to find with good directions.
Take Highway 3 west out of Atenas. At a flashing yellow light, take a right (look for the restaurant Chicarronera El Minero). Follow the windy road for about 1.5 miles (2.4 km), staying left at two forks. The road turns to dirt, then back to paved, but wasnt in bad shape even in the rainy season. When you get to a large bridge, you have arrived at the parking area. Heres a map with directions. Dont leave anything valuable inside your car.
To get to the pools upriver, you will have to walk along the riverbed, up over large boulders and through water, depending on the season. Sturdy boots or sandals like Keens are best. This isnt a recommended hike for everyone. Jenn had to stay behind with our one-year-old son because the rocks were too tricky.
The upper set of falls at Las Minas Waterfalls is harder to access but worth the effort.
Botanical Orchid Garden
If gazing at hundreds of beautiful orchids is more your speed, check out the Botanical Orchid Garden in nearby La Garita. This outdoor garden cultivates orchids in a lab setting and lets them propagate in the wild on their property. The different nurseries have orchids in all stages of growth, allowing visitors to learn about the complex life cycle of these interesting plants. The property also has paths through the forest that showcase local trees and host a variety of birds. To learn more about visiting the Botanical Orchid Garden, including the best times of year to go, read our separate post.
Train Museum (Museo Ferroviaro Rio Grande)
In nearby Rio Grande, you can visit a historic train museum. This isnt a huge attraction, but if you have a free hour, it is interesting to learn about the old railroad that ran from San Jose to Puntarenas. The small museum at the train station houses photos and artifacts like generators, radios, railway parts, and devices used for Morse code. The attendant will also take you up inside the old engine car for some great photo ops. Those wanting to explore can walk the tracks over the Grande River. Open only on Sundays. Click for a map with the location.
If you have children, Zoo Ave is a wonderful stop. This wildlife center rescues and rehabilitates animals that have been injured, orphaned, or confiscated from the illegal pet trade. Some examples include Scarlet Macaw parrots, white-faced monkeys, and even a few species of jungle cats. If animals are unable to be released back into their natural environment after being treated, they live the rest of their lives on the property. One notable inhabitant is a toucan named Grecia that lost most of her beautiful beak in an abusive incident. Grecia now shows off a one-of-a-kind, high-tech prosthetic beak along the trail at Zoo Ave. $20 per person.
Atenas doesnt have a big restaurant scene but there are some delicious options.
Pizzeria La Finca
Whenever were passing through Atenas, we always seem to end up at Pizzeria La Finca. The comfortable outdoor dining area and delicious wood-fired pizza, flatbreads, and bruschetta are obvious draws. They also have craft beer on tap. We recommend the locally brewed El Granero alongside the prosciutto, tomato, arugula, and fresh parmesan pizza.