Have you been stuck in San José too long? Feel a need to banish those city blues, but short on time? The perfect escape lies less than an hour’s drive southeast of the city, in the quiet rural charm and spectacular beauty of the OrosiValley. In the shadow of two volcanoes, the dramatic, undulating landscape in soothing shades of green, magnificent mountain vistas and fresh, clear air of this lush, coffee-producing region will rejuvenate even the most jaded city dweller.
A 60-kilometer loop through the river valley is popular not only for the scenic ride, but also for the diverse attractions found along the way, including colonial churches, natural hot springs, a rugged national park and picturesque Cachí Lake.
It can all be seen in a whistle-stop day trip; however, with the great accommodation and restaurant options, it’s worth taking a leisurely pace and spending a night here, if only to experience waking up to the sights and sounds of the valley as you savor the irresistible aroma of your morning cup of fresh local coffee.
From Paraíso, a town emerging out of Cartago, and taking the loop counterclockwise toward the town of Orosi, the landscape soon opens up to reveal the expansive valley, cloaked in coffee fields and dotted with tiny villages, descending steeply to the meandering river below.
Just two kilometers along this winding road, the Orosi lookout is the first muststop for the magnificent panorama – look for a small, easily missed blue sign for the entrance. The grassy hillside is a perfect picnic spot to while away a few lazy hours.
From here, the road drops steeply into the laid-back colonial town of Orosi, a good base if you’re spending time in the area. In the center of town stands the simple but beautiful 1743 Iglesia San José de Orosi, the oldest church still in use in Costa Rica. The adjoining former Franciscan monastery is a museum displaying religious art and artifacts.
The town is famed for its natural hot springs, one of the attractions that drew the Spanish colonists here. The public spa Los Balnearios is right in town, and Los Patios is two kilometers along the road. But for the adventure-minded, the hot waters to be found right along the OrosiRiver offer a closer-to-nature alternative (see “Travel Info” for directions). Unsurprisingly, it’s a popular spot with the locals, so avoid sunny weekends if you’re after romantic seclusion.
When in town, stop by the Orosi Tourist Information and Arts Café (OTIAC) to fill in the gaps about activities, tours and other lesser-known gems of the area.
Leaving Orosi, you have two options: continue along the loop, or detour to TapantíNational Park. A 5,000-hectare birders’ paradise, Tapantí is one of Costa Rica’s wilder cloud forests and, with an annual rainfall of more than seven meters, the wettest of the country’s national parks. A typically damp day, with the fine mist shrouding the trees, the rush and spray of the numerous waterfalls and the sparkling river waters, makes for an atmospheric hike along the few open trails.
Back on the loop, the road crosses the river at the village of Palomo and swings around to follow it back north. This stretch is flanked by hillside coffee plantations to the right, glimpses of the river and lily-covered Cachí Lake to the left, and views of Irazú and Turrialba volcanoes up ahead. On a clear day you can see steam rising from the latter, which has ominously begun to stir in recent months after keeping quiet for more than 140 years.
The manmade yet truly stunning lake can best be seen about nine kilometers farther on at La Casona del Cafetal restaurant, itself a highlight of the route (see “Travel Info”).
Shortly before the small town of Cachí, two wood-carving workshops stand by the side of the road. Best known is Casa del Soñador (House of the Dreamer), built 20 years ago from coffee wood and bamboo by famous Tico sculptor Macedonio Quesada.
Since his death, sons Miguel and Hermes have continued their father’s tradition in coffee wood, carving masks, country characters and other rustic figures that make original souvenirs.
A few meters up the road, talented 22-year-old Denis Sojo is following his own father’s footsteps, producing religious, ecological and family-themed sculptures from palm-sized to life-sized pieces of fallen wood.
Prices vary from $5 to $10,000, depending on size and intricacy.
The vast Cachí hydroelectric dam, another popular photo stop, is close by on the northeastern side of the lake. About three kilometers farther, look out for the sign indicating a left turn to the village of Ujarrás, home to the ruins of Nuestra Señora de Ujarrás (Our Lady of Ujarrás), the earliest colonial church in Costa Rica, and the stuff of legend.
The story varies from source to source, but a typical version is that an indigenous fisherman carried a box containing a painting of the Virgin Mary to this site, whereupon it suddenly became immovable. Considered a sign from God, a shrine was built, and the church itself was completed in 1693. Besieged by floods and earthquakes, the church has been left to deteriorate in its tranquil surroundings since 1833.
From here, a short drive completes the loop for the return to Paraíso.
In an area boasting many more attractions, from volcanic national parks to historic monuments, this introduction can only scratch the surface, but hopefully enough to inspire explorations of the delights to be found a short drive from the capital.
Got More Time?
On the road back to San José, between Paraíso and Cartago, the remarkable LankesterBotanical Garden is a must. British botanist and orchid enthusiast Charles Lankester established the garden in 1917, building up his orchid collections from around the country.
Now owned by the University of Costa Rica (UCR), the garden is a world-renowned orchid research center housing more than 1,000 species, which are at their blooming best between February and April. Besides the orchid houses, there are xtensive trails through forest and gardens home to 3,000 species of
bamboo, cacti, bromeliads, heliconias, ferns, palms
and other tropical plants.
The garden is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission costs $5 for foreigners and ¢1,000 ($2) for nationals, with discounts for students. For info, visit www.jardinbotanicolankester.org. To prebook a guided one-hour tour, call 552-3247.
Getting There: By car, take theInter-American Highway
from San José to Cartago, then follow the main road southeast out of Cartago toward Paraíso and follow the signs to Orosi. Buses leave every half-hour from the main terminal in Cartago to the town of Orosi (30 minutes). Buses in the valley are limited.
Río Orosi Hot Springs: Park at the Río Macho bar, two kilometers along the road to Tapantí. Cross the steel bridge and cut through the first opening in the fence on your left. Keep to the main path, following the river through the coffee farm for 10 to 15 minutes until you reach a small opening to a narrow path through the bush that leads down to the riverbank.
Tapantí National Park: Open daily from 7:30 a .m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission costs $10 for foreigners and ¢800 ($1.60) for nationals. For info, call 200-0090.
Where to Stay and Eat
Listed in order of appearance on the route.
Sanchirí Mirador Lodge: On the main road two kilometers south of Paraíso, this lodge offers good food and a friendly welcome, but you really come for the incredible valley view from the restaurant.
Double rooms with private bathrooms are $60, including breakfast. It’s owned by the nine Mata brothers, who are working hard on their environmental credentials with recycling programs, a small farm growing produce for the restaurant, and biogas from their own pigs. For more information, call 574- 3870 or visit www.sanchiri.com.
Orosi Valley Farm: On the hill down into Orosi, this private residence offers attractive rooms with balconies overlooking the valley for $45, including a breakfast of fresh fruit, pastries and locally grown organic coffee. For more information, call 533-3001or go to www.orosivalleyfarm.com.
Montaña Linda and Orosi Tourist Information and Arts Café: In the town of Orosi, 200 meters south of the park, Sara and Toine Verkuijlen have it all covered. Rooms in the guesthouse are $30, while the separate hostel offers dorm beds for $7.50 and private doubles for $10 per person. The duo also runs a Spanish school, tourist information center and café, open most days for comforting breakfasts such as pancakes and French toast and appealing lunches such as burgers and burritos. For information, call 533-3640 or see www.montanalinda.com.
Orosi Lodge: Also in town, tasteful doubles at this hotel go for $48, with private bathrooms, wet bar and either a shared patio or balcony with volcano views. A café and art shop is open Monday to Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., serving hearty breakfasts, pastries and local coffee. For information, call 533-3578 or visit www.orosilodge.com.
Hotel Tapantí Media de Orosi: On the road out of Orosi (800 meters southeast of the church) toward Tapantí, this hotel offers double rooms starting at $50, including breakfast. The recommended restaurant serves up food with an international flavor and great views. For more information, call 533-9090 or go to www.hoteltapanti.com.
La Casona del Cafetal: This idyllic spot right on the lakeside, about three kilometers south of the dam, is a favorite with Tico families on weekends. Main courses start at about $7, but if all that fresh air has given you a healthy appetite you’ll want the huge buffet at $18, including natural fruit drink, dessert and good coffee. After all that, you can walk off the indulgence with a stroll through the attractive, stepped garden. For information, call 577-1414 or see www.lacasonadelcafetal.com.