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Four-wheeled oxcarts and four-wheel-drive Galoppers punctuate Costa Rica’s second-largest city. Just three km / 1.8 miles from the international airport on the slopes of the Poás Volcano.Alajuela’s elevated position makes it slightly warmer and sunnier than San José. And, although a big city in its own right, Alajuela is quieter and calmer as well.
Huge mango trees in the central park reflect the pride Alajuela takes in the delicious tropical fruit. It even hosts a nine-day Mango Festival in July (contact the Tourist Board for exact dates, . 506/223-1733). But the city’s most famous citizen is cause for a celebration on April 11 of each year –
Juan Santamaría, the little drummer boy who helped defeat the invasion of William Walker, was born in Alajuela. His birthday brings parades with brass bands, parties, dancing in the streets and drinking in the bars. Juan’s statute is in a park that bears his name, two blocks south of Parque Central. The Museo Historíco Cultural, in the old city jail, is on Calle 2, Av 2. The central market dates from the 1930s and is a good place to shop, especially on Saturdays when the market becomes like a fiesta.
Try some of the many exotic fruits for sale. On weekends, Josefinos head to Balneario Ojo de Agua (swimming park) in San Antonio de Belén (south of San José’s airport, not in the town of Ojo de Agua, in case you find it on the map).
A treat for the eyes is an evening performance of Spanish Lippazaner stallions in an “equestrian fantasy” of choreographed riding with dressage, quadrilles, fancy costumes and thrilling horsemanship by both men and women. Ask a local travel agent about performances at Rancho San Miguel, in Alajuela’s La Guácima suburb (www.ranchosanmiguel.co.cr).
Also in La Guácima is The Butterfly Farm (. 506/438-0400, www. butterflyfarm.co.cr), a popular place to see and learn about some spectacular butterflies native to Costa Rica (as well as stingless bees). They offer a two-hour guided tour through enclosed tropical gardens.
The Zoo Ave which means “bird zoo,” is in La Garita, on the road from Alajuela to Atenas. Its aviaries house a wide variety of birds and also serve as rehabilitation stations for a diversity of native animal life intended for release into the wild. Open daily, 9-5; US $10.
Also nearby is Orchid Alley ( 506/487-7086, firstname.lastname@example.org. co.cr), a nursery of more than 100,000 delightful, colorful epiphytes. They offer gift-wrapped orchids mailed worldwide from US $50.
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