Alajuela (pop. 35,000) sits at the base of Volcán Poás, 20 kilometers northwest of San José  and two kilometers north of Juan Santamaría Airport and the Pan-American Highway.
First named La Lajuela in 1657, the town is known locally as La Ciudad de los Mangos for the mango trees around the main square. Today, Costa Rica’s second city is a modestly cosmopolitan town with strong links to the coffee industry. Saturday is market day.
At the heart of town is Parque Central, officially called Plaza del General Tomás Guardia, with various busts of important locals from decades past. Twice weekly, music is played in the domed bandstand. Pretty 19th-century structures with fancy iron grilles surround the park.
The square is backed by a red-domed colonial-era cathedral, where ex-presidents Tomás Guardia and León Cortés Castro are buried. It has some impressive religious statuary, including a glass cabinet brimful of eclectic and macabre offerings to La Negrita. Iglesia de Agonía, in Greek-Orthodox-meets-baroque style, is five blocks east.
Memories of Juan Santamaría—or “Erizo” (Hedgehog, referring to Santamaría’s bristly hair)—the homegrown drummer-boy hero of the Battle of 1856, figure prominently in Alajuela, notably in the Museo Histórico Cultural Juan Santamaría (Avenida 3, Calles Central/2, tel. 506/2441-4775, www.museojuansantamaria.go.cr , 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Tues.–Sun., free), housed in the former colonial city jail on the northwest corner of the Parque Central.
This small museum tells the story of the War of 1856 against the no-good American adventurer William Walker. Call ahead to arrange a screening of an English-language film. Guided tours are given 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Tuesday–Friday.
Two blocks south of Parque Central is Parque Juan Santamaría (Calle 2, Avenidas 2/4), a tiny concrete plaza with a statue of the national hero rushing forward with flaming torch and rifle to defend the country against William Walker’s ragtag army. Opposite, the Teatro Municipal (tel. 506/2435-2362) was restored in 2007.
TUASA (tel. 506/2222-5325) buses depart San José  from Avenida 2, Calles 10/12, every 10 minutes, 4 a.m.–10 p.m. daily. Return buses (tel. 506/2442-6900) depart from Calle 8, Avenidas Central/1, in Alajuela. The buses run past the airport.
Major car rental companies have offices in Río Segundo de Alajuela. A-1 Rentacar (tel. 506/2443-8109, www.a1cr.com ) is at Avenida 3, Calle 7.