Balmy Atenas, on Highway 3, five kilometers west of La Garita , is an agricultural town renowned for its quality fruits and perpetually springlike climate. (In 1994, National Geographic declared it the best climate in the world.)
A beautiful church built in 1908 stands over the plaza, two blocks south of Highway 3. The old camino de carretas (oxcart trail) ran through Atenas, and during the peak of coffee harvest, trains of 800-plus carts would pass by, carrying beans to Puntarenas . The Monumento a los Boyeros (oxcart drivers) stands at the eastern entrance to town.
The Museo Ferroviario (Railway Museum, tel. 506/2446-0091 or 8810-0660, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Sun. only, by donation), four kilometers north of town at Río Grande, displays a German locomotive and has exhibitions recalling local history.
The Central American School of Animal Husbandry (Escuela Centroamericana de Ganadería, tel. 506/2455-1000, http://atenas.utn.ac.cr ), one kilometer east of Atenas, welcomes visitors for a firsthand look at dairy operations, reforestry programs, and iguana farming. Half-day tours ($40 with lunch at an old hacienda) and full-day tours ($60 including lunch and a horseback ride into the mountain forests) are offered; reservations must be made a week in advance.
Thrill seekers can leap off the 83-meter Puente Negro over the Río Colorado, one kilometer east of Rosario, just west of the Pan-American Highway, eight kilometers northeast of Atenas. Tropical Bungee (tel./fax 506/2248-2212, www.bungee.co.cr ) offers bungee jumps from the bridge under the guidance of “jump masters” using an 11-meter bungee. The company charges $65 for the first jump, $95 for two jumps. Anyone with back, neck, or heart problems is advised not to jump.
Jumps are offered 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and weekdays by reservation in low season; and 9 a.m.–3 p.m. daily in high season. The San José–Puntarenas bus from Calle 12, Avenida 7, or the San José–Naranjo bus from Calle 16, Avenida 1, will drop you off at Salon Los Alfaro, from which it’s a short walk north to the bridge.
I like the Belgian-run Hotel B&B Vista Atenas (tel. 506/2446-4272, www.vistaatenas.com , $59 s/d low season, $75 s/d high season), a pleasing modern property high in the hills about three kilometers west of Atenas. The six rooms are airy and have heaps of light through floor-to-ceiling windows. Two cabins have kitchenettes and hammocks on verandas. All are clean and modestly furnished and have fans. There’s a small pool and sundeck offering one of the most spectacular views in the country. The host is friendly, and the restaurant is a choice option.
El Cafetal Inn (tel. 506/2446-5785, www.cafetal.com , $55 s or $75 d standard, $85 s/d suites, $105 s/d bungalow low season; $75 s or $85 d standard, $100 s/d suites, $105 s/d bungalow high season) is an elegant bed-and-breakfast on a small coffee and fruit finca in Santa Eulalia, about five kilometers north of Atenas. Lee and Romy Rodríguez (he’s Salvadoran, she’s Colombian), the super-friendly owners, run their 10-bedroom hostelry like a true home away from home. The lounge has marble floors and a cascade, and bay windows proffer valley and mountain vistas. The upstairs rooms (some quite small) are modestly appointed, with thin panel walls. A romantic Hansel-and-Gretel cottage has a king-size bed, sofa, cable TV, Persian rug on terra-cotta tile floor, kitchenette, and patio with volcano views. There’s a large clover-shaped swimming pool, a thatched coffee bar where hearty meals are served, and a pergola offering views over a canyon accessed by trails. Howler monkeys hang out in the trees nearby. Wedding packages and tours are offered.
For a divine treat look to Vista del Valle Plantation Inn (tel./fax 506/2451-1165, www.vistadelvalle.com , $90 s/d room, $144–166.50 s/d cottages low season; $100 s/d room, $160–185 s/d cottages high season), a serene bed-and-breakfast on a working citrus and coffee finca on the edge of the Río Grande Canyon Preserve. Lush lawns fall away into tall bamboo forest. The main lodge (with one room for rent) is a Frank Lloyd Wright–style architectural marvel in wood; floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows flood Vista del Valle with light. Ten cottages are reached by stone trails; some have their own kitchens; all have WiFi. All boast tasteful yet minimalist decor and furnishings plus private balcony or wraparound veranda, and lavish Oriental-style bathrooms with granite tilework. Seven condo-villas have been added, but they’re far less appealing. Facilities include a beautiful pool and whirlpool tub fed by a water cascade, plus mountain bikes and a stable. Gourmet meals are served in a restaurant with a bar. Rates include breakfast.
On the northeast side of the village square, La Carreta Restaurant, Café & Heladería (tel. 506/2446-3156, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Sun.), housed in a venerable wooden building, offers an intimate atmosphere and tasty budget treats such as sandwiches.
Mirador del Cafetal (tel. 506/2446-7361, 6:30 a.m.–5 p.m. daily), on the main highway about eight kilometers west of Atenas, offers awesome vistas down through a coffee-clad valley toward the Pacific. The 23-page(!) menu includes granola, omelettes, or gallo pinto breakfasts; soups and salads; creative lunches, from chicken fajitas ($5) to garlic sea bass with veggies and baked potato ($9), smoked chicken or fish cooked in banana leaves, and indigenous dishes (such as tamal wrapped in banana leaf); and fruit smoothies.
Buses (tel. 506/2446-5767) for Atenas depart San José  more or less every hour Monday–Saturday (less on Sun.) 5:40 a.m.–10 p.m. from Calle 16, Avenidas 1/3 ($1.10); and from Alajuela  every 30 minutes 6 a.m.–10 p.m. from Avenida 2, Calles 8/10.