La Garita, spanning the Pan-American Highway (Hwy. 1) about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) west of Alajuela, is important for its location at the junction of Highway 3, which leads west for Atenas, Orotina, and Puntarenas (and east for Alajuela). The area boasts a salubrious climate, and La Garita is famed for ornamental-plant farms known as viveros.
Educational tours are fascinating; I was surprised to learn about how global warming is affecting orchid flowering patterns.The Botanical Orchid Garden (tel. 506/2487-8095, 8:30am-4:30pm Tues.-Sun., adults $12, children $6), about two kilometers (1.2 miles) west of the autopista, opened in 2011 after 30 years in the making. This lovely garden displays 75 native orchid species and about 75 exotics. Educational tours are fascinating; I was surprised to learn about how global warming is affecting orchid flowering patterns. And did you know that vanilla comes from a Mexican orchid? It also displays palms, heliconias, and bamboo species; there is an orchid reforestation program; and it breeds macaws and parrots. A lovely airy café serves salads, quesadillas, and the like.
Splendid Zoo Ave (tel. 506/2433-8989, 9am-5pm daily, adults $20, children under age 12 free), at Dulce Nombre, on Highway 3 about 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) east of the Pan-American Highway, comprises 59 hectares (146 acres) of landscaped grounds and is a wildlife rescue center for injured and confiscated wildlife. The fantastic bird collection (the largest in Central America) includes dozens of toucans, cranes, curassows, parrots, and more than 100 other Costa Rican species. Zoo Ave is one of only two zoos in the world to display resplendent quetzals. Macaws fly free. You’ll also see crocodiles, deer, turtles, ostriches, tapirs, peccaries, pumas, and all four species of indigenous monkeys in large enclosures. The zoo has successfully bred the scarlet macaw, green macaw, curassow, guan, and about 50 other native bird species with the help of a human-infant incubator. The breeding center is off-limits. A visitors center shows video presentations and offers educational events. Plus, it recently added a canopy zip line and a botanic garden.
The Atenas and La Garita buses from Alajuela pass by the zoo.
Where to Stay
The Canadian-run Hotel La Rosa de América (tel./fax 506/2433-2741, low season $58-65 s, $69-75 d, high season $73-80 s, $83-90 d), in Barrio San José de Alajuela, is a charming mid-priced country-style option in a lushly landscaped garden. Don’t expect luxury. Its 12 cabins are modestly appointed but quite comfortable. Tropical breakfasts are served in a homey restaurant. There’s a small swimming pool, a day spa, a TV lounge, and free Wi-Fi throughout. Rates include breakfast and tax. It’s 100 meters (330 feet) south of La Mandarina on the main Alajuela-La Garita road.
If you seek luxury, head to the gracious Martino Resort and Spa (tel. 506/2433-8382, $140-180 s/d), an Italianate themed hotel on 2.4 hectares (6 acres) with lush manicured grounds full of classical statuary located 200 meters east of Zoo Ave. Lacquered hardwoods abound, as in the majestic columned lounge boasting plump sofas. It has 34 air-conditioned suites with tile floors, double doors for soundproofing, terraces (some facing a lake), spacious baths with monogrammed towels, and free Wi-Fi. Facilities include a huge swimming pool, an Italian restaurant, a bar, a casino, a tennis court, and a state-of-the-art gym and spa. Trails access a bird sanctuary.
Where to Eat
For a genuine local experience, I head to Fiesta del Maíz (tel. 506/2487-5757, 10am-8pm Mon. and Wed.-Thurs., 7am-9pm Fri.-Sun.), on Highway 3 about one kilometer (0.6 miles) west of the Pan-American Highway. This large cafeteria-style restaurant is famous for tasty corn meals that include chorreadas (corn fritters), tamales (corn pudding), corn on the grill, and tasty rice with corn and chicken. No plate costs more than $3.
Buses for La Garita depart from Avenida 2, Calle 10, in Alajuela every 30 minutes 6am-9pm daily.
Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Costa Rica.