Alajuela Province is vast, extending from Alajuela town, 20km northwest of San José, all the way north to the Nicaraguan border and west to the slopes of Volcán Arenal. The account here deals only with that part of the province on the south side of the Cordillera Central, spanning the area from Alajuela itself to Zarcero, 59km northwest, up in the highlands. The area's principal attraction, Parque Nacional Volcán Poás, features great trails, lakes on its slopes and spectacular summit views of the densely populated, heavily cultivated province. En route to the top, you'll pass flower-growing fincas, fruit farms and the occasional coffee field. The region is blessed with a pleasant, temperate climate; Alajuela is considerably warmer than San José, and two of the province's towns – Atenas and La Garita – have been deemed by the National Geographic Society to have the best climate in the world.
At first sight, it may be hard to distinguish ALAJUELA from San José, until the pleasant realization dawns that you can smell bougainvillea rather than dieselas as you walk down the street. Alajuela was founded in 1657 and remains a largely agricultural centre, with a Saturday market that draws hundreds of farmers who come to sell fruit, vegetables, dairy products and flowers.
Alajuela can be seen in half a day, but it makes a convenient base for visiting the arts-and-crafts village of Sarchí or the butterfly farm at La Guácima . Above all it's a useful place to stay for travellers who have to catch early-morning flights: the Juan Santamaría International Airport is less than 3km away, about five minutes by bus, compared to about forty minutes from San José.