Chichicastenango – one of the oldest Mayan Markets in Central America

CHICHICASTENANGO MARKET and LAKE ATITLAN, GUATEMALA: Visiting Chichicastenango Market is almost a must if you want to experience the unique culture and centuries old history of Guatemalan Mayans. This is a perfect place to talk to the locals, get a glimpse of their lifestyle, or just to enjoy their daily hustling while doing some shopping. 

There are 25 different cultures in Guatemala and 22 of them are from Mayan ethnic group. Unfortunately, (what our guide told us) Mayan language is only taught in private schools here now. 90% of the highlands people in Guatemala are Mayans and visiting Chichicastenango gives you a small window to that rich heritage. 

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A scene of Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

This was my first excursion in Guatemala. I booked this online couple weeks before reaching the country. It was $75 per adult for a 12-hours of day trip from Guatemala City, organized by Gray Line Guatemala. We were picked up around 6:30am and were returned to our hotels around 7-ish in the evening. Lunch was included with the package. It was a small group of only 6/7 people in a big van. I won’t lie, this was a long trip and we were in the car for more than 3 hours before reaching Chichicastenango Mayan Market. But I have to say Gray Line Guatemala was a very friendly and accomodating tour company and I loved our guide, Juan Pablo. 

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Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

MY HOTEL: I stayed in “Oh Espana”…a bed and breakfast-style accommodation in Zone 13 in Guatemala City. The capital is divided into different zones; make sure to pick your hotel carefully, as some zones are not safe for the tourists. The owner lady and the cook were very friendly and helpful. Although a traditional breakfast was included, the location was not that great. It was in some kind of a military residential neighborhood…very safe and gated. But there were absolutely no restaurants or stores within walking distance. Thanks to my ramen cup noodles that I brought from home, which I had to eat for few of my dinners. It was only 3 minutes drive from the airport and hotel had free shuttle service…but again, I wouldn’t stay there again next time I go to Guatemala. 

My recommendation, if anyone is going to Guatemala for a vacation, is to stay in Antigua. It’s about an hour away from the airport. But once you are there, it’s heaven. I know for sure, if I ever go back to Guatemala, I’ll stay in Antigua…especially Hotel Porta Antigua looked fantastic to me inside and out. 

TIME of TRAVEL: I visited Guatemala during the long weekend of Thanksgiving, 2019. I had 3 full days to roam around different parts of the country. 2 more extra days here would have given me the flexibility to visit Tikal, the famous Mayan ruins site in Central America. It gets pretty chilly at night and early morning around this time of the year. During the day time, you can go out with a t-shirt and it’s very pleasant. But if you are traveling with kids in November to Guatemala, I would recommend carrying a sweater.

EATING and SHOPPING: Our lunch was included in the package and it was in Chichicastenango Market. It was in a cozy, 2-floored restaurant, called St. Thomas. While I was waiting near the balcony on the 2nd floor and looking out the door to the local vendors on the street, I was served with some black corn tortillas with a bowl of soup. For the main dish I ordered chicken in papiene sauce (a pepper sauce) that came with potatoes and avocado on the side. While I didn’t really enjoy the chicken main dish, the soup and the black tortillas were amazing. The restaurant itself is decorated beautifully with colorful local decors and comes with very friendly waiters. 

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My delicious lunch – black corn tortillas with soup in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

FYI, with 10 different species of corn in Guatemala, I guess, trying out different types of corn is a must. 

Chichicastenango Market is a heaven for souvenir hunters, like me. It’s a colorful and attractive outdoor market with variety of items from fresh vegetables, fruit, and local dishes to textiles, wooden masks, potterries, and other decors. Most of the vendors here are Mayan women. Don’t forget or feel frustrated bargaining with each vendor…it’s their culture, so enjoy it without overthinking the process or fear of losing money or getting a better deal somewhere else. I bought 6 small wooden bowls for $20 and 5 table runners (combination of cotton and silk table runners) for $120, which I later found out, I probably could have gotten these a bit cheaper price. 

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Traditional Central American dolls in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

Coffee, chocolate, vanilla, jade jewelry, textiles, pottery, hammocks, masks, and wooden trinkets are some of the popular gifts to buy from Guatemala. 

PLACES I’VE VISITED: This tour was about 12 hours of long journey which highlights only 2 places…Chichicastenango Market and Lake Atitlan. I had 2 more extra days in Guatemala for which, I spent a day in the capital and my last day in historic Antigua.

  1. CHICHICASTENANGO MARKET: Chichicastenango Market was about 3 hours drive from Guatemala City. So you have to start the day very early. This is a Mayan market which is more than 500 years old and believed to be one of the oldest outdoor markets in Central America. The city of Chichicastenango itself a beautiful city on a small hill which we passed by upon entering and has about 60K people.
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Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

After reaching the market, we pushed the crowded small streets of vendors to reach our first spot. It was the big indoor area where fresh produce and other local food items are sold. It’s very colorful and is an energetic place to see locals going on with their daily lives. Mostly Mayan women are the sellers in this market. This is a crowded place with lots of vendors, local buyers, and tourists. Therefore, this is a very common place (as we were told by our guide) for pick-pocketing…keep your belongings very careful here. 

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Indoor market of Chichicastenango in Guatemala, where fresh produces are sold

Next we were taken to St. Thomas Church. This Catholic church is located at one end of Chichicastenango Market and was built around mid to later part of the 16th century by the Spaniards.

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Right outside St. Thomas Church in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

While outside of the church was packed with flower vendors on the stairs and countless people nearby, this is a very simple church inside with a calm and peaceful courtyard. Interesting fact and a beautiful scene in this church is that, you can see both Catholics and Mayans are doing their own rituals and using it equally. While the beautiful incense were burning and spreading mystical smell, we saw Catholics were praying closer to the main altar and a Mayan woman walking on her knees to the altar. This was beautiful to watch as they kept their own heritage while being very respectful to the other believers. 

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Inside St. Thomas Church in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

One of the most beautiful places in Chichicastenango city is the colorful cemetery where we didn’t go but saw from the hill from a bit far away. The color of the tombstone in that cemetery represents the favorite color of the person who passed away. 

In the market, especially near St. Thomas Church, it’s very easy to get lost. In fact, for a few seconds, I couldn’t find my group and was frantically looking each direction for them. Thanks to our assistant tour guide who saw me and told me where they are. Use some basic cautions when you are there, especially if you have kids or traveling with a large group.

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Some locals of Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

2. LAKE ATITLAN: The drive from Chichicastenango Market to Lake Atitlan was about an hour and fifteen minutes in the district, called Solola in Guatemala. We stopped at San Francisco Panajachel town to visit Lake Atitlan and spent anywhere from 30-45 minutes by the lake, just walking around the lake, taking some shots, and checking out the Mayan market. 

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Lake Atitlan in Panajachel, Guatemala

The lake, in a massive volcanic crater, is surrounded by mountains, especially 3 volcanoes around the lake. We were told by the guide that the lake is 23km long and the deepest point of the lake is 350 meters. 

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Lake Atitlan in Panajachel, Guatemala

Overall, I wasn’t a big fan of Lake Atitlan for the effort and time it took to get there from Chichicastenango Market. Lake Atitlan is a beautiful place with mountains and volcanoes, but the long winding journey was not fun and if I knew, I would have just gone with half a day to Chichicastenango Market.

Masaya and Granada in Nicaragua

MASAYA and GRANADA, NICARAGUA: While Masaya is a natural beauty with volcanic rocks, crater, and mountains, Granada is a historic town with beautiful churches, colonial style architecture, and good food. Both are famous destinations and must-sees of Nicaragua.

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The historic city of Granada in Nicaragua…this is the oldest colonial town in the western hemisphere of the Americas or the first European city in the mainland America

How about some facts now? Nicaragua is the 3rd largest country in Central America. The country got its independence in 1821. By the time Civil War ended here in 1990, the country lost about 25,000 of its people. It had its first democratic election in 1990. Currently, Nicaragua is working on their own canal, Nicaragua Lock, to compete with its neighboring Panama Canal. It’s a $50 billion project by a Chinese company which should be finished in 5 years. Ruben Dario is the most famous poet of Nicaragua and you will see his statues and monuments in many places. 80% tourists of this country come from the U.S.A. … no surprise there.

Nicaraguan volcanoes form part of what is called the “Pacific Ring (or Belt) of Fire”. “Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve” is a natural preserve in Granada, 41km from Managua, where we didn’t make a visit but highly recommended. Mombacho invites visitors to enjoy its beauty, rich history, and wonderful views. The preserve contains the only cloud forest on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua. Hikers will find a great variety of birds and spectacular overlooks of Lake Nicaragua. The volcano is not currently active, but its fumaroles indicates that this giant’s heart of fire is still alive. One of the biggest earthquakes in Nicaragua was in 1972 that took 22,000 lives.

We booked Masaya and Granada day trip thru viator.com. It was a private tour with a professional guide. We were picked up from our hotel in the morning and were dropped off in the evening.

TIME of TRAVEL: After visiting El Salvador, Panama, and Costa Rica, Nicaragua concluded our Central America tour which we took back in March, 2015. We had two days to spare before returning to our home in Oregon. First day was well spent in Managua and last day was for Masaya and Granada. It was pretty hot and humid, but I guess not as bad as El Salvador. Still it’s always better to be prepared with lots of sunscreens, hats, comfortable shoes, and plenty of water bottle when you come to this region around this time of the year.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Holiday Inn Managua – Convention in Managua. This was a beautiful hotel with fancy restaurant, big swimming pool, nice rooms, and friendly service. First day, our hotel concierge arranged a cab-ride around the capital for few hours. The cost was $50 or 1350 NIC for this private tour in a cab. The hotel location was nice but not too close to the city center.

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Breakfast in our hotel in Managua, Nicaragua

EATING and SHOPPING: After visiting Masaya, we had lunch in the center of Granada. “El Zguan” is a traditional Nicaraguan restaurant that serves typical local dishes in a very cozy sitting arrangements. They have great service and menu. I had tortilla soup for lunch with some fresh fruit juice. Try ceviche when you are in this region and other seafood and pasta. Overall, cuisine in Granada is very Moorish style, especially when it comes to kebabs.

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A hearty lunch in Granada, Nicaragua

Nicaragua offers variety of souvenirs to its guests. Hand-made clay pots, hammocks, wood-carvings are just to name some. Masaya and its surrounding artisan villages are known for their local traditions. They are very reasonably priced. You can bargain but every dollar you spend here, know that you are helping a family and to keep their culture and heritage alive.

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Pottery collections in San Juan de Oriente near Granada, Nicaragua

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: Nicaragua has total of 50 volcanos and out of that, 7 are active. So, it will be unthinkable to leave the country without seeing a volcanic sight. Our tour started with a visit to Masaya.

1)     MASAYA: Also known as “City of Flower”, the town of Masaya is about 30km from the capitol Managua. Tourists mainly come here to visit the volcano, Parque Nacionale Volcan Masaya or Masaya Volcano National Park, from which the city got its name from. This is Nicaragua’s first national park, established in 1979. The park also serves as a memoir for the revolutionists who were thrown in the crater from helicopters/planes while they were still alive.

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The first holy-cross of Nicaragua near Crater Santiago from 1529 A.D. built by the Spaniards

Masaya Volcano National Park, is a popular tourist site and one of the excellent parks of Nicaragua, featuring a smoking volcano. It is the most active volcano in the region. Masaya visitor center displays some of it historical and geological information and artifacts. The most famous and historical eruption (which was a pyroclastic lava) of the Masaya Volcano happened on March 16, 1772. It emitted an extensive flow of lava during several days, into the lagoon.

We drove by old lava flows while approaching the volcanic site. The guide took us to the visitor center and gave us bit of information on the park and Nicaragua’s other volcanic mountains before arriving to the craters. Visitors can take mule or horse ride or even hike Masaya Volcano to see the craters…just be careful.

 

There are total 5 craters in this area and out of these five craters, 250 meters deep Crater Santiago is still active. The last eruption from this crater was in 2009 with ash and water. Crater Nandiri is still covered with ash. Few vultures were roaming around over our heads for hunt. We saw the first holy-cross near Crater Santiago from 1529 A.D. built by the Spaniards. The national park is situated by Laguna de Masaya. Local villagers refine the lake water for different usages by using volcanic rocks.

 

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Crater Santiago in Masaya Volcano National Park in Nicaragua

From the volcanic park, we made a short stop at Masaya’s handcraft market, Mercado Artisano. This is a good place to get some gift items and souvenirs from Nicaragua. Make sure to bargain with the vendors. I even saw some artists working right outside their stores. Masaya’s handicraft market is well known for its variety of product at reasonable price.

From there we headed towards Nicaragua’s deep crater lake named “Apoyo”. Apoyo Lagoon is another beautiful gem in the Town of Catarina and is a popular attraction in the area. Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve is located about 8km south of the Masaya. Measuring 4 miles wide and over 656 feet deep, this stunning turquoise and crystalline lagoon is the largest crater lagoon and deepest natural well in Nicaragua. It occupies the crater of a volcano that exploded thousands of years ago. Standing here, you can see Mombacho Volcano on the right and Lake Nicaragua on the other side. Sit on one of the benches and enjoy the attractive view. You will find couple rows of souvenir, hand-craft shops and restaurants by the lagoon.

 

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Stunning beauty of Apoyo Lagoon in Masaya, Nicaragua

From Apoyo Lagoon to Granada, we drove by a small artesian village, called San Juan de Orient and made a quick stop in one of its many shops to look/buy some clay potteries and hand-crafts. These are all locally crafted, mostly by women, in this village or nearby places. These are very cheap yet gorgeous gift items to bring back home as memories and you will be supporting many artists and their families in the process.

2)     GRANADA: Granada is a very touristic yet cozy town with colorful colonial-style buildings, mostly dating back to the 16th or 17th century. From Masaya to Granada, it was about 15km drive and from Granada to Managua, it was about 45 km drive. By the shores of Lake Nicaragua, Granada is the oldest colonial town in the western hemisphere of the Americas or the first European city in the mainland America. Founded in 1524, obviously the name comes from Spain’s ancient city Granada. Therefore, lots of Spanish influences are everywhere in this town. Economically and politically, Granada is one of the most important cities of this country. This was also Nicaragua’s first capital, later which moved to Leon, and finally to Managua in 1852. While you are there, visit its colorful and picturesque churches. Mombacho Volcano can be seen from different parts of the town.

Much of Granada’s ancient landmarks were destroyed by the American filibuster William Walker who tried to rule Central America in the mid-1800th. Tourists can still enjoy some of the finest colonial-era architecture and historic churches. Our first stop was to Lake Nicaragua. Entrance was free because of the Easter holiday. This is a nice place for strolling or enjoying a late afternoon.

 

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Lake Nicaragua in Granada, Nicaragua

From the lake, we drove straight to the city’s downtown. The Gunpowder Fortress, built in 1748, could have been our second stop, but it was closed. Another site we couldn’t go in, was Church of Xalteva. The church was burned down by William Walker and was later restored in 1856. It was closed to the publics during our visit. We then walked to Iglesia de la Merced, a Baroque and Neo-Classical designed church with a simple altar. Built in the 17th century, this church’s façade and tower were also destroyed by William Walker. After restoration, visitors now can climb the tower for 25 NIC.

Next stop was San Francisco Church and Convent. This was William Walker’s stable at one point. It is the first church in Granada from 1529 and was built by the Spaniards. Although it’s not an active church, its vast collection of indigenous artifacts and basalt stone statues from Onetepe Island and serene cloister attract many visitors every year. Some of those items in display here are 800 years old and many are from B.C. era. Majestic Mombacho Volcano can be seen from here while standing on the terrace. It’s $1 to enter the museum and the venue is also used for events and weddings.

 

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View of Mombacho Volcano from San Francisco Church and Convent in Granada, Nicaragua

We then walked thru some small streets of Granada to come to House of the 3 Worlds. This is an art and music workshop place. Unlike a gallery, this is where artists come and work, give workshops, and sell their arts directly. We saw artists at work, chilling and chatting with other like-minded people. “Radio Volcano” is also stationed here.  The location hosts weddings and we saw caterers getting ready for a wedding for that evening.

 

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A wedding preparation in House of the 3 World in Granada, Nicaragua

On the other side of House of the 3 Worlds is Granada’s most popular spot, Plaza de la Independencia. The square is lined with mesmerizing old and colorful Colonial style buildings, shops, cafes, and food vendors. This is a collision of different architectural era and style from Classical Spanish (Palace of Music), Neo-Classical Baroque, and New Orleans (House of Bishop).  An obelisk and a beautiful fountain from 1925 Funete de la Ninos are couple of structures that adorn this hustling and noisy (in a good way) place.

Granada Cathedral in Plaza de la Independencia is a beautiful Neo-Classic Baroque architecture with a dome and two towers. It is simple but big. Visit the small chapels and the statues while in this cathedral.

 

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Plaza de la Independencia and Granada Cathedral in Granada, Nicaragua

Last spot in Granada was Iglesia Maria Auxiliadora which was built in the beginning of the 17th century. It is the most beautiful church in this city or probably in whole Nicaragua. With its Gothic exterior and Moorish interior, this Catholic church is only its kind in this country. It is small in size but anyone would appreciate its gorgeous wood-curved alter, intriguing ceiling, and sophisticated arches.

 

Poas Volcano and La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

POAS VOLCANO and LA PAZ WATER FALLS GARDEN, COSTA RICA: Costa Rica is unimaginably incomplete if you don’t get out of its metropolitan life and visit its engaging natural beauty. Visitors have to uncork its beauty by visiting its dramatic volcanoes, youthful rainforest, powerful waterfalls, and taking revitalized hikes. This day-trip by far was one of the most interactive and fun journeys for our girls as well as for us. And if you are a nature photographer…then this is a double-must-see, you won’t regret it.

Breathtaking drive of Costa Rica

Breathtaking drive of Costa Rica

As a country Costa Rica was rated as the happiest country in the world. It enjoyed being the first democratic country in Latin America and is the “Silicon Valley” of Latin America. We heard lots of stats like these from our guide in this tour. But even before these, I fell in love with Costa Rica as we were prepping for our Central America tour. Seeing and experience the nature so closely gave us the opportunity to see how beautiful this country really is.

TIME of TRAVEL: We were in Central America in the mid-March of 2015. The first two countries that we visited here were El Salvador and Panama. Three days in Costa Rica flew by really quickly before our last destination to Nicaragua. The weather can get hot and muggy at this time of the year. Make sure to bring sunscreen and comfortable shoes for this trip…you will be walking a lot.

OUR HOTEL: Our hotel Radisson was located about 15 minutes’ walk from the downtown San Jose. It had a beautiful swimming pool and hot tub, free traditional and continental breakfast buffet, and free Wi-Fi. It was nice to have typical Costa Rican dishes every morning, which were black beans with rice, some local cheese and coffee.

EATING and SHOPPING: The trip included traditional style Costa Rican breakfast and lunch. After our first stop at Alajuela, we sat down in Doko State Coffee Plantation for a late breakfast. Some rice with black beans, fried plantain, egg, tortilla, and cheese for breakfast…can’t beat that. And lunch was in the café at La Paz Waterfalls Garden.

Other than that we got some nice treatment from the tour guide company. The guide stopped at few different shops, picked up local munchies for all of us and made us try all of them. Guava empanadas were one of my favorites, including local sweet strawberries.

Costa Rica is known to be one of the best producing coffee beans in the world and the coffee here is 100% natural and organic. We stopped at few different souvenir shops along the way and at the below destinations. Other than coffee, you can get traditional coffee making pots, chocolates, wood curved wall decors, and local jewelries in these stores.

Some souvenirs of Costa Rica

Some souvenirs of Costa Rica

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: This was a guided tour in the following areas. My most favorite thing to see in whole Costa Rica or in this whole Central America trip was visiting La Paz Waterfalls Garden. Poas Volcano was absolutely a breathtaking place to see too and hiking was the best in this park. This is a must-take tour in Costa Rica.

1) ALAJUELA: 20km from San Jose is the historic city of Alajuela. We stopped in the heart of city center after picking all of our group members. The statue of National Hero “Juan Santa Maria” stands in the big round plaza, who sacrificed his life during the battle with Nicaragua in 1856. Teatra Municipal is a yellow building that stands on one side of the plaza…an art-deco, neo-classic style architecture. Beside that is the Catedral Alajuela. And finally the white building in this plaza is the last military headquarter of Costa Rica (now Costa Rica is a military-free country)…presently a museum.

Alajuela, a historic town in Costa Rica

Alajuela, a historic town in Costa Rica

2) DOKO STATE COFFEE PLANTATION: From Alajuela, it was a harmonious drive to Doko State Coffee Plantation. This is a 112 year old coffee plantation place where you can learn everything about coffee. This coffee tour taught us a lot about this bean, like how it’s grown and processed. We saw some different demonstrations and phases of processing coffee in Doko State Coffee Plantation. You can see traditional ox-cart during this tour which is an icon of this country. Vargas family owned this 6000 hectors of plantation where visitors can now see a small coffee museum, old machineries, and a souvenir shop.

An old ox-cart in DOKO Coffee Plantation in Costa Rica

An old ox-cart in DOKO Coffee Plantation in Costa Rica

Originally, the first coffee came to Costa Rica from Ethiopia. The golden age for coffee in this country is 1832-1856. Now big companies, like Nescafe or Starbucks, get their 100% coffee beans from here.

The plantation is open from Monday thru Friday from 9am to 3:30pm.

Coffee beans drying outside in DOKO Coffee Plantation in Costa Rica

Coffee beans drying outside in DOKO Coffee Plantation in Costa Rica

3) POAS VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK: About 75km from San Jose, this is a must-see adventure of Costa Rica. Unlike Irazu Volcano, this park was more beautiful, scenic, and gave me a feel of being in a rainforest jungle. The park opened in 1971. This protected wildlife area ranges from 4000 ft. to 8,860 ft. above sea level and covers 16,000 acres of grounds with hundreds of different species of flora and fauna. With more than 80 species of mammals and birds, this park has a rich diversity of wildlife. Common flora species include Poor man’s umbrella, ferns, bromeliads, and other exotic plants. Visitors not only get up-close and personal with the luring rainforest, but also can enjoy impressive views from different sites along the trails.

The Main Crater of Poas Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

The Main Crater of Poas Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

Poas Volcano is an active volcano which erupted nearly 40 times since 1828. It is an active composite volcano with a conical shape and various caldera depressions.

From the parking lot we took the Poor Man’s Umbrella trail, about 15 – 20 minutes’ of walk, to come to the Main Crater. The Main Crater of Poas Volcanos is a mile wide circular depression which is 300 meters deep and 1320 meters in diameter with a crystal blue lagoon rich in sulfur and acids. This is one of the world’s most acidic lakes and therefore, supports little or no aquatic life. (Caution: you can smell/inhale Sulphur from the terrace, you may feel irritation in your yes or lungs standing there for a long time). Standing on the terrace, you can see the main dome, ash layers, old crater, and also Caribbean Coast on a nice day. When we were there, the cloud/fog hid the crater for the most part. If you are lucky, you can see the whole crater with its sulfuric/acidic colors. We couldn’t see the Main Crater properly because of the cloud but still enjoyed its unique features. From the Main Crater we followed Botos Lagoon Trail that took us to Lake Botos…an inactive crater filled with clear water and surrounded by cloud forest. This was a beautiful place I must say. Escalonia Trail is a long trail which eventually brought us to the starting point near the parking lot. We saw hundreds of different kinds of exotic species including ferns, Poor Man’s Umbrellas, bromeliads along the way…oh yeah, and a squirrel. Basically, it was about half a mile to the first crater, two miles to go the lagoon, and total of three miles to come to the parking lot again.

Botos Lagoon in Poas Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

Botos Lagoon in Poas Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

The park is very well equipped with tour guide services, facilities for disabled guests, shops, and restaurants. It took us about little more than just two hours to hike, walk, and explore this place. It’s open from 8am to 3:30pm everyday.

4) LA PAZ WATERFALLS GARDEN: Our last and most exciting destination of this trip was La Paz Waterfalls Garden. The garden is the just the beginning of this trip…wait until you get to the thrilling hikes and falls of this journey. You will be making all sorts of memories with the garden’s birds, butterflies, snakes, frogs, monkeys, hummingbirds, and jungle cats.

Humming bird sanctuary in La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

Humming bird sanctuary in La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

La Paz Waterfalls Garden is a privately owned and managed ecological attraction that opened in the 2000. The construction of the hiking trails and butterfly observatory began in 1998. The park comprises 70 acres or 28 hectares of land. Amazing part of this garden is that the 2.2 miles (3.5 km) of hiking trails and viewing platforms were built without cutting one tree or vine system. Also, the materials for the trails and platforms were carried own on foot in order to avoid the use of heavy equipment in the forest. None of the animals in this Wildlife Refuge have been taken from their natural habitat. Most of them were illegally held as pets when the Wild Life Ministry found and confiscated them.

A big cat in La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

A big cat in La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

Peace Lodge of La Paz Waterfalls Garden is an award winning ultra-upscale accommodation in the symphony of purely Costa Rican rainforest jungle. Guests are so close to the nature here yet in the comfort and luxury of modern rooms and services.

A rare orchid, called "Dancers' Slippers" in Costa Rica

A rare orchid, called “Dancers’ Slippers” in Costa Rica

There were five waterfalls that we came across during our 3.5 km of long hike in the garden: Magia Blanca (120 feet or 37 meters), Encantada (65 feet or 20 meters), Escondida (10 feet or 3 meters), and La Paz. For its unique landscape and location, this is a gem and an awe-inspiring destination in Costa Rica.

One of the falls of La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

One of the falls of La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

San Jose – the Capital of Costa Rica

SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA: Capital of Costa Rica, San Jose,  is the heart of this beautifully country that is ringed by green mountains and deep valleys. I wouldn’t call it a huge metropolitan or modern town, like Panama City, nor it had small cozy feeling to it.  While Costa Rica was my most favorite country in this trip, its capital was the least impressive place for me. I am sure it has its own charm and hidden gems… obviously we weren’t looking at the right things.

The main pedestrian street in the heart of San Jose, Costa Rica

The main pedestrian street in the heart of San Jose, Costa Rica

TIME of TRAVEL: Costa Rica was our second country to visit in this Central America trip in the mid-March of 2015. We first visited El Salvador, then Panama and from Costa Rica we finished our trip with Nicaragua. It was very hot and humid, especially when we toured outside San Jose to the mountains and rainforests.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Radisson, about 15 minutes’ walk from downtown San Jose. It was a fantastic place with free breakfast and Wi-Fi. Other than its excellent customer service, we had a big swimming pool and a hot tub very close to our room. Radisson in San Jose is a very big hotel and had a big gate at the entrance for extra security.

EATING and SHOPPING: We saw plenty of fast foods in the heart of San Jose. But we did have a hard time finding a local Costa Rican restaurant…maybe we were just looking at the wrong place. We eventually had lunch in Mercado Central after few locals directed us there. Inside the market, there were some small places and quick-serve counters who were offering local dishes. We had some fish with rice and pickled vegetables, like jalapeno and chili peppers. Other than those, you can find fish soup, ceviche (raw fish), and other seafood options too.

Our lunch (fish fried rice) in San Jose, Costa Rica...inside Mercado Central

Our lunch (fish fried rice) in San Jose, Costa Rica…inside Mercado Central

Again, Mercado Central was the only place where we saw only a hand-full of stores selling local hand-crafts and souvenirs. We didn’t see any other place outside this market selling souvenirs…eventually, we didn’t buy anything from San Jose.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We had three full days to explore Costa Rica, out of that we spent a day in San Jose. We arrived in the morning and it was enough for us to just take a short tour of the capital for the rest of that day.

An interesting statue we saw while roaming around San Jose in Costa Rica

An interesting statue we saw while roaming around San Jose in Costa Rica

1) MERCADO CENTRAL: We walked quiet a far from our hotel to come the heart of San Jose. Once we hit the center point, we followed the pedestrian road to hunt for some local meals and after about 10 minutes, saw this market. When we asked some locals about where we can get some good seafood, they pointed at Mercado Central and gave a name of a restaurant (which I forgot).

Mercado Central is a very old and bustling indoor market and has been there since 1880. Countless shops and restaurants are packed inside this place. You can find almost anything and everything here. Quality may not be of good standard but they are very reasonably priced.

2) METROPOLITAN CATHEDRAL: While we were walking towards the main square to our hotel, we took a little detour. On the other side of the street a big square showed up with a giant Neo-classical edifice in the front. A mass was going on while we were inside the cathedral, so we couldn’t walk around much. But it’s a big place elegantly decorated with some stunning stained-glass windows from Paris and Germany. A new group of bells were installed here in 1998 which came straight from Spain. The tabernacle is a replica from the original one in 1855. The artistic tubular organ is from Belgium that was inaugurated in 1891 and it is considered as one of the best tubular organs in whole Central America. The structure suffered few major earthquakes in the past few centuries.

Catedral Metropolitana in San Jose, Costa Rica

Catedral Metropolitana in San Jose, Costa Rica

3) MAIN SQUARE with TEATRO NACIONALE: We honestly didn’t find a name of this square. It looked like the main square where people and pigeons gather to chill. Many buildings and eateries surround the square. Beside the square is the National Theater of San Jose…an old but nice architecture. There was ice-cream store where we stopped and picked up some nice flavors while walking back to the hotel at the end of the day.

The main square of San Jose, Costa Rica, which houses some museums and important buildings, including the National Theater

The main square of San Jose, Costa Rica, which houses some museums and important buildings, including the National Theater

Volcanoes and Valleys of Costa Rica – Irazu Volcano and Orosi Valley

IRAZU VOLCANO and OROSI VALLEY, COSTA RICA: To see the real beauty of Costa Rica, you have to go the lush green mountains, rugged volcanoes, valleys, and rainforests. And this trip gave us that taste of real Costa Rica.

Aside from the sceneries, I fell in love with Costa Rica more after this trip…thanks to our well-educated guide. The country was founded by the Spaniards in 1523 in Orosi Valley. During that time, this place was inhabited by the indigenous people and the Spanish emperors ruled this country up until 1821. Costa Rica was the first nation in the world who abolished their army permanently in 1949. Now all that money goes to education and that’s why it has the highest literacy rate in whole Latin America. Oh, another interesting fact is that recently Costa Rica was voted to be the happiest nation in the world…such an impressive country overall.

The trip to Irazu Volcano and Orosi Valley was an extraordinary experience for us. It took us to some off the bean paths and showed us some unbeatable views of Costa Rica. The trip was booked thru viator.com and we were picked up right from our hotel entrance to start the tour on time. It was a long 8 hours of tour, but very well worth it.

Those big leaves are called

Those big leaves are called “Elephant Ears” or “Poor Man’s Umbrella”…some exotic trees in Irazu Valley, Costa Rica

TIME of TRAVEL: This was our second day in Costa Rica. We roamed the capital, San Jose, on the first day and Poas Volcano with La Paz Waterfalls Garden the following day. It was the middle of March, 2015 when we flew to Central America. Before coming to Costa Rica, we visited El Salvador and Panama and from here we were off to Nicaragua.

Even in March, it was way too hot and humid. It’s the dry season here. Be sure to bring some sunscreens, hats, sunglasses, comfortable clothes, and walking shoes for this trip. Being a tropical country, they don’t get any snow…so, coming here in winter may not be a bad decision. But keep a close eye, because this region is an earthquake prone zone.

OUR HOTEL: Our hotel Radisson was located about 15 minutes’ walk from the downtown San Jose. It had a beautiful swimming pool and hot tub, free traditional and continental breakfast buffet, and free Wi-Fi. I loved having typical Costa Rican breakfast every morning, which were black bean with rice, local cheese and coffee.

EATING and SHOPPING: Since this was a guided trip, after visiting the Lancaster Botanical Garden we were taken towards Orosi Valley for little sightseeing and lunch. The place is called La Casona del Cafetal. Our big group sat outside by a beautiful lake surrounded by a lush exotic garden. We had some rice, beans, and fried plantain with the options of meat or fish. Sea bass and red snapper are some common and popular fishes in Costa Rica. After desert we finished off with some locally brewed fresh coffee…poured in traditional Costa Rican style.

Our traditional lunch in La Casona del Cafetal in Orosi Valley, Costa Rica

Our traditional lunch in La Casona del Cafetal in Orosi Valley, Costa Rica

Since this was a guide tour, we didn’t have much time to ourselves to go for souvenir hunting. We bought a wooden napkin holder from Irazu Volcano. We stopped few more places along the road for more souvenir hunting but most of them were expensive.

Pouring coffee Costa Rican style...you can also buy these pots from most of the souvenir stores in Costa Rica

Pouring coffee Costa Rican style…you can also buy these pots from most of the souvenir stores in Costa Rica

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: This was about an 8 hours of guided tour. These are some of the following places we saw with a big group and an experienced guide.

1) IRAZU VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK: About 51 km from San Jose is Costa Rica’s highest active volcano, Irazu Volcano. It is a popular destination spot and a short ride from the capital. The drive started to get very scenic after we passed thru the city of Cartago. We passed by some villages, farms, open fields, valleys, exotic plants on the road sides, and saw farmers working on carrot, onion, and potato farms. On our way, we stopped at a curb side to see Costa Rica’s most active volcano, Volcano Torrelba, which last erupted in 1860s, but now again was fuming steam. We could actually see the steam from a distance. From here we rode up the zigzag mountainous road and our bus finally stopped at the summit.

Irazu Volcano has total of 5 craters with various depths and diameters; the two most important ones are the Main Crater and Diego de la Haya Crater. The Main Crater, Crater Principal, is about 300 meters deep and 1050 meters in diameter. This crater used to have a blue lake in the middle but it’s not there anymore. Last major eruption from this place was in 1965. The guide showed different kinds of lava rocks as we walked towards the Main Crater. We saw a humming bird in the small forest on our way back, which tells us this national park is a home to some exotic plants, flowers, animals, and birds.

The Main Crater of Irazu Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

The Main Crater of Irazu Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

It is better to carry a light sweater for this trip. It can get a bit cold and cloudy from time to time for its high elevation. The park is open from 8 – 3:30pm. Although our entrance fee was paid by the company, it’s $15 per adult and $5 for each kid. We spent about little more than an hour in the park, taking leisure stroll on one of the dead craters. Visitors are allowed to take different trails and hike around the different craters if time permits. At the end of the tour, visit the souvenir shop. The items were of course a bit expensive, but had lots of unique things to purchase as gifts or memories.

2) OUR LADY of ANGELS BASILICA in CARTAGO: About 31 km from Irazu Volcano, beside San Jose, is another city, called Cartago. This is Costa Rica’s first capital. Our bus stopped in front of a Byzantine style big church, Our Lady of Angels Basilica…we were at our second stop. Outside the basilica is very monumental, but standing here we couldn’t imagine the fabulous and majestic beauty that it holds inside. From its elegant altar to illustrious wall designs, over-sized paintings, splendid dome, wood carvings, artistic columns and floors, and stunning stained-glass windows…this Catholic church from the Spanish time is a jewel in whole Costa Rica.

Our Lady of Angels Basilica in Cartago, Costa Rica

Our Lady of Angels Basilica in Cartago, Costa Rica

3) LANKESTER BOTANICAL GARDEN: Lancaster from England donated this exotic, one of a kind garden to the University of Costa Rica outside of Cartago in 1973. It is open to the publics but operated by the university as a research center. The garden is considered as one of the most beautiful gardens in Latin America. 15 minutes of drive from the basilica, this was our last destination before lunch.

Dancer's Slippers in the Lankester Garden in Costa Rica

Dancer’s Slippers in the Lankester Garden in Costa Rica

Lankester Botanical Garden has a world-class collection of different species of cacti, bromeliads, and other tropical flowers. Exhibition of orchids is the center attention of this garden and visitors can see many varieties of orchid which are not easily seen in the wild. While strolling around the garden, enjoy the small fountains, exotic plants, trails, ant colonies (yay…we saw some armies of ants carrying leaves), a small portion of Japanese garden, and bamboo trees.

The smallest orchid in the world, in Lankester Garden, Costa Rica

The smallest orchid in the world, in Lankester Garden, Costa Rica

4) OROSI VALLEY: Our lunch spot and last destination of the day was Orosi Valley. This is one of the oldest communities of Costa Rica and a beautiful one too. Orosi Valley was founded by the Spaniards in 1563. Its deep valley is surrounded by small hills, volcanoes, rainforest, and lush vegetation. While many fruit and vegetable farms are plenty here, coffee is the leading industry in this area which was first brought here from Cuba. Many of the coffee plantations from this region supply their famous Costa Rican coffee beans to Europe and other continents in the world. They also export bananas and pineapple to other countries, large part of which are grown in Orosi Valley.

Heavenly Orosi Valley in Costa Rica

Heavenly Orosi Valley in Costa Rica

Orosi Valley houses the oldest Catholic church (that is still in use) in Costa Rica, Iglesia de San Jose. The church is from 1743 during the colonial time after its patron saint San Joseph. The church as destroyed in earthquake before. What you see inside the church is 60% of the original structure. It is simple but a historic church in this region.

Iglesia de San Jose in Orosi Valley is an iconic church in Costa Rica

Iglesia de San Jose in Orosi Valley is an iconic church in Costa Rica

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