Atenas is a small Costa Rican town located in the hills west of San Jose, and is my favorite place to stay when I visit Costa Rica. I learned about Atenas Costa Rica 10 years ago when I read in a travel magazine that this small town has the World’s Best Climate. Well, of course, that caught my attention! Who doesn’t want to hang out in the world’s best climate? I’m sure there are plenty of other places in the world that would argue this point, but climate is certainly a major draw in Atenas. Plus, there are so many things to do in Atenas Costa Rica. Let me tell you all about it!
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Reasons to Love Atenas Costa Rica
I just recently returned from my third trip to Atenas and sixth trip to Costa Rica in total. Obviously I love this country. It is my go-to destination when I am looking for a warm tropical winter escape. I far prefer Costa Rica to both Hawaii or Mexico – it still retains a lot of its original character, despite the fact that tourism is now a major part of this small country’s economy.
I first went to Costa Rica 30 years ago when Costa Rican tourism was in its infancy. And in 2020, I can still go to Costa Rica and not feel that I am staying in one big tourist trap. That’s not to say that there aren’t areas of Costa Rica that are experiencing more aggressive touristic development. Plus, it has become one of the top foreign destinations for North American retirees. Despite all that though, hanging out in Costa Rica still really feels like I’m soaking in a different culture while I’m soaking up the sun.
In addition to the World’s Best Climate, another big advantage of staying in Atenas Costa Rica is its central location. It’s 30 minutes from the San Jose airport, 75 minutes from ocean beaches, and 90 minutes from a volcano. It’s located right in the heart of coffee-growing country where the surrounding lush green hills complete the tropical feel.
Because of its climate fame, Atenas has attracted expats who have built retirement homes scattered around the surrounding hills. Many of these home are available to rent off and on throughout the year for remarkably low prices. This is another huge advantage of vacationing here. The large expat presence in Atenas, however, does not detract whatsoever from it’s Costa Rican soul.
How to Get to Atenas Costa Rica
Fly into San Jose International Airport. My flight options from Utah always result in a late evening landing time. I have learned that it’s generally best to arrange for a shuttle directly from the airport to my house rental. Navigating Costa Rican roads is challenging enough during the day. Trying to find an unfamiliar address at night can result in a lot of frustration. I speak from experience here as I get lost at least once every trip – even with Google Maps. This is almost always due to a general lack of adequate road signs.
Don’t let this dissuade you from driving in Costa Rica though. I rent a car every time I go now, and it’s the best way to truly see and experience this country (the pictures below are all taken from my car). The roads are safe, they just aren’t well marked. There are several shuttle companies that offer transportation to the various surrounding areas (even as far away as the beach if you chose to stay there). The shuttle to Atenas averages around $50 and the drivers do accept USD if you don’t see the blink-and-you-miss-it ATM at the airport.
On the morning after arrival, I arrange for a rental car delivery to my rental house first thing. I have used Vamos Car Rental the last two trips and been very happy with them. Their online reviews are outstanding. They will deliver the car to Atenas for only $25 extra. Their staff is extremely friendly and professional. I sign all the rental paperwork at the kitchen counter, and we are good to go. Costa Rica does have very strict liability insurance requirements, and it is the only country so far where I have paid for the company’s insurance to ensure that I am adequately covered. I drive the car back to their airport rental office on the morning of our return flight.
Grocery Shopping in Atenas Costa Rica
As soon as I have my keys, I head straight to the supermarket where we load up on our immediate breakfast necessities, water, and snacks for the rest of the trip. The biggest and best supermarket in Atenas Costa Rica is called COOP and is located just off the main road through town. Don’t be intimidated by the entry gate. It’s just a parking lot attendant who will hand you a plastic card that really seems to serve no function. You park in the lot, shop, and hand it back to him on your way out. All credit cards including American Express are accepted at COOP. There is also an enclosed ATM in the parking lot where you can grab your first bunch of Costa Rican Colones
Where to stay in Atenas Costa Rica
I have found that VRBO generally offers the best selection of larger houses in Atenas Costa Rica. AirBnb is starting to catch up, but at this point, the nicer properties still seem to be on VRBO. The rental house selection in Atenas is really quite amazing.
Here are pictures of our most recent rental. This house had three bedrooms, a large kitchen with granite counter tops, a large porch, and an infinity swimming pool. It was located on several acres of private land with its own entry gate and beautiful views in all directions. The large tree just outside the porch was basically an aviary. At least 30 species of birds would visit regularly – including 6 toucans on our first morning!
There was an onsite groundskeeper and property manager who lived in a second small house just inside the gate. He made sure the pool was cleaned out each day. He, in fact, picked us up from the airport so we didn’t have to pay for a shuttle (a service that the Canadian owner offered free of charge). Oh, and all of this cost me $170 a night!!! Click here if you want to learn more about this great rental.
Here are pictures of a different rental from another trip to Atenas – another beautiful house sitting on top of a different hill. It had 1 bedroom in the main house along with kitchen, living area, and a wonderful wrap-around porch with stunning views out across the hills of Atenas. On the other side of its pool was a second smaller guest house with two additional bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. It was located in a private gated community. It cost only $180 a night! You can check this one out by clicking here.
Some properties in Atenas cost more, but those are still a great deal. Many Atenas rental have swimming pools. Most do not have air conditioning, but do have ceiling fans, which are generally enough in the cooler hills of Atenas.
Things to do in Atenas Costa Rica
It’s easy to do if you stay at a nice property with a pool, a porch, and great views while enjoying the “world’s best climate”
The Pacific ocean is only 1 hour away from Atenas Costa Rica, and you can get there using one of two routes. The old route along highway #3 takes you along the edge of the area’s mountains, with spectacular views across small coffee farms, local villages, and even a glimpse out to the distant ocean. You will follow this winding road down to the valley below, and ultimately to the ocean and the first ocean-side town of Tarcoles. Even though the new route is more direct and easier to drive, you need to take the old route at least once just for the scenery alone. The new route follows a toll highway. It can be accessed just below the town of Atenas. There are two toll gates between Atenas and Tarcoles, each costing around 600 Colones (so have some coins or small bills ready)
Whichever route you take, you will ultimately cross the famous crocodile bridge. This is easy to spot because lots of tourists will be lined up, leaning over the side of the bridge starting down at the river below. Crocodiles gather here and are easy to spot. There is even a parking lot on either side of the bridge. And souvenir shops, too. But for a better view of the crocodiles, keep driving to Tarcoles, where you will find the starting point for several Crocodile Tours lined up along the river.
Jose’s Crocodile River Tour
Jose’sis the top-rated crocodile tour on TripAdvisor and I have taken this tour several times. I highly recommend seeing your crocodiles with Jose’s rather than looking down at your crocodiles from the bridge. For two hours, you will boat up and down the river with a knowledgeable entertaining English-speaking guide and daring driver (daring because he gets out and feeds the crocodiles). There are hundreds of crocodiles on this river and so spotting them is not an issue. Several measure 18-19 feet in length, and we have seen at least two of these monsters every trip.
Jose’s is not only a boat trip for spotting crocodiles. Many species of birds are highlighted as well, plus you explore a mangrove estuary, too. The tour takes two hours and costs $40 per person. I feel it is the best activity in the whole area. Also, Jose’s does not cater to the cruise ship crowd like the other packed tours that share the river. Believe me, this is a huge plus. Reservations can be made by directly emailing Jose’s Crocodile River Tour via their website. And you can click here to read about this tour in a little more detail.
Only 20 minutes further south is the beach town of Jaco. It’s beach is the most popular in the area. Jaco features a hodge-podge main drag of souvenir shops, bars, and ATV tour offices, but the beach itself is a nice place to spend an afternoon.
To access the beach, you can park for free on the main street and walk the block to the beach. Alternatively, I like to park on a side-road next to the Aloha Bar which sits towards the south end of the beach (let Google Maps guide you) The Aloha Bar is located right on the beach and offers a simple outdoor seating area where you can order drinks and relax, oceanside. They also serve food and you can eat at their indoor countertop with stools facing out towards the ocean.
Zip lines on the nearby hills and ATV tours are other popular activities in the Jaco area
Manuel Antonio National Park is located one hour south of Jaco. This is one of Costa Rica’s most popular tourist destinations. Given the distance, I don’t think it’s a practical back and forth day trip from Atenas, but would make an excellent side trip if you wanted to spend a couple of days there. Lodging and dining options are plentiful in the town just outside the park.
Atenas is located on the edge of Costa Rica’s central valley where coffee is king. It’s hard to miss the many small coffee farms dotting the landscape. Just across the fence from our last rental, there was a small farm with terraces of coffee bushes. Coffee drinkers should take advantage of the various coffee tours in the area and learn more about your morning cup.
El Toledo Coffee Farm
This small farm is located within 10 minutes of central Atenas, high in the surrounding hills. If you take this tour, you will truly get a great sense of the small Costa Rica coffee farm. The English-speaking owner personally gives you a tour of his farm and explains his personal vision of sustainable coffee farming. He leads you through a coffee tasting and also introduces you to his unique coffee wine (it’s made from the fruit portion of the coffee cherry). He does not take you through the seed-to-cup process of coffee production, however. You can book your tour by emailing the farm directly via their website. The cost is $20 per person
This coffee farm and tour is owned by Starbucks. Don’t let the idea of a Big Coffee dissuade you from taking this tour. It is the best coffee tour that I have ever taken. The farm is located 1 hour away from Atenas and about 30 minutes north of the San Jose Airport. It is the only coffee farm that Starbucks actually owns (they purchase all of their coffee beans from small farmers worldwide). The main purpose of this farm is education, research, and development. Here they are developing techniques for sustainable coffee farming which they share with farmers worldwide (at no cost to the farmer)
The farm is located along the winding road leading up to the Poas Volcano. I love slowly driving through these Costa Rican backroads. On these roads you get a great taste of normal Costa Rican life. Starbucks bought this farm from a long-time coffee growing family and constructed a beautiful facility along the hillside. There is a large cafe with a long balcony, outfitted with an inviting seating area, offering views out across the coffee fields (and waterfall) below. Here you can order a cup made from freshly-roasted farm-grown beans and relax for a spell.
You can also join the coffee tour that starts at the top of each hour. This is a from-seed-to-cup tour that shows you around the facility, takes you into the fields, and teaches you the sequential steps of coffee cultivation, harvesting, processing, drying, roasting, brewing, and finally tasting, with some history lessons thrown in. Your guide also explains how Starbucks is using this center to advance sustainable coffee farming worldwide. English and Spanish speaking tours are available.The tour lasts about 1.5 hours and you can buy tickets on Viator by clicking here.
From the coffee farm, you can continue to climb northward towards Poas Volcano. I personally have never driven up to the top of the volcano. I have read that your timing has to be perfect in order to avoid the cloud cover that often masks your view into the caldera. Instead, I recommend visiting the La Paz Waterfall Gardens which is in the same general direction and is only 90 minutes from Atenas.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens
If you continue 30 minutes up the road from the Starbucks farm and turn right at the key intersection (instead of a left up to the volcano), you will eventually arrive at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (there are signs posted along the way and Google Maps helps too). At a certain point, you will reach a summit and drive across a beautiful green mountain plain, dotted with grazing animals and fenced landscapes, often above the clouds settled into the valleys below. Ultimately you turn north again and start descending down a canyon to the Waterfall Gardens. During our last visit, we descended into a cloud, which lingered for the entirety of our afternoon there.
La Paz is a jungle zoo combined with a waterfall hike. It’s a very well-maintained facility, on par with any high quality zoo in the US. The animal collection is not big, but does offer a good sampling of indigenous Costa Rican wildlife. Different large walk-in enclosures feature birds, sloths, butterflies, frogs, and monkeys. There is a separate collection of jungle cats including a very impressive jaguar.
I personally think that the waterfall hike is the main reason to go to La Paz. You follow a well-constructed path down the cloud forest canyon, following a river and it’s 3 large waterfalls. The trail takes you to viewpoints near the top of each waterfall, and then a second viewpoint at the bottom of each waterfall. The stairs can be steep and slippery at times. The route itself is about 0.5 km. There is a shuttle at the bottom of the trail that takes you back up to the main building.
There is a large buffet restaurant inside the park. It’s a popular choice for visitors, and the setting is beautiful, but I think the food is just average, as is the case with most buffets. I ate there during my first visit several years ago. I timed things this trip so that we visited after lunch.We spent about 2 hours at the park this time, though you could easily spend more.
Entry Fee is $48 for adults.More information is available on their website. And if you won’t have a car, and would like to book a guided tour with transportation to the Park, you can do that on Viator by clicking here.
Eating in Atenas Costa Rica
I like to seek out typical Costa Rican food. Because Atenas has its expat population there are several alternative cuisine options to choose from as well. In fact, if you look at Tripadvisor for the Atenas Costa Rica area, many of the top-rated restaurants don’t serve Costa Rican food. Don’t let this dissuade you from trying the Costa Rican restaurants. Remember that Tripadvisor is crowd-sourced, so there will certainly be a bias towards the familiar. It’s not the locals posting on Tripadvisor.
A typical Costa Rican meal often consists of rice, beans, plantains, and meat (fish, chicken, beef). It’s not inherently spicy, but hot sauce is always on the table for you to direct your own spice level. Ceviche is also very popular in Costa Rica. I love ceviche and we order it with every meal. Dining out in Costa Rica is much much less expensive than Hawaii, tourist Mexico, or many other places in the Caribbean. You can check out this post from my blog for a general overview of the Food of Costa Rica
My Favorite Atenas Restaurants
La Casita Del Cafe
I always go here first when visiting Atenas Costa Rica. They serve average typical Costa Rican cuisine. I go here for the views. This small restaurant sits isolated on the winding highway 3, as you drive from Atenas down to the ocean. It’s located just off the side of the narrow road and juts out off the side of the mountain with views across the coffee-planted terraces below, all the way out to the ocean. They have a counter extending all along the edge of the cafe so you can eat and absorb the view all at the same time. The staff speaks a little English and there are English menus. Average cost for 2 people not including drinks $15-20.
This restaurant and bar, located just off the highway 3 as you enter Atenas on the east side of town, is where I go for excellent Chifrijos. Don Yayo has a sports-bar vibe and seems to be popular with the locals. The Chifrijos here consists of a flavorful rice and bean mix topped with pico di gallo and a generous amount of deep-fried pork cubes. The pork is tender and oh so tasty. This dish has been my single favorite meal the last two visits to Atenas. The staff understands English and there are English menus. Average cost for 2 people not including drinks $20-25
This is a new restaurant in the area and is a perfect example of why you should always look further down the Tripadvisor list when choosing a local restaurant. Tripadvisor’s ranking algorithm seems to be based not only on high-starred reviews, but also on the total number of reviews. New restaurants with only a few rankings, even if they are all 5-star, will be rated lower than a more established restaurant with lots and lots of 4- and 5-star rankings. I will always look down the list and see if I can find a newer gem.
AntoJao Grill is such a place. It is a small restaurant located along highway 3 about 7-8 minutes west of town. It is easy to miss, so definitely let Google Maps guide you, and even when you arrive you have to look hard for the sign. There are a couple of parking spots right out in front.
The small restaurant itself may not look like much on the outside, but it is very tastefully decorated on the inside. The chef not only cooked our food, but waited on us as well. Both the quality and the presentation of the food is seemingly out of place in this small road-side shack. The patacones (fried plantains) were the best we had on the trip – not greasy at all with a subtle charcoal flavor. We tend to gravitate towards seafood and ordered shrimp. It was prepared in a passionfruit, coconut, and white wine sauce, and was delicious.
We tried to come back the next night and order their steak which is supposedly excellent, but disappointingly they were closed (Monday night). This restaurant seems to cater to locals mostly. They didn’t have an English version of the menu. The chef did speak a little English and was very helpful. Average cost of two people without drinks $15-50
Kay’s Postres, Cafe, and Restaurant
I know what I said about eating Costa Rican Food, but if you do want to eat something a little more familiar, then Kay’s is a great choice. Kay’s is owned by a very nice Polish-Canadian woman, and her cafe definitely caters to the expat community. In addition to serving more familiar breakfast items, sandwiches, and salads, she also serves Polish food, including schnitzel and perogis (I had the mushroom sauerkraut version and they were excellent). We don’t have a Polish restaurant in Utah that I’m aware of, so this still felt like travel eating to me. Plus, Kay’s seems to double as the local expat library. The small dining area is surrounded by shelves of books that can be borrowed. Menus are in English. Average cost for 2 people is around $20.
Dining on the way to Hacienda Alsacia and La Paz Waterfall Gardens
This seafood restaurant is located in Alajuela’s central district and is well worth the very slight detour while on your way to visit either of these two attractions. Plus it’s always interesting to catch a glimpse of life in a medium-size Costa Rican town like Alajuela. The town center is made up of a series of narrow one-way streets but there are several inexpensive small public parking lots within a block of the restaurant.
As you would guess from the name, Cevichitos serves several different types of ceviche, but has other menu items as well. We tried the seafood rice – another popular dish throughout Costa Rica. It’s a type of fried rice mixed with either shrimp, fish, or both. The version here was outstanding. It was loaded with a variety of white fish, shrimp, calamari, mussles. All the seafood had a wonderful smokey flavor. This particular dish was one of the dining highlights of our most recent trip. The servings here are huge. Two people could easily split an order of ceviche and an order of seafood rice. The staff was friendly, spoke a little English, and English menus are available. Cost for two people without drinks $15-25
Las Delicias Del Maiz
This is a very large restaurant just outside of central Alajuela on highway 3. You will pass it when driving from Atenas. It caters to both locals and tourists. While it definitely feels a bit touristy, it’s still a fun place to eat.
The focus here is on all the delicious things you can make from corn, and the menu is large and varied. There is a large open kitchen where all the deliciousness of maize is on display. They offer various versions of the typical Costa Rican breakfast – eggs, gallo pinto (a mix of rice, beans, onions, cilantro), plantains, cheese, and a fresh-made corn tortilla. This typical breakfast is more expensive here than other places – the same dish at La Casita Del Cafe in Atenas is half the price. The menu also features corn pancakes (served various ways), corn-on-the-cob, tamales, and much much more. Meals here are served on a big banana leaf.
A special shout out for their pina coladas which were a big hit with my family. They are served in a fresh-cored pineapple and are huge! The staff was friendly, spoke good English, and English menus are available. Cost for two people without drinks $20-30. (The massive pina coladas cost around $8.)
Dining in Jaco
The Green Room
I have eaten at the Green Room many times and it never disappoints. Located just off Jaco’s main drag, it offers high-quality locally-sourced organic eating. They offer a mix of Costa Rican favorites along with burgers, sandwiches, salads, etc. Every meal I’ve eaten there is excellent. On our last trip, I had their tuna sandwich, which may be the best fish sandwich that I have ever eaten. It featured a thick slab of seared fresh tuna, perfectly spiced guacamole, and a pineapple slaw, served on a soft multi-grained bun. The staff all speak good English and there are English menus. Cost for two people without drinks $20-30 for lunch, $20-$50 for dinner (since Jaco is a popular beach town – everything costs a little more)
Final Thoughts and Tips
So….does Atenas have the World’s Best Climate? Far be it from me to judge, but the climate is indeed wonderful. Costa Rica has two seasons – the dry season (Dec-April) and the rainy season (May-November). I have visited Atenas and its surrounding areas during both seasons. During our January 2020 trip, daytime temps peaked in the low 80s and only dropped into the high 60s at night. This makes for absolutely perfect mornings out on the porch, and comfortable afternoons in the pool, if you aren’t out exploring. Because Atenas sits at an elevation of 2300 feet, it is much cooler than the coast. Humidity is also lower at the higher elevation. When you drive down to Jaco, you will immediately notice that it’s about 10 degrees warmer and much more humid.
During my rainy season trips, we experienced a few hours of rain in the afternoon every day. We would plan our schedule accordingly, and it never really interfered in our enjoyment of Costa Rica.
English is not commonly spoken in Atenas Costa Rica, despite the expat population. If you don’t have some basic Spanish knowledge, Google Translate can be very helpful. Most restaurants will have at least someone who can speak or at least understand a little English, and most restaurants serving Costa Rican food will have an English version of the menu. Most stores are Spanish only.
Because Jaco caters to tourists, English is commonly spoken by everyone in the service industry. Likewise, English is spoken at all the tourist sights covered in this post.
Part of the adventure of traveling with a rental car is figuring out how to buy gas. It seems that every country requires a slightly different approach. In Costa Rica, you do not pump your own gas. You pull into the gas station, tell the attendant which type of gas you want, and pay the attendant with your credit card at the pump. Gas stations are large with multiple pumps, and I’ve never had an attendant who didn’t understand English.
Credit Cards seem to be accepted just about anywhere, even in the smaller restaurants, though I would always have some cash on hand just in case. I never had any problem using my AMEX. I prefer to use my AMEX Gold Card when I travel since it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees and gives me 4X points on restaurant purchases internationally.
The US dollar seems to be a very common second form of currency in Costa Rica. Most restaurants would give me a bill indicating the price in Costa Rican Colones and in US Dollar. I could pay with either. Likewise, the US Dollar is accepted at all of the tourist sites I outlined in this post.
There are several banks around Atenas’s small central square. All of these have an external ATM. I use the ATM in the parking lot of the COOP supermarket the most – we seem to end up at the store a lot. There is an ATM at the airport when you arrive. It is located just across from the baggage carousel. It’s easy to miss. If you walk out the double doors past the baggage carousel, you will find yourself outside the airport; so if you need cash right away, grab it before you walk through those doors.
Road Signs (Lack of)
As I mentioned before, roads are not well-marked in Costa Rica. It is easy to get lost without GPS. The road signs that do exist are often hard to see, and even then can be unclear in their direction. I’ve been told that the locals use the Waze App to get around. I depend on Google Maps when I’m there, and pay my wireless carrier’s international data fees to make sure that I am connected. I’ve never experienced any connection issues with Verizon in this area of Costa Rica. On my last trip, I would designate an in-car navigator who would follow the Google Maps blue dot while I was driving, making sure that I was always on the right road.
Though I usually chose to drink bottled water when I travel as much as possible, you can drink the tap water in all but the most rural parts of Costa Rica. For me, this mostly comes into play when eating out (there are some very tasty blended fruit drinks commonly offered at Costa Rican restaurants). I’ve not experienced traveler’s diarrhea when traveling to Costa Rica.
I included a toilet summary in my post about Kyoto Japan, so I might as well here, too. In Atenas Costa Rica, some homes don’t have enough water pressure to flush paper products. In this case, you are expected to place your used toilet tissue in the covered waste bucket sitting nearby.
Atenas is surrounded by nature. And nature means bugs. We have seen some pretty big spiders in and around our rentals. I generally leave with a few different types of small bug bites. I just look at it as part of the general experience 🙂
If you would like to read more of my Thorough Guides from around the world check these out:
Thorough Guide to Traveling in Malta
Thorough Guide to Fredericksted St Croix USVI
Thorough Guide to Kanab Utah
Thorough Guide to Kyoto Japan