Known as Costa Rica's "City of Mangoes", Alajuela is the capital of the country's most important coffee-producing region. Its lively streets are full of flowers, colourful markets and landmark colonial buildings such as the richly decorated Alajuela Cathedral. With a major international airport a few minutes from the city, it's a perfect jumping-off point to explore the surrounding beaches and mountains, as well as national parks and high-altitude cloud forests.
Hostels in Alajuela tend to be laid-back and most are conveniently located. You can stay in spacious accommodation close to the airport, cosy rooms in the heart of the city's downtown area or a family-run Alajuela hostel midway between the two. Look out for hostels with gardens, barbecue facilities or even an outdoor swimming pool where you can relax. A few options have extra touches of comfort such as individual reading lights and orthopaedic mattresses, and there's usually air con or fans to keep you cool. Some Alajuela hostels offer a free airport pick-up service.
Alajuela's downtown is at the centre of the city, and this is where you'll find the busiest nightlife, shops and markets selling local food. There are also places to eat and drink in the neighbourhood around the airport, to the south. Outside the city, other areas to explore include Sarchí town, known for traditional wooden handicrafts, and La Fortuna, which is home to some hot springs at the foot of the Arenal Volcano. The province is split into the Northern Plains (Llanuras del Norte) and the Central Valley highlands.
For a taste of local life, spend an afternoon in Tomás Guardia Central Park. This popular hangout spot is surrounded by historic buildings and dotted with mango trees. Other attractions include misty Monteverde Cloud Forest, which is full of lush greenery and diverse wildlife, and wetland Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, with its endangered species such as jaguars, ocelots and howler monkeys. Alajuela town hosts vibrant festivals, including Juan Santamaría Day in April and the Mango Festival in July.
Juan Santamaría International Airport is a few minutes' bus ride from downtown Alajuela. Buses within the city and province are reliable and frequent, making it easy to get around. Buses from capital San José leave several times an hour and take around 40 minutes. You can also hire cars and taxis, and the downtown area is small enough to explore on foot.