As you leave San Ramon (elevation 3400’), passing through San Juan towards Zarcero, you immediately start ascending. Zarcero is a mountain town, elevation 5600’ located about 40 minutes from San Ramon. As you drive up, up, you begin to see some of the most stunning mountain scenery in Costa Rica. You pass through the cloud cover of the Los Angeles Cloud forest and come out above the clouds. Looking down at them, they are like a field of fluffy whiteness, with sun shining brightly down on them. And suddenly, just a few miles beyond, you enter Zarcero. The air is brisk and fresh, and often you will see strips of clouds or mist gently rolling over the town, giving it a mystical, other-worldly feel.
It’s a clean and prosperous town, located at the crossroads between San Jose and Ciudad Quesada. Zarcero’s principle means of income are organic farming, Holstein cattle, and the production of queso palmito, ropes of mild white cheese rolled into balls. Actually, Zarcero is in the canton (county) of Alfaro Ruiz with a population of about 15,000, and is one of the smallest cantons in Alajuela province. The town of Zarcero is small, with about 5,000 inhabitants, though it seems larger as it bustles with activity, and has the look of a Swiss village.
One of the highlights of a day trip to Zarcero is the beautifully renovated Iglesia de San Rafael, built in 1895. The church is one of the loveliest in Costa Rica, a work of art actually, with stained glass windows, murals, and trompe l’oeil painting both inside and out. We were lucky enough to visit during the year-long renovation, watching artists lying on tall scaffolding, painting murals on the ceiling and gold-leaf filigree on the walls. Even though the church was closed, we were warmly welcomed by the woman in the parochial office and given a personal- tour. Gloria was even given access to the choir loft, climbing up the rough wooden steps in the rear of the church, in order to get a birds-eye view. On our most recent visit, the renovation was complete and, frankly, breathtaking.
The other must-see is the topiary garden located immediately in front of the church. The Parque Francisco Alvarado, was transformed into a topiary wonderland in the 1960s by gardener Evangelisto Blanco. Here you will see tunnels that look like kissing Hershey’s Kisses, a dinosaur, elephant, bird, monkey on a motorcycle, and other animals and fantasy creatures. During the Christmas season, there is a beautiful nativity scene set up, complete with offerings of traditional Costa Rican food and drink to the Christ Child.
Homes cling to the steep hills and terraced farming is evident in every direction. In hilly terrains such as this, farmers terrace their crops in order to take advantage of the rich, volcanic soil and prevent erosion. Zarcero has a moody climate, with its share of clouds, rain, and fog due to its elevation. Located over 2000’ higher than San Ramon, one should always bring a sweater and/or rain gear. If it’s sunny, it may be in the low 70s, but cool days are in the low 60s, and evenings can get close to 50. Remember, we’re in Costa Rica where it’s always sunny and warm, right? Wrong!
We have some Tico friends who live a little higher in the town of Pueblo Nuevo, just 5 miles from Zarcero, at an elevation of 6200’. It can be sunny in Zarcero and cold, rainy, & windy in Pueblo Nuevo, but it’s a great climate in which to grow things. In Costa Rica, most homes don’t have heaters, so the inhabitants become accustomed to the temps. On one of our visits to them, Vincente, the husband, was wearing shorts! Like almost all Costa Ricans, our friends are happy, growing produce and flowers to sell at the weekly feria (farmers market). And like most Costa Ricans, they are tranquilo, with a great attitude about life. Everything is beautiful.
Whenever we are introducing new people to our corner of Costa Rica, we always include a day-trip to Zarcero. It is a unique Costa Rican mountain town, full of beauty and wonder. Don’t miss it on your visit to Costa Rica!