The quiet capital of the country's traditional coffee-producing provinces, Alajuela is a pleasant little city that most people merely pass through on the way to Poás National Park. The town's shady central plaza is worth a stop, with the nearby Cathedral and Juan Santamaría Museum, which commemorates the local hero of the Battle of Rivas. West of town, in an area called La Garita, is Zoo Ave, a small private zoo that specializes in the rcproduction of endangered parrots and macaws. The road up to the top of Poás Volcano heads north out of town, passing splendid pastoral scenery and spectacular views as it winds its way to the summit.
Set amidst coffee plantations in the mountains to the northwest of San José is the pleasant little town of Sarchí, Though plenty of its inhabitants are coffee farmers, Sarchí is also one of the country's principal carpentry and crafts centers, which is why most people visit it. Several large "ox cart factories" sell an array of handicrafts, such as hardwood boxes, toys, bowls, plagues, jewelry and rightly painted miniature oxcarts (replicas of the ones traditionally used to transport coffee).
Higher in the mountains and a bit further north than Sarchí is Zarcero, a tiny agricultural community famous for its lovely church and topiary garden. The park in front of Zarceros church is full of shrubs that have been sculpted into the shapes of arches, animals, people and even oxcart complete with oren. It's all the work of one mar, who has spent the past three decides converting what was formerly a soccer field orto a whimsical garden. The church's colorful interior is also worth a look – note the wooden pillars painted to resemble marble.
Also known as San Carlos, this regional capital sits on the northern slope of the Central Volcanic Mountain Range, overlooking the verdant northern lowlands. The gateway to the Northern Zone, Ciudad Quesada is a fairly modern, grid-plan city with little in the way of attractions, but it does have a small ecological park with a stream where one can take a dip. Another nearby attraction is the private zoo of La Marina, north of Toucan, which began as an informal animal rescue center.