Rated among the world’s most beautiful botanical gardens, Parque Francisco Alvarado is an ornamental treasury of fantastical shapes. Designed in the 1960s, the park makes use of its stunning conifer cypresses which are trimmed and shaped into an array of super fun shapes.
Located in the charming town of Zarcero, the surreal gardens of Alvarado are a must-see for anyone visiting Costa Rica and looking for an off-beat attraction.
Where is Zarcero?
Zarcero is only an hour’s drive north-west from the capital, San Jose, and can easily be visited on a day-trip or on a stopover if you’re driving to popular hubs like Arenal, Monteverde and Manuel Antonio. Unless you have private transport – which we can include on all our Costa Rica adventure vacation packages – you’ll need to take a bus, which leaves from the bus terminal of Alajuela, known locally as the Coca Cola Terminus.
If opting for public transport, you can use Rome2Rio to work out your bus route.
What are the Zarcero gardens all about?
The botanical Alvarado gardens of Zarcero sit at the heart of the town, right by its stunning San Rafael Church on the main square. The park’s entrance is a row of more than a dozen archways, carved from cypress, which lead the way into a manicured garden filled with cypress-carved animals and abstract shapes of all sizes.
The surreal Zarcero gardens were designed and sculpted by the park’s curator, Don Evangelista Blanco, in 1964. Over the years, Blanco has carved everything from helicopters to dinosaurs, monkey-ridden motorbikes, traditional Tico oxcarts, animals and people of all shapes and sizes. Up until his dismissal in 2016, Blanco could still be seen tending to his prized garden creation, donning his signature fedora hat and holding a pair of garden shears. Don Blanco’s dismissal caused quite a stir in the tight-knit community and even though the local authorities found the reasoning to be somewhat adequate – after all, Don Blanco’s health was failing and the church was fearful of a workplace accident– they were still critical of his unceremonious dismissal. The fact that the matter was even investigated, and that a petition was drawn up to declare the park a national treasure, speaks volumes as to its standing in the community.
Zarcero Park is a popular local hang-out spot and acts as the true epicentre of town. There’s street-art on the outer walls and, in summer, the gardens are blanketed by a myriad of colourful flower beds. This is one of the most delightful urban parks to explore in all of Costa Rica.
What’s there to see and do in Zarcero, aside from the gardens?
The town Itself may not seem like it holds too much interest for tourists yet, if you were to stay for a night, you’ll find its authenticity utterly charming. This is a great place to visit if you’d love a look-see into a more traditional Costa Rica way of life.
Zarcero, a small town of only about 4,200 inhabitants, sits at an altitude of 1,700m (5,500ft), flanking the Cordillera Central range. Given its temperate-to-cool climate and mountainous surroundings, it is a popular weekend-getaway destination for city folks from San Jose, especially during the hottest and stickiest months of the year. Although not exactly crazy-popular with foreign tourists, the town still gets quite busy on weekends so if you’d like to visit at a quieter time, try to get here on a weekday.
Revered for its organic, locally-grown produce, Zarcero is, at the very least, a very delicious place to stop for a lazy lunch with a host of cafés and restaurant serving up amazing and authentic dishes. The local fresh cheese, a tastier and slightly drier version of mozzarella, is one of the best produce specialties of the town and an absolute highlight in the region. Nearby, you’ll find several dairy farms, some of which you can visit. When driving from San Jose, keep a lookout for street stands selling queso palmito and buy some for your road trip north.
Whilst visiting, also look out for delicious crystallised grapefruit snacks filled with sweetened milk, vine-ripened tomatoes and a host of organic tropical fruits.
Nearby, you can pay a visit to Finca Organica Tierra de Suenos, one of Zarcero’s most prized organic farms. Take a tour or simply let them know you’ll be coming through to stock up on some delicious produce.
The main draw in town, aside from the surreal gardens, is the San Rafael Church, a beautifully-designed 19th-century church showcasing an ornate and outstanding interior with paintings depicting the stations of the cross.
What to see and do on a daytrip to Zarcero?
Here are some ideas of nearby activities and attractions that you could combine on a north-bound trip to Zarcero:
Juan Castro Blanco National Park – Just east of town is where you’ll find one of the most enchanting yet lesser-known of Costa Rica’s national parks. Known as ‘the park of the waters’, Castro Blanco covers a stunning area of mid-level cloud forests framed by three long-extinct volcanic peaks, all over 2,000m (6560ft) in altitude. Many prime rivers have their source right here, and the park encompasses three unique rainforest ecosystems at differing altitudes. This area is renowned for its extensive flower farms, many of which export their magnificent flowers all over North America. The park isn’t yet built for tourism, except for a super-luxe resort that attracts VIPs from all over the world. Trails are few and far between and camping is about the only way to experience this incredible and unspoiled wilderness. A particularly ideal destination for bird-lovers, Blanco is a great place if you’re in search of the ethereal Quetzal.
Bajos del Toro Reserve – One of the most spectacular hidden treasures of the Costa Rican central wilderness, the privately-owned Bajos del Toro Reserve borders Juan Castro Blanco and offers sensational wilderness experiences way off the beaten path. With its crystalline waterfalls and verdant forests, Toro is a sublime wildlife and wilderness destination for hikers, home to two of Costa Rica’s most splendid waterfalls: the aptly-named Tesoro Escondido (hidden treasure) and Toro Amarillo. Don’t forget to pack your swimsuit and, if you want to extend your visit, check out the awe-inspiring El Silencio Lodge & Spa, one of Costa Rica’s very best jungle lodges.
Tree House Hotel – Fringing the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, north-west of Zarcero, the Tree House Hotel is an exquisite accommodation for anyone looking for remoteness and exclusivity. Stay in a luxury treehouse and enjoy the spoils of an astonishing property that houses its own wildlife refuge and offers lucky guests a wealth of exciting activities. This is, by far, one of our favorite unplugged luxury stays in the entire country.
La Fortuna & Arenal – Zarcero is about halfway between San Jose and the bustling activities capital of La Fortuna, the base for Arenal Volcano adventures. This is arguably the most visited area of Costa Rica and a region that offers just about everything that makes our wonderful country so famous. Waterfalls and dormant volcanoes, hiking, ziplining, wildlife-watching and therapeutic hot-springs, alongside horseback riding, mountain bike riding, farm-visiting and, among this extensive cache of amazing experiences, among the best whitewater rafting and kayaking in all of Costa Rica.
Learn more about all the amazing things to do in Arenal and you’ll soon discover how easy it is to turn a quick one-day-trip to Zarcero’s surreal gardens into the most unforgettable, action-packed vacation of your life.
See our most popular Adventure Vacations in Costa Rica and, when you’re ready to shake off the quarantine cobwebs, contact us to know more.