Ruta de Los Santos
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South of San José lies a little-touristed region of hidden valleys perfect for a full-day drive along the scenic Route of the Saints, so called because most of the villages are named after saints.
These saintly villages can also be accessed by driving south from Cartago along the Pan-American Highway (Highway 2) and turning west at Enpalme or Cañón. The region was badly affected by torrential rains in November 2010, when many roads were washed out.
San José to San Gabriel
From San José’s southern suburb of Desamparados, Highway 209 climbs into the Fila de Bustamante mountains via Aserrí, a pretty hillside town famed for its handsome church and for La Piedra de Aserrí—a massive boulder with a cave at its base that was once inhabited, apparently, by a witch. The gradient increases markedly to the crest of the mountains just north of Tarbaca. En route you gain a breathtaking view of Volcán Irazú.
Three kilometers south of Tarbaca is a Y-junction. The road to the right (Hwy. 209) drops westward to San Ignacio de Acosta, a charming little town nestled on a hillside. You can see its whitewashed houses for miles around. The sun sets dramatically on its steep west-facing slopes. For a wildly scenic drive, continue west from Acosta to the Balneario Valle Encantado (tel. 506/2410-0002, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Fri.–Sun.), with swimming pools fed by hot springs.
Beyond, the unpaved road switchbacks to Tabarcia (not to be confused with Tarbaca). Turn right in Tabarcia and you will climb to Highway 239, which runs along the ridge of the Cerros Escazú mountains; turn right to return to San José via Colón and Santa Ana.
The road to the left (Hwy. 222) at the Y-junction south of Tarbaca drops to San Gabriel, gateway to the Route of the Saints proper.
The Costa Rican Association of Community-Based Rural Tourism (ACTUAR, tel. 506/2248-9470, www.actuarcostarica.com) arranges accommodation at Nacientes Palmichal (tel. 506/2418-4328, www.nacientespalmichal.com), at Palmichal de Acosta, between San Ignacio and Tabarcia. This delightful alpine lodge has eight rooms with private bathrooms; musicians perform after dinner.
San Gabriel to Santa María de Dota
Highway 222 leads southeast from San Gabriel, dropping and rising via Frailes to San Cristóbal Sur, a market town better known to Ticos for La Lucha Sin Fin (The Endless Struggle), the finca of former president and national hero Don “Pepe” Figueres, who led the 1948 revolution from here, two kilometers east of San Cristóbal. There’s a museum in the high school (Sat.–Sun., free) on the main road in San Cristóbal Sur.
East of La Lucha, the road clambers precipitously through pine forests three kilometers to the Pan-American Highway. Instead, turn south from San Cristóbal and follow a scenic route via San Pablo de León Cortes to San Marcos de Tarrazú, dramatically situated over coffee fields and dominated by a handsome white church with a domed roof. You can visit the local coffee mill, Beneficio Coopetarrazú (tel. 506/2546-6098, www.cafetarrazu.com) by prior arrangement.
From San Marcos, the main road climbs southeast to Santa María de Dota, a tranquil village whose main plaza has a small but dramatic granite monument—the Monumento Liberación Nacional—honoring those who died in the 1948 revolution. This is a major coffee-producing area; indigenous people from as far away as Boca del Toro, in Panamá, provide the field labor.
You can visit the Beneficio Coopedota (tel. 506/2541-2828, www.dotacoffee.com, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.), which handles the beans for 700 local producers and accepts visitors by reservation, in season; the visit includes a plantation tour, video, and tasting ($10). PK’s Internet (tel. 506/2541-1900, 7 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Sat.) is next to the police station. The Red Cross (tel. 506/2541-2121) is one block north.
From Santa María, the roads east snake steeply to the Pan-American Highway, with dramatic views en route. Alternatively, you can head south five kilometers into the mountains to the Centro Para el Desarrollo Sostenible de Los Santos (Center for Sustainable Development of Los Santos), with cabins, trails, and spectacular vistas.
Cabinas Cecilia (tel./fax 506/2541-1233, www.cabinascecilia.com, from $35 s, $60 d), 400 meters south of the plaza in Santa María de Dota, is set in a lovely garden surrounded by coffee fields. It has nine simple cabins of rough-hewn timbers and stone floors around a farmhouse-style open-air dining area serving food from a wood-fired stove. Cecilia also offers massage.
The exquisite El Toucanet Lodge (tel. 506/2541-3045, www.eltoucanet.com, $52 s or $69 d standard, $80 s or $108 d junior suite low season; $57 s or $76 d standard, $100 s or $120 d junior suite high season), on a 40-hectare fruit farm one kilometer east of Copey, is perfect for bird-watchers—more than 170 species have been seen at the lodge; quetzals are virtually a daily occurrence (the property adjoins Parque Nacional Los Quetzales). Made of stone and polished timbers, the lodge has a wide veranda with valley views, a lounge with fireplace, and six hardwood cabinas plus a family cabin for six people with a fireplace, kitchenette, and hot water. Rooms are spacious and have simple furnishings and clean tiled bathrooms with hot water. Two suites each feature a wall of glass and whirlpool tub. There is a charming pinewood restaurant plus a wood-fired, stone-lined hot tub. Hiking trails are available, plus horseback tours, a coffee tour, and a free quetzal tour for guests. Rates include breakfast and tax.
If the Toucanet Lodge is full, then the simpler but charming Cabinas Las Manzanas (tel. 506/2541-3084, www.lasmanzanascabins.com, $20 s or $35 d including breakfast), in Copey, might accommodate you.
New in 2010, La Candela Mountain Retreat (no tel., www.lacandelacostarica.com, $180 s or $250 d room, $150 s or $200 suite, includes all meals) brings a touch of Zen-like rustic luxury to the region. Owned by Swiss artist Daniel Gaudan and partner Dagmar Spremberg, a nutritionist and yoga teacher, this health-focused ecolodge perched on the mountainside above Santa María de Dota offers three-day and week-long getaways focused on yoga and similar practices. It has two rooms, with more to be added, and serves vegetarian fare.
The place to eat is Soda La Casona (tel. 506/2541-2258, 7 a.m.–7 p.m. daily), in Santa María (take the first left after the bridge into town when approaching from Enpalme). This clean family restaurant serves filling meals. Take a peek in the kitchen to choose from the simmering pots. A filling casado (set lunch) costs about $4. It typically stays open until the last guest leaves. Coopedota Beneficio (6 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat.) has a lovely café and bakery.
I love Restaurante Bar Vaca Flaca (tel. 506/2546-3939, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. daily), at Alto de Abajonal, near San Antonio. This rustic Colorado-style place is very country, very cowboy (think cowhide seats and rifles on the walls), and serves a house special: chicken breast with mushrooms and broccoli ($3). The bar hosts live music and stays open until 2 a.m.
Getting to Ruta de Los Santos
Buses (tel. 506/2410-0330) from San José depart for Aserrí from Calle 2, Avenidas 6/8, and for San Ignacio from Calle 8, Avenidas 12/14, hourly 5:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. daily ($0.75). Buses (tel. 506/2410-0015) to San Ignacio de Acosta depart from Calle 8, Avenidas 12/14 every 30 minutes 5:20 a.m.–10:30 p.m. daily.
Empresa Los Santos buses (tel. 506/2546-7248) to San Marcos and Santa María depart San José from Avenida 16, Calles 19/21, at 6 a.m., 7:15 a.m., 9 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m., and 7:30 p.m. daily ($2.15). Return buses to San José depart Santa María at 5:15 a.m., 7:15 a.m., 9:15 a.m., 12:40 p.m., 3 p.m., and 6:15 p.m. daily.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition