Sprawling smack in the middle of the fertile Valle Central, San José, the only city of any size and administrative importance in Costa Rica, has a spectacular setting, ringed by the jagged silhouettes of soaring mountains – some of them volcanoes – on all sides. On a sunny morning, the sight of the blue-black peaks piercing the sky is undeniably beautiful. At night, from high up on one of these mountains, the valley floor twinkles like a million Chinese lanterns.
That’s where the compliments largely end, however. Costa Ricans can be notoriously hard on the place, calling it, with a mixture of familiarity and contempt, “Chepe”– the diminutive of the name José – and writing it off as a maelstrom of stress junkies, rampant crime and other urban horrors. Travellers, meanwhile, tend to view it as an unavoidable stopover jarringly at odds with expectations and impressions of the rest of the country. The gridlocked centre is drab and hectic, with vendors of fruit, T-shirts and cigarettes jostling one another on street corners, and shoe stores seemingly crammed into every block. Though you can sometimes sense an underlying order behind the chaos, walking around town means, more often than not, keeping your eyes glued to the ground to avoid stepping in deep open drains or on one of the boxes of clucking chicks sold on so many street corners. Street crime is very real, and pedestrians adopt the defensive posture (bags clutched securely, knapsacks worn on the front, determined facial expression) that’s commonplace in other big cities. All in all, walking in San José is often a stressful experience, which is a shame, because exploring on foot is really the best way to get around.
Despites its many ills, if you have the time it’s worth getting to know Chepe a little better. Of the city’s museums, the major draws are the exemplary Museo de Oro Precolombino, featuring over 2000 pieces of pre-Columbian gold, and the Museo del Jade, the Americas’ largest collection of the precious stone. Less visited, the Museo Nacional offers a brutally honest depiction of the country’s colonization and some interesting archeological finds. The Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo displays some of the most striking contemporary works in the Americas.
The centre itself is subdivided into little neighbourhoods (barrios) that flow seamlessly in and out of one another. Barrio Amón and Barrio Otoya, in the north, are the prettiest, lined with the genteel mansions of former coffee barons. To the west are La Californía and Los Yoses, home to the Toruma youth hostel, most of the embassies and the Centro Cultural Costarricense Norteamericano. The esteemed University of Costa Rica rises amid the lively student bars and cafés of the San Pedro barrio, just east of the city centre.
San José was established in 1737 at the insistence of the Catholic church in order to give a focal point to the scattered populace living in the area. For the next forty years, Villa Nueva de la Boca del Monte, as it was cumbersomely called, remained a muddy village of a few squalid adobe houses, until coffee was first planted in the Valle Central in 1808, triggering the settlement’s expansion.
The single most crucial event in determining the city’s future importance, however, was Costa Rica’s declaration of independence from the Spanish Crown in 1821. Following the declaration, Mexico’s self-proclaimed “emperor”, General Agustín de Iturbide, ordered Costa Rica’s immediate annexation, a demand which caused a rift between the citizens of Heredia and Cartago, who supported the move, and those of Alajuela and San José, who saw it for what it was: a panicky imperialist attempt to stifle Latin America’s burgeoning independence movements. A short civil war broke out, won in 1823 by the independentistas, who moved the capital from Cartago to San José in the same year.
Despite its status, San José remained a one-horse town until well into the nineteenth century. The framed sepia photographs in the venerable Balcón de Europa restaurant show wide dirt roads traversed by horse-drawn carts, with simple adobe buildings and a few spindly telegraph wires. Like the fictional town of Macondo in García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, this provincial backwater attracted piano-teaching European flotsam – usually young men looking to make their careers in the hinterland – who would wash up in the drawing rooms of the country’s nascent bourgeoisie. Accounts written by early foreign tourists to San José give the impression of a tiny, stultifying backwater society: “The president of the republic has to sit with his followers on a wooden bench”, they wrote, aghast, after attending a church service. In the city’s houses they found dark-skinned young women, bound tight in white crinoline dresses, patiently conjugating French verbs, reflecting the degree to which Costa Rica’s earliest cultural affiliations and aspirations lay with France. Even the mansions of former finqueros (coffee barons) in San José’s Barrio Amón – especially the Alianza Francesa – resemble mansions in New Orleans or Port-au-Prince, with their delicate French ironwork, Moorish-influenced lattices, long, cool corridors of deep-blooded wood and brightly painted exteriors.
By the 1850s, fuelled largely by the tobacco boom, the city had acquired the trappings of bourgeois prosperity, with leafy parks, a few paved avenues and some fine examples of European-style architecture. Grand urban houses were built to accommodate the new class of burgeoning burghers, coffee middlemen and industrialists; these Europhile aspirations culminated in 1894 with the construction of the splendid Teatro Nacional – for which every molecule of material, as well as the finest craftsmen, were transported from Europe.
During the twentieth century, San José came to dominate nearly all aspects of Costa Rican life. As well as being the seat of government, since the 1970s it has become the Central American headquarters for many foreign non-governmental organizations which has considerably raised its international profile. Multinationals, industry and agribusiness have based their national and regional offices here, creating what at times seems to be a largely middle-class city, populated by an army of neatly suited, briefcase-toting office and embassy workers.Read More
In Costa Rica, bocas (appetizers) are the tasty little snacks traditionally served free in bars. Boca bars are a largely urban tradition, and although you find them in other parts of the country, the really famous ones are all in San José. Because of mounting costs, however, and the erosion of local traditions, few places serve bocas gratis any more. Several bars have a boca menu, among them El Cuartel de la Boca del Monte near Los Yoses, but the authentic boca bars are concentrated in suburban working- or lower-middle-class residential neighbourhoods. They have a distinctive convivial atmosphere – friends and family spending the evening together – and are very busy most nights. Saturday is the hardest night to get a table; get there before 7.30pm. You’ll be handed a menu of free bocas – one beer gets you one boca, so keep drinking and you can keep eating. The catch is that the beer costs about twice as much as elsewhere ($2 as opposed to $1) but even so, the little plates of food are generous enough to make this a bargain way to eat out. You’ll do better if you speak Spanish, but you can get by with point-and-nod. Typical bocas include deep-fried plantains with black-bean paste, small plates of rice and meat, shish kebabs, tacos or empanadas; nothing fancy, but the perfect accompaniment to a cold beer.
One of the most authentic and well-known boca bar is the working-class, long-established Bar México in Barrio México – it’s a pretty rough neighbourhood, so go by taxi. Alternatively, you’ll find a varied clientele – but conspicuously few foreigners – at Los Perales and El Sesteo (both Mon–Sat 7pm–midnight) in the eastern suburb of Curridabat. They’re about 100m from each other on the same street – hard to find on your own, but taxi drivers will know them.
Salsa like a Josefino
Salsa like a Josefino
One of the best ways to meet people and prepare yourself for San José nightlife is to take a few salsa lessons at one of the city’s many academias de baile. You don’t necessarily need a partner, and you can go with a friend or in a group. The tuition is serious, but the atmosphere is usually relaxed. The best classes in San José are at Bailes Latinos, in the Costa Rican Institute of Language and Latin Dance, Av 0, C 25/27 (t 2233-8938,); at Malecón, C 17/19, Av 2 (t 2222-3214); and at Merecumbé, which has various branches, the most central of which is in San Pedro (t 2224-3531).
San José has plenty of quality hotel rooms, with reasonable prices in all categories. The budget-to-moderate sector has improved markedly with several guesthouses and family-run hotels. Rock-bottom hotels, however, still tend, with a few exceptions, to be depressing cells that make the city seem infinitely uglier than it is. San José has its fair share of international hotel chains, many of whose names (and generic facilities) – Radisson, Holiday Inn and Best Western – will be familiar to North Americans and Europeans. While some are comfortable and have excellent service, they don’t offer much in the way of local colour. It’s also worth noting that while these hotels employ Costa Ricans, most of their profits are repatriated to the company’s home country.
If you are coming in high season (Dec–May), and especially over busy periods like Christmas and Easter, be prepared to reserve (and, in some cases, even pay) in advance. Room rates vary dramatically between high and low seasons – the prices we quote are for a double room in peak season, and you can expect to get substantial discounts at less busy times. Unless otherwise indicated, breakfast is usually not included.
Many of San José’s rock-bottom hotels have cold-water showers only. Unless you’re particularly hardy, you’ll want some form of heated water, as San José can get chilly, especially from December to March. At the budget end of the spectrum, so-called “hot” water is actually often no more than a tepid trickle, produced by one of the eccentric electric contraptions you’ll find fitted over showers throughout the country (see Staying with a Costa Rican family) – it’s still better than cold water, however.
Though staying in one of the budget hotels in the city centre is convenient, the downside is noise and, in many places, a lack of atmosphere. Not too far from downtown, in quieter areas such as Paseo Colón, Los Yoses and Barrios Amón and Otoya, is a group of more expensive hotels, many of them in old colonial homes.
To the west of the city is Escazú, the stomping ground of American expats, and popularly known as “Gringolandia”. The vast majority of B&Bs here are owned by foreign nationals, with higher prices than elsewhere in town. Street names and addresses are particularly confusing in this area so get clear directions or arrange to be picked up. East of the city and closer to the centre is studenty San Pedro, with better connections to downtown and a more cosmopolitan atmosphere. It’s a great place to stay, but unfortunately there are only a couple of hostels in the area.Book a hostel in San José
For a Central American city of its size, San José has a surprising variety of restaurants – Italian, Thai and even macrobiotic – along with simple places that offer dishes beginning and ending with rice (rice-and-shrimp, rice-and-chicken, rice-and-meat). For excellent típico cooking, try the upmarket restaurants specializing in grills or barbecues (churrascos).
Many of the city’s best restaurants are in the relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan neighbourhoods of San Pedro, along Paseo Colón, and in Escazú. Wherever you choose, eating out in San José can set your budget back on its haunches. Prices are generally steep, and the 23 percent tax on restaurant food (which includes a 10 percent “service charge”) make it even pricier to eat out. The cheapest places are in the centre, especially the snack bars and sodas, where the restaurant tax doesn’t apply. Sadly, however, the best of these are disappearing at an alarming rate because of competition from fast-food outlets. The sodas that remain generally open early, close late and are cheap and cheerful. A plato del día lunch in a soda will rarely set you back more than $5. They also have empanadas and sandwiches to take out – combine these with a stop at one of the fruit stalls on any street corner and you’ve got a quick, cheap lunch. The pieces of papaya and pineapple sold in neatly packaged plastic bags have been washed and peeled by the vendors and should be safe, but if in doubt, wash again. Snacks sold at the Mercado Central are as tasty as anywhere, and there’s a good cluster of sodas hidden away in the Galería shopping arcade, Av 2, C 5/7.
Fast-food outlets in San José are proliferating so rapidly that at times it can look like a veritable jungle of Pizza Huts, Taco Bells and KFCs, not to mention McDonald’s. Cafés also abound; some, like Giacomín, have old-world European aspirations; others, such as Spoon, are resolutely Costa Rican, with Josefinos piling in to order birthday cakes or grab a coffee. Most cafés serve exclusively export Costa Rican coffee which has a mild, soft flavour: for more on coffee. As is the case with shops and restaurants, some of the best cafés are in the shopping malls outside San José. Bakeries (pastelería, repostería) on every corner sell cakes, breads and pastries, most of them heavy with white refined flour. Worthwhile bakery chains include Musmanni, Spoon, Schmidt and Giacomín. The city’s fantastic ice cream is another source of woe to dieters. Pops is the best of the major chains, with particularly good fruit flavours.
Drinking and nightlife
Drinking and nightlife
San José pulsates with the country’s most diverse nightlife, and is home to scores of bars, clubs and live music venues. Most young Josefinos, students and foreigners in the know stay away from the centre of town and head, instead, to Los Yoses or San Pedro. Avenida Central in Los Yoses is a well-known “yuppie trail” of bars, packed with middle- and upper-middle-class Ticos imbibing and conversing.
Note that prostitution is legal in Costa Rica and particularly prevalent in downtown San José. Many of the city centre “bars” are, in reality, little more than pick-up joints for professional prostitutes. The cluster of casinos and bars on Avenida Central between calles 5 and 11 fall mainly into this category. At any time of day or night (most are open 24 hours), these bars are full of scantily clad young ladies trying to attract the attention of glassy-eyed gringos and Europeans. They’re best avoided unless you want to spend every few minutes explaining why you’re not interested in doing a little “business”.
San Pedro nightlife is geared more towards the university population, with a strip of studenty bars to the east of the UCR entrance. Those looking for local atmosphere should head to a boca bar or seek out places to hear peñas, slow, acoustic folk songs from the Andean region that grew out of the revolutionary movements of the 1970s and 1980s.
Even if you don’t dance, it’s entertaining to watch the Ticos burn up the floor at one of the city’s discos. Because locals are usually in couples or groups, the atmosphere at most places isn’t a “scene”. In general, the dress code is relaxed: most people wear smart jeans and men need not wear a jacket. Cover charges run up to about 1000 colones ($2), though the big mainstream discos at El Pueblo charge slightly more than places downtown.
Many bars don’t offer music during the week, but change character drastically come Friday or Saturday, when you can hear jazz, blues, up-and-coming local bands, rock and roll, or South American folk music. That said, activity is not relentlessly weekend-oriented. It’s possible, with a little searching, to hear good live music on a Wednesday, or find a packed disco floor on a Monday or Tuesday. People do stay out later on the weekends, but even so, with the exception of the studenty bars in San Pedro, most places close by 2 or 3am, and earlier on Sunday.
San José is one of the best places in Central (possibly Latin) America for gay nightlife. Establishments come and go – those in our listings are the best established places – and it helps if you have a local lesbian or gay contact to help you hunt down small local clubs.
For full details of what’s on, check the Cartelera in the Tiempo Libre section of La Nación, which lists live music along with all sorts of other activities, from swimming classes to cultural discussions. Or for a more hip magazine, try San José Volando (wwww.sanjosevolando.com).
The arts and entertainment
The arts and entertainment
Bearing in mind the decreasing financial support from the national government, the quality of the arts in San José is very high. Josefinos especially like theatre, and there’s a healthy range of venues for a city this size, staging a variety of inventive productions at affordable prices. If you speak even a little Spanish it’s worth checking to see what’s on.
Costa Rica’s National Dance Company has an impressive repertoire of classical and modern productions, some by Central American choreographers, arranged specifically for the company – again, ticket costs are low. The city’s premier venues are the Teatro Nacional and the Teatro Mélico Salazar; here you can see performances by the National Symphony Orchestra and National Lyric Opera Company (June–Aug), as well as visiting orchestras and singers, usually from Spain or other Spanish-speaking countries. The Teatro Mélico Salazar occasionally stages performances of traditional Costa Rican singing and dancing.
Going to the cinema in San José is a bargain, though many venues have decamped to the suburbs, particularly to shopping malls, such as the Cinemark in Escazú’s Multiplaza, which you can only reach by car or taxi. There are still a few good downtown cinemas left, however, several of which retain some original features, along with plush, comfortable seats. Most cinemas show the latest American movies, which are almost always subtitled. The few that are dubbed will have the phrase “hablado en Español” in the newspaper listings or on the posters. For Spanish-language art movies, head to Sala Garbo.
Shopping and markets
Shopping and markets
San José’s souvenir and crafts shops are well stocked and in general fairly pricey; it’s best to buy from the larger shops run by government-regulated crafts cooperatives, from which more of the money filters down to the artisans. You’ll see an abundance of pre-Columbian gold jewellery copies, Costa Rican liqueurs (Café Rica is the best known), T-shirts with jungle and animal scenes, weirdly realistic wooden snakes, leather rockers from the village of Sarchí, walking sticks, simple leather bracelets, hammocks and a vast array of woodcarvings, from miniature everyday rural scenes to giant, colourfully hand-painted Sarchí ox-carts. Look out too for molas, handmade and appliquéd clothes, mostly shirts, occasionally from the Bahía Drake region of southwestern Costa Rica, but more usually made by the Kuna peoples of Panamá.
A good place to buy any of these handicrafts is at San José’s street craftmarket in the Plaza de la Democracía. Also on sale are regional leather and silver jewellery and a selection of crafts from other Latin American countries, including Ecuadorian sweaters. It’s worth bargaining, although the goods are already a little cheaper than in shops.