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.