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.
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.
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.
Despite 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 archaeological 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.
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.
Lined with tall trees, the verdant Parque España (three blocks east and two blocks north of Plaza de la Cultura) is surrounded by several excellent museums. On the western corner, facing Avenida 5, stands the Edificio Metálica (Metal Building, also known as the “Escuela Metálica”), so-called because its exterior is made entirely out of metal plates shipped from France over a hundred years ago. Though the prospect sounds dour, the effect – especially the bright multicoloured courtyard as seen from the Museo del Jade, high above – is very pretty, if slightly military. Just west of Parque España lies Parque Morazón, more a concrete-paved square than a park proper. It’s centred on the landmark grey-domed bandstand floridly known as the Templo de Música.
On the north side of the Parque España rises one of the few office towers in San José: the INS, or Institute of Social Security, building. The eleventh floor of this uninspiring edifice contains one of the city’s finest museums, the Marco Fidel Tristan Museo del Jade, home to the world’s largest collection of American jade.
As in China and the East, jade was much prized in ancient Costa Rica as a stone with religious or mystical significance, and for Neolithic civilizations it was an object of great power. It was and still is considered valuable because of its mineralogical rarity. Only slightly less hard than quartz, it’s well known for its durability, and is a good material for weapons and cutting tools like axes and blades. As no quarries of the stone have been found in Costa Rica, the big mystery is how the pre-Columbian societies here got hold of so much of it. The reigning theories are that it came from Guatemala, where the Motagua Valley is home to one of the world’s six known jade quarries, or that it was traded or sold down the isthmus by the Olmecs of Mexico. This would also explain the Maya insignia on some of the pieces – symbols that had no meaning for Costa Rica’s pre-Columbian inhabitants.
The museum displays are ingenious, subtly back-lit to show off the multi-coloured and multi-textured pieces to full effect. Jade exhibits an extraordinary range of nuanced colour, from a milky-white green and soft grey to a deep green; the latter was associated with agricultural fertility and particularly prized by the inhabitants of the Americas around 600 BC. No two pieces in the collection are alike in hue and opacity, though, as in the Museo de Oro, you’ll see a lot of axe-gods: anthropomorphic bird-cum-human forms shaped like an axe and worn as a pendant, as well as a variety of ornate necklaces and fertility symbols.
Incidentally, the view from the museum windows is one of the best in the city, taking in the sweep of San José from the centre to the south and then west to the mountains.
Sprawling across the entire eastern border of the Parque España, the former National Liquor Factory, dating from 1887, today houses an arts complex that includes the Centro Nacional de la Cultura, Juventud y Deportes (Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports), known as CENAC. Many Josefinos still refer to the buildings as the old Liquoría; indeed you can still see a massive old distilling machine in the grounds, complete with the nameplate of its Birmingham manufacturers. The main attraction here is the cutting-edge Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo, or Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, entered from the corner of Calle 15 and Avenida 3. Opened in 1994 under the direction of dynamic artist Virginia Pérez-Ratton, it’s a highly modern space, with a cosmopolitan, multimedia approach – there’s an area specially designed for outdoor installations by up-and-coming Central American artists. The CENAC complex also houses two theatres, a dance studio (wander around during the day for glimpses of dancers and musicians rehearsing) and an amphitheatre.
San José’s Parque Nacional, one of the city’s finest open spaces, marks the heart of downtown San José. Bordered by avenidas 1 and 3 and calles 15 and 19 and overlooked by rows of mop-headed palms and thick deciduous trees, it’s popular among courting couples and older men discussing the state of the nation. After gaining notoriety as a hangout for muggers and prostitutes, it was equipped with tall lamps to add extra light – a tactic which has apparently succeeded in drawing the courting couples back to its nocturnal benches. Even so, it’s still probably not a good idea to wander around here after dark.
The north end of the square is crowned by the impressive Museo Nacional, occupying the renovated former Bellavista Barracks. Bullet holes from the 1948 insurrection can still be seen on the north side of the building’s thick walls. More than a century old (and that is old for Costa Rica), the museum’s collection, though rather haphazard, gives a fascinating introduction to the story of Costa Rica’s colonization. A grisly series of drawings, deeply affecting in their simplicity, tells the story of the fate of Costa Rica’s indigenous people at the hands of the Spanish settlers. Violence, it appears, was meted out in both directions, including beheadings, hangings, clubbings, shooting of priests and the pouring of liquid gold down throats. Infanticide and suicide as a means of resistance in the indigenous community are also mercilessly depicted. Displays explain (in both English and Spanish) how the arrival of the Spanish forever disturbed the balance of social and political power among the indigenous groups. There’s also an explanation on the function of gold in the indigenous social hierarchy, with descriptions on which objects were used to identify warriors, chiefs and shamans.
The museum’s colonial-era section is dominated by the massive but spartan furniture and cheesy Spanish religious iconography. Exhibits make clear how slowly culture and education advanced in Costa Rica, giving a sense of a country struggling to extricate itself from terrible cultural and social backwardness – in European terms – until well into the twenty-first century. In the same room are examples of colonial art, which replaced indigenous art forms with scores of lamentable gilt-and-pink Virgin Marys.
Other highlights include petroglyphs, pre-Columbian stonework, and wonderful anthropomorphic gold figures in the Sala Arqueológica. This is the single most important archaeological exhibition in the country; the grinding tables and funerary offerings, in particular, show precise geometric patterns and incredible attention to detail, but the really astounding pieces are the “flying panel” metates, corn-grinding tables used by the Chorotega peoples of present-day Guanacaste, each with three legs and meticulously sculpted from a single piece of volcanic stone.
A block southwest of the Parque Nacional sits the concrete Plaza de la Democracía, yet another of the city’s soulless squares which is just one aesthetic notch up from a paved car park. Constructed in 1989 to mark President Oscar Arias’ key involvement in the Central American Peace Plan, this expanse of terraced concrete slopes up towards a fountain. At its western end is a row of artisans’ stalls selling hammocks, thick Ecuadorian sweaters, leather bracelets and jewellery. You can also buy Guatemalan textiles and decorative molas (patchwork textiles in vibrant colours) made by the Kuna people of Panamá, though at steeper prices than elsewhere in Central America. Other stalls sell T-shirts and wooden crafts and trinkets. The traders are friendly and won’t pressure you; a bit of gentle bargaining is a must.
The cluster of shops, restaurants, bars and discos that make up the Centro Comercial El Pueblo – generally known simply as “El Pueblo” – lies about 200m north of the zoo across the Río Torres. For a tourist complex, El Pueblo is well designed and a sensible initiative that gives both tourists and Josefinos – who love it – an attractive, atmospheric place to shop, eat, drink and dance, all within the same complex. El Pueblo’s whitewashed adobe buildings with wooden staircases evoke a type of colonial architecture that has found it hard to survive in Costa Rica, due to the successive tremors of earthquakes. Walking to El Pueblo means running a gauntlet of pedestrian-unfriendly traffic, however, and most people take a taxi from the Plaza de la Cultura. The adjacent Spirogyra Jardín de Mariposas has a wide variety of butterflies fluttering about, with daily guided tours pointing out particularly unusual and pretty ones.
The neighbourhoods of Los Yoses and La Californía, facing one another from opposite sides of Avenida Central as it runs east from the Museo Nacional to San Pedro, are oases of calm just blocks from the city centre. Mainly residential, Los Yoses is home to foreign embassies and a few stylish hotels. The commercial La Californía runs into Barrio Escalante and Barrio Dent, two of San José’s nicest residential districts. Walking through Barrio Escalante is the way to head east, and much more pleasant than bus-choked Avenida Central.
First impressions of San Pedro can be off-putting. Avenida Central (known here also as Paseo de los Estudiantes) appears to be little more than a strip of petrol stations, broken-up pavements and shopping malls. Walk just a block off the Paseo, however, and you’ll find a lively university student quarter, plus a few elegant old residential houses. The area has traditionally been home to some of the city’s best restaurants and nightlife, but an increasing proliferation of dark bars filled with shouting college students means that it’s often not the most relaxing spot to be on a Friday or Saturday night, at least during term time.
Theoretically it’s possible to walk to the campus from Los Yoses, but this entails dealing with the huge, threatening Fuente de la Hispanidad roundabout. This is not recommended, as there are no provisions at all for pedestrians; it’s much better to take any university-bound bus from Los Yoses. Buses to San Pedro from the centre of town stop opposite the small Parque Central, with its bubblegum-orange bandstand and monument to John F. Kennedy. Walking north from the park, through three blocks of solid sodas, bars and bookshops you come to the cool, leafy campus of the University of Costa Rica, one of the finest in Central America, and certainly the most prestigious educational institution in the country. Founded in 1940, the university has in the past been accused of being too rigidly academic and elitist, but the overall campus atmosphere is busy, egalitarian and stimulating.
The best places to hang out on campus and meet both young Josefinos and students from other countries are the frenzied and cheap cafeteria in the building immediately to the right of the library (there’s also an excellent bookstore across from the back entrance of the cafeteria), the Comedor Universitario, or dining hall, and the Facultad de Bellas Artes, which has a wonderful open-air theatre used for frequent concerts. Notice boards around campus, particularly in front of the Vida Estudiantíl office (Student Life office, Building A, fourth floor), keep you up to date with what’s going on; try also to get hold of a copy of Semana Universitaria, the campus newspaper, which is sold in most restaurants and bookshops in the area and lists upcoming events. The three or four blocks surrounding the university are lined with lively bars and restaurants, though in most of them you’ll feel more comfortable if you’re under thirty. For Spanish-speakers this is a great place to meet people, watch movies and browse around the several well-stocked bookstores. One of the best is Librería Macondo, 100m before you come to the university proper; look for the lime-green storefront.
At the very end of Paseo Colón, a wide boulevard of upmarket shops, restaurants and car dealerships, the solid expanse of green today known as Parque la Sabana was San José’s airport until the 1940s, and is now home to the country’s key art museum, the Museo de Arte Costarricense. Concerted efforts to maintain its cleanliness, an ongoing project to introduce hundreds of trees native to Costa Rica and the reopening of the Museo de Arte Costarricense all provide the verdant Parque la Sabana with a sense of vitality. Its status as San Jose’s finest green space was confirmed in May 2010, when the park was chosen as the site of the inauguration of Laura Chinchilla, the country’s first female president.
Most people, though, come to the park to enjoy an afternoon stroll amid leafy trees shading a central lake and colourful modern sculptures scattered around. On Sunday afternoons, hordes of local families feed the resident geese and eat ice cream. It’s also one of the best places in San José to jog. The cement track is usually full of serious runners in training, but if it gets too crowded you can also run quite safely throughout the park.
Just east of the Parque Central, Plaza de la Cultura (Av Central, C 3/5) is one of the few places in San José where you can sit at a pleasant outdoor café – the Café Parisienne, under the arches of the Gran Hotel Costa Rica on the plaza’s western edge – and watch the world go by to the accompaniment of buskers. The neoclassical Teatro Nacional rises elegantly over the plaza’s southern side while the (rather poorly signposted) joint-entrance to the city’s underground tourist office and Museo de Oro Precolombino can be found on the plaza’s eastern edge.
The Plaza de la Cultura cleverly conceals one of San José’s treasures, the Banco Central-owned Museo de Oro Precolombino, or Pre-Columbian Gold Museum. The bunker-like underground museum is unprepossessing but the gold on display is truly impressive – all the more extraordinary if you take into account the relative paucity of pre-Columbian artefacts in Costa Rica (compared with Mexico, say, or Guatemala). Most of the exquisitely delicate goldwork is by the Diquis, ancient inhabitants of southwestern Costa Rica.
The gold pieces are hung on transparent wires, giving the impression of floating in space, mysteriously suspended in their perspex cases. Most of the gold pieces are small and unbelievably detailed, with a preponderance of disturbing, evil-looking animals. Information panels (in English and Spanish) suggest that one of the chief functions of these portents of evil – frogs, snakes and insects – was to protect the bearer against illness. The Diquis believed that sickness was transmitted to people through spirits in animal form. The ave de rapiña, or bird of prey, seems to have had a particular religious relevance for the Diquis: hawks, owls and eagles, differing only fractionally in shape and size, are depicted everywhere. Watch out, too, for angry-looking arachnids, ready to bite or sting; jaguars and alligators carrying the pathetic dangling legs of human victims in their jaws; grinning bats with wings spread; turtles, crabs, frogs, iguanas and armadillos; and a few spiny lobsters. Museum displays highlight the historical and geographical context of Costa Rican gold. Maps pinpoint gold-production centres and there are models of gold-making settlements.
Little, if anything, is known of the prehistory of the Diquis, who were responsible for most of the goldwork at the Museo de Oro Precolombino. However, the history of goldworking in the New World is fairly well documented. It was first recorded (around 2000 BC) in Peru, from where it spread northwards, reaching Mexico and the Central American isthmus by 700–900 AD. All the ancient American peoples favoured more or less the same methods and styles, using a gold-copper alloy (called tumbaga) and designs featuring extremely intricate shapings, with carefully rendered facial expressions and a preference for ingenious but rather diabolical-looking zoomorphic representations – growling peccaries, threatening birds of prey, and a two-headed figure, each mouth playing its own flute. The precise function of these intricately crafted creations is still the subject of some debate since many of the objects show no sign of having been worn (there are no grooves in the pendant links to indicate they were worn on chains). Archaeologists believe they may have been intended for ceremonial burial and, indeed, some were even “killed” or ritually mutilated before being entombed. Others may have been worn as charms protecting the bearer against illness and evil spirits.
The Diquis would have obtained the gold by panning in rivers, and it is speculated that in Osa, at least, the rivers routinely washed up gold at their feet. Diquis caciques (chiefs) and other social elites used their gold in the same way it is used today – to advertise wealth and social prestige. Ornaments and insignias were often reserved for the use of a particular cacique and his family, and these special pieces were traded as truce offerings and political gifts between various rulers, maintaining contacts between the caciques of distant regions. Indeed, it was the removal of native distinctions of social rank following the Spanish Conquest of the country in the seventeenth century that heralded the almost immediate collapse of the Costa Rican gold-making industry.
Although the Diquis were the undisputed masters of design, archeological digs in the Reventazón Valley suggest that gold-working could also be found among the peoples of the Atlantic watershed zone. When Columbus first came ashore in 1502, he saw the local (Talamancan) peoples wearing gold mirror-pendants and headbands and rashly assumed he had struck it rich – hence the country’s name. An early document of a subsequent expedition to the Caribbean coastal region of Costa Rica, now housed in archives in Cartago, contains the impressions of native wealth recorded by one gold-crazed Spaniard in Diego de Sojo’s 1587 expedition: “The rivers abound with gold…and the Indians extract gold with calabashes in very large grains…from these same hills Captain Muñoz…took from the tombs of the dead…such a great quantity of gold as to swell two large chests of the kind in which shoes and nails for the cavalry are brought over from Castile.”
Reputedly modelled on the Paris Opéra, San José’s heavily colonnaded, grey-brown Teatro Nacional sits on the corner of Calle 5 and Avenida 2, tucked in behind the Plaza de la Cultura. The theatre’s marbled stairways, gilt cherubs and red velvet carpets would look more at home in Europe than in Central America. You won’t find such impressive elegance anywhere else between here and the Manaus Opera House in deepest Amazonia.
Teatro Nacional’s story is an intriguing one, illuminating the industrious, no-nonsense attitude of the city’s coffee bourgeoisie, who demonstrated the national pride and yearning for cultural achievement that came to characterize Costa Rican society in the twentieth century. In 1890, the world-famous prima donna Adelina Patti was making a tour through the Americas, but could not stop in Costa Rica as there was no appropriate theatre. Mortified, and determined to raise funds for the construction of a national theatre, the wealthy coffee farmers responded by levying a tax on every bag of coffee exported. Within a couple of years the coffers were full to bursting; European craftsmen and architects were employed, and by 1897 the building was ready for its inauguration, a stylish affair with singers from the Paris Opéra performing Faust.
The theatre itself is lavishly done in red plush, gold and marble, with richly detailed frescoes and statues personifying “Dance”, “Music” and “Fame”. The upstairs “salons” are decorated in mint and jade-green, trimmed with gold, and lined with heavy portraits of former bourgeoisie. In the main lobby, look for the mural depicting the coffee harvest (once featured on the five-colón note), a gentle reminder of the agricultural source of wealth that made this urban luxury possible. All in all, the building remains in remarkably good condition, despite the dual onslaught of the climate and a succession of earthquakes. The latest, in 1991, closed the place for two years – until recently, the huge marble staircases on either side of the entrance still had wooden supports strapped onto them like slings. Above all it is the details that leave a lasting impression: plump cherubim, elegantly numbered boxes fanning out in a wheel-spoke circle, heavy hardwood doors and intricate glasswork in the washrooms.
Even if you’re not coming to see a performance, you can wander around the post-Baroque splendour, though you’ll be charged for the privilege (guided tours offered). Just off the foyer is an elegant café serving good coffee, juices and European-style cakes.
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 craft market 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.
Just beyond the western end of Avenida Central’s pedestrianized section on the corner of Calle 6, is the squat Mercado Central. Though it’s more orderly than the usual chickens-and-campesinos Latin American city markets, it’s still quite an experience. Entering the labyrinthine market, you’re assaulted by colourful arrangements of strange fruits and vegetables, dangling sides of beef and elaborate, silvery rows of fish. At certain times of the day (lunch and late afternoon, for example) the Mercado Central can resemble the Eighth Circle of Hell – choking with unfamiliar smells and an almighty crush of people – while at other times you’ll be able to enjoy a relaxed wander through wide uncrowded alleys of rural commerce. It’s certainly the best place in town to get a cheap bite to eat, and the view from a counter stool is fascinating, as traders and their customers jostle for regional produce from chayotes (a pear-shaped vegetable) and mamones (a lychee-type fruit) to piñas (pineapples) and cas (a sweet-sour pale fruit.) With a little Spanish, and a pinch of confidence, shopping for fruit and vegetables here can be miles cheaper than in the supermarket.
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.
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 – 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.
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.
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 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.
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; at Malecón, C 17/19, Av 2; and at Merecumbé, which has various branches, the most central of which is in San Pedro.
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: Read more about coffee in Costa Rica. 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.
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 bocasgratis 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 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 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.