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).

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