San José, popularly called “Chepe”, is the capital of Costa Rica. It’s the first stop of every tourist in Costa Rica since the main Costa Rican airport Juan Santamaría is located there. However, many will agree that it’s enough to spend a night in the capital and in the morning leave for the more interesting destinations.
Although San José is the only larger city in Costa Rica (about 350 000 inhabitants), the old half-shredded bungalows around the town show us that this was once a village. At the beginning of the 19th century, the old village started to develop thanks to the first coffee plantations in the Central Valley and the growth of the tobacco industry.
Costa Ricans built a large number of parks in the capital (including the largest one, Parque La Sabana, at the end of Avenida Central), they paved many streets and built bigger houses for the middle industrial class. It was then, in the 19th century, when the first examples of European architecture were erected. The most important among them is the National Theatre (Teatro Nacional) from 1894, a work of European architects constructed from European material. Today you can see large state buildings in the city (for example, the courthouse, national bank) and skyscrapers owned by international firms such as Ericsson, Coca-Cola, Philip Morris, etc.
San José is the safest capital in Central America, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have homeless people, crazy traffic, purse stealing, problems with alcoholism, drug abuse or prostitution as anywhere else in the world. Here you’ll find a lesser extent of those problems. I’ve read somewhere that Costa Rica is called “Denmark of Central America”. You can see why.
The streets of San José are far less crowded and noisy than in most of the Latino-American countries, but it’s still a bit too much for my taste. We did some sightseeing in San José on the 22nd of December and maybe it was because of the Christmas time, but the streets were so crowded that you could barely pass through. You could see lines of people in front of the stores and banks, traffic jams, lack of traffic lights and noise. Lottery retailers were standing in front of every shop shouting out lottery prizes and trying to attract customers.
The most entertaining was a guy with stylish haircut and a microphone in every large store (with clothes, toys, decorations or electronics) who was shouting out what’s on sale. He stood at the entrance of the shop acting all important and relentlessly yelling about today’s special offers.
We wanted to eat like locals, so we went to Mercado Central, the city’s largest market. There we found a variety of stands selling fresh meat, fish and cheese, as well as small buffets or sodas, where locals were eating casado or ceviche (a cold raw fish soup) while sitting on bar chairs. We pushed our way through the crowd and sat in one of the sodas with regular chairs and tables. We ordered a very cheap casado (about 5-6$) and a natural (fresh juice mostly from tropical fruits – mango, pineapple, guanabana, cas, etc.).
Guanabana or graviola is a spiky green fruit with a sweet taste, milky taste. You can eat it or drink its juice. It’s used as an alternative medicine to help cure cancer. Cas or guava is a sweet and sour green tropical fruit that you can find only in Costa Rica and neighboring countries. We drank cas juices and ate cas ice-cream and we loved it!
Suddenly next to our table appeared a whole band playing on accordion. Before we managed to enjoy their performance, a dancing grandpa came to our table asking for a few colones. You should definitely come to the Mercado Central to experience this unique and typical atmosphere.
Somehow I managed to escape the crazy atmosphere of the city, I walked my mom to the bus that is going to the airport and came back to our hostel Costa Rica Backpackers. The hostel was at the end of Avenida 6, at the edge of the city center, next to the Embassy of Nicaragua.
Our hostel looked like a tropical oasis to escape the grey and crowded city center. We had a small pool in the backyard, hamacas, and mattresses to relax with a drink from the garden bar (they also serve delicious food). Rooms were decent and clean. We chose a bed in an 8-bed dorm for only 12$ per night (breakfast included).
San José is divided into avenidas (avenues) and calles (streets). The main Avenida Central and Calle Central intersect in the city center. All parallel streets north from Avenida Central are even avenues, and all parallel streets south from the Avenida Central are odd avenues. All streets west from Calle Central are even streets, and all streets east from Calle Central are odd streets.
However, no taxi driver knows the exact address of some object, he won’t recognize it by the street number. Locals orient by the important buildings or blocks. For example, they will understand that something is “2 blocks away from the Nacional Theatre”, “3 blocks from the Ekon store”, “across the street from the court building”, etc. In our case, the hostel was “next to the Embassy of Nicaragua”. Even later, in other cities that we visited, the official address of our accommodation was “350 meters from the St. Elena Church”, “south from the Catholic church”, etc.
Another thing that could difficult your orientation in San José is finding the bus station. There is no single bus station, but around 20 bus stops around the city. You have to know where are you going and with which bus company and you’ll find the right stop. There is a list of bus stops and their addresses in any tourist guidebook, but if you don’t have one, the staff at your hotel reception will know where to send you.
The bus that goes to the airport is run by Tuasa company and you’ll find it next to the Mercado Central. Tracopa bus stop is located a few blocks below the Mercado de Artesanías and their buses go to Manuel Antonio Nacional Park and the Pacific coast. If you want to go to the Caribbean coast, take a Mepe bus on the other side of the town.
What to see in San José
If you do decide to stay in San José for a few days, here are the town’s most important sights:
There are a few interesting museums in San José, that are worth your visit.
The National Museum (Museo National) will guide you through the history of Costa Rica from the Neolithic tools and ceramics, the archeological collection from the Pre-Colombian era, the Spanish colonial art until the new era marked with the development of the coffee and railway industry. The National Museum is open Tue-Sun from 9 until 16:30 and the entrance fee is 9$.
The Pre-Colombian Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Precolombino) is located inside the huge building Museos del Banco Central, which dominates the main square Plaza de la Cultura. In the museum, you can see golden objects from the Neolithic period until the Spanish colonization. The largest collection comes from the old Diquis culture, who found gold in the rivers of the Osa Peninsula. The Pre-Colombian Gold Museum is open daily from 9-17h and the entrance fee for the whole complex is 11$.
Another interesting museum is The Museum of Jade (Museo del Jade), a green ornamental mineral. Jade was very valuable and popular among the Pre-Colombian cultures (Mayas, Olmecs). It was used in rituals, for writing and modeling different symbolic figurines. The Museum of Jade contains the largest collection of American jade in the world. It’s open daily from 10-17h and the entrance fee is 15$.
2) National Theatre (Teatro Nacional)
I already mentioned the National Theatre from 1894 which was built in European Neoclassic style.
3) Parque La Sabana
The Park La Sabana is the city’s largest park. The green area served as an international airport in the mid-20th century. Nowadays, it’s the popular relaxation zone with a lake for the inhabitants of San José. The old airport building is turned into the Museum of Costa Rican Art (Museo de Arte Costarricense).
Eating lunch at the Mercado Central is a special experience and you’ll definitely feel like a local. You can even buy some cheap fresh products (fish, seafood, meat, cheese, etc.) and cook a meal at home. Leave the visit to the Mercado Nacional de Artesanías for your last day in Costa Rica and buy some cheap souvenirs before getting on a plane.
What to do around San José
1) Britt Coffee Tour
North from San José, near the small city Heredia, are the plantations of the most famous Costa Rican coffee, Britt coffee. You can choose between different tours to see the process of making coffee and find out more about the history and the importance of coffee production in Costa Rica. Every tour finishes with a small degustation. The classic Britt coffee tour costs 25$ (lunch is not included) and lasts for 1,5h. Check out the tour schedule on their web page.
2) Volcano Poás and volcano Irazú
Volcano Poás and volcano Irazú are both active volcanos and 50km away from San José. They are both national parks, which means they are accessible for the public (for 15$ each). You can spend the day in the beautiful Costa Rican nature while hiking up to the closest possible spot to the volcano crater.
Volcano Poás was closed from April 2017 due to the eruption of gases, ashes, and rocks that damaged the hiking trails. It was re-open in August of 2018, but just in case, you should check in your hotel or tourist office if it’s possible to visit it. Unfortunately, we had time to see only one of the active volcanos and we chose the volcano Arenal in the Alajuela region.