Finding interesting architecture, culture and a friendly atmosphere in the colourful Costa Rican Capital city of San José.
It is easy to overlook San José in your travels and many travellers to Costa Rica only glimpse it as they head off for some of the country’s other attractions. However, venture into the city and you will find a flamboyant and colourful location filled with friendly people and a friendly, laid back Latin American atmosphere.
San José is a fascinating city with busy market streets and a constant stream of people and traffic. Once you have made your way into the central area there is much to see and do. If you enjoy soaking up the atmosphere of new places and different cultures then it is quite unlike anywhere else as people of all ages sit and enjoy the atmosphere in the many squares and seated areas throughout the day.
The best place to start sightseeing is at the Teatro Nacional. This is the city’s finest historic building and houses a wonderful selection of art and stages performances regularly. Be sure to check out the Coffee Mural on the ceiling between the lobby and the auditorium which is famous due to its quality (and the amount of factual errors portrayed within it). There are also a number of works of art which use clever perspective tricks to create unusual and interesting effects depending on where you are standing in the rooms. The observant will notice angels following viewers around the room and portraits of women mysteriously gaining and losing weight depending on the angle you view them from.
Near the Teatro Nacional, across the Plaza de la Cultura is the subterranean Museo del Oro Precolombino. This gold museum contains a mass of ancient gold artefacts and the national coin collection. It is extremely well done and provides and interesting and useful way of getting out of the beating sun and exploring some of Costa Rica’s history. Dollars or colones are accepted and entry is cheap at between five to nine dollars. 500 Colones is equal to about $1
Walking down the main street of San José your senses will be assaulted by a feast of colour, music and different smells of food. The city has many designer stores and multiple places to eat ranging from local food such as plantain and spicy rice and beans to more recognisable brands. Along the way down the street are a number of the open areas where people and musicians gather and everything is within easy walking distance. Near the end of the high street is an indoor market area where many souvenirs can be bought with either dollars or colones. It is somewhat maze-like but is well worth a look. It also contains a number of simple yet excellent food establishments which are good value for money. Here you can get a good sized meal for around 800 colones (Under two dollars).
Eating at one of these places is an experience not to miss and provided one my highlights of the trip. You have a choice of sitting at one big table with other passersby or you can opt for one of the counter seats. Either choice provides a perfect place to observe the semi organised chaos of the busy indoor market area. The food I had was excellent and seemingly never ending as dish after dish of chicken, soup and vegetables kept arriving. There is also an excellent range of the freshest tasting iced fruit juices you have ever had available which really help after a day of walking around in the baking heat.
Another must see sight is the impressive Catedral Metropolitana that overlooks the Parque Central. The cathedral, aside from being an impressive structure contains an elaborate and beautiful altar. The nearby park is punctuated by an enormous towering band stand structure made of four arches which in itself makes an impressive sight to see.
I can honestly say that the time I spent in San José was one of the most enjoyable things I have done while travelling. There are a host of other pieces of interesting architecture to sample but the real draw of the place is the atmosphere. My advice to anyone travelling to Costa Rica is to make sure you take the time to experience the capital city.
The place I based myself in was the incredibly beautiful Alta Hotel. It is fairly expensive to stay there (around $149 a night), but you get a beautiful hilltop view across the city and the hotel is designed to blend classic colonial style with a contemporary edge which rivals many of the city’s main architectural buildings. It also has a swimming pool, viewing platform and each room has a balcony. It is a truly a memorable place to stay that made the trip even more memorable.
The hotel does have a restaurant but it is expensive and can be hit and miss with the quality of its food. I would recommend that people staying here take the five minute walk down the hill to the local bar named the Green Onion. The bar is frequented by both local customers and tourists and provides a friendly and lively atmosphere. Decent food can be purchased here for around 3,000 colones and around 800 colones for a drink. It is very friendly and as the night goes on gets ever increasingly lively.
When traveling to the country it is important to note that you can’t buy Costa Rican currency outside of its borders. You will either have to carry dollars (which are accepted in most places, though you will get colones back in change and most places won’t take notes bigger than twenties), or find an appropriate currency exchange. Most hotels offer an exchange and the rate will be much better than at the airport. Another thing to recognise is that though San José is warm and friendly, pickpocketing is rife and you should be careful with you possessions. The best thing to do is leave them in hotel room safes if available.