Named in honor of Joseph of Nazareth
Arriving to the next country, Costa Rica, making it number 77 on the list of countries I’ve been to this date. To be honest, full of expectations and very excited to finally come here, yet as I will explain later on, it ended up in being a total deception. In this occasion we made San Jose, the capital city our base for the next 3 days, in order to visit Cartago, Monteverde and Arenal; then for another 2 days we made the base in Cahuita by the Caribbean coast, and finally, one last day back in San Jose to rent after 3 intense weeks of travelling non-stop before heading back to Europe.
This was a short flight from Managua to San Jose in one of the smallest planes I’ve ever flew. That was fun! Really fun. I love the experience of being in a plane never been before, and specially if this is a tiny one. It was a Costa Rican airline, Nature Air, on a LET 410 UVP E20. Everyone in this flight was excited to fly, all of the 19 tourists including myself. The only major downside are the super high costs of flying through Central and South America in general. We had no other option, unless to lose an entire day and travel by bus instead, something unfortunately we could not afford due to our very limited time.
So, San Jose. How to start. A city of mixed feelings, or two different cities in one. At one side you have many very nice and beautiful old buildings, although scattered through the entire city mixed with many other horrible buildings all over. The reason for such a great loss on architecture is like anywhere else in Central America, earthquakes and volcano eruptions; but gladly, a lot have survived in the case of San Jose, as opposed to Managua or San Salvador, the most seriously impacted. And in the other hand, it is a city full of beggars, overall insecure feeling, and where everything closes super early leaving you stranded even without restaurants where to go nor shopping centres opened!
Believe it or not, all shops are closing between 17.00 and 18.00pm, if not earlier! And so the shopping centres in the outskirts, most of them by 20.00pm are closed. So we were actually left quite stranded in where to go for dinner as everything was closed, and near the hotel was absolutely nothing open by that time. We even drove around to a mall to find out it was closed (and it was 19.45pm!). Serious, who on earth is closing a capital city that early? Well, then answer apparently, as we were really wondering how is this possible, was to avoid violence, since during evenings and nights the city becomes dangerous. Not a very appealing answer to hear isn’t it? It does not say any good about the city and the country.
This is something more acute on other parts of the country, except the coastal areas. Specially Monteverde and Arenal. It was before 17.00 and there was not even a cafe opened! Anyway, coming back to the city itself.
When planning, a day is well enough to visit everything. Any less than this and might be really tight, but considering any longer and to be honest, I will question myself what else can I do since there is nothing else. In our case, as we had friends coming over from Chicago the following day, we visited the city beforehand, and the next day it only took us few hours to show them the city as we already knew how to go and what to really see worth it. The rest of that day with them we spent in Cartago, the former capital city.
Moving around is super easy, all streets follow the grid pattern, with the Avenidas running west to east crossing the entire city, and the Calles perpendicular to the Avenidas. It is very simple and good to walk everywhere from sight to sight, but be careful with those stupid drivers. Honestly, have you ever read or heard about Costa Rica people as being one of the happiest nations in the world? Well, based on what? Nonsense, they are by all means the worse people we’ve come across the 7 countries that are Central America. Unhelpful, lazy, impolite, rude and believe it or not, they hate Spanish people. I am Spanish and I felt extremely offended for such comments I had to hear from them blaming me for what happened 500 years ago. Is this people really serious? One and never again. Costa Rica is a big cross, probably to never return in my live.
For more information about San Jose check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. The currency in Costa Rica is the Colon. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in San Jose
- Parque Central Is the main and largest square in San Jose from where all the streets during Spanish colonial period where built following the traditional grid pattern. The main avenue crossing to the north is Avenida 2.
-Metropolitan Cathedral Built in 1871 in renaissance style replacing the former one destroyed after an earthquake. Located to the east of Parque Central.
-Melico Salazar Theatre Built in 1928 following an European baroque style.
- Plaza de la Cultura Just one street to the north of Avenida 2, on Avenida Central is the best place from where to get the nicest pictures of the National Theatre.
-National Theatre Built in 1897 in neo-classical style is without doubt one of the finest buildings in the city with intact interiors. Located just 3 streets ahead of the Cathedral, between Avenida 2 and Avenida Central.
-Gran Hotel Costa Rica Built between 1928 and 1930 in neo-classical style is one of the most luxurious in the city.
-Old Banco Anglo and Knohr Building Are two historical buildings just behind the Gran Hotel on Avenida Central.
-The Arcades Built at the beginning of the 20th century in order to give the square a much more elegant appearance.
-Teatro Variedades Is the oldest theatre in the city, built in 1892, listed a historical architecture site. Located on Calle 5 meters away from the square.
- Chinatown To the south of the city between the National Theatre and National Museum, comprising Calle 7, 9 and 11 south of Avenida 2 down to Avenida 12. Is the first Chinatown of any Central American city.
-Calle 9 Is the main thoroughfare on the district, with the starting point of the Chinese Arch on the northern side by Avenida 2, and a Statue of Confucius at the southern side by Avenida 14.
- National Museum of Costa Rica Housed in the Bellavista Fortress that was built in 1917 serving originally as a military barrack. You can still see the many bullets on the walls dating back to the 1948 Civil War. Located farther to the east on Avenida 2, with Plaza de la Democracia at the front.
- Legislative Assembly Housed in the building known as “Blue Castle” was meant to be the Presidential Palace when the construction started in 1937, although was not until 1957 that was finished with the current use. Located north of the National Museum.
- National Park Just a street to the north of the National Museum and Legislative Assembly is this nice park with tropical trees and flowers.
-National Monument The statue of national hero Juan Santamaria is the centrepiece in the park.
-Atlantic Train Station Immediately on the north east section of the park. Built in 1908 is a good example of tropical architecture.
- Morazan Park and Parque de Espana One of the nicest parks in the city with a beautiful neo-classical Temple of Music. Both parks are literally next to each other, to the west of the National Park on Avenida 3.
-Casa Amarilla Meters to the north of Parque de Espana is an elegant colonial building, currently the Foreign Affairs Office. As a note, the ceiba tree at the front was planted in 1963 by John F. Kennedy during his visit to Costa Rica back then.
-Edificio Metalico West of Parque de Espana and north of Parque Morazan, is an entirely metallic building dating to the era of Gustav Eiffel designed by Charles Thirio and shipped from Belgium where it was built in pieces ready for assembly.
- Amon District To the north and west of Morazan Park is one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the city, where years ago lived the coffee growers and therefore built their mansions. Nowadays a very trendy place where many luxurious hotels have made their way in the former mansions.
- Central Post Office Building The most impressive art-nouveau building in the city built in 1917. It’s the philatelic museum. On Avenida 1 with Calle 2, north of Parque Central.
- Children’s Museum Interesting for the architecture of the building it is housed, a former penitentiary in used between 1910 and 1979 with a fortress-like look. Located to the north of the city.
- La Sabana Park Is the largest park in the country, the “lungs” of San Jose. The views from the artificial lake towards the background mountains and nature are well worth it. Located to the west of the city, at the end of Paseo Colon which is the continuation of Avenida 2.
If arriving by plane, Juan Santamaria airport is the largest in the country, located on the west of the city. Buses from the company Alajuela depart from the arrivals level by the car park frequently, taking around 30 minutes to reach La Merced Park in the middle of downtown. The bus cost less than $UD 1.
Arriving by bus from other Central American countries is also easy, being Tica Bus the largest company offering services towards Guatemala and all the countries in between. Other major international bus companies are Transnica and King Quality.
To move across the country there are many cheap, reliable and frequent buses. Depending on the location you are planning to go, then check in advance which bus terminal they depart from in San Jose, as there are several. Expect long journeys, becoming countless hours when heading towards the Caribbean coast, even distances are in truth not that much.
Within the city there is no need for any public transportation as the old city center is very compact and easy to navigate by walking.
Being the capital and largest city in the country, and also so business and finance orientated (well, apparently, although you do not get to see or feel it at all), there are lots of large international chain properties all over, and more discrete, smaller and family run hotels. If you are looking for a recognised hotel brand, then be prepared to pay for it. Hotels in Costa Rica in general are not cheap, and they come second in cost factor after what we paid in Nicaragua, the most expensive in our entire trip. In the other hand, a more modest property, which does not mean having less or worse facilities, will be way cheaper. From our experience, we’ve been at both ends, the first days staying at a top hotel, and the last day before flying back to Europe at a smaller local chain.
A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
For the first 3 days we stayed at the Barcelo San Jose Palacio, by Autopista General Canas Kilometer 3, to the west of the city. While not near the city centre, still easy to reach by a short taxi ride to La Merced Park, or as we had, a rental car. We had 2 very different opinions and experiences on this property. At one side, it is incredibly great for all the facilities it has, the amazing landscaped pool and large garden area. Nice breakfast, large rooms and overall well taken care. On the other hand, the people. We had quite a bad experience with everyone except the breakfast waiters which were fantastic. Receptionist and bellboys were all careless to any of our requests, and so the line managers. Not only we had that bad experience, another 2 of our friends had the very same in their case and worst. Said this, I will actually not recommend you this hotel but staying somewhere else. There are plenty of large international chains with same or even better facilities as Barcelo.
On our last day before flying back to Europe, we went for something smaller and local, which turned to be great on facilities itself. KC Colaye, meters south of Parque Metropolitano La Sabana. With a beautiful pool and larger than average room, very quiet and very well cared all together. Staff, once again, seemed to be more worry about their mobile phones and other things than attending properly to the guests. But after 6 days in Costa Rica, this is something that applies to the entire country! So patience… really, patience.