Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, lies in the Mesita Central, an elongated valley with the floor just over a kilometer above both the Caribbean and Pacific. San Jose’s greatest attribute is the marvelous year-round spring-like climate, conducive to both work, homelife and Costa Rica tourism. San Jose is basically surrounded by beautiful gentle extinct volcanos glistening in the afternoon sun like an Irish patch-work quilt in light and dark greens. Various formations of clouds riddled with sunlight drift overhead towards the south-west fortelling what to expect when they first appear to the east above Coronado. When high in these mountains at night, it is breathtaking to see the lights of San Jose twinkle far below.
San Jose started as a thatched hermitage in 1737, where residents throughout the valley were drawn together. Spaniards and Creole smugglers were also exciled from Cartago for going against the royal monopoly by smuggling contraband. The location was first called Villa Nueva de la Boca del Monte del Valle de Abra, later shortened to San Jose for the patron saint. The freewheeling merchants started to monopolize in both the tobacco and coffee trade, gradually overtaking Cartago as the business hub of Costa Rica. After the surprise independence from Spain in 1821, by 1823 Cartago and Heredia wanted to amalgamate Costa Rica with the new Central American federation led by Mexico, while San Jose and Alejuela wanted full independence. The republican forces won the clash, and San Jose was adopted as the capital.
The high revenues from coffee were used to build a superb infrastructure, mud roads were bricked, streets were illuminated with kerosene lamps, San Jose was the third city in the world to install electric street lights (Thomas Edison had a friend in San Jose), public telephones were installed ahead of most European and American cities. By 1900 there were tree-lined parks, and grandiose buildings, museums, the Teatro Nacional, and elaborate mansions all purchased by coffee revenues. Prefab metal buildings became in vogue, and today’s Metal School in Barrio Amon is a fine example. There were also slum areas where several families lived together, and on the outskirts of San Jose the industrial zones arose.
Only 70,000 residents lived in San Jose as late as the 1940’s, one tenth of the country’s population. But the capital region began to mushroom, growing uncontrollably in all directions, absorbing nearby communities. Unfortunately, most of the finest buildings fell to the wrecking ball, replaced by hideous modern utilitarian structures.
Today, San Jose’s still growing population of 1.35 million is about a third of the nation’s total, still drawing those in outlying regions of Costa Rica and nearby countries in search of work or education. San Jose dominates the country, and its central location makes it the ideal home-base for excursions to any corner of Costa Rica, like a hub with spokes.
San Jose was never layed out by urban planners, and grew in a hap-hazard fashion. Attempts at zoning are far too little, and too late. The results are a congested, noisy, bustling hodge-podge of activity, mansions built beside slums, factories against schools, no order or semblance. There is very little colonial architecture, and nearly all buildings have been built since 1900 reflecting an unorganized combination of Spanish and Moorish but mostly basic North American utilitarianism. There is no sign of the indigenous culture, as they never really populated the Central Messita to any extent.
The central core of San Jose is crowded with hotels, offices, stores, banks and a few small parks. Avenida Central has been transformed into a pedestrian walkway for eight blocks through the heart of the shopping district, flanked with the highest rent retail stores in the country on both sides. Nearby ‘Gringo Gulch’, a six block area dominated by the Hotel Del Rey is an area of casinos, bars, and prostitutes. The older male gringo crowd has their constitutional beers in the afternoon, giving way to younger male tourists at night. The next concentric ring going outward is small factories, and repair-type shops, office buildings, parking lots, and secondary retail establishments. Transvestites infest many corners of this area at night, decked out in mini-skirts, high heels, long wigs, and manly voices. Large homes in the older stately neighbourhoods such as Barrio Amon and Otoya are being remodelled into boutique homes and shops, but the other neighbourhoods have nothing worth saving except the land.
Outside of this second ring is anyone’s guess what you will find, from restaurants, and schools, to factories and unused train stations. Homes in the urban residential areas are crowded together, with just a few meters of frontage on the street. Paths lead off in all directions with whole populations living down each one. Every property has a great deal of protection and privacy with bars on all the windows, high sold metal fences, and cement walls, often topped with razor wire. Any sizeable commercial building has 24 hour security, and are locked tighter than a drum at night. About three fifths of central San Jose to the east, south and west is ringed with about a three kilometer radius four lane highway (autopista), with traffic circles (rotundas) as intersections. Outside of this are the satelite lower-middle class communities of Guadalupe, Zapote, Desamparados, San Sebastian, Hatillo and Pavas that have grown into San Jose to make one big metropolitan area. Communities such as Sabanilla, San Pedro, La Granja, Peralta, the Sabanas, Rohrmoser, and further west, Escazu are burgeoning middle to upper-middle class suburbs with elegant houses, lawns and gardens, and high metal fences. These neighbourhoods have 24 hour street guards, or private guards if they can afford it.
The Municipalidad de San Jose is attempting to do a facelift on some of the former gracious areas of the city core with colonial-style street lamps, trees planted and overhead wires buried. A Spanish company received the contract without bidding on it, so controversy has erupted as corruption is suspected.
The narrow roads in the core of San Jose are in a grid pattern, most are one-way. Construction, an accident, parades and demonstrations tie up traffic in all directions for blocks. Outside of the central core, roads twist and turn in every direction, accommodating the hilly landscape. Very few main roads exist, and therefore are often choked at intersections. Attempted short-cuts usually dead-end and are a waste of time. Driving is an experience in itself, both because you are forever twisted around direction-wise, and it seems your fellow drivers are doing anything but paying attention to their driving, talking to their passengers, hands flying in the air, or talking on a cell phone, or they are stopped, jamming up traffic talking to a pedestrian. It is surprising not more people are killed. Fortunately the government is limiting cars by rotating times in San Jose’s core district. It takes a couple of years of driving in San Jose to learn the quickest routes.
San Jose has limited interesting things to see and do. However, one suggestion is the Plaza de la Cultura, Avenida Central between Calle 3 and 5, just an interesting place to hang out. There South American musicians with pan-flutes often entertain, marimba bands, jugglers on stilts, vendors selling t-shirts and smoking pipes all laid out on blankets, and just the crowd in general, children running around chasing the overfed pigeons, and the ornate nineteenth century National Theatre on the south side, truly the most impressive display of architecture in Costa Rica, and a justifiable source of national pride.
The National Theatre was constructed by coffee taxes to permit a suitable venue for a touring prima donna in 1890. The outside facade is classical Renaissance with symbols representing music, dance and fame. The pink marble interior has the Comedy and Tragedy figures, beautiful murals of Costa Rican life, and a triptych ceiling supported by six meter marble columns. The magnificently decorated three story high auditorium is a perfect horseshoe with seating for 1,040 in opulance, gold-laminated ornaments, marble staircases, cocobolo hardwood floors, European painted murals and the ceiling with celestial dieties surrounding a huge crystal chandelier. Tickets for performances can be purchased at the entrance.
Later, enjoy a cool beverage and something to eat next door on the open-air terrace of the Gran Hotel, and take in the action. The Pre-Columbian Gold Museum under tha Plaza De La Cultura is worth a visit. Over two thousand gold trinkets are displayed ( snakes, frogs, people, coins, etc) weighing over 22,000 troy ounces.
Another ‘must see’, if you have the intestinal fortitude, is the 1892 Central Market (Avenida Central, Calle 6/8). Hold your handbags tight, move your wallet to your front pocket, and hide your jewelry as you enter. The market takes up a city block with off-shoots into the surrounding streets. It gets dark quickly, and the alley ways are jammed with stalls selling everything; puppies and exotic fish, animal feed, herbal medicines, and pork, beef and chicken butchers selling every part of the animal, there are little sodas with fresh Costa Rica style soups, fresh roasted ground and whole bean coffee, warm-roasted peanuts in the shell, ice cream, jewelry, stalls with exotic seafoods on ice, sewing supplies, fresh cut flowers, and even leather goods. It is a fun place to wander through, just listen and smell the coulage of sensory inputs. A special treat is the thundering sound of the rain hammering the tin roof during an unexpected downpour. It makes you feel alive!
Other places of mild interest are the Jade Museum on the 11th floor of the I.N.S. building (Ave.7 between Calle 9and 11), with pre-Columbian artifacts, many backlit to show the translucent colours of jade, pendants and adzes, and small human-like sculptures. Also there is a collection of pre-Columbian ceramics and gold miniatures organized by culture and region. Many enormous clay phallic symbols underline the the indigenous preoccupation with sex.
The National Museum (calle 17, Ave. central/2) walks you through a timemachine starting with a small eclectic collection of pre-Columbian life with art and figures, to the Columbus discovery of Costa Rica on his fourth voyage, colonial furniture, art and costumes, and the gradual modernization of Costa Rica. Other chambers display the history, archaelogy, geology, religion and colonial life. One chamber has old blow-ups of original photos taken in the San Jose area nearly a century ago.
The National Gallery of Contemporary Art, in the bottom of the west side of the National Library (Ave.3, Calle 15), has a revolving display of stunning works done by several contemporary Costa Rican artists.
The Simon Bolivar Zoo (Avenida 11, Calle 9) is undergoing some badly needed improvements. Until recently, the zoo has been terribly underfunded and thus understaffed, resulting in inadequate facilities, poor veterinary care, and nutritional deficiencies. The male lion and Bengal tiger, that I mentioned in my others writings suffering each in a small concrete cage, have both since passed away and are stuffed for posterity, and kept in the administrative offices. The native species include spider and capuchin monkeys, most of the indigenous cats, some toucans and macaws, amphibians and reptiles. A new Nature Centre has been opened with video room, library and a workroom for children. Crocodiles and tapirs are moving into a new lagoon designed by the Baltimore Aquarium. Finally, the zoo, though far from perfect can be atleast recommended.
The Spirogyra Butterfly Garden, two blocks south-east of El Pueblo, has thrity species of butterflies that flutter inside a 350 square meter garden, covered by a net, hummingbirds abound. The center waterfalls is surrounded by orchids and trees. There is a separate section that houses eggs and caterpillars from preditors.
For a different type of dinner setting you may want to try something very original, and lots of fun. It is called El Pueblo (the village). The smell of open-air barbecues permeates everywhere. El Pueblo is a maze of restaurants and bars and art galleries, craft and specialty stores, even a few discotecs, all within a Spanish village setting with cobblestone walkways and stairs twisting and winding throughout. You can actually get a bit lost inside. It almost gives you the feeling that the bulls will be charging around the next corner. The older crowd goes by day, and the younger crowd at night. Unfortunately, like everywhere, crime is on the increase so please be aware. It is only about an eight dollar taxi ride from the Adventure Inn, admission is free and well worth a visit.
At night, San Jose offers a fantastic assortment of fine dining establishments, bars, discos, casinos, nightclubs. However if you do go into San Jose at night, it is best to use taxis to get around. They are generally safe, reliable, plentiful and inexpensive. After experiencing the action of San Jose day or night, I know you will be happy to return to our safe, quiet, unpolluted, and uncongested Adventure Inn neighborhood for a restful nights sleep.