San José is small and cozy. Although its style and architecture are contemporary, some buildings of strong European influence, mainly British and French, can still be found as a heritage of the economic coffee prosperity from the turn of the century. Towards north and west of the city, we can still appreciate some old adobe structures with tile roofs that have been preserved with care, which evoke past remembrances of the large coffee plantations and farms. Although district areas do exist, these are small quadrants for property census and electoral organization mainly. The administrative division of the country was defined by regions or cantons which have their own municipalities, and can be considered as small urban zones and towns, with their own unique personality and characteristics. Thanks to the topography, there is a great diversity of micro-climates that determine in many cases the type of production on the region. Distances are easily covered by car or public transportation.
San José Downtown
Very early, within the drowsiness of the dawn and the growing murmur of the first by-passers, this small city awakens indulged in laziness after a night of great food, drinking, and fun. The exquisite smell of fresh bread and recently brewed coffee from the highlands fills the air that surrounds the coffee and soda shops, meanwhile the rustling of fast-paced steps, car motors and horns increases even more.
Due to its small size, friendly and charming San Jose, or Chepe as known affectionately by the ticos is worth to be checked by foot. Not so long ago, the Central Avenue was closed to vehicle traffic and embellished with stone paving and gardens, so the tourists and locals as well could walk by in comfort or just sit down to enjoy the passing-by of the very beautiful Costarrican women!
Just ask anyone on the street: 'How are you?' The answer invariably will be: Pura Vida!(Pure Life!)
This expression explains in two words the charm, positivism, and friendliness of the local people towards a newcomer. Oh! If you do not speak Spanish, there is a very good chance you will get an answer in English!
It is important to note; that San Jose's Municipality has made great efforts to protect the security of is inhabitants and visitors as well, but some areas in downtown may be considered dangerous. However, as in any city, prevention is always a good measure.
The district of the witches! If you ever need a magic potion for luck or love, or want to cast a spell on someone, you will have to look around Escazú. This is more of a legend than a reality. Actually, Escazú has become a major commerce and entertaining area, with beautiful hotels and fabulous restaurants. Its residential zones are ample and highly priced. Located in the foothills of the mountain, you just need to go up a few meters to enjoy a breathtaking view of the whole city.
Heading West from Escazú a few kilometers on the same road, you will find the very impressive Santa Ana Valley. Its marvelous weather has helped to turn this zone into in a highly developed area in very short time. Many residents from the more dense areas, tired of the noise and turmoil have moved over to Santa Ana in a quest for tranquility and warmth.
The main produce of this region are onions that are planted in the area with great pride. Other vegetables are also produced and there is a flourishing pottery industry as well.
Montes de Oca
The district of the youth and the culture! The University City Rodrigo Facio, the
There are other more rural areas, farther from the city environment within San Jose. Puriscal, Tarrazú and Aserrí, as well as Acosta, Dota and Pérez Zeledón standout for the beauty of their scenery, with small markets of local products and artisan stores. The travel agencies have tours to drive you over, and there is always a public transportation service and car rentals for the adventurous one. No doubt, San Jose is in all of its urban and rural expressions, a glamorous and modern great city with beautiful and wonderful towns to discover.
Embraced by the splendorous and perennial green-blue mountains that form the Cordillera of Talamanca and the Central Volcanic Cordillera, lies the city of San José. Established around a small hermit in honor of Saint Joseph in May 21, 1737, in what was known as The Plain of the Mount's Mouth, it extends on a southeast-northwest axis. Its growth from a small villa to Costa Rica's capital city was hard and painful.
"Four leagues north from Aserri, in a very pleasant plain, there is an ugly village with the diminutive of Villita, just developing. It is composed of eleven roof-tiled and fifteen straw houses, which form no plaza or street. It lacked water which was then carried by open channels; the church is the most narrow, humble and indecent from all those I saw in that province; its patron Saint Joseph."
With these textual words, starts the oldest registered description of San José, made in 1751 by the bishop Agustín Morel de Santa Cruz. With less than one hundred and fifty inhabitants, building a town was a challenge, since there was not even water for basic needs. Presbyter Don Juan de Pomar y Burgos was then assigned to la Villita (Small Village) and commissioned to construct a water system and establish a parish. It is important to note that all the village settlements from that time were highly influenced by a very powerful ecclesiastic and religious government. It is precisely doña Maria de Torres, mother of the priest Manuel Antonio Chapui, a great promoter of the development of San Jose, who donated the land that is actually known as La Sabana.. This is one of the largest city parks of San Jose and used to be our International Airport some forty years ago.
Nevertheless, San José was not meant to be Costa Rica's capital city from the beginning. It was not until 1823, in the time of Costa Rica''s independence from Spain, that this honor was taken away from the more traditional Cartago and given to more dynamic and growing, San José. It was this great communal effort oriented towards agriculture and commerce that established the basis to design the future of the young city. In the educational area, towards 1814, the Santo Tomas Education House was established by the neighbor's own initiative. It was declared University of Santo Tomas by public decree in 1843. Minor studies consisting of lessons in Latin, Castilian and Philosophy were imparted as major studies in Law, Medicine, and Theology. With the economic growth of the city, thanks to the coffee and tobacco plantations, by 1860 many youngsters had the opportunity of traveling and studying in universities abroad, mainly in England.
It is worth noting that this educational process was extended in the course of time to make Costa Rica what it is today: A country of educated and well mannered people who love peace.
In the agricultural area, San José was known for its coffee and tobacco plantations. This activity flourished all over the Central Valley and the producers started buying land and farms away from the city. They also built homes downtown in the venerable Barrio Amon to spend seasons with family and friends. Actually, Barrio Amon has become a place of Bed and Breakfast hotels, restaurants, and commerce established precisely on these nostalgic and charming homes.
Nowadays, San José is a small city where visitors can enjoy all sorts of attractions, go shopping, or please the palate in one of its excellent restaurants. Exciting and fashionable, it is indeed a city worth to be lived!
Just picture yourself, in an everlasting line at the airport immigration counter at arrival, after a few exhausting hours on that plane! Even worse, there was a tremendous turbulence and the guy in the next seat did not stop trying to sell you a life insurance policy during the flight! As if this was not enough, the airline carrier lost your Gucci bag! At this point, what you are probably wishing for is a soft, clean, big bed at a charming, nice hotel, right?
San José experienced a great tourism boom growth in the eighties and hotels of all sorts were built. It is important though, to know the reason of your visit to make the right choice.
With the increase of business class tourism, wonderful convention centers and resorts that offer business travelers all the convenience required to carry on with their work were developed. At the Tara Resort Hotel Spa the guest receives luxurious accomadations in addition to fast Internet connections, fax, secretarial services, voice mail, and conference rooms are some of the features offered. For the LGBT crowd, the Banderas Annex adds many amenities such as horseback riding and massage. The resort Inter Continental Real Costa Rica includes jacuzzis, swimming pools, tennis courts and gyms, as well as nice bars with live music for demanding tastes. If you are traveling with the family, a wonderful option is the Apartotel María Alexandra, where they also have a full service tour agency.
For the traveler who is more interested in the city life, Downtown San José offers quite an array of medium to small size hotels. They have the advantage of their location, so they are great if you want to explore the city by foot and you can always catch a cab or bus easily if you want to go further. They apply as well to the business traveler who has affairs in town and although they do not offer the same amount of services that a resort does, they are generally clean and comfortable. One great option is the Hotel Santo Tomás, among their amenities you will find bar and restaurant service, cable TV, air conditioning and a travel agency. If shopping is your weakness, stay at the Hotel Aloki where you are close to retail stores that carry almost anything you might want to buy. (With the exception of wild animals and endangered species that is!). For history buffs, stay at the Hotel Vesuvio which is located near many monuments. For more affordable lodging, stay at the Casa Ridgway, a hostel for young travelers.
The tourism boom created the bed and breakfast phenomenon as well. Just a few blocks north of Central Avenue, in the historical and charming Barrio Amón, you will find some options that operate in the old mansions of the coffee plantation owners from the turn of the Century. The Apartotel El Sesteo is one such hotel. After some restoration, the Hotel Barceló Palma Real and the Hotel Barceló Rincón del Valle have been turned into charming hotels, full of history and tradition. You will find bed and breakfast hotels in the San Pedro and Escazú areas as well as in some rural zones. They generally offer comfortable and clean rooms, telephones, and air conditioning or fans, and cable TV. Most of them have private bathrooms and breakfast is part of the fare. The Cacts Hotel is an option for travelers in family groups, or whose final destination is a beach or mountain resort, but wish to spend a few days in the city.
Outside the City
Finally, outside of the city there are a few hotels that will suit the traveler on a modest budget. If not ideal, they are also an option. One of these hotels is Prado.
It is worth mentioning that some medium sized, more specialized excellent hotels like the Los Lagos Hotel and the Hotel Occidental La Condesa which is located in the mountains. Superb restaurants with European chefs and lavishly decorated rooms are their seal. They are perfect for honeymooners or persons who want to relax and forget all about everything, although their rates are a bit on the high side.
A Spiritual Experience: Visiting Heredia & Cartago
If you are staying in San José and want to venture out a bit to visit some of the more quaint towns nearby, you may want to go to the historical towns of Heredia and Cartago as well as visit the gateway town of La Fortuna, which offers access to the Arenal Volcano. Easily accessible by taxi, car, and bus from many points in San Jose, these neighboring towns offer a tourist a chance to become immersed in the local culture, to meet many friendly townsfolk, and to experience a bit of natural life away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
When you visit both towns, you are immediately struck by the strong influence of the Catholic Church on the area. This is especially prevalent in Cartago inside the Our Lady of the Angels Basilica. This church is dedicated to the patron saint of Costa Rica, Our Lady of the Angels and offers the visitor a glimpse into a very tranquil sanctuary. The church is also home to many beautiful displays of religious statues, carvings, and art. If you are lucky to be in town during the Christmas season, you may also be able to partake in a town parade that features floats, music, marionettes decorated with Christmas attire, and evening fireworks. It seems as if the whole town comes alive during these celebrations, which also draw people from other towns and local villages who come to enjoy the festive mood and good will offered.
In Heredia, a religious undertone can be felt in one of the open-air concerts often held here. Whether you are religious or not, it is a spiritual experience to listen to a gospel concert performed live here. Attending this type of concert, you can feel the interest emanated by the crowd as people gather to contemplate the music as well as the day in general. No place for worrying about the day's troubles, you can get a sense of peacefulness and calm here as you mingle with the crowds who often attend these festivities dressed in their Sunday best.
Another point of interest that provides an uplifting experience is a visit to the town of La Fortuna, home of the Arenal Volcano, which is one of the most active volcanoes in all of Central America. When you visit the volcano, you can see nature in its most majestic form as you feel, from an observation point nearby, the earth trembles beneath you. Many tours of this volcano are available from San Jose and other local area hotels and tourist agencies. (See Expediciones Tropicales for an example of a tour group that offers tours to this volcano.) These tours are worth taking as it is truly spiritual experience to stand on a lava slope and watch burning lava flow. Additionally, the rumbling from the live volcano leaves you in awe of Mother Nature over man.
The area surrounding the volcano is also home to many hot springs where you can relax in the warm and calming sulfurous waters. If you are a fan of horseback riding, you will also be able to find guides in La Fortuna that can accompany you across mountain ridges and pass flowing rivers to the Arenal Lagoon, which is a beautiful mountain lake. Although you may catch a glimpse of a speedboat on the lake as it passes by, this modern intrusion into the area does not detract from the tranquil, almost timeless scenery that you view from your vantage point on high. Pueblo Antiguo
The Pueblo Antiguo singular theme park is an unforgettable experience of color, music, and wonderful food. It presents three important aspects of great cultural and historical relevance, recreated on a very realistic setting: The city at the turn of the century, the countryside, and the Caribbean coast. Magic occurs through the architecture, live folklore dances and songs, carnivals, fireworks, boat rides, and lots and lots of fun!
Just close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself in turn of the century San Jose: Horse-drawn carriages rolling over tile-paved roads, beautiful señoritas wearing laced white gloves and matching sun umbrellas, taken by the arm of elegant gentleman in top or "pita" hats. The buildings resemble those of the epoch, and represent the Municipal Market, the Church and Plaza, the Central Park, the Congress, the Bank, the Fire Station and some souvenir stores and restaurants—Oh! even a train on tracks!
Perhaps the countryside is one of the most nostalgic remembrances of our little piece of land, that although still exists, are being swallowed little by little by the impact of the urban expansion. The Costa Rican peasants are well known for their honesty, candor and kindness. In this setting, you will be able to enjoy typical dances, songs and masquerades, oxcarts, hundred years old adobe and tile houses (some are real structures brought specially to Pueblo Antiguo), and the trapiche (cane mill) where the most delicious sugar cane juice was extracted and cooked in huge pans. Oh! A dairy farm with cows is also included! (Sorry, milking is not allowed).
You better bring a hat, sunglasses, and tanning lotion! This setting will really transport you over to the Atlantic Coast where the re-creation of the world famous Tortuguero canals with its exuberant vegetation, exhort our nature lover and explorer's spirit and plunges us into a realm of relaxation and peacefulness.
Experience all of Costa Rica on Classic Journey's Costa Rica Guided Tour. This exclusive and luxurious eight-day walking trip takes groups to unique and breathtaking natural and historic sites throughout the country. With Tours María Alexandra you can ride on the back of a Harley-Davidson or more affectionately known as a "hog" with your own private guide or rent one of your own. Saint Germain Tours is owned and operated by Costa Ricans and leads travelers throughout San José and its environs. The tour agencies Mitur and Cotur offer excursions in the Caribbean and both take you to Tortuguero Island, which is a magnificent day trip to see with all of its flora and fauna. For those more intrepid travelers, Nature Adventures and Tropical Rivers are two companies that take clients rafting on some of the myriad canals and rivers that traverse Costa Rica.
It's Carnival time! Get yourself ready to enjoy the rhythm and joyfulness of an authentic Caribbean Carnival. The colorful dresses and disguises, the eternal smiles and sensual movements of the dancers will electrify you all the way up and down! Get yourself in the mood, do not be shy, and shake your body! Afterwards, a bilingual guide will give you a tour over all three settings and will tell you stories and legends about the country. If by then you are hungry, a delicious typical lunch awaits you at the restaurant El Ventolero, where you will experience the tradition of Costa Rica's best cuisine.
San José Central Market
If you have an adventurous spirit and uninhibited personality, you will love this market which will take no more than just a few morning hours (Saturdays and Sundays exclusively). First, get dressed in comfortable and loose fashion clothing: shorts, T-shirt, hat, and sandals in the Summer time (between February and April). In the green or rainy season (May to November) jeans and tennis shoes are appropriate. Oh, and you will need a large umbrella. December and January are cold months, so keep a windbreaker or sweater handy. A small backpack is a good idea, and of course your photographic or video camera with lots of film. San Jose is a safe place fair enough, but as in any other city, there may be pickpockets now and then. So please, and for your own safety, leave your Rolex and jewels at the hotel safety box, and do not go around showing great deals of money! Regarding money, you will need some cash, no more than ¢5000. Another good idea is to make this tour in a group. Sell the idea to your new friends at the hotel!
Once armed, cameras I mean, equipped, and with a happy full stomach you are ready to go! Catch a cab and ask him to take you to your destiny: the closest Feria del Agricultor (San José Central Market. These are small open-air markets. You will find them all over the city skirts, in towns and districts. Here, farmers from around the country bring their fresh produce for sale. Fruits, vegetables, and legumes of all kinds are neatly arranged in wooden palettes, which create an unforgettable symphony of color and smell. Meats, chicken, and fish are sold too, and cleanness all over is acceptable. This is a real, absolutely local, and very, very tico setting. Feel at ease. Unless you are sporting a tinted green and pink punk haircut, you might expect just some funny curious looks and a few giggles. Buy some fruit and take it back to the hotel!
Since by now you should start getting hungry, it is time for lunch! Forget about fancy restaurants and chain fast food outlets. Today they are forbidden! Take note of the direction the taxi took to take you there (North, South, and the like). Generally, this ride should be on a range of one to one and a half kilometers from where you started, so we are going to re-create it on our way back by foot. If you get lost, just ask! There should be a few sodas (small refreshment rooms) close to any farmers market. Most of them are tidy, clean and inexpensive places. Go in one that appeals you, and ask for a casado, which is served with some sort of meat of your choice, and rice, beans, vegetables, plantain and salad on the side. To wash it down, the frescos prepared in water (no soda pop please) are just delicious. Pineapple, blackberries, tamarind, cas, etc. just to mention a few, or try one prepared in milk like horchata, crema, pinolillo, cebada, or cocoa. If you are a big eater, you can also have empanadas (a sort of turnover) filled with meat, potato and sausage, beans or cheese, or try the wonderful sweet, ripe plantain empanadas, filled with mashed black beans or melted cheese. So, if you asked for typical food, this is the real thing. If you get tired of walking with all those fruits in your backpack, just grab a cab back to the hotel!
Guided Tours Classic Journeys (+1 800 200 3887 / http://www.classicjourneys.com/) Coast to Coast Adventures (+011 506 2280 8054 / http://www.ctocadventures.com/)
Specialty Tours Go with a Wheelchair (+011 506 2454 2810 / http://www.gowithwheelchairs.com/)
Ecological Tours Tropical Rivers (+1 888 722 8273 / http://www.riostropicales.com/) Natural Adventures (+ 1 800 321 8410 / http://www.adventurecostarica.com/)