Getting off the plane, tired and weak you can feel the humidity of the jungle as you pass baggage claim. The glass doors open abruptly and a wave of hostile taxi drivers are pointing and shouting, waiting outside the airport entrance like a pack of wolves. Holding crumpled signs and laminated badges meant to win you over, in unison they are chomping cigarettes and yelling, hands are reaching in fast from all directions – you tighten your grip on the heavy bags draped across each shoulder. Some put on a fake “American” accent as they simultaneously ask, “HEY you need a ride?” and try to grab the bag right out of your hands. Welcome to San Jose.
Based on what most of the guidebooks and travel sites have to say about this city you’re planning on getting in, fueling up, and getting out of here as quick as possible. The entire capital is viewed as little more than a gas station. Tourists fly in from all around the world, enticed by the tropical jungles, lush wildlife, rich plantation coffee, and stunning beaches. They land in San Jose and immediately jump in a shuttle – zipping off to their resort miles and miles away.
Believe it or not there’s something appealing about this capital city you just have to dig a little deeper to find it. 180 degrees different than the rest of the country – the capital city is a little smoggy and dirty yet it is one of the few places still distinctly Costa Rican. The ultimate vacation in this country begins in this city. San Jose is still the airline hub, with all major flights landing at San Jose International Airport. While it is now possible to bypass altogether and fly into other smaller more expensive areas like Guanacaste, this is where you fly into and end up saving big. The flight is less than 5 hours from NYC and can be as cheap as $300 roundtrip. Spending 36 hours in the capital city is a great way to get a true taste of Costa Rica and recharge – getting you ready to enjoy the scenic beauty the country has to offer.
So you’ve landed now what? Find a nice place to stay. For the budget backpacker’s hostel head to Mi Casa hostel. For more info visit www.micasahostel.com. A good upscale hotel near the city center is Hotel Grano del Oro. For more info visit hotelgranodeoro.com
It’s time to start having some fun. So obviously you head to a museum. While normally this would be laughable, the Museo del Oro or Gold museum is worth a look. The Pre-Columbian Gold Museum is interesting and informative. You might know next to nothing before you walk in, but you will leave with an appreciation for the landscape, the terrain, and the difficulty that early explorers had when they first encountered this land of beautiful coasts. A short walk from the city center, the Gold Musuem is:
“easily the country’s best with thousands of different examples of Pre-Colombian gold artifacts. The pieces in the collection date from 500 BE to 1600 AD, when the new world was discovered by Christopher Columbus an the artifacts range from simple round earrings to intricately worked representations of local animals…the museum opens a window into the past and into lives of those indigenous groups that lived in Costa Rica.” (worldheadquarters.com/cr)
So you’ve had your history lesson, seen the ancient relics, touched some old gold, even posed for a picture standing next to the jungle display. Now you’re ready for some snacks, maybe a few drinks. Head to the Calle de la Amargura. A four-block-long street lined with a simple sports bars and discos. Located in San Pedro de Montes de Ocaone – this is one of the best-known zones for sipping cerveza. “La Calle, as it is often called, is very close to the University of Costa Rica”. (Lonely Planet) Duck in and make like the locals, ordering a bucket of Imperials on ice and swap stories.
Tomorrow is going to be a full day and you may still even be reeling from the flight. You’ve got to get some rest so head back to the hotel and turn in when ready.
The Mercado Central is the heart of the downtown and it is where the locals live (and get what they need) to live. This is a great place to stock up on anything and everything you may need for your stay. With a little bargaining, high school level Spanish skills, and a sharp yet uninterested gaze you won’t believe the deals you walk away with. Designer knockoff sunglasses $5. Comfy beachy flip flops $2. A faux nike duffel bag perfect for carrying all those gifts you will bring back, you’ll say there for friends but end up keeping most of them just $10. This market has it all and at local prices you will save a bundle compared to the tourist trap stores near your beachside resort. Walking these packed, bustling market alleys is also the only way to get a sense of the people and even a sense of the lifestyle here in Costa Rica. Women are stocking up on all the necessities, meats, eggs, bread, milk, etc, while a few bus drivers and workers off duty sit huddled together in corner restaurants rehashing the weeks soccer matches.
The downtown here is blend of upscale restaurants that sit a block from beaten down shack like stores. Wander the streets with you’re eyes open and there is a chance you will find anything. English isn’t written or spoken everywhere and while some of the coastal destinations can start to turn into Disneyland, this jungle lined capital holds true to what it is – a city center for the true people who live here year round. Above all else, there’s something quite refreshing about wandering this market knowing full well you can be grocery shopping, grab some comida, and load up on everything you need to dispense of a body all at the same time.
This is also the place to grab your breakfast or lunch and save big bucks. Two words will become your best friend while in this country: “Sodas” and “Casados”.
Sodas: A simple restaurant, many do not even have menus, some look like a converted garage. You’ll receive a full meal, plate overflowing with grub and a coca-cola – all for about $5.
Casados: The typical plate you will order. A hearty portion of rice, black or red beans, fried plantains, a cold macaroni salad, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions form another salad, and then your choice of either shredded beef, chicken, or fish.
Stroll back to the hotel, throw on some cargo shorts and walking shoes.
La Paz Waterfalls
This is a must see day trip. The waterfall and gardens here are photo op central. Your hotel will be able to arrange a shuttle and after an hours drive you will be staring at tropical birds, making fun of sloths, and feeling the spray of a 120 foot waterfall on your face. http://www.waterfallgardens.com/
La Paz Waterfalls is definitely worth the day trip.
Time to class things up a bit. Throw on a polo shirt and take a taxi to the White House. http://www.whitehousecostarica.com/restaurant.html This is hands down one of Costa Rica’s most luxurious resorts. The Capitol bar and restaurant, high atop the capital – deluxe and with stunning views you can’t go wrong. There’s a helicopter landing pad and more. You might not be staying here, but no reason you can’t enjoy a superb cocktail, stroll the premises, take a few pictures and then get out of there.
Meat on a Stick
El Chicote is the go to steak restaurant. Located just north of Sabana Park and walking distance for those staying at Mi Casa Hostel – this will not be more than a $10 taxi ride for anyone staying in a hotel downtown. For info and reservations visit www.elchicote.com
Serving some of the finest cuts of meat, waiters expertly slice tender slivers of charred animal parts off medieval skewers. The manliest of manly restaurants, all else is unimportant. Leaves of salad and vegetables sit unnoticed on a side plate. This is a house of meat. Washing this feast down with a nice, yet reasonably priced Marques de Caceres Rioja Reserva 2004 is probably a good idea.
Next day: Ready, Set, Vacation
Wake up ready to see the country and head to your beachside condo or jungle accommodation. You’ve now spent two days in the heart and soul of the country and now will have a true perspective of it all.
Costa Rica is an amazing get away. It is one of those vacation destinations that makes having fun easy. Now that you have had a taste of the capital city you are ready to head off and explore the coasts. This country and her lush, tropical terrain were shocking to those who first found it and you will be similarly shocked. Enjoy it all.