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Buzzing launch pad for party lovers and eco-tourists alike, San José is a real hive of activity that’s grown up fast from its history of coffee plantations and tobacco fields in the lush Central Valley (Valle Central). Encircled by glorious mountains, Costa Rica’s capital is all action with street trade, traffic madness and a population of over 360,000 Josefinos who enjoy the never-ending opportunity to make merry. Due to San José’s cultural position at the heart of everything golden in Costa Rica, the nation’s beautiful women flock here from all over to seek love, start a family and find their fortune.
The fascinating urban jungle of San José (or Chepe, as it’s fondly known) was established in 1737 under the direction of the Catholic Church as a way to concentrate its influence and gather subjects in one common district. Originally given the moniker of Villanueva de la Boca del Monte del Valle de Abra (New Village of the Mountain’s Mouth in the Open Valley), it was a thankful move for all concerned that the name was later shortened.
For many years after its founding San José remained a small agricultural zone but when the coffee industry first came to town in 1820 the fortunes of the city changed for good. In parallel with this came the next big upheaval in 1821 as the country asserted independence from Spanish colonial rule. Unfortunately for Costa Rica this declaration of independence wasn’t shared by everyone and by 1823 the turbulence spilt over into civil war. With Chepe on one side and a union of neighboring cities Heredia, Cartago and Alajuela on the other, the city was besieged in a struggle known as the War of the Leagues (La Guerra de la Liga) with San José the eventual victor.
By the late 19th century the tobacco industry arrived to further propel the city’s fortunes, attracting heavy investment and spurring city expansion. The 20th century saw break-neck development and disorderly town planning with an excess of shopping centers, tower blocks and other structures being thrown up. This all combined to form today’s melting pot of San José which has a colonial core and frenetic modern exterior.
Those many tourists who visit this heady hub of Central America will have their hands full in the colonial areas of Otoya and Amón, shopping in the labyrinthine Mercado Central and enjoying a wild night in El Pueblo. There’s plenty to see and do even without heading further afield to explore the region’s volcanoes, tropical rainforests and awe-inspiring wilderness. The longer you stay the more absorbed you’ll become in this vibrant city where the Latin essence and local women are sure to cast a lovely spell on you.
Experience the Right Climate
Elevated slightly above Costa Rica’s tropical rainforest, San José is around 1,300 meters (4,265ft) above sea level. Due to this loftier position the city has a more temperate climate than is suggested by its steamy location. This translates into a fairly consistent average yearly maximum temperature of 75-81 F (24-27°C) and an average low of 59-68 F (15-20°C).
There are two principal seasons in San José – wet and dry. The months of May to November experience significantly more rainfall when the nature flourishes, with heavy downpours of over 12 inches in September and October. During this rainy time the climate can be unpredictable from one day to the next so care should be taken when travelling outside the city.
The Road Less Travelled
San José is defined by its role as the main transport hub of Central America with buses, planes and automobiles all arriving in volume. This status is reflected by the busy sophistication and clear markings of the city’s Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO), the only major airport in Costa Rica situated around 18km away from San José’s downtown area (about half an hour’s taxi journey).
No comprehensive transport system has yet emerged in the city leaving most Josefinos to get around on the adequate network of low cost and efficient buses. These leave from the La Coca-Cola bus station and pass regularly through the majority of districts and areas, while international coaches leave from the Ticabus Coach Station. For all other travel it’s best to use San José’s official taxis which are cheap (often under $5), metered and in abundance day and night.
Dance the Night Away
To Your Health
Chepe’snightlife is full of beans and you’ll find a rich blend of places to start and finish your night of partying. There’s an abundance of lively bars in San Pedro and Los Yoses and your excitement will percolate further still in the El Pueblo Entertainment Complex which has been custom built for this very purpose. La California is the best barrio if you’re into rock and alternative music while a more exclusive evening can be had in the heady delights of Escazú.
A nice place to begin your revelry is one of San José’s boca bars where you can enjoy drinks served with substantial snacks (bocas or boquitas). You’ll find several good quality brands of beer in Chepe such as Bavaria Gold and Bavaria Light, Pilsen and Rock Ice. If you prefer a non-alcoholic refresher then you’ll love popular corn-based milky drink horchata and a range of frescos (fruit smoothies). Many Ticos (Costa Ricans) opt for coffee and the city has some great cafés including Giacomin, Spoon and La Esquina del Café. To achieve the opposite effect produced by coffee then try local sugar cane hard stuff guaro or after dinner favorite Café Rica (similar to Bailey’s).
Start your bar crawl with traditional El Cuartel de la Boca where you can sample beer and bocas while listening to live music including reggae and rock. La Villa is a top joint for beer guzzling and intellectual conversation, while La Esmeralda is a fun drinking hole often with a roaming band of musicians ready to entertain. Las Risas is a highly rated bar in the downtown area spread over a trio of levels. El Morazán will give you a nice historic flavor by Parque Morazán where you can choose from a long and delicious list of cocktails.
The party really lifts off in San José when Josefinos hit the disco to enjoy meringue, salsa and any other form of dance. Learn the moves in advance and you’re sure to be a big hit with the ladies (and the DJ). Club Vertigo is considered the most atmospheric nightclub in Chepe and it’s easy to see why with a crammed dance-floor bouncing to hiphop and trance. Situated on the second floor of a large building, Complejo Salsa 54 y Zadidas is the way forward for those after some good old-fashioned salsa. Another rated venue is Terra U San Pedro which offers al fresco dancing to some super Latin grooves. Planet Mall Disco is located inside San Pedro and delivers a mix of European and Latin tunes. Infinito El Pueblo is a perfect place for those who like to hangout as well as dance, while Bar Twister is always a safe bet for a good night on the Chepe tiles.
Table for Two
San José is no gourmand’s paradise but it is a city where you’ll only be a stone’s throw away from a satisfying restaurant. Chepe offers a lot whether you want to eat in a down-to-earth soda (diner), expect silver service in an upmarket bistro or prefer fast food and international fair such as Thai, Chinese, Italian and French. The best introduction to Costa Rican cuisine is a trip to Mercado Central, a vibrant market where you’ll find indigenous restaurants serving fresh seafood, tasty doughnuts (churros) and a dizzy array of fresh fruit such as pineapple, papaya and mango.
Native Costa Rican cooking (comida tipica) is stripped back and focused on natural flavors, an approach welcomed by most tourists. The versatile staple in Costa Rica is gallo pinto (beans mixed with fried rice) which is often served for breakfast and then upgraded for lunch and dinner to include rice, beans and tortillas with meat or fish (casado). Other tasty dishes enjoyed by Ticos include sopa de pescado (fish soup), ceviche (fish marinated in lime juice and coriander), pargo (red snapper), picadillo (ground meat with vegetables), and the protein overdose of churrascos (barbecued meat).
You’ll find San José’s best restaurants in the cosmopolitan neighborhoods of Escazú, Amón and San Pedro. For traditional Costa Rican food book a table at La Cocina de Leña (‘The Wood Stove’). A visit to La Bastille will ensure lovingly prepared Italian and French food surrounded by works of art and quirky décor. Grano de Oro is a stylish place with grand Spanish-style interior and fine menu including filet mignon, duck, and inspired desserts. Cyrano’s is certain to impress with time-honored French food such as paté, cassoulet and steak au poivre. For fine dining with a view then head to French specialist Cabernet or enjoy an international menu at Park Café with menu favorites of bacon wrapped scallops and duck in chocolate sauce. Other popular restaurants include Swiss-owned Le Chandelier, steakhouse La Cascada, Peruvian joint Machu Picchu, ambient spot Balcón de Europa, and Asian favorite Tin Jo.
Soak up the Culture
San José is blessed with two exceptional theaters where you can see some of Costa Rica’s finest performances. Buy a ticket to the beautiful National Theater (Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica) where you’ll enjoy classical concerts together with first-rate ballet and opera. Of an equal caliber is the Melico Salazar Theater (ElTeatroPopularMelico Salazar) which has a busy schedule of Latin dance, opera, musicals and orchestras (including the National Symphony Orchestra).
For pop and rock concerts and other performances check out San José’s Auditorio Nacional which is located inside the Costa Rican Center for Science and Culture. If you prefer sport then prepare yourself for the energetic atmosphere of Costa Rica’s most successful soccer team Club Deportivo Saprissa who play at the Ricardo Saprissa Ayma Stadium.
Take a Piece Back
Ever since the early days of coffee and tobacco, San José’s streets have been busy with trade and buyers looking for a deal. One of the first places you should wander is to the city’s bountiful outdoor market found near the Plaza de la Democracia where you’ll find a variety of souvenirs. For more upmarket items or Costa Rican coffee and liquors (such as Café Rica) then try the stores on Avenida Central, the El Pueblo Shopping Center or the craft shops around Barrio Amón.
If you want something truly unique to take away from San José then you’ll become engrossed in the native delights of Galeria Namu. Choose from weird and wonderful ceremonial masks, colorful Wounaan baskets, pre-Columbian style gold jewelry and oil paintings. If you still haven’t made a purchase after that then there are still plenty of other gift stores including the Mercado Nacional de Artesania (near to the National Museum), La Casona and Sol Maya Paseo Colón.
Make it an Event
The party season kicks off in style on New Year’s Day when the main festivities are staged in Parque Central. The city’s patron Saint Joseph is honored on El dia de San José (March) with a fine blend of carnivals and religious ceremonies. The rather quirky National Day of the Ox Cart Driver also takes place in March when you’ll get to enjoy a parade of vividly painted ox carts that pay tribute to the hard work of agricultural workers.
Costa Rica’s most significant religious occasion, Semana Santa or Easter Week, arrives in March/April when the whole country stops work. This is followed by a fortnight of dance, art and theater in San José’s International Arts festival and a special day off on 11 April to recognize Juan Santamaria Day.
Labor Day (Dia de los trabajadores) on May 1 and Independence Day on September 15 are both important celebrations when Costa Rica marks history with relaxing chill-out time. The year ends in San José with fun and fireworks that signal Christmas Week and the action-packed San José Carnival on December 27.
Set Your Sights
The most awe-inspiring way to get your bearings while in San José is to gaze up from the streets at the beautiful mountains that surround the city. Combined with a well considered grid street-map, this omnipresent landscape makes for a relatively smooth day of sightseeing. The city is split by two main streets – from north to south by Calle Central and from east to west by Avenida Central/Paseo Colon – which together form a kind of navigational cross with Parque Central in the middle.
Reaching out from these two strategic streets are the 11 regions (distritos) of Carmen, Merced, Hospital, Catedral, Zapote, San Francisco de Dos Rios, La Uruca, Mata Redonda, Pavas, Hatillo, and San Sebastián. These in turn contain a network of smaller localities known as barrios, several of which are packed with high quality museums, art galleries, plazas, parks, bars and restaurants such as colonial influenced barrios Otoya and Amón and prestigious westerly barrio La California.
Landmarks & Monuments
· San José Tourist Office (Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT) Office) – Find out what’s on and where to go in San José at the tourist office on the Plaza de la Cultura.
· Paseo Colon – Connected to Avenida Central, this pleasant avenue is great for pedestrians and takes you along the main tourist route from east to west.
· Central Park (Parque Central) – The central beehive of everything that goes on in the city and a good place to start your sightseeing tour.
· Metropolitan Cathedral of San José(Catedral Metropolitaneo de San José)– Located near to Parque Central this smart Neoclassical cathedral was reconstructed in 1871 after the first version (built in 1802) was wiped out by an earthquake.
· Mélico Salazar Theater (Teatro Mélico Salazar) – Another attractive neoclassical building adjacent to Parque Central, this admired theater is one of Costa Rica’s foremost centers of the arts.
· Mercado Central – A rowdy but absorbing market with a maze of narrow avenues full of fruit, meat, fish and lots of other bright and interesting produce.
· Church of Soledad (La Soledad Church) – Opened in the mid-19th century, a beautiful Baroque structure with two matching towers.
· Culture Square (Plaza de la Cultura) –A relaxing space away from the bustle of San José featuring cafés and surrounded by a number of important buildings.
· National Theater (Teatro Nacional) – Constructed in 1897 in the fashion of European opera houses, San José’s National Theater is regarded as the country’s finest building.
· National Monument (Monumento Nacional) – Found in the pleasant surroundings of the National Park along with several other key statues, this striking monument represents the independence of Central American countries.
· Building of Metal (Edificio Metalico) – Over 100 years old, this original building not far from Parque España is completely covered by metal plate.
· Barrios Amón and Otoya– Take a wander through these grand neighborhoods awash with colonial architecture and full of noble buildings built on the profits of the coffee industry.
· El Pueblo Shopping Center (Centro Comercial El Pueblo) – A purpose built party zone full of feelgood ambiance and shops, cafes, bars and nightclubs.
· National Library of San José (La Biblioteca Nacional) – A vast and well stocked library full of Spanish masterpieces located near the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design.
· Costa Rica Universidad (University of Costa Rica) – Located in the bohemian area of San Pedro is the University of Costa Rica (founded in 1940) which is valued as the country’s most esteemed seat of learning.
· El Carmen Church (Iglesia del Carmen) – One of San José’s oldest buildings built in 1881 although an even earlier church existed here in 1841.
· Monument of Juan Vásquez of Coronado (Monumento Juan Vásquez de Coronado) – A statue on Parque España commemorating the Spanish conquistador known for his part in colonizing Costa Rica.
· Museum of Pre-Colombian Gold (Museo de Oro Precolombino)– San Jose’s finest museum featuring over 1,900 pieces of stunning goldwork from the pre-Columbian era of Diquis (500 AD to 1,500 AD).
· Museum of Numismatics (Museo de Numismatica) – Showcasing a fabulous set of coins from Costa Rica’s history, this museum can be found in the same building as the Museo de Oro Precolombino.
· Jade Museum (Marco Fidel Tristan Museo de Jade) – This San Jose favorite captures all the heavenly beauty of precious stone jade (also known as greenstone) together with pottery and other exhibits.
· Costa Rican Art Museum (Museo de Arte Costarricense) – Stuffed with a lively set of primarily 20th century artwork from Costa Rica
· National Museum (Museo Nacional) – Located in an atmospheric old fortress dating from 1948, find out everything there is to know about Costa Rica’s history and take a no-holds barred look at the country’s colonial past. Also features an impressive butterfly sanctuary and some Diquis relics.
· Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (Museo de Arte y Diseno Contemporaneo) – Housed inside the old National Liquor Factory near Parque Espana you’ll discover work from contemporary Latin American artists including Enrique Echandi and Teodorico Quiros.
· Museum of Costa Rican Art (Museo de Arte Costarricense) – A collection of regional art, sculptures and other artwork displayed in a Spanish-style building on the way into Parque La Sabana.
Parks & Daytrips
· National Park (Parque Nacional)– A beautiful green space easily located downtown near the National Museum where you’ll find plenty of trees to walk under hand-in-hand with your special lady.
· Park of Spain (Parque España) – Bordered by a number of important museums and featuring a statue of Christopher Columbus, this lush place is perfect to seek some solitude in the hustle and bustle of San José.
· Spirogyra Butterfly Garden (Spirogyra Jardin de Mariposas) – Not far from Centro Comercial El Pueblo is this zone of tranquility with a selection of exquisite butterflies and a nice café.
· Park Sabana (Parque Metropolitano La Sabana) – San José’s biggest central recreation area, this glorious park features a pretty lake and plenty of sun-dappled spots along with a number of museums and the National Stadium (Estadio Nacional).
· Poas Volcano National Park (Volcan Poas) – At the heart of this 16,000 acre national park is an active volcano (Poas) with a 950ft deep crater and a gorgeous green crater lake (Botos).
· La Paz Waterfall Gardens (Catarata de La Paz) – Located outside San José is this rainforest where you’ll find several splendid waterfalls together with other natural exhibits.
· Golf Tours in Costa Rica – It’s easy to arrange a day of golf at a number of splendid regional courses that surround San José.
· White Water Rafting – One thrilling adventure that many tourists take is to go white-water rafting at a number of locations outside San José including La Fortuna (San Carlos).
· Braulio Carrillo National Park (Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo) – An enormous nature reserve right on the northerly doorstep of San José; the biodiversity in Braulio Carrillo is phenomenal as are the several inactive and active volcanoes.
· Manuel Antonio National Park (Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio) – The Manuel Antonio National Park is located in Puerto Quepos which is around four hours by road from San José (or a speedy flight!). This area partners a stunning forest trek with sunbathing on a choice of four beautiful beaches.
· Tropical Bungee – If you want to really get the adrenalin pumping while in San José then take a romantic leap at the Old Colorado River Bridge.
Come Back Soon…
Immerse yourself in the heart and soul of Central America with an inspired adventure to San José, fast-paced capital of Costa Rica. Fill up on Latin impressions surrounded by some beautiful colonial architecture, plentiful nightlife and the wonder of a truly unique ecosystem. You’ll find that Chepe women have been positively balanced by the energy of the city and the calming influence of the surrounding wilderness.
Grab the chance to meet up with a glory of Costa Rican beauty and spend time with your perfect match in Central America’s hottest spot.
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