A.M.  Costa Rica
A guide to the downtown
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Jo Stuart
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San José, Costa Rica, Published Dec. 26, 2001
A tourist guide to the downtown and a successful visit

To enjoy city requires understanding and insight

by Patricia Martin
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

It´s a blazing-blue noon at the downtown Gran Hotel Costa Rica where locals and tourists converge. On the outdoor patio with umbrella tables, people watch people watching them, as luncheon conversations compete with the music of marimbas and flutes. Two American men in their 30´s, engaged in loud debate over the merits of San José, almost resort to a duel with their salad forks. 

"One day’s enough for me!" proclaims the man wearing a green t-shirt and a scowl. "I´m outta here." 

"But it’s got some grand old architecture," counters his friend clad in Hawaiian florals. "Look at the colonial theater right in front of us. And how about the miles of cobblestone boulevards for pedestrians and the . . . ." 

"How about the rest of the city? Tumble-down and seedy . . . craters for streets . . . garbage strewn around. What a dump!" he concludes with a Bette Davis flourish. 

At the next table, I smile to myself, thinking that both men have a point. After living on the outskirts of the capital for five years, I’m well acquainted with San José, and would love to add my two cents worth 

A.M. Costa Rica photo
Former President José Figueres Ferrer on his perch in the Plaza of Democracy stands guard before the National Museum. 
(make that two colons) to their conversation. Alas, my opinions and guidance go unasked, but I conjure up the following account for them just in case: 

Anyone expecting another Paris has been reading the wrong guide books, I would begin. Take the city as it is, though — a cross between urban sophistication and a banana republic — and you´re bound to appreciate its varied aspects and have a rewarding visit. 

All the negatives apply, from congested, smoggy — and yes, seedy in parts — but then San José redeems itself with impressive areas historic or modern, expanses of parkland, plus a wealth of entertainment in casinos, restaurants, bars and dance spots. In accordance with a joint business/city plan, new sidewalk cafés are destined to appear along the store-lined pedestrian boulevards. Malls and specialty shops already abound, along with Internet cafés and sports bars. Swollen with humanity, the heart of the city pumps sluggishly but cheerfully along. There is no urgency in mañana land, I would remind the pair of travelers. 

Their dialogue projects like a stage performance, absolving me of any guilt over eavesdropping. 

"Are you crazy? You´re hardly off the plane and you want to leave." 

"Yeah, if the rest of Costa Rica´s like San José, I want off this island." 

Island?? His companion doesn´t correct him, so it seems that neither of them consulted a map before leaving home. Gentlemen, it´s time for us to get our bearings: The country itself, a sliver of land with a prominent spine of mountains, joins Nicaragua on the north and Panama to the south. Washing the length of its shores are the Pacific and Caribbean seas. Once part of Spain´s Central American colonies, Costa Rica was granted independence in 1821 without armed conflict. Most of the 4 million population centers in the Central Valley plateau, where San José, the largest city, is situated. Founded in 1735, the capital and its environs hold ample points of interest for visitors. 

Well, not all visitors, I correct myself with a glance at the new critic in town. Undaunted, I imagine what might capture his fancy. High on the sightseeing list are the National Museum of pre-Colombian artifacts housed in an ancient fortress; the Gold Museum burrowed beneath the plaza in front of us, and the Jade Museum offering a city view along with its treasure trove. 

Edificio Metálico, pre-fabricated of metal in Brussels and imported here as one of the first schools draws appreciative crowds, as does the penitentiary transformed into a Children´s Museum, and the quaint wooden airport resurrected as an art gallery. In Plaza de la Democracia stands the statue of President José "Pepe" Figueres Ferrer, who guided the nation to democracy and disbanded the army in favor of peacekeeping by negotiation. 

"Then, do what you want, but I´m going to see a few things," I hear next. 

"There´s nothing to see, I’m telling you," retorts his feisty companion. 

"You´ve got some attitude, man.You need to browse around town and loosen up." A good idea. 

The San Pedro/Los Yoses neighborhood minutes from downtown buzzes with youthful nightlife, thanks to the location of the University of Costa Rica. Not far from the campus is a joint U.S./C.R. Cultural Center open to all, offering an English library, language courses, and a theater for arts performances. A popular meeting place for people from every nation, the center combines social and learning opportunities for all ages. Inexpensive bars and restaurants, discos, a bowling alley and a roller skating rink round out the area’s attractions. 

Mr. Hawaii glances at his travel brochure and assures Mr. Greenie that navigating San José should be easy, given the grid layout of streets and avenues. I want to interject that it´s not that simple because signs are spotty and building numbers simply don´t exist. To get around by taxi, it´s best to get out the dictionary and give the driver Tico-style directions: "Take me to an office 300 meters south of the park, 150 meters west where the old factory used to be, past some trees and bushes and then turn east 200 meters…." 

Try to ignore the fact that a city block is deemed to be 100 meters long, whether it happens to be 50 or 125. Rural addresses likewise use elasticized measurements, adding a folkloric touch such as "at the foot of the street of the stabbing." Surely every tourist knows where a jealous wife did in her husband 20 years ago? 

A.M. Costa Rica photo
The hidden Gold Museum is under the Plaza of Culture and close to the Teatro Nacional and the landmark outdoor café at Gran Hotel Costa Rica.
The green one comments on the profusion of iron window-bars and grill-work gates on the downtown properties. "It gives me the creeps. But I guess you won´t find that outside of town."

(Wrong. Wait until he sees suburbia and many of the homes in the countryside. He´ll wonder if the entire country is under house arrest.) 

"Look, I admit that San José seems to be a funny mixture, but the point of traveling is to see something different. We´re here to discover and enjoy!" 
From time to time A.M. Costa Rica will publish articles such as this aimed at tourists and would-be tourists who need a basic introduction to this exciting country.

(Right. He must have been reading my lips. I wish he could read my mind for the "discover and enjoy" list.) A cultural evening in San José costs as little as $10 at the century-old Teatro Nacional, an architectural gem featuring Costa Rica´s world-class symphony orchestra and performing arts groups from around the world. The imposing Metropolitan Cathedral, and the sprawling central market teeming with foodstuffs, flowers and artifacts should be on the agenda as well. 

For a change of venue, I´d advise, head for the neighboring hills to a 19th century monastery converted to L´Monastre Restaurant, which boasts a smashing view and the novelty of waiters robed as monks. Ringing the city are villages that cling to the past, where ox carts and adobe houses with outdoor ovens create unforgettable sights. 

Other brief day-trips include an unusual tour of Café Britt´s coffee plantation, presented as a pageant by professional actors; the steaming Poás volcano and lake; the picturesque towns of Grecia, Sarchí and Moravia, renowned for arts & crafts as well as their charm. 

While residents appreciate San José´s diversions, they escape the city as often as possible for myriad beauty spots around the country. Follow their lead, I´d advise, and explore a rainforest, then Monteverde´s mountainous Quaker community, and a national park such as Manuel Antonio where wooded trails empty onto white-sand beaches. 

Away from the moderate temperatures of San José, there are 11 climate zones to experience within Costa Rica. The hottest and driest is on the Nicoya Peninsula along the Pacific coast. During the rainy season from May-November when resort rates are dramatically reduced, expect daily sunshine before the late afternoon rain, at least until the wetter months of September and October. 

My lunch at the hotel is finished, but I linger over coffee, thinking of safety advice that would serve the two men: Be watchful at the city´s main bus depot known as The Coca Cola — tourists are prey to thieving gangs who pose as helpful natives or redcaps. In the blink of an eye the luggage disappears! Take it from one who lost everything when she was boarding the bus for a seaside vacation. A good bet is the Fantasy Tours van, which brings you safely to C.R. destinations in air-conditioned comfort for $19. 

Warnings apply, too, on the streets of San José where your pockets are picked as someone "accidentally" bumps against you. In another variation, someone squirts yellow goo on your back, then an accomplice rushes to "help" you by surreptitiously helping himself to your wallet. It may be cold comfort, but sneak-thievery is more the fashion here, with very low incidence of assault. 

While Ticos are overall a friendly, civilized people, don´t suppose that the entire population qualifies for sainthood. Neither should you trust strangers simply because they´re fellow countrymen, as many scam artists from abroad gravitate to Costa Rica, particularly to the capital. Despite its share of big city crime, San José can be enjoyed without anxiety by taking a few precautions. 

Things quiet down for a moment as my neighbors ferret through a book for information on food and lodging. Just ask me, fellows, I´m on a roll. Accommodations in town range from $15 a night to $170, with B & B´s in the surrounding areas charging $40 to $100. For student homestays ($30 single, $45 double) contact Bell´s Home Hospitality, (506) 225-475.  Restaurant choices vary widely, from the humble "soda" offering typical Tico meals for a few dollars, to the fine establishments with international fare at moderate to fancy prices. Whether you´re in the mood for Italian, Peruvian, Mexican or Chinese food, San José can satisfy your tastes. 

Typical meals in a Tico home might be any bland combination of rice and beans, potatoes, tripe soup, empanadas, a little salad and lots of airy bread. Even the more elaborate recipes with meat or poultry tend to go light on the spices. In place of our traditional Christmas turkey, cornmeal tamales wrapped in plantain leaves highlight the Yuletide feast, so if you´re invited for the occasion, don´t look for the drumstick. 

The green and floral voices rise again: "Oh come on man, isn´t there anything in San José that interests you?!" 

"Yeah, sure ? the women! Just look at all these dark-haired, slender beauties." 

"I´ve noticed," grins the other. Well, how about sticking around a few more days to get acquainted with some of them? Hmmm…..?" 

He seems to have struck a nerve. His buddy smiles for the first time, then lets out a wild whoop of laughter as he stands up to offer a handshake of agreement. They depart in search of national treasures of the fair sex, leaving me to contemplate that whatever its shortcomings, San José holds a certain allure for everyone. 

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