Costa Rica’s capital, San José has a bad reputation among travellers and many backpackers just try to get out of the city, as soon as they’ve arrived in the country. Costa Rica is a popular gap year destination, providing great opportunities for conservation, volunteering and teaching, and inevitably travellers will have to pass through its capital at some point. But, does San José really deserve its bad rep? We decided to send our mapthegap.co.uk writer to investigate.
With all the bad press I’d heard about San José, I must admit I was terrified the moment I stepped out off the bus, expecting someone to come out and mug me at any moment. I’d even seen that San José had been by published on Lonely Planet’s website in a list of people’s least favourite cities in the world, but I was determined to not let this put me off.
When I stepped out of the bus, the first thing that greeted me, as usual when I go to a new country was the swarm of taxi drivers all buzzing towards me. I scanned the group of drivers, trying to decide who I could trust. I had been warned about bogus taxi drivers who take you to a quiet street then proceed to pull a gun out on you. It was impossible to tell though, so in the end I just chose the one who shouted out the lowest price.
The driver grabbed my bags and lead me into a non-descript white car, with no taxi sign at the top. I suddenly realised how stupid I’d been and had made one of the first and biggest mistakes, but it was too late now and we were on our way.
My heart was beating faster and faster the whole way and kept looking for an easy escape, but the driver just smiled at me and turned up the radio. We passed a few grotty looking areas by the bus station, but all in all San José was nothing like I expected it to be and I began to relax a little. Elegant pink and orange colonial style houses lined the streets and we passed wide plazas with pretty fountains, cute pedestrian streets and a bizarre looking faded yellow castle.
Before long, we had arrived at a modern looking street with important looking buildings, neat little houses and a few fast food joints. I let my breath out slowly and let my heart regain its normal beat when we pulled up at the Costa Rica Backpackers; I had made it here alive and with all my possessions intact.
From what I’d heard about San José, I was expecting the backpackers to be shabby and dirty, but this hostel seemed one of the best I had stayed at anywhere in the world. The rooms were big, bright and clean. There was a comfy lounge area for watching movies, a big out-door shared kitchen, computer access for keeping in touch and a pretty garden filled with tropical plants, hammocks and even a swimming pool! I couldn’t believe my luck; none of the other backpacker’s I had stayed at in South America had swimming pools.
Even though everything better than expected, I was still a bit nervous about venturing into the city, but nothing would have kept me indoors very long when there was a new city out there to be explored. I decided first to head straight to the intriguing yellow castle I had seen from the taxi. Walking the city streets my nervousness began to melt away, Costa Rican’s of all ages were going about their daily business and no one seemed to pay me any attention at all.
When I approached, the faded yellow castle seemed more like a fort, surrounded by old cannons and weapons and pockmarked with bullet holes. I learned later that this used to be the old Bellavista Fortress and it is now the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica or Costa Rican National Museum filled with interesting artefacts, old prison rooms and weapons.
I soon discovered that this wasn’t San José’s only Museum and the city seemed to have a whole wealth of historical information on almost every subject imaginable. From the Museum of Pre-Columbian gold and the Coin Museum, to the Jade Museum, the Contemporary Art Museum and the Museo de Arte Costarricense, there seemed to be something for here everyone.
When I emerged from the fort, feeling more relaxed and at ease with the city, I decided to venture into the centre. Along the way I passed a beautiful craft market selling Costa Rican textiles, dolls and hammocks, and a beautiful area of white stone colonial mansions with old Victorian style street lamps, that I thought would look more at home in the upper districts of Barcelona or Paris than here.
I soon found myself in the sunny central Plaza de Cultura, filled with happy locals sitting, chatting and eating ice creams, while small children running around and chasing pigeons. The city was full of life, cultural charm and colonial elegance and quickly I soon came to the conclusion that I couldn’t understand why anyone would have named this as one of the worst cities in the world, I had definitely seen far worse. Even more perplexing, I couldn’t see why anyone would deliberately re-route their journey to go back via Panama instead of coming here.
My next few days were spent admiring San Jose’s beautiful architecture, sitting in sunny squares eating large plates of gallo pinto - a typical Costa Rican breakfast of tortillas, black beans and egg, wandering the pedestrian streets and finding treasures at the museums of Pre-Columbian Gold and Jade.
My few days spent in San José actually turned out to be one of the highlights of my Costa Rican adventure and I was happy that for once I hadn’t listen to backpacker’s rumours and had come to discover San Jose for myself. I had been cautious though and hadn’t taken risks, most of the time I left my camera and other valuables at the hostel and never went out after dark on my own. I was never bothered by anyone and found Costa Rican’s to be some of the friendliest and most helpful people I had met on my travels.
So, before you hear all the rumours and the horror stories and decide to miss San José all together, why not stop and stay for a few days, you never know, you might be surprised.