First Impressions of San José, Costa Rica

Imperial, Costa Rican Beer

The Costa Rican woman who stamped our passports was friendly and relaxed.  What else would you expect from a country recently designated as the happiest on earth?  We headed out to the crowds and the humidity after finding the designated “Aeropuerto Taxi”.  In these situations, you could often save money by using a “non-official” taxi, but you could also get really screwed that way, too.  I don’t trust my Spanish enough to risk it.  We had missed the last bus of the evening by a matter of moments, but this backup plan worked perfectly.  Out into the city!

The taxi ride from the airport to the center of San José is approximately 25-30 minutes, most of which is not on a highway.  Our taxi driver engaged us in light conversation…not so much because he wasn’t friendly, but more so because it had been about two years since either Dave or I had spoken Spanish and we were extremely rusty.  There is only so much to talk about when one person is fluent and the other is an adult with the vocabulary of a 4 year old.

Seeing San José at night certainly did not cast the city in the best light.  Neon signs illuminated run down stores and restaurants.  Littered along the crumbling sidewalks were restaurant chain after restaurant chain, all American.  Of course the requisite KFC that is found far more frequently abroad compared to the US, along with Burger King, McDonalds, Cinnabon, Papa Johns and even a Taco Bell, all decked out in their neon goodness.  Local stores and restaurants displayed their colorful signs written in standard block lettering. The steady beat of Latin music came from passing cars, restaurants and clubs.  It was gritty, and it was vibrant.  Charming in its own way, and seeming as though if you could just break through the exterior, you could appreciate all that the city had to offer…at least I’d hope that is the case.

Side Street in San Jose, Costa Rica

Our hotel, the Balmoral, was centrally located near the Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica  just off of Paseo Colón (the Pan-American Highway) between Calle 7 and 9.  At least it appeared to be centrally located on the map.  In reality, San José is a relatively small city and we always felt as though we were on the outskirts.  The streets are narrow, there aren’t too many traffic lights and even at 10pm on a Friday night, most stores and restaurants are closed.  The city DID seem to be filled to the brim with casinos, their moving lights calling to tourists to lose all of their money mere hours after setting foot on Costa Rican soil.  Back in New York, we had spotted a group of 6 middle-aged women practicing their blackjack in the airport bar.  Sure enough they also sat behind us on our flight, strategizing, reviewing gambling rules and one-upping each other in stories of past drinking escapades.  Their hopes were to win big and pass out drunk before they even made it to their hotel room beds. Soccer moms gone wild.  I’ll call Snoop Dog.

The hotel was completely adequate.  It wasn’t “nice” but it was cheap and clean, which is all that you really need.  They had a free breakfast that was surprisingly extensive, more than just your traditional sliced meats and cheeses that you usually get outside of the US.  Instead they offered a selection of meats, eggs, pancakes, TONS of fruit, yogurts and juices.  Anyway, back to our first night.

Most restaurants in the area closed at 10pm, so our options were limited.  Our preference was for Costa Rican food, although a tip I’d received from Afar Connect indicated that Costa Rica did not have particularly imaginative food.   Safe to say beans, rice would be involved.  Unfortunately we found no such place – no “comida tipica” was recommended by our hotel at all.  Instead we headed North to Café Mundo (café of the world).  Café Mundo is in a neighborhood that houses a few embassies, which usually means that it is a relatively lame and quiet area.  The walk over was great – we passed through Parque Morazán, Parque España and past loud bars and clubs.  The area around Café Mundo was quiet though, and the restaurant itself is a large home with a wrap-around porch that is surrounded by tropical plans and hanging flowers.  We sat and shared a pizza and sipped the local beer, Imperial.  The beer was better than the pizza.  Service was attentive and welcoming and the ambiance alone made up for what the food lacked.

Tomorrow we head out to La Fortuna, a small town adjacent to Arenal, one of Costa Rica’s 112 volcanoes.  Our van picks us up at 8AM and it should take us about 3.5 hours to make the drive.  When we first booked this trip, we had planned on staying in San José for the entire vacation.  This was before either of us did any research whatsoever, but we did discuss it with a friend who had studied abroad in Costa Rica.  Her response to our plan was one word: “why?”.  I see now.  Arrive in San José, yes.  After all, the airport is here.  But for the “real” Costa Rica you have to head out of the cities and into the rain forest.

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