San José is the center of all that is Costa Rica, and—to Ticos in the countryside at least—it glitters every bit as much as New York City. True to developing-country patterns, everything—politics, business, art, cuisine, nightlife, and culture—converges here in the capital. It may not be the center of your trip to Costa Rica—those rain forests and volcanoes have your name written on them. But the city is worth a day or two of exploring, as a way to ease into Costa Rica at the start of a visit or to wrap things up with a well-deserved dose of civilization following your adventures to more remote parts of the country.
Amid the noise and traffic, shady parks, well-maintained museums, lively plazas, terrific restaurants, and great hotels do exist. Further, the city makes a great base for day trips: from downtown, it’s a mere 30- to 40-minute drive to the tranquil countryside and myriad outdoor activities of the surrounding Central Valley.
You’d never know San José is as old as it is—given the complete absence of colonial architecture—but settlers migrating from then-provincial-capital Cartago founded the city in 1737. After independence in 1821, San José cemented its position as the new nation’s capital after struggles and a brief civil war with fellow Central Valley cities Cartago, Alajuela, and Heredia. Revenues from the coffee and banana industries financed the construction of stately homes, theaters, and a trolley system (later abandoned and now visible only in old sepia photographs).
As recently as the mid-1900s, San José was no larger than the present-day downtown area; old-timers remember the vast coffee and cane plantations that extended beyond its borders. The city began to mushroom only after World War II, when old buildings were razed to make room for concrete monstrosities. The sprawl eventually connected the capital with nearby cities.
San José has attracted people from all over Costa Rica, yet it remains, in many ways, a collection of distinct neighborhoods where residents maintain friendly small-town ways. For you, this might mean the driver you’re following will decide to abruptly stop his vehicle to buy a lottery ticket or chat with a friend on the street. Or it might mean you have to navigate a maze of fruit-vendor stands on a crowded sidewalk. But this is part of what keeps San José a big small town.
POINTS OF INTEREST
MUSEO DEL JADE (JADE MUSEUM)
San José’s starkly modern Jade Museum displays the world’s largest collection of the green gemstone. The holdings log in at 5,000-plus pieces, and are, in a word, fabulous. Nearly all the items on display were produced in pre-Columbian times, and most of the jade (pronounced hah-day in Spanish) dates from 300 BC to AD 700. A series of drawings explain how this extremely hard stone was cut using string saws with quartz-and-sand abrasive. Jade was sometimes used in jewelry designs, but it was most often carved into oblong pendants. The museum also has other pre-Columbian artifacts, such as polychrome vases and three-legged metates (small stone tables for grinding corn), as well as a gallery of modern art. Also included on the tour is a startling display of ceramic fertility symbols.
MUSEO DEL ORO PRECOLOMBINO (PRE-COLUMBIAN GOLD MUSEUM)
This dazzling, modern museum in a three-story underground structure beneath the Plaza de la Cultura contains Central America’s largest collection of pre- Columbian gold jewelry—20,000 troy ounces in more than 1,600 individual pieces—all owned by the Banco Central (the country’s central bank) and displayed attractively in bilingual exhibits. Many pieces are in the form of frogs and eagles, two animals perceived by the region’s early cultures to have great spiritual significance. A spiffy illumination system makes the pieces sparkle. All that glitters here is not gold: most spectacular are the various shaman figurines, which represent the human connection to animal deities. One of the halls houses the Museo Numismática (Coin Museum), a repository of historic coins and bills and other objects used as legal tender throughout the country’s history. Rotating art exhibitions happen on another level.
The National Theater is Costa Rica at its most enchanting. Chagrined that touring prima donna Adelina Patti bypassed San José in 1890 for lack of a suitable venue, wealthy coffee merchants raised import taxes and hired Belgian architects to design this building, lavish with cast iron and Italian marble. The theater was inaugurated in 1897 with a performance of Gounod’s Faust, featuring an international cast. The sandstone exterior is marked by Italianate arched windows, marble columns with bronze capitals, and statues of strange bedfellows Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) and 17th-century Spanish Golden Age playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–81). The Muses of Dance, Music, and Fame are silhouetted in front of an iron cupola. French designer Alain Guilhot created the building’s nighttime external illumination system. (He did the same for the Eiffel Tower.) The soft coppers, golds, and whites highlight the theater’s exterior nightly from 6 pm to 5 am. A project funded by the German government has restored the theater’s cupola to its original red color.
MUSEO NACIONAL (NATIONAL MUSEUM)
In the mango-color Bellavista Fortress, which dates from 1870, the museum gives you a quick and insightful lesson in English and Spanish on Costa Rican culture from pre-Columbian times to the present. Cases display pre-Columbian artifacts, period dress, colonial furniture, religious art, and photographs. Some of the country’s foremost ethnographers and anthropologists are on the museum’s staff. Nearly 1,000 pre-Columbian Costa Rican stone and ceramic objects dating from about AD 1000 are on display here. The artifacts were taken from the country in the late 19th century by businessman Minor Keith during the construction of the Atlantic Railroad and were repatriated from the Brooklyn Museum in 2012. Outside are a veranda and a pleasant, manicured courtyard garden. A former army headquarters, this now-tranquil building saw fierce fighting during a 1931 army mutiny and the 1948 revolution, as the bullet holes pocking its turrets attest. But it was also here that three-time president José Figueres abolished the country’s military in 1949.
JARDÍN DE MARIPOSAS SPYROGYRA (SPYROGYRA BUTTERFLY GARDEN)
Spending an hour or two at this magical butterfly garden is entertaining and educational for nature lovers of all ages. Self-guided tours enlighten you on butterfly ecology and let you see the winged creatures close up. After an 18- minute video introduction, you’re free to wander screened-in gardens along a numbered trail. Some 30 species of colorful butterflies flutter about, accompanied by six types of hummingbirds. Try to come when it’s sunny, as butterflies are most active then.