San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica is a relatively small and busy Central American city with a diverse local culture.
For the untrained eye it gives the impression of an unorganized, polluted, messy town with not much to see or to do for tourists, except using it as a hub to start their journey towards other parts of the country. To be honest, it was not an extremely exciting or pleasant experience for me, but of course there are several unusual and interesting things around, and probably the best part is hidden, which I did not have a chance to discover in that few days I have spent here.
The downtown stretches along the one mile long pedestrians-only Avenida Central, and this is where most of the cultural institutions are concentrated, like the National Museum & the National Theater, the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum and the Jade Museum. There are several shops and a few bigger markets here, like the Mercado Central, which is a perfect place to taste some authentic Costa Rican dishes.
Prior to my visit I have been reading good reviews about the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, so I have not hesitated visiting. There were a lot of interesting artifacts and information about pre-hispanic history and gold craftsmanship, and a numismatic exhibition about the history of local currencies.
There is another pedestrian street in the center besides the Avenida Central, the Avenida 4, which can also be fun to walk along, although it is mainly packed with shops selling shoddy clothes and electronic goods. You can also find two bigger churches along Avenida 4, which can be interesting to check during a mass.
Besides being a status symbol, automobiles are the most popular means of transportation, with plenty of gas-guzzlers in the traffic – but probably this is a general North and Central American phenomenon, not unique to San Jose. As a pedestrian you better get used to the fact that cars always have the right of way, and it is normal to wait around 5 minutes at the imaginary crossing zone – as usually this is a missing element from the streets – for that unlikely moment when there are no cars in sight to dare to cross.
Also watch where you step, as manhole covers are usually broken or missing, creating vicious traps across the town!
If you are planning to get around with a public bus in Costa Rica, from San Jose you will be able to reach any part of the country.
Be aware that there is no central bus station, there are different companies running public bus services, each responsible for a certain region and they have their own stations in different locations around the town . For example if you want to get to the Caribbean coast, your only option is to travel with the Autotransportes MEPE (this is their station: map).
Fortunately, the global craft beer movement has found its way to Costa Rica as well, providing alternatives for the beer-lovers against the three types of locally available mass produced lager beers. In the north-east part of central San Jose, several craft beer pubs and microbreweries popped up offering a wide range of fantastic Costa Rican craft beers and a great atmosphere! Check this map to some craft beer pubs in San Jose.
If you have a spare day, but you wouldn’t want to spend it in San Jose, visiting the Poas Volcano with a public bus makes up a great day trip.