Views from Parque Morazan
"There's nothing to see in San Jose. You'd best get out to the mountains or beaches as soon as you can," the man sitting next to me on my flight to Costa Rica said. And, at first glance, I couldn't disagree. Though the city contains a third of the country's population, it seemed deserted as I drove into my hotel at 9:00 p.m., as if people had fled this place as soon as the sun set. But, underneath the surface, the city changed. The layers unraveled themselves, a history unfolded, and it became as interesting and unique as a Paris, Rome, or Sydney.
The ceiling at the National Theater
We spent the day with the amazing duo of Roberto and Ayal from Chepecletas, two men focused on changing impressions of San Jose. Almost 1.7 million tourists stop in San Jose each year, Katharine Carter, the general manager at the beautiful Hotel Presidente, told me. But, few stopped and experienced the city. Roberto and Ayal explained that the locals had abandoned the city, afraid to enter the center at night because of crime. "If the locals won't come into the city center at night, why would the tourists?" So, Roberto and Ayal began offering free night tours of San Jose to the locals. And, the people came and kept coming.
We began at one of the greenest parts of the city, the Parque Morazan. Sixty years ago, it was the hub of all social activity in San Jose. On Sunday evenings, the city shut down the streets around the park, the San Jose Symphony played waltzes, and men and women danced in huge rings around the Templo de Musica. Stunning Art Deco homes were built around the Parque Morazan and statues commemorating the city's leader were set in place, alongside huge cork trees. Then, the park fell into ruin, the Art Deco homes became brothels, and guidebooks began to caution against going to the park in the evening, warning about "rough crowd[s] and the occasional mugger."
School of Music
The Chepecletas guys are working with the city's tourism department to change this attitude and to bring people back into the parks at night. Now, on Thursday evenings, jugglers crowd into the Templo de Musica, tossing brightly colored balls back and forth. Lovers stroll hand in hand past the lighted majestic Metal School, built out of a 1000 tons of steel in 1890 by a Belgian architect.
The National Theater modeled on the Paris Opera House, was built during that same period, when the duties and profits from coffee exportation made Costa Rica one of the wealthiest nations in Central America.
And, in 1880, San Jose set up the Mercado Central, a vast market that ranks amongst the best I have ever visited (and, if you've been following this blog, you know that I'm a market junkie.) Today, it is still at the center of San Jose's social life.
Stalls selling vegetables, fruits, seafood, and meats have been passed down from generation to generation. These stalls are constantly busy --- tourists, locals, and restaurants shop for food here and Roberto explained that one of the coffee shops in the market brings in almost $10,000 USD per day.
Sodas and sorbeteria at Mercado Central
In addition to the stalls, the market is famous for its sodas, small diner-like establishments in which people commune over platos tipicos, meals consisting of a meat and rice and beans. People sit crowded together on stools and plastic chairs, underneath hanging onions, and the cooks make food upstairs, sending the meals down on dumbwaiters.
A fountain in San Jose
Sure, you could skip San Jose and head directly to the mountains and beaches, as most suggest you do. But, if I had done so, I would have missed the heartbeat of the nation.
Roberto and Ayal from Chepecletas and Chef Oscar O'Sullivan (more on him next week)
Roberto and Ayal from Chepecletas are brilliant tour guides, combining both knowledge and passion for San Jose's past and future. Unfortunately, their site is completely in Spanish but I promise you that they both speak perfect English so please don't be put off by their website. They conduct walking tours at night and bicycle tours during the day in San Jose, and I strongly encouraged them to set up a food-oriented walking tour, which is what we did with them. If you are planning a trip to San Jose, even for the afternoon, send them an e-mail and set up a tour. You won't regret it!
Days Inn San Jose
We stayed at the lovely Hotel Presidente and the Days Inn San Jose, and received outstanding service from both hotels. The Presidente is right next to the Parque Morazan which makes it the perfect base for touring. The Days Inn is a simply luxurious hotel with HUGE rooms, though I did find it a bit noisy at night due to street traffic.
* My trip to Costa Rica was sponsored by the Costa Rican Tourism Board. As always, all opinions are mine and mine alone. That being said, I loved my time in Costa Rica and can't wait to go back. If you want to head there (and why wouldn't you?), then you should definitely check out Costa Rica's Gift of Happiness Facebook contest where they are giving away a trip a day to their beautiful nation.