For tourists, the Costa Rica’s Central Valley is not much more than a narrow hallway to the rest of the country’s enticing beaches and jungles. But for Costa Rica’s permanent inhabitants, the valley is the most- used room of the house; where 2/3 of the living, working population sustains itself.
So the guidebook will recommend that you exit Juan Santamaria airport and move on. The city lacks enough architectural ornamentation to be picturesque, despite the surrounding craggy green mountains with dramatic, blanketing clouds. San Jose is a sprawling concrete jungle whose original city scape was disarrayed by the earthquake of 1990. The stores generally sell the same manufactured, overpriced goods, so the shopping is not the stimulating experience that it could be if handmade products were available. San Jose caters to its residents, not visitors.
But Ticos of the valley must have fun somehow; the country has been rated by multiple surveys as one of the happiest in the world. And its not the 1/3 outside of the central valley that accounts for the ranking. To achieve the same level of Ticos happiness, you just have to spend time like one.
Which means you’ll venture downtown to downtown San Jose, but in doing so beware of its shady corners, namely the Coca-Cola Terminal, where muggings have been known to occur in broad daylight. The vibes there aren’t great, but I personally have never had trouble and actually met some very helpful strangers when trying to find my bus. Regardless, meandering the grimy streets in search of hidden gems is not recommended, as you might be found first by an unsavory character that is in search of your own gems. Instead, head straight to Barrio Amon, the trendy little historic district with plenty of affordable Costa Rican restaurants (called sodas) and cafes. Or, go to the Teatro Nacional for a fancy coffee and a free instrumental performance. Outside of the Teatro is a good spot for people watching, so bring your cameras (but keep them hidden when possible).
Food shopping anywhere in Costa Rica sucks if you stick to the grocery stores; but find out where and when the farmers markets are to find fresh produce and stuff yourself with free samples. The Feria Verde in Aranjuez has all organic fruits and vegetables, and plenty of buttery, homemade pastries. Pretty much every San Jose suburb has its own farmers market as well. Most are on the weekends, as I remember doing a market crawl one Saturday. Ask around for guanabana juice, because it’s the best drink in the country.
Every city manages to squeeze a park in somewhere. San Jose put its 180 acre recreational gallery, called La Sabana, where the old airport once lay. The paved pathways that weave between game courts and eucalyptus trees and artificial lakes are perfect for rollerblading or power walking. On Sundays, bring a picnic and a soccer ball to have an authentic Central Valley Tico experience. The National Stadium, home of the Liga and constructed by the Chinese, is also on La Sabana. Catch a game for some real enthusiasm.
And those aforementioned mountains should not go ignored. Three volcanoes also surround the valley, adding some volcanic smog into the cloudy mix. For some fresh air and invigorating breezes, head up towards Volcan Barva, but don’t go all the way to the top. Pull over when the air becomes cool and walk up the steep and winding road, past the wooden mountain homes and blustering grasses. You’ll see some fat and happy cows and sweeping views of the valley. You can lay in a field, warmed by the sun and cooled by the wind, and watch the clouds move faster then the gears in your mind. There are a few stands selling satisfying pineapple cookies. If caught in one of the frequent misty rains, warm up in a soda and with some warm agua dulce (sugar cane juice) and rum.
I imagine that San Jose will become more charming as it begins to reap the benefits of tourism within the city. Relative to other parts of the country, it’s pretty damn ugly. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential to show a good time. To find the nice parts, you have to scratch off the crusty layer of pollution and crime. If you have to visit San Jose, make peace with it- and then hop on a bus to the beaches and jungles that you actually came to see.