The area around Costa Rica's capital is rich with cultural history and natural wonder. To discover some key attractions in San Jose and beyond, read on.
This sprawling low-rise metropolitan area has close to one million residents and serves as the hub of Costa Rica. Although it may not be the most picturesque of this country's many lush and naturally beautiful destinations, it is nonetheless, the city that most visitors will fly into. Families will find there's a lot to do there, even if they've just got a night "on the way in" and "on the way out" of the country.
Getting into Town and Around
The international airport of San José is small but quite modern. As you leave the airport building you will find the taxi stands right out front. If renting a car you may have to look for your car rental company outside the airport building. In cases where the car rental company location is off-site, the car rental agent will come looking for you. The crowd can get very thick right outside the airport building and it may be difficult for the rental agent to find you immediately upon your arrival. Usually within ten minutes of arrival everybody gets connected.
The main highway into town has been rebuilt, consequently the ride to downtown take anywhere from 25 to 35 minutes but there's always some new building or maintenance projects underway.
At first glance, San José does not appear to be your typical Central American city. It has no colonial districts and the North American fast food chain restaurants proliferate throughout the capital. With closer observation you begin to uncover the city's Costa Rican character.
There are a number of very good restaurants, many of which serve typical "tico" (Costan Rican) food. The climate, like much of Costa Rica, is often spring-like, and the people, typical of Central America, are very friendly and helpful.
The center of town is laid out in a grid system with avenidas (avenues) running north and south and calles (streets) running east and west. Calle Central is the dividing point. Avenidas south of Calle Central are even numbered; those north are odd numbered. In similar fashion, calles west of Calle Central are even numbered; those east are odd numbered. Directions are given using this system as well as using local landmarks.
Most travelers use San José as a base to explore other more environment-focused regions throughout the country. If your itinerary permits some sightseeing time in San José, there are many excellent museums in the city. The three prominent ones are:
Museo de Jade (Moo say oh dey HAH Dey): This the most famous museum in Costa Rica and contains the world's largest collection of American jade. It is located on the ground floor of the Instituto Nacional de Seguros on Avenida 7 between Calles 9 and 11. (506/287-6034 or 506/223-5800 Ext. 2584).
Museo Nacional: The exhibit is a mixture of archeology, colonial and natural history, and art. Located on Calle 17, between Avenidas Central and 2, it is open daily except Monday. There is a small admission fee. (506/257-1433)
Museo de Oro Precolombino: As the name implies the museum displays pre-Columbian art, especially gold. It is located on Calle 5, between Avenidas Central and 2. Security is tight; you will be required to leave your bags at the door. There is a small admissions fee. For tickets call (506/243-4216) and for more information (506/243-4202).
Outside of San José
Heading northwest from San José there are a series of delightful small towns around San José and in the mountains. The highlands of Costa Rica are among the greenest places on earth, especially during or after the rainy season. Bring plenty of film on your drive. One such day trip would be Barva and Poás Volcano.
Another day trip could be Sarchí and Zarcero and possibly Alajuela. It is best to head to the furthermost point first, such as Poás or Zarcero, and then do your sightseeing on the way back. This gives you a better gauge on your time and you are less likely to find yourself driving down the mountains after dark, which you don't want to do. Decision points on mountain roads are not always marked. Ask directions if you are not sure. On our first trip to Costa Rica we ended up in Poás when we meant to go to Zarcero. But at least we knew which turnoff to take on the next day's excursion.
Barva: Just a few miles outside of San José, this entire town is considered to be a national historic monument. It is pleasant to spend an hour or two strolling around and enjoying the colonial buildings. Coffee plantation tours are available right outside of town.
Alajuela: About 10 miles outside of San José, this small town is famous for being the birthplace of Juan Santamaría, the national hero of Costa Rica. Back in 1856, an audacious American named William Walker, marched through Nicaragua with the intent to conquer all of Central America, make the entire region a slave territory, and use the labor to build a canal across the isthmus. Costa Rica had no army at the time but a small militia was gathered up which forced the incoming Walker into a wood fort. Juan Santamaría, a teen-aged drummer in the militia, volunteered to torch the fort. Walker was forced to flee Costa Rica, but Santamaría died in the fire. The young national hero is commemorated by a museum and a park in the town of his birth.
Parque Nacional Volcán Poás: The park is about 20 miles north of Alajuela and offers a ranger station, visitor center, coffee shop, and snack bar. Poás is an active volcano and you are able to peer down into its crater, assuming the view is not obscured by volcanic steam clouds. Nearby are some short nature trails. There is some interesting flora to observe as well as numerous species of birds, especially hummingbirds. The park is open daily.
Sarchí: A little over halfway between San José and Zarcero, this little town is the major craft center of Costa Rica. The drive up here is lovely, it is interesting to observe the artisans at work, and it is a favorite place for shoppers. There is no pressure to buy and the prices are the best you will find anywhere. Here you can watch the famous wooden oxen carts (carretas) being carved and painted in bright colors. You can buy ox carts of any size and color from miniature souvenir carts to larger ones used as indoor tables, bars, and sideboards. The larger ones can be taken apart for transport. Also available for transport are the beautiful carved wooden and leather rocking chairs. The vendors will box any of these items for you and they can be checked with your luggage when you fly home. Costa Rica is famous for its carvings using the local natural woods. You will find beautiful wooden jewelry here as well as the unusual wooden carving boards, another popular gift item. If you plan on buying any bulky items, you can store them at your San José hotel until the end of your trip or plan your itinerary so that you shop in Sarchí on the last day.
Zarcero: This mountain town, located about 15 miles north of Sarchí, is famous for its cheeses, peach preserves and its huge garden of beautifully sculpted shrubs depicting birds and animals. The town sits at over 6000 feet so bring a sweater as it can be cool unless it is a sunny day.
Heading northeast and east of San José are several other attractions:
Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo: Thanks to its various life zones, this park contains a tremendous array of plant and bird life. You can hop out of your car for a brief stop as you travel through each altitudinal zone or linger over a longer hike. One possibility is to hike Barva Volcano which takes about five hours round trip. The fabled elusive quetzal, Central America's "flagship" bird, resides here. We are told by our Costa Rican friends that once you have viewed a quetzal, you will fall in love with its beauty. Its feathers shimmer and change color as they catch the reflection of light.
Rain Forest Aerial Tram: This unique tram is an ecotourism and reserch facility of Central America. The tram is located on the San José-Limón Road, on the right, just as you exit Braulio Carrillo National Park. Each of the trams takes five passengers and a naturalist guide and glides silently through the rain forest canopy on a 90-minute roundtrip ride. The ride includes a pre-briefing and use of trails before and after the ride. The cost is expensive but worth it – about $50 per person with discounts available for students and children. (506/257-5961)
Parque Nacional Volcán Irazú: Located east of San José, Irazú Volcano is the highest active volcano in Costa Rica. A paved road takes you to the summit at 11,300 feet, where you will find a small information center. Bring food, water, sunscreen, and lots of warm clothing. There is a great view at the top though it is often clouded over.
For more information on Costa Rica's destination visit www.govisitcostarica.com or call 858/581-9209.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.