San José, Costa Rica is no longer just for visiting the airport or passing through on your travels from one coast to the next.
While we started to see a cultural shift 5 years ago the past two have shown a real change in locals' opinions of the city and their desire to work on its potential as an adorable, culturally vibrant and livable city. Many new projects are underway and we can't wait to see what the next two years will bring. In the meantime we have created a list of 10 reasons to visit San José now.
The entire size of the downtown area is about 2 miles in length. Streets are on a grid, and finally there are street signs to help visitors get around. There are 2 main pedestrian-only routes down Avenida Central and Avenida 4 for sightseeing. There are many historic and tasty treasures hidden on the side streets of these paths so we recommend any of our city walking tours to get a real look at the history and new developments of the city.
2. Nighttime Views
San José sits in a valley and if you can get high enough you can see the lights rising up the mountainsides in every direction. Our favorite choice in downtown is the restaurant on the 17th floor of the Holiday Inn at Parque Morazan. The food is ok and a little more expensive than usual so maybe pop up right at 6:00 for sunset and early drinks and appetizers, or dessert at the end of the night.
3. Affordable Shows
At any moment downtown you can catch concerts and theater shows for a reasonable price. The National Theater offers short performances Tuesdays at noon and Thursdays at 5 for under $8 a person. International acts perform at the National Stadium and Teatro Melico Salazar for usually much less than a ticket in the US or Europe. If you speak Spanish there are dozens of small theaters for live performance and stand-up comedy such as on the Teatro Urbano on the south side of the Plaza de la Democracia. Club Vertigo, El Lobo Estepario, Latino Rock, Steinvorth and Hoxton are also great for live music and DJs.
4. Microbrew Beers
It has been an uphill battle for small brewers to bring beer to the local market between fighting the monopoly beer company La Cervecería and getting Ticos to try something new. Finally, gastropubs are opening and featuring these brewers. An entrepreneur just hosted the first Oktoberfest and this year saw the second annual beer tasting festival. Our food tour gets you 10% off a beer tasting sampler at one of the new gastropubs.
5. Century-old Architecture
Downtown neighborhoods continue to clean up and many historic sites have experienced some form of restoration. A stroll through many streets in the immediate center and Barrio Amon can take you back in time to see the direct European influence and to appreciate the luxuries people had in such a small pueblo.
6. Green Fashion Design
Downtown boutiques display costa ricans' environmental conscienceness via fashion design with recycled fabrics and materials. Tienda Eñe always provides a look at the newest trends in this field.
7. La Sabana City Park
Originally the airport, this city park, now swallowed by urban sprawl, provides a green escape from the noisy city streets. One can run on the marked trails, speed skate on the rink, swim at the public pool or visit the free art history museum on the eastern end. On the weekends you can people watch or join others in pic- up soccer games or sponsored aerobic dance classes.
8. Street Art
Growing as a popular art form, incredible graffiti murals decorate different areas of the city. A new program is even commissioning artists to paint the metal doors of downtown shops, turning ugly security panels into visual stories of San Jose. Works still exist from the Transitarte festival held 2 years ago at the Legistlative Assembly.
9. Free Festivals
At almost any time of year one can find a free festival happening downtown. Every Sat. except the Christmas holiday season you can visit Parque Morazan and Parque Espana for free dance and art classes, and catch concerts. December to April are host to Topes, Festival of Lights, Rock el Farolito, FIA and Transitarte.
10. Day Trip Hub
San José is centrally located in the country and if you have 5 or less days it might be easiest to base yourself in the city and take day trips out to volcanoes, birding, hiking, rafting and beaches. On a side note, we think the Arenal Volcano and Monteverde are two places to stay overnight. Many agencies sell these as a 1 day trip but it's 4-6 hours each way. For closer destinations see our recommendations.
December in San Jose, Costa Rica is a celebratory affair with many opportunities to view local cultural events that provide 'authentic' experiences. December is also a transitional month for the weather and therefore requires different attire. Here is our list of travel advice to make the most of December in the capitol city!
1. Bring a Scarf and Sunscreen - December in Costa Rica can be sunny or cloudy, or both within a 10 minute time period, but it is almost always windy. A scarf makes for a nice, lightweight solution to stay warm or protect against the sun. Sunscreen is still a must for when the sun is shining. It may feel cool but we are only 10 degrees north of the equator so the sun can still burn you quickly! We also encourage our lady friends to save skirts for the beach, although the Tico men surely won't mind seeing your underwear when the wind blows your skirt up! ;)
Live in a winter place? Like scarves for souvenirs? Try an Art Tour to see local fasions and maybe meet designers.
2. Try a Tamal - December is the month for Costa Ricans to get together with family members and make Tamales. Each maker has his or her special recipe but traditionally they will have pork or beef and vegetables packed inside a maza dough and then wrapped and cooked inside a banana leaf. You will find these sold by street vendors or can try some on our Food Tour.
3. See San Jose at Night - The municipality of San Jose does a great job of lighting streets and monuments to share the holiday spirit. A walk down Paseo Colon to the National Theater, then up to Parque Morazan and east to view the INS building will leave you feeling young, happy and festive. We encourage you to do this between the hours of 6:30 - 8:30 when there are more people on the streets and it is safer overall. Leave expensive cameras, jewelry and extra cash behind. Grab a nice cup of coffee afterwards at Kalu.
4. Support English Theater - The Little English Theater Group provides interactive ways for Costa Ricans to learn English and also acts as a social group amongst expats. Each year they host a Christmas performance. This year will be a 'live radio broadcast' performance. If you are considering living or moving to Costa Rica this is a great group to join and support.
Show times are 7:30 Fri. Nov. 30 and 2:30 Sat. and Sun. Dec. 1 and 2. Reservations are preferred. Cost is $13.
5.. Eat Art at Bon ArtPetit 2012: À table! - This unique event is in its 3rd year and will be free to the public (limited to 500 attendees). Artists submited edible works of art and 13 finalists were chosen. If you have lived in Costa Rica this past year you will find some of these humorous commentary on recent failures by the government. Pieces will be on display at the Children's Museum (Museu de los Ninos) on Dec. 13th starting at 7:30 p.m. until 10:30. This event is hosted by the French Alliance. Attendance is free if you bring a packet of sugar...I'm sure this has to do with the art. Take a cab to the event. The immediate neighborhood cannot be described with nice adjectives, but you will be fine in a taxi. To be prepared for this event take an art or city tour to get up to speed on current politics.
6. Attend a Tope (Horse Dance Festival) - December kicks off the season of Tope Festivals around the country. The National Tope takes place on Dec. 26th at noon. This is a special event in which cowboys come from the country side and show of their horses and their horse dancing skills. While drinking out of open containers is now illegal in Costa Rica I guarantee these cowboys will be drunk.....watch out for the horses. View full schedule of December topes in the country.
7. Sparkle with the Festival of Lights - We always love a good parade and nothing beats the Festival of Lights in San Jose. This year the event will be held at 6:00 p.m. on Dec. 15th. The parade consists of about 20 lighted floats. Find a spot somewhere between Parque La Sabana and Teatro Nacional (we recommend closer to the park for better viewing). Remember open containers are now illegal in Costa Rica so it might be a handy time for the flask. Watch out for the confetti. While it's illegal to throw it, teenagers can't resist, and they win points with their peers for covering tourists in it. If you'd like to see some of the city beforehand book a walking tour.
8. Go Out in Style with the Nutcracker in the National Theater - From the 6th to the 16th of December (expect the 10th and 15th) you can catch the classic ballet performance of The Nutcracker performed by the National Dance Company, and also view the stellar interior of the National Theater. Tickets start at $20. We think any seat in the theater is spectacular so buy for your budget. Monday - Friday 8 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m. and 5p.m., Tickets can only be bought at Mundoticket locations so try a Walmart or Mas x Menos.
9. Get in the Ring at One of 26 Bullfights - Called the Best Sport Ever by Erin at DelaPuraVida, the bullfights in Costa Rica begin on Christmas Day and last until Jan. 6th. Every day at 3 p.m. and at 9 p.m. mostly men and boys hop in the ring with a bull. In complete, passive Costa Rican fashion these fights aim to hurt the humans, not the bulls. No one can beat Erin's enthusiasm for this event so please read the link above. This event takes place in Zapote and tickets start at $16. Typical fair activities are also a part of the fun.
10. Discover Local Treasures and Culinary Delights on a Walking Tour - This is our favorite time of year to take guests on adventures exploring the nooks and crannies of San Jose. As we close 2012, we'd like to thank all of our clients that have helped us create the most unique walking tours available in San Jose, Costa Rica. We've grown from one standard tour into 5 walking tour options including city, art, photography, food and fiesta. Let us help you create your San Jose experience, email BarrioBird@gmail.com.
If you can find the old Banco Anglo you'll enjoy the recent restoration of this historic San Jose building in addition to the latest exposition, works by Eugenia Vega. Here is a sneak peak at the exhibit. To see this building and more special sites, book one of our city tours or yoga/massage packages.
By Stacey Auch.