Costa Rica Sunday is numero uno in San Jose
By Chris Tupper
San José, Costa Rica – If you come to Costa Rica on an organized tour, set aside one day, two or more for the city, tell the leader you are ill, tell him you are tired, tell him anything, but by all means stay in San Jose- preferably on a Sunday, preferably alone.
San Jose is where the action is and is the center for communication and homebase for exploring Costa Rica but most tourist are so busy white water rafting, visiting the volcanoes and cloud forests, riding the jungle train to Puerto Limon and picnicking on deserted beaches that they never get to see anything of San Jose.
Why San Jose is so special remains elusive. It is not big, bustling or cosmopolitan. Maybe that’s it. It’s small, filled with friendly people and incredibly walkable, with is many flower and fountain filled parks, wide sidewalks and practically non- –existent street crime.
Yes I know the whole country is special. Costa Rica is one of the best working democracies in the Americas. Five ex-presidents still live here; name other Latin American country where that is true. Other Latin American countries have been off-limits to North Americans at one time or another, but never this one. It is very safe to travel here!
Costa Rica has the highest literacy rate (more than 90%) in Central America.
It is also environmentally aware. Eight percent of the tiny country (It is the size of West Virginia) has been set aside for national parks and reserve systems. Its three mountain ranges have active and inactive volcanoes, tropical rain, cloud and dry forests, 800 miles of beaches and one-tenth of the worlds known bird species, 850 (To compare the United States and Canada have 350).
But with all of that, you are missing Costa Rica if you do not explore fully San Jose.
Don’t make any plans for the day. Just walk leisurely through the downtown streets. Around 10 am you will see lovely preteen girls outfitted in gowns of white and lacy and ribboned as bridal costumes. Most Costa Ricans are Catholics and the girls are taking their First Communion. Beaming parents accompany them. Aim the camera their way, say "Con premise" (With your permission), and shy smiles light up the young one’s faces, proud smiles the older ones.
Slowly find your way to The National Theatre (2nd Ave. and 3rd St.). The Renaissance-style facade, built in 1897 and patterned after European opera houses right down to the statue of Beethoven, is Costa Rica’s outstanding building. Peek inside at the parquet flooring, marble-lined lobby, grand staircase and ornate gold-leaf woodwork.
With more than 300 official functions a year, you may want to catch a dance performance, musical work or play. Probably not today, though, because while tickets are inexpensive (usually under $5), they are tremendously popular and go-fast. It is said that Costa Ricans love their National Theatre so much that they don’t make revolutions for fear of breaking the panes in its windows. So a little planning is necessary. See what’s on later. Today just a glimpse will do.
Your real destination is the Cultural Plaza adjoining the theater and facing the Grand Hotel. This is the place to wile away Sunday’s slow hours. It seems that every citizen of the city appears here at one time or another to see what’s going on.
It’s a catch-as-catch-can sort of place. No promises. Follow the crowd to see what they’re watching. Maybe it’s a mime walking on an imaginary tightrope inside that circle of laughing children, perhaps a fire-eater devouring his just deserts, possible Punch and Judy drawing the kids’ giggles or a musical group singing folk songs.
For sure you will see stalls with trinkets and flowers and vendors hawking popcorn, lemonade and hot dogs. Talk to the Ticos (Costa Ricans). Don’t hesitate to use your rusty high school Spanish. Even the most Anglicized pronunciation of "Como esta usted" will be greeted with a warm smile and response. Many Ticos also speak English. When a place to sit down and a cool drink or a café con leche (coffee with milk) becomes the order of the day, walk the few steps to Café Parisienne on the porch of the Grand Hotel overlooking the plaza. The hotel, downtown’s most elegant, offers drinks under $2, and the accompanying live music is free. But around noon, when the stomach seriously calls for service, head for El Pueblo. A taxi will cost about $2 . El Pueblo was built about 24 years ago as a shopping center, but didn’t catch on. It’s a group of lovely white Spanish-style buildings with thick orange tile and lots of wooden beams.
Comes Alive at night
Some parts have two stories and the complex rambles on like a miniature village. Some buildings are connected, some walkways lead to dead ends. Now it’ s practically all nightclubs, piano bars, discos, reggae clubs and restaurants, certainly the place for the active to frequent at night.
But we are not forgetting why we made the journey. On Sundays the bars are closed but Lukas Restaurant remains very open. We have come here because, oddly enough,, few Costa Ricans restaurants feature native food. But at Lukas you can start with sopa negra, a special black bean soup seasoned with cilantro (under $2), cilantro is not a hot spice and Costa Rican food is barely warm. Even the side dish of pico de gallo (hot sauce) tastes mild to a Texan used to Tex-Mex cooking. Gallo Pinto is the national dish, a simple combination of rice, black beans and a fried egg ($1.50), but more delicious is Corvina a la parrilla a flaky grilled sea bass (under $5). One bite and you will know why we came to Lukas.
After a pleasant dinner, probably on the front porch, and a few pleasantries exchanged with the waiter, it is time to leave. Head back to town by taxi or consider walking off the meal by visiting one of San Jose three main museums. Days and hours are always changing but one of the three is bound to be open.
The Jade Museum at INS Building. 9th St. and 7 Ave. features many prehistoric carvings of jade and stone, along with ceramic and gold articles. The Gold Museum (Cultural Plaza and Central Ave.) contains one of the finest and most valuable gold collections in the world, with more than 1,600 artistic gold pieces in varying sizes and types from burial objects to religious art. The third, The National Museum (17th St. and 2nd Ave.), houses an excellent collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, historical displays and colonial religious art.
A Rest for Weary Legs
All right enough culture. Back to the Plaza at The National Theatre Who knows what we are missing? It might be a kid’s sidewalk coloring contest, a chess match or informal art show. A park bench warmed by the sun provides a rest for weary legs and a good place to watch strolling lovers, couples pushing carriages and kids blowing and bursting soap bubbles from 20 cents-jars bought from the strolling vendors.
Catch the open-air-train for some passive viewing on a larger scale (50 cents). Complete with canned music,the train takes 20 minute round-trip run through downtown streets.
For a little Sunday shopping, try the Mercado Central between Central and First avenues. Pass the fruit and the vegetables, pass the baskets, pass even the nardwood salad bowls sets from the neighboring town of Sarchi if you must, but do not pass by the Costa Rican grown Coffee.
Costa Rican coffee’ s good reputation has grown quickly. When you see airline pilots carrying 20 sacks of the aromatic beans back to their planes, you know you have found a deal. And at prices under $1 a pound you can become a hero to every coffee-loving friend you have.
Don’t forget, though, to earmark a couple of those sacks for yourself. Weeks later, after you are home and you have fought city traffic for two hours, argued with your boss or been treated rudely by a clerk or public servant, fix a cup of Costa Rican coffee.
Sit back. Relax. Leisurely, slowly sip some of the world’s best brew and let your thoughts drift back to your special, soul satisfying Sunday in San Jose.
Originally published in Los Angeles Times