I didn’t really have any expectations of San Jose, so I figured I wouldn’t be disappointed. For the most part, that turned out to be true.
I stayed in the city center, which is slightly seedy and a little run-down, but with an almost 360-degree view of the incredible mountains and volcanos that surround the valley in which the city sits, maybe don’t gild the lily?
I ate – a lot. Despite their being (quite literally) a McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr or KFC on every corner, local food is good and plentiful in the sodas, family-run restaurants that seem to be the Costa Rican equivalent of our Southern “meat-and-three”, with the best choices I found being fresh corvina (sea bass) or the casado tipico (rice and beans and some type of meat with a small green salad).
La Criollita (on Avenida 7 behind Parque Morazán) and Nuestra Tierra (Avenida 2 across from the Museo Nacional) both dished up tasty and reasonably priced local cuisine, and the servers were patient, helpful with my minimal Spanish skills – the sweet server at La Criollita even offered me after-dinner Costa Rican coffee on the house (possibly as a reward for not giving in to the urge to actually lick my plate clean.)
But when you either don’t want or can’t fit a full meal under your belt, a panaderia is a great place to kick back for a mid-morning or mid-afternoon caffe con leche and postre break. These bakeries are pretty ubiquitous throughout the city and are also great for picking up pastries to take back to your hotel room…not that I did that. Never…
I planned my Saturday morning in the Museo Nacional, and although it is very informative concerning the history of Costa Rica, I found the best part to be the entrance, a huge butterfly house built inside the old walls. If you stand still – and if there isn’t a huge party of kids visiting the museum that day, all screaming “Mariposa!” – you can become part of the exhibit (my bright orange backpack proved a hit with the butterfly population). And I hope those kids were screaming at the butterflies, not at me.
But since San Jose is very much an outdoor city, with public parks and plazas every couple of blocks, I wanted a lazy Saturday afternoon in the fresh air. I did a little exploring in Barrio Amón, one of San Jose’s oldest neighborhoods, full of galleries and boutique hotels housed in the fine examples of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture of the former coffee barons’ mansions, and topped off my trek with a stop by the hipster Cafe de los Deseos on Avenida 15 for a couple of local microbrews (I loved the Seguas Red Ale).
Thus fortified with alcohol and architectural eye-candy, I headed back down into the city to window-shop up and down Avenida Central (basically a long outdoor market closed to vehicular traffic) for that one thing I really wanted, and then spend the early evening sitting in the Plaza de La Cultura outside the beautiful Teatro Nacional. While there are actually a number of these ornate, European-style theatres still in regular use around the city, Teatro Nacional is sort of the archetype but also contains a chic, popular cafe. It seemed everyone in the city shared my intention, and I got to combine a stroll across the plaza to Pops for a cone of creamy, delicious helado dulce de leche with my favorite sport, people-watching.
All in all, an enjoyable, if short, weekend. The ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves) were welcoming and friendly, I ate way too much good food, I bought a few bags of Costa Rican coffee from the local supermarket to bring home, and I had the luck to spend two days walking one of the top capitals of Central America without a drop of rain.
My disappointment? I never found “una camisa rosa imprimo con ‘Bimbo'”. Yes, I wanted a pink T-shirt with “Bimbo” on it. At least I think that is what I asked for. Maybe it was my really bad Spanish, or maybe the ticos thought that a middle-aged man in a pink t-shirt with a fluffy white bear on the chest was wrong on many levels, and were trying to spare me embarrassment.
(Note: Bimbo is kind of like Little Debbie, except way cuter. I would not wear Little Debbie clothing and I don’t recommend that you do, either.)