San Jose Guide

The only downside of getting a dream job in a tropical country full of beaches and mountains and the most welcoming bunch of people you’re likely to meet, is that I’m stuck in San José for most of the week, a city that is a blemish on Costa Rica’s otherwise stunning scenery.

San José has little to recommend itself, apart from the genuine people and the relative lack of hassle. Between the blatant sex tourism and the non-existent architecture, backpackers can easily get put off exploring it any further. But if you are here for a while, here’s a few suggestions of what you can do to make the most of Costa Rica’s most unattractive attraction.

This section is split into: Art galleries and museums; Nightlife

Now for something a little bit different

Don’t want to look round a museum, and sick of checking out buildings that have little architectural interest? Here’s a couple of things to do that you might not have anticipated

Go sloth spotting

As a wildlife guide would say, I can’t guarantee that you’re going to see anything, but it might be worth a try anyway. The University campus in San Pedro has two resident sloths that hang around in its trees – but the campus is relatively large and I’ve only seen them once in the couple of dozen times I’ve been there. Still, on a nice day the campus is a good place to hang out. The atmosphere is more vibrant and youthful, there are trees and grassy areas that make a pleasant change tot he rest of San José. Exercise fans will enjoy coming here for a run – either on the almost car-less roads or at the sports campus running track – as there is really nowhere else to go except Sabana park, which is the opposite side of town.

Follow the cow parade

A little while ago, San José got invaded by cows. They stand around on every downtown corner and lurk in the parks, in a varied array of bikinis, clown-costumes, spray-on gold suits and fake eyelashes. Unfortunately this isn’t some new camp cow campaign – it’s the cow parade that asked artists to buy and paint a cow. The results are now on display, and it’s fun to wander around downtown checking out what peoples’ weird imaginations have come up with. You will find: Damien-Hurst cow, cut up and dangling in pieces; San José skyline cow; marimba-dancing cow; rainbow cow; and prostitute cow, putting on her make-up. Places to catch the cows include Parque Morazan, Parque Central, Avenida Central and Parque Nacional.

Art galleries and museums

Museo de Arte Costarricense

Easily the capital’s best, the Costa Rican art museum is located next to Sabana park, convenient for a quick picnic after a wander round the galleries. It used to be an airport, so that striking balconied tower in the middle was full of air traffic controllers from 1940 – 55. Ongoing collections feature some works by famous Costa Rican painter Francisco Amighetti. San José’s most thoughtful exhibitions are usually filling the rest of the space.

Currently showing: The Conjunciones Biennial. The charity Ticos y Nicas Somos Hermanos sponsored this show that challenged artists to consider the stereotypes that operate between Nicaraguans and Ticos in today’s society. Some of the results are well done. Read more about this show here.

Museos del Banco Central

Being run by a bank, this underground museum complex has a lot of capital. It has brought renowned works by artists such as Rembrandt to the country, something which doesn’t happen very often. The permanent collection includes exhibitions of old coins and pre-colombian gold. It can be hard for some people to find – it’s located in the Plaza de la Cultura, near Teatro Nacional. Go down the steps that you find there to get to the below-ground entrance.

Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo

Housed in another rather interesting old building, this offers three or four galleries and a lovely shop/café called Sala 2. The building used to be the national liquor factory, and you can still see the old brick walls and wooden beams behind the artwork.

Currently showing:
Madrid Mirada – starting April 12. Fourteen Latin American artists go to Madrid with a bunch of cameras. They take a bunch of pictures. The differences in the cultures and experiences of each different artists coming from a different Latin American country will be reflected in the images they produce. Review to follow. More information here

Museo Calderon Guardia

A pretty, airy old house near the hospital of the same name, this museum is dedicated to the country’s social reformer, Presidente Calderon Guardia, who was in power from 1940-44. He introduced many of Costa Rica’s welfare state aspects, most notably the free healthcare system. He was himself a doctor, and this museum dwells on his medical career as well as giving a reconstruction of his cabinet room, a statue of the man himself preaching to the empty chairs. A little confused in its layout, the museum’s explanations are all in Spanish and it doesn’t give much of the story about how Calderon got involved in the war in 1948, or indeed about his defeat. Colourful abstract, pop-art and general artworks are also hung around the walls, also lacking any sort of explanation. An exhibition space usually has something to check out. Currently it is a circus-themed installation.

Museo Nacional

San José nightlife

For the country’s major city, the nightlife can sometimes seem a little, shall we say, bland. There are however some decent places to spend the evening. I’m going to give my readers the benefit of the doubt and avoid saying anything about the casinos and strip clubs that abound in San José. If that’s what you’re in for, head to the Del Rey downtown, and start asking around.

A little tip – If you are looking for live music listings, the best place to check out is En Tarima magazine. This can be picked up at various spots around town, or usually downloaded by following this link:

Raffas – Students spill out onto the street every Friday and Saturday night, sitting on the pavement and filling the road. This is the number one top spot for the young, the broke and the grungy to come for cheap beer, football on the TV and socialising in the gutter. Strictly for those who don’t mind getting the seat of their jeans a little dirty. And the toilets are disgusting. But the beer is a dollar.

La Esquina – Just round the corner, La Esquina is Raffas’ big brother for people who want to drink under a roof and listen to rock. A similar crowd hangs out here, although it is likely to be slightly older, slightly more style-conscious and have a few more colones in its pocket. This is a good place to meet Ticos, drink down a few guaros and appreciate the old 80s rock classics. Always has a decent atmosphere, whatever day of the week.

El Cuartel de la Boca del Monte – On Monday evenings, this San José institution opens its adjoining door with La Esquina, puts on a live band and throws a party. Other nights of the week it also often has live music, and attracts a stylish crowd.

El Observatorio – Round the corner from El Cuartel, this relatively new place focusses on nicer decor and a more chilled out, less binge-drinky atmosphere. It has two stories and live music five nights a week, which ranges from electro to salsa to flamenco. There are tables outside for those who don’t want to pay the cover charge to get into the light, airy bar.

The Jazz Café – If you’re a live music fan, don’t miss it. Not quite as grungy and dirty as a traditional jazz café might demand, this is firmly the enclave of the well-to-do hip crowd. Busts of famous jazz musicians lean down from the walls, the lighting is low, and the beer pumps are made of saxophones. Tables fill the floor around a half-moon stage which hosts a jazz jam each Tuesday evening, and different types of music on every other night of the week. It attracts the best musicians in town. Regulars include the popular national group Malpais. Definitely one of the more exciting cultural centres of the city.

El Pueblo – Notorious. A shooting used to be reported outside this place almost every weekend. It is designed to get people extortionately drunk just through the sheer concentration of bars packed into its perimeters. El Pueblo (the town) is a walled in shopping/drinking complex made of white houses with brown tiled rooves. It could really be quite an attractive, if rather false, place, if it wasn’t for the drunkards spilling out of its doors each weekend. There is no end of choice of bars to go to, if you’re a reggaeton fan. Some of them occasionally slip into regular reggae, if you’re lucky. Some of the bars are also rather nicely kitted out, with luxuriant sofas, and DJs who will play “European” music if you ask nicely, but these are invariably deserted by the Ticos who prefer a place with a packed dancefloor and a few gyrating women on a stage. The cover charge is 1,000 colones ($2). If you’re up for a big party with a lot of Ticos, and you’re not worried about taste, this may be the place for you.

Lubnam – Hookah pipes and Brazilian music abound in this Lebanese restaurant with a little L-shaped bar at its back. The bar has regular live music and is worth checking out for the ambiance, which is more interesting than that achieved by most San José night spots. Over on Paseo Colon, which leads straight into Avenida Central.


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