We ended up having 3 separate stays in San José, at the beginning, in the middle during Santa Semana, and at the end just before going to the airport for our next destination. It seems only right therefore that we include San Jose in our blog posts. On our gap year travels this turned out to be the first country we had visited that was part of our original plans. We arrived with high hopes of seeing things we had never seen before. In that time we saw much of the capital, which included both highlights and low-lifes.
Initially we arrived in the capital, San Jose, on a flight from Antigua that went via Miami. We had considered stopping off in Miami for a few days and maybe see if we can go find an alligator or two. We needed negative PCR tests to be able to enter the USA, which we managed to do OK in Antigua, albeit for a small fortune, but further research on Miami, known to be a Trump state, showed that their COVID figures were appalling. This was somewhere we wanted to get in to, and out of asap.
Nigel had wanted to visit Costa Rica since his friend and colleague Carolyn visited here a couple of years ago. She really enthused about it and when she showed me a few of her holiday photos, he was hooked. Costa Rica has 5% of the world’s biodiversity, which means a great deal of flora and fauna can be found here. We were both very excited to about visiting.
Getting into Costa Rica was no easy task, especially given their health insurance requirements, but Carol had worked tirelessly for 2 weeks liaising with our existing insurers to ensure we had a certificate stating that all of their requirements had been met. This saved us a lot of money, because now we didn’t have to pay the Costa Rican government for their approved insurance package. At the airport, once we had met with immigration officials and cleared every hurdle, we headed off to our Hotel. We knew we had picked a great place after the immigration officer nodded with approval when we asked if our hotel was in a good area. He seemed very impressed by our choice.
Where we stayed
Hotel 1492 is in a neighbourhood called Barrio Escalante. This is a nice neighbourhood with high quality local food shops, similar in style to a small Waitrose, and many good quality bars and restaurants. Being a nice area in a capital city means there are no bargains to be had here, expect a meal out to cost at least the same as in England, if not slightly more. The food is good though. The hotel was also very nice, friendly staff, nice breakfast, safety deposit box, use of the kitchen, a laundry service and a nice outdoor garden terrace. When we arrived Carol was really struggling to walk so we ended up having 5 days here for some r&r and we really enjoyed it. For just over £20 a night with breakfast what was there to complain about. When we returned for the week of Santa Semana we stayed here again because we liked it so much. Unfortunately for our 3rd visit the prices had gone up to over double so we found a different place.
For our 3rd visit we stayed at Costa Rica Guesthouse. This was a very last minute booking as our initial booking informed us of a lack of wifi and also when we saw the property we decided it was not for us. We booked in at the guesthouse at 7pm arriving at 8pm. Despite the late booking they had no problem in accepting us. Our expectations were pleasantly exceeded; for £17 a night we had a double ensuite room and secure private parking. The area wasn’t as nice as Hotel 1492 but it was near enough to everything that this wasn’t a problem. Daytime is fine to walk around but would recommend taxis to and from the hotel at nights as the streets round there were very dimly lit. It was clean, safe and our other friends Conor & Erica we discovered also stayed here.
Whilst in San Jose we found the best way to get around was Uber; it was cheap and safe and we got to most places for just over £2. For transport out of San Jose the bus terminals offered cheap and convenient routes to many destinations around the country (please read the section below about safety at bus stations in San Jose).
Also on our 3rd time in San Jose we had a hire car so drove in the capital. This was fine, the streets are very US with blocks and one way streets. The main issues were potholes and lack of road markings; however ask any driver in San Jose and they will tell you they use the sat nav app WAZE. We used it and it was really helpful, especially because of the one way streets and lack of road markings. Re driving make sure you avoid the areas mentioned below (the red zone) especially at night.
As with all new countries we took the step of organising a transfer with our hotel upon arrival; this is for our own safety and peace of mind, even if it is a little more expensive at least we know we won’t be tired having to navigate taxi con artists or public transport which can be tricky. We were collected on a private shuttle organised by our hotel and taken to our accommodation from the airport.
Petty crime is a known issue here. We heard stories from other travellers about theft when they were at one of the free hot springs in La Fortuna, and scams involving alleged missed buses and taxis from San Jose Airport where our friend Judit had the car doors locked on her and a large sum of money demanded to let her out. Even before hearing these things we had read enough to be wary about time spent in the capital.
There are certain areas of San Jose that even taxi and uber drivers don’t like to visit including one area in downtown nicknamed “the Red Zone” or “Zona Roja” . The zona roja is the area between Avenidas 5 and 9 and Calles 2 and 10. This does include the main bus stations including Terminal 7-10 and also the Mepe Bus terminal just round the corner. When we first left San Jose we left out of the Mepe Bus terminal. We got an Uber and arrived 15 minute before our bus. We had no issues here; some people tried to sell us what looked like some knocked off headphones and phones but they did take no for an answer. We didn’t feel that comfortable there but we arrived just before our bus which departed on time; we bought our ticket the day before and ubered directly there and back without hanging around.
We did have an issue with a man on our second visit to San Jose when we arrived at the bus station known as 7-10. As soon as we exited the station he was in our faces immediately, which for starters put us on edge a little because of COVID and social distancing advice. He put his arm around us, and you know what they say about pick-pockets, when you are very aware of what one hand is doing, it’s the other one you need to pay attention to. We ended up being quite rude to him, either refusing to talk to him completely, or giving nonsense answers. “Where are you from?” “I have no idea, I’ve forgotten”
Eventually, he gave up on me and moved on to another potential victim, and then another. Everyone gave him short shrift, he was largely unintelligible, but one word we could make out was ‘heroin’. It explained a lot. This was our second visit; however, if this had been the first our impressions of San Jose may be somewhat different than they are.
We never had anything stolen, nor did we lose anything, but we saw enough to put us on our guard. Like many cities, travellers are potentially at their most vulnerable when they have just arrived, especially when you have luggage. The unofficial taxis at airports, and the people attempting to befriend and help you when you’ve just stepped off the bus and don’t yet have your bearings. We were hyperaware, made sure that all our belongings were secure and that we knew where we were going with onward transport arranged. Our top advice would be like most places; be aware of your surroundings, secure your belongings, keep your distance from other people and don’t be distracted. Always plan your routes and transport in advance so you don’t look lost. If you are lost walk with confidence to a shop, restaurant, bank or shopping mall with lots of people and then get your phone out to research or ask directions; don’t walk down the street with your phone in your hand. When using an ATM use one inside of a bank or a lobby where possible rather than one on the street. Crime does happen everywhere and San Jose is definitely no exception but having your wits about you, forward planning and not taking risks such as walking in unfamiliar or dark areas at night and you should be fine. If you do need to go out at night get an Uber or taxi there and back.
Food and Drink
Ram Luna Restaurant
We celebrated our anniversary whilst in San José, and we chose a restaurant high up in the mountains overlooking the entire valley San José sits in. Ram Luna has fantastic views, the food was good but it was let down a little by the service, with our waiter being slow and inattentive. The fantastic views made up for that and we left very happy. We Ubered to and from here too, a drive of thirty to forty minutes and a number of kilometres from our hotel, and that cost under £5 each way. Uber is so cheap here, and petrol is expensive so I am not quite sure how they make a living this way.
Tenador Argentinian Restaurant
Carol was really fancying a steak and as our trip to Argentina was now looking off the cards we decided to visit El Tenador, a highly rated Argentinian steak house located near the National Theatre. From outside it would be easy to miss it as it is upstairs with a balcony overlooking the street. We were impressed by the food here; Carol said her steak was done to perfection and we shared a bottle of Malbec with it. It wasn’t cheap but it certainly lived up to its good reputation.
We decided to go and visit the National Gallery, there are several different museums in San Jose but we fancied this one, ordered our taxi and were dropped off at the door. We repeated National Gallery and the driver responded ‘si’ so out we got. We entered the building and were ushered into a counter area where we were struggling with the spanish language somewhat. The lady at the counter spoke very little english but said we needed a tour guide. It was only approx £3.50 each so we paid and were ushered along the corridor and told to sit and wait.
We were joined by a family with young children and started the tour; when we were led to a room showing us a big mouth and teeth we suddenly realised this wasn’t the National Gallery at all. It turns out that we had inadvertently paid for a tour around the children’s museum or ‘Museo De Los Ninos’, the equivalent of something like a poorer cousin of the Science Museum in London 🤭🤭. Unfortunately we were now committed, following along with the guide to learn all about teeth, muscles, skeletons, electricity. To be fair there were some interactive bits we did join in with as you can see and we tried to make the best of it.
After two hours of learning all about the body, energy, the solar system, transport and then being faced with a fake shop resembling something out of supermarket sweep we called it a day; even this was not without its issues as we had to wait to be escorted to the exit. Why noone questioned where our children were we will never know🤣🤣. On the way out we saw that the National Gallery was on the right past the entrance and was free to enter without a guide…… we never made it back there too scarred by our experiences in the children’s museum!
We have some experience of shopping in San Jose, travelling for a year things need replacing, clothes, shoes, faulty leads for electricals etc. The main shopping area in San Jose in Avenida Central; this is where you will find ‘high street shops’. Lots of american brand shops, shoe shops, supermakets are located here. One recommendation would be if you come to the capital buy your souvenirs here; a Costa Rica baseball cap for example cost 2000 colones ($3.25 or £2.30). When I lost it and tried to find a replacement the same cap cost $15-$25 in tourist areas around the country. We also visited Novocentro; an out of town retail park where we managed to pick up some shoes and other bits.
Another great find in San José was Mall San Pedro. A shopping mall not too exciting by English standards, but an oasis of high quality goods and services that we had struggled to find anywhere else in Costa Rica. We took the opportunity to update some clothing and footwear options, and bought some mobile phone accessories. I also got some first-class service at Cococo, a computer shop just a few minutes away from the mall. Here I needed a new part for my laptop, which they didn’t have in stock so a guy spent 30 minutes effecting a temporary repair. There was no charge, and as I write this the part he fixed is still working, and now I can connect to the mains and charge the battery. Outstanding service.
The one thing that stands out about San Jose is the street art, especially in the town centre near Avenida Central. There are even art walking tours around the capital available and it really does brighten up the area. We were impressed with the art we saw, there were some really good and topical pieces on billboards and walls.
Final Thoughts on San Jose
We enjoyed the time we spent in San Jose, however it is a city you have to have your wits about you. Most people travel in and straight out of San Jose, but it is worth a couple of days of your time as nowhere else in the country is like it. Like all places, some areas are nicer and safer than others. From our own experiences if you are thinking staying here we would recommend around the Barrio Escalante or San Pedro areas, these are safe with regular police patrols and really nice trendy bars and restaurants nearby.
Time to move on, Las Islas Galápagos here we come. 😊
Carol & Nigel xx
2 thoughts on “Backpackers Guide to San Jose, Costa Rica”
Great post! Brought back some memories as we also had three stays in SJ! Have a safe and enjoyable trip.
Thanks Journey-Junkies, we hope you enjoy your next trip too 😊