Ask anyone what’s the one thing they should see in Costa Rica’s capital and they’ll look sideways at you and answer, ‘anything, as long as it’s in the rear view mirror’!
So, is there anything good to see in San José?
Costa Ricans who don’t live in the capital, or even many who do, will tell you not to bother with the city. Guidebooks are full of warnings about what not to do or what not to see in San José, and I have to admit, during my first few days in the city, I agreed with them. Then…I discovered San José’s free walking tour. I was hooked.
San José’s free walking tour (sanjosewalking.com) grew out of locals’ frustrations with having their city described in such derogatory ways. The free walking tour’s premise is – local guides celebrating local culture and architecture, and educating tourists on Costa Rican life. Payment is by donation (although there is a suggested guide to contribution amounts sent to customers once a booking is made). A customer can pay as much or as little (nothing) as they feel the tour was worth.
Our guide on the day was one of the founding members of the free walking tour and he was great! He did a terrific job of trying to counteract the negative stereotypes surrounding San José.
We were instructed to meet in a park located just behind the main pedestrian mall called Morazan Park, at the centre of which is the Templo de Musica, an architectural marvel with perfect acoustics despite it being outside. Also in the park is a new installation. It’s almost obligatory to have your photo taken in the middle of these angelic wings representing Peace and Freedom.
After a tour of some of the city’s colonial buildings (one belonging to the original coffee growing family and the other a theatre currently being restored), we learnt the origins of the famous Costa Rican expression ‘Pura Vida’.
When I first heard the expression ‘Pura Vida’ I thought it referred to the ‘Pure Life’, or natural environment, of which Costa Rica is justifiably proud. That is true, but it’s not the original meaning. Costa Ricans adopted the saying after seeing a 1950s Mexican film of the same name which played at the old theatre in San José. The main character in the film had many obstacles put in his way. At every turn, his response was ‘Pura Vida’. The saying stuck in the Costa Rican consciousness. Now it is Costa Rica. ‘Pura Vida’ is used (with a shrug of the shoulders) to refer to life in all its glorious messiness. I missed my bus, ‘Pura Vida!’ I won the lottery, ‘Pura Vida!’ I had the best hot chocolate today, ‘Pura Vida!’
Actually, I did have the BEST hot chocolate – a famed bebida (drink) at the gorgeous Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica. How’s this for an amazing combination: cocoa, cinnamon, clove, milk and a whole stack whipped cream?
I learnt how steady and stable Costa Rica is compared to its neighbours. The Venezuelan crisis is truly heartbreaking but, as our guide pointed out, there are also troubles with ‘our brothers and sisters’ in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. Costa Rica, having abolished its armed forces in 1949, prefers to use diplomacy and international courts to settle disputes – a worthy aim!
Other highlights of our tour included:
- Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica – This ornate and beautiful building sits in the centre of San José, its design reminiscent of French architecture. Step inside for a tour and view the famous mural (over 12 metres long) painted on the ceiling of the theatre. The interesting thing about this mural is that it was painted by an Italian artist who knew nothing of Costa Rican life. If you happen upon a 5 colones note you will see an image of the mural ‘Alegoria’. See if you can pick its mistakes (look for the bananas growing upside down, note the clothes the locals wear, and the flags. Worst of all, note where the coffee is growing – it’s hard to think of a greater sin than showing a coffee plantation at sea level when everyone knows it must be grown at altitude)!
- Walking past the only public girls’ high school (Colegio de Señoritas) in Costa Rica, it’s hard to imagine this inane looking building as the home of feminism in the country. Early in the twentieth century, an upstart dictator took control of the government. The high school girls were so enraged, they marched on parliament and burned the building down! The rest of the population were shocked into action, overthrew the government, and the girls became local heroes.
- Iglesia de la Soledad – the cursed church of San José. Apparently it is unlucky to get married in the church. Fun fact though … in Costa Rica, every church faces east. This allows Costa Ricans to orientate themselves, and provide an address so the postal delivery people can find them. Mail addressed to ‘the blue house with the white fence across from the large tree next to the church’ is easier to find than a street number and name.
- Legislative Assembly. This impressive building is 17 stories high and newly built (2020). It’s meant to be earthquake, flood, and eruption-proof so that members of the government can keep working no matter the emergency. I’m not sure how this worked against a pandemic.
- National Monument, Parque Nacional. A statue commemorates William Walker’s defeat at Rivas in Nicaragua when Walker (a United States’ citizen) sought to conquer Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The legendary figure, Juan Santamaria – the name of San José’s international airport – is mythologised for sacrificing himself in order to defeat William Walker.
Sometimes the guide books get it wrong.
San José may not be the main Costa Rican attraction but finding a tour like this one opens you up to the history and culture of this wonderful country.
Until next time,