San Jose was not the perfect place for me but it was pretty cool and I enjoyed it. The city itself was much larger than I got the chance to experience despite making three trips. I spent two nights there before heading to Jaco, then another couple of days after Jaco but before Nicarauga. After Nicaragua I came back to San Jose before returning to the states. I was going to need a tux when I returned to the States for my sister’s wedding and it was either miss most of my vacation or buy one on the road, so I bought one in San Jose and it only slowed me down a little.
The thing that caught my eye most about San Jose was the one thing I could not have possibly photographed. The outdoor shopping was actually less exciting than Santo Domingo, but be careful. If you walk into the right shop you may find that it’s not a single shop, but rather the entrance to a tunnel network of less touristy shops where you can truly enjoy a taste of Costa Rica. It took me about 20 minutes to find my way out of the first one of these after I was done looking around. The worst part is that I never really figured out where these entrances were, I would just occasionally walk into one and keep going until I walked out a block away. These were mostly the food markets, but there were all sorts of other stores scattered about in there as well.
While this shopping experience was somewhat reminiscent of a Carolina or Jersey flea market, it had more of the atmosphere of an open air market in a poorer country (picture the Indiana Jones market chase if you’ve never been to one) but hidden inside the infrastructure. There were no pressure sales or people throwing lottery tickets in your face like there had been on the street markets. Everyone was friendly and nobody spoke english. I would have to call it a unique experience and I saw no other Gringos in these markets. Although, I must admit that I could have been 20 feet from one and never seen him.
There were literally tons of things to do as a tourist while staying in San Jose, from fishing extravaganzas to volcano spas to jungle treks. I spent all of my time in San Jose exploring the downtown area and never really got board. Grand total, I probably spent a week in San Jose and it was all broken up into short stints. Had I stayed longer or for more than a couple days at a time, I would have probably gone and done some more touristy stuff. There were a variety of restaurants but the crowd and hustle combined with my lack of Spanish persuaded me to stick with mostly with places that had menus. As long as there was a menu I knew I would be given time to translate it and could point at what I wanted on the menu if the waiter/waitress didn’t understand what I was asking for. Most places I ate had menus in English and a good number of them were owned by Americans.
The day time “lady” scene was quite a spectacle. These were not places you would have accidentally stumbled into and I would never have seen them had I not met some people who showed me around town. Unlike my previous massage parlor, most of the places downtown seemed a little dirty and the girls were mostly… let’s just say more than a six pack. The row of gossiping chicks were typically offset by a row of guys just staring at them. It was explained to me that these were guys weren’t willing to pay but wanted to see the girls. The girls were dressed so I don’t know why the guys even bothered with so many naturally beautiful women just strolling the shopping areas, but I never stuck around one of these places long enough to figure any of it out.
There were some nicer places though, if you weren’t too cheap to buy a drink. These places were a little walk from downtown, but you could get the sauna or massage experience or just have a few drinks at the bar. I believe one place was $5 to use their pool facilities and they had a decent bar with reasonable drink prices and the girls didn’t hassle you. Most of these girls too would have required more than I was willing to drink in the day time, but there were a few pretty ones.
I met a variety of people while in San Jose. Ticos and Ticas, Gringos and Gringas, young and old, rich and poor.
The Americans I met were either working in San Jose, on vacation, or had moved there fleeing the U.S. Vacation doesn’t need much explanation but the people who were fleeing the U.S. did so for two primary reasons. They were either avoiding the oppressive laws and taxes of the U.S. or they were avoiding their ex-wives. This was mostly the older crowd but I met a few on the younger side ( <40 ). Most of the people who were avoiding something other than their ex-wives were becoming disenchanted with Costa Rica as it’s laws were becoming more and more restrictive. I will say that most laws were simply ignored downtown both by the locals and law enforcement, but stuff like no smoking in bars and the other nonsense that goes on in the States was causing some of them to rethink their retirement destination and many ( not all ) felt like the Costa Rican political system was doing this in an effort to push out Americans.
There did appear to be a good bit of industrial business going on in San Jose. While most of the people I met who were in San Jose to work were not in the downtown area, there were a few. It seemed as though the automotive industry had a significant steak in the area and I passed by many buildings that appeared to be wear houses and factories for companies like Toyota as I drove in and out of San Jose from other destinations.
The locals I met were all pretty cool. There were the standard young punks running around at a few of the places, but by and large the locals were really cool in San Jose. While out drinking at one of the bar areas, I met a couple of local dudes that I assumed were foreigners when I first started talking to them. They took me in and showed me around some of the places I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. One of them even helped me with getting the tux I was in San Jose to buy on my second trip. He took me to 7 different places before we found a place that could have a white tux made in time for me to go back to the States. I know the tux doesn’t look great just hanging there but I assure you it was perfect, hand made from scratch and cost $250.
With a few exceptions, most of San Jose was reasonable clean and safe during the daytime. The people were almost always friendly and the culture was enjoyable. I will say that the costs for the places that catered to Americans were often a bit on the high side. I would compare it to the average cost of dining or renting at the average U.S. location. Nothing near as bad as New York City or other tourist traps in the States, but not necessarily a budget vacation unless you can get away from American hotspots.
All-in-all, I’d say that San Jose is definitely a cool spot to stop if you like the city scene or are on your way to other destinations in Costa Rica.