If you reject the food, ignore the customs,
fear the religion and avoid the people,
you might better stay home.
~ James A. Michener, author, 1907-1997
San José has been the capital
of Costa Rica and the seat of
its democratic government since
1823. Nestled high in the Central
Valley (1,253 meters/3,770
feet), between green volcanic
mountain ranges, the metropolitan
city of about one million
people is oriented east and
west, surrounded by suburbs that cling to the gentle foothills. The nearby
town of Escazú, southwest of the city off the autopista, is home to the largest
population of North Americans living in Costa Rica, either full-time or
part-time, and is consequently more upscale than San José’s downtown or
Unlike other Central American capitals, San José is not a very colonial
city, although the heart of the historic center features several beautiful
old buildings. It didn’t become a decent-sized city until relatively late in
the 1800s, long past the colonial era, and had a modern building boom in
the 1950s and 60s. Because of its economic success from coffee exports,
San José became the second city in the Americas to install electricity
(1884). At its heart are the National Theater, Plaza de la Cultura, Parque
Central, the Cathedral and Gold Museum, which are centered in a fourblock
area with a long pedestrian-only shopping walkway bisecting the
middle of downtown.
Despite the lack of stone and plaster colonial ambiance, many of San
José’s buildings boast a unique and charming architectural style known
as “Caribbean Victorian.” Just beyond the modern office high-rises are
wood-framed clapboard houses built at the turn of the century. Graceful
porticos and wrap-around verandas distinguish these appealing homes
(some converted to offices or small hotels) painted in soft pastels. Many
have the original metal roofs that sound rat-tat-tat in the rain.
San José is a very cosmopolitan capital with many welcoming qualities.
Near-perfect weather is a big attraction to visitors as well as expatriates
who call the Central Valley home.
Some 250,000 foreigners, mostly North
Americans, live in Costa Rica full time. The temperature is fairly consistent
between 70 and 75°F. Occasional Northerlies, cold fronts, call for a
jacket or sweater at night. The rainy season, when late afternoons and
evenings bring showers, lasts from May to October, mas o menos.
As the cultural heart of the nation, San José is home to several theater
groups, excellent museums, parks, a national symphony, cinemas and
universities. It is also host to nightclubs, casinos, discos and fine restaurants.
Residents of San José are known as Josefinos.
On the down side, the city is often crowded, dirty, noisy, ugly and disagreeable.
It may take some getting used to – some people hate it, but the
longer you stay, the more San José grows on you. We love it.