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Start at Parque Central !!

Start at Parque Central (Av 2 between Calle Central & 2), the city’s oldest park. We must confess that downtown parks are modest and generally unappealing as recreational attractions, and this park is no different. But it is a good gathering ground, especially on Sundays, and the pavilion in its center, donated by Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, once housed a children’s library.

The park features popular Sunday concerts and is the hangout of the inventor of a playground game of skill called “Pica Caballo,” who’ll demonstrate the game and offer one for sale.Watch your belongings in the crowds. On one corner street is the Soda Palace, allegedly the restaurant where revolutionary plots were once hatched.

Facing the park is the most important church in Costa Rica, the Metropolitan Cathedral. Built in 1871 after the original was destroyed in an earthquake, the interior is expansive, with elegantly painted columns made of wood. The high altar is under an ornate cupola ceiling. A side chapel, Capilla de Santissimo Sacramento, is decorated with carved painted flowers and leaves.

Across the street on Av 2 is the Melico Salazar Theater, built in the 1920s and named after a famous Italian opera singer who liked Costa Rica so much he moved to San José in 1937.We attended a concert of the National Symphony Orchestra here (they now perform at Teatro Nacional, below). In addition to concerts and special events, it now hosts a folklore ballet. Stop at the box office for tickets (. 506/221-5341). 122 . Orientation

East on Av 2 is the Gran Hotel, set back from the street in a paved plaza, Costa Rica’s grande dame of accommodations. In the tradition of Central American town planning, the center of a city houses a “grand hotel,” usually the oldest and most prestigious. El Gran has a small, popular casino, and its inside restaurant is quite good. But the outdoor Café Parisien – open 24 hours – is San José’s best place to sit and eat or have a drink while the world passes by your table. That world might include European backpackers, vendors of painted feathers, Cuban cigar sellers, ochorena players, well-dressed theater patrons, provocative prostitutes, young language-school students, lovers young and old, camera-toting tourists, government officials, shoppers, large families, beggars – and you.

If there is one “must-see” site in San José it’s the Teatro Nacional (National Theater), next door to the Gran Hotel. Completed in 1894 at the height of Costa Rica’s coffee and banana wealth, the theater is an ornate, spectacularly beautiful testament to a bygone era – a golden age of opulence. Its neo-classical exterior is impressive, but the baroque décor is breathtaking. The entrance lobby features Italian pink marble and 22- karat gold trim. . 506/221-1329.

As you enter, to the left is the charming Viennese-style café run by Café Britt. This is a wonderful place to have lunch, afternoon tea, or just coffee and dessert. Ferrario Carlo Milano painted the ceiling above your head and the café hangs changing art exhibits by local artists. Admission to tour the theater is about US $3 and worth every colon.

In the impressive horseshoe-shaped grand hall of the Teatro Nacional, which seats over 1,000, the floor was constructed so it could be raised to the level of the stage, creating a ballroom. Velvet-lined luxury box seats rise two levels around the auditorium; the third level is the gallery. If you have the opportunity to see a concert here, don’t miss it. You don’t necessarily need a suit or formal dress, but good casual clothes will suffice. Up a Carrara marble staircase is Costa Rica’s most famous painting (look up), Una Alegoría, by Milanese artist Aleardo Villa, commissioned in 1897. Reproduced on the colorful five-colones bank note, Villa depicts an idealized coffee harvest with sacks of the grano de oro being loaded onto a sailing ship. Ticos have long ago forgiven Villa for making the coffee bushes too short and the women look like Italian grape pickers. The second-floor foyer overwhelms the senses with ornate gilding, crystal, statues, paintings, columns, thick carpet, drapes, mirrors, lights and fine furniture. The floor, replaced in 1940, boasts a selection of 10 varieties of local hardwoods.

To the side of the theater is the Plaza de la Cultura. Because of its location along Av Central’s pedestrian walkway, it has become the central meeting place in the downtown, often attracting street performers. Below the plaza, under a curving arched roof, are the Gold Museum and the Tourism Office (ICT). Tourist info is available Monday through Saturday, 9 to 5. The pre-Columbian gold museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 am to 4:30 pm. Admission for the impressively rich, 2,000-piece exhibit is around US $6. It’s one of Central America’s largest collections. Sorry, no photos. . 506/223-0528.

Continue east another block on the pedestrian walk and turn left (north) on Calle 7 uphill toward Parque Morazán. If you’re into snakes, a quick detour on Av 1 leads to the Serpentario indoor zoo, with our favorite creature, the Jesus Christ lizard. Head upstairs and follow your nose. Parque Morazán features a central gazebo where Sunday concerts are often held. In addition to the tall Aurola Holiday Inn (with a fancy casino on the top floor, and a great view at night) on the far side of the park, this area has a couple of bars frequented by prostitutes. The most famous, Key Largo, is worth a look for its Caribbean Victorian mansion architecture, but you’ll have to pay US $5 for a beer or a US $4 cover charge (for men).

Cross Av 3 and 5 to the Edificio Metálico, Metal Building, a yellow elementary school designed by French architect Victor Baltard, who also did Les Halles in Paris. Cast of iron in Belgium in 1892, it was shipped overseas and assembled on the site. To the side is Parque España, home to towering tropical shade trees, thick clumps of bamboo and an open-air market on Sunday. The statue of a Spanish conquistador here raised more than a few eyebrows when it was erected in 1992, indicative of the mixed feelings Latin Americans have about their history. The tall building that overlooks the park and school is the National Insurance Institute, INS (Instituto Nacional de Seguros), which contains the fabulous Jade Museum, whose 11th-floor quarters were refurbished in 2001. The view from its upper floor windows is worth a photo, but you won’t be able to take pics inside. Over 6,000 works of pre-Columbian art and jewelry, in jade and other precious stones, make up the world’s largest collection. Many pieces came from the private collection of Carlos Balser, a renowned archeologist who came to Costa Rica in 1921 to run the Gran Hotel. Unfortunately, some of the erotic, carved stone phallic symbols were removed to allow more office space. But what is left should still bring a smile. Open Monday through Friday, 8 am-4:30 pm. Admission, $2. . 506/287-6034.

Just up the hill on Av 7 is the Casa Amarillo, a grand yellow mansion that now houses Costa Rica’s foreign ministry – and a piece of the Berlin Wall. In front President John F. Kennedy planted the large Ceiba tree when he founded the Alliance for Freedom in 1963. Across the street is the fortress-like National Cultural Center, Centro Nacional de la Cultura, converted from its use as the old National Liquor Factory. Coffee liqueur and Guaro (see page 91) used to be distilled here when it was founded in the mid-1800s by president and coffee baron Juan Rafael Mora. Besides historical artifacts, it features an active art center, the Contemporary Art Museum (.506/257-7202). Don’t let its forbidding high walls discourage a visit. It’s open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 am- 5 pm. Free admission.

A quick jaunt into the Otoya Barrio up Calle 9 leads to Parque Zoologico Simon Bolivar, the local zoo. Until a remodeling in 2000, this was a disgraceful and dirty little zoo, but it’s been transformed into a more pleasant stop with enhanced landscaping and much-improved conditions for the animals. Good stop for kids. It’s set down in a hollow basin with thick vegetation and plenty of songbirds around. Just north of the park is Spyrogyra, a butterfly farm that features live butterflies and hummingbirds in a natural garden environment. It’s accessible from El Pueblo shopping plaza on the hill above. The zoo and butterfly farm are open Tuesday through Friday, 8 am-4 pm, and on weekends, 9 am-5 pm. Admission, $1. There is a larger butterfly farm in Alajuela and others around the countryside, but this is convenient and inexpensive (US $6) if you’re in town.

Head back south on 15 to the Parque Nacional, San José’s largest urban park, which was remodeled in 2000-2001. It had a worn-down look from over-use until replanting and improved paths brightened it up. It’s a popular place for students and strolling lovers under its tall tropical trees. Important statues include the 1856 National Warrior Monument, cast in Rodin’s Paris studio, which commemorates the battle against William Walker. Also in the southwest corner is the statue of Juan Santamaría, the boy-hero who helped rout Walker’s army. Farther east from the park is the National Train Museum set in the old Atlantico train station of the line that once went to Limón. Due south from the park, across Av Central, is the Plaza de la Democracia and the Museo Nacional (. 506/257-1433), housed in the historic old Fuerte Bellevista. Only in peace-loving Costa Rica would they name a military installation “Fort With a Beautiful View.” The Plaza has a good flea market daily, but it is especially big on weekends.

The old yellow Castilian fort was constructed in 1887 and used as the nation’s military headquarters until the abolition of the armed forces in 1948. Notice the side walls and look up at the balustrades to see all the gun shot holes around the gun slits, evidence of the serious nature of the 1948 Civil War. The museum has four sections in salas, or large rooms. The first features archeological artifacts from Costa Rica’s pre-Columbian peoples and their history (most explanations are in Spanish). Precious gold figures and jewelry are housed in a separate Sala de Oro. Another section of colonial life features artifacts and displays of the first Spanish conquistadors and early mestizos. Historic photos and implements from the recent past are featured in the last area. A stroll around the fort’s interior, towers and old jail shows the conditions faced by turnof- the-century soldiers. Located in the central courtyard you’ll find a good example of the traditional brightly painted oxcarts (carretas), as well as several varied-size, mysterious stone spheres – made by a long-forgotten people in the southern zone. Entrance is on Calle 17 between Av Central and Av 2. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 8:30 am-4:30 pm; $45 for adults, children under age 10, free. Hungry? Nearby is the restaurant, Ay Sofya, on Av Central & Calle 21.

Go 2½ blocks south on Calle 17, which brings you to the Court Administration buildings, specifically the Organismo de Investigación Judicial, between Av 6 & 8. What better place for a Criminology Museum (.506/295-3850) – a fascinating graphic history of crime in Costa Rica – and perfect for people like us who look for more uncommon things to do and see. We hang out there (hang there – get it?). Free. Other Downtown Sights

The Children’s Museum (. 506/223-7003; www.cccc.co.cr.), Museo de Niños, is located in a huge converted old fort that served as the city’s prison for many years. This large yellow fortress with crenellated walls and towers is at the north end of Calle 4, on a hill above the Río Torres. It has free, hands-on interactive exhibits and activities. Art exhibitions and concerts for adults in the new National Auditorium are also held here. Open Monday-Friday, 8 am-3 pm, weekends, 10 am-4 pm. Adults, $3, children under 18, $1.50.

The post office, Correo, is another baroque building (on Calle 2, between Av 1 & 3). It is home to an interesting stamp museum with free admission. Parque la Merced, nicknamed Nico Park, in front of the Hospital San Juan de Dios, is where Nicaraguan nationals congregate. Overlooking it is the Iglesia de la Merced, Mercy Church. Damaged in the 1991 earthquake, the church boasts an Italian marble altar, magnificent stainedglass windows and a vaulted wooden ceiling.

At the west end of downtown, at the end of Boulevard Paseo Colon, lies the former airport that is now a large wooded park called La Sabana. On weekends it’s full of families, sports players, runners, exercisers, kite fliers, picnickers, ice cream vendors and more. La Sabana serves the recreational needs of the city’s west end and surrounding barrios. It also contains the Costa Rican Art Museum, housed in the former control tower. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am-4 pm, weekends. Adults, $2, children free. Free admission to all on Sunday. The museum offers a comprehensive overview of Costa Rican art, from its early days to contemporary times, through a host of fine Tico painters and sculptors. Ironically, the most significant work is by a French artist, Luis Ferrón, whose metal relief mural depicts the history of Costa Rica on all four walls of the Salon Dorado. The coffee shop in back, Café Ruiseñor, serves typically great joe and Tico food.

In the southwest corner of the park is the Natural History Museum (. 506/232-1306), in the old La Salle college building. It contains varied displays of zoology, archeology, geology and mineralogy, plus the only paleontology exhibit in the country. Open 8 am-4 pm, Monday-Saturday, 9 am-5 pm on Sunday.

Last but not least are the two old cemeteries in Barrio San Bosco. Cemeterio General, on the south side of Av 10, Calles 22-28, contains the Italianate mausoleums and graves with sculptures of many Costa Rican artists, writers, politicians and coffee barons. It’s a Latin American tradition to leave mementos – photographs and personal objects – on graves of loved ones. On All Souls and All Saints days, families come and spend time at the grave sites, leaving fresh flowers. Between Calles 18 & 20 is the Foreigners’ Cemetery, which dates to the 1840s. Railway workers and immigrant entrepreneurs from Europe, North America and Arabia are interred here.

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