We started our trip by catching a flight from Salt Lake City to Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. The flight was a bit of a monster -- our plane was supposed to leave at midnight, but two oxygen masks malfunctioned before takeoff, so we ended up with a 2-hour delay while they found a new plane. Luckily (??) we had a 6-hour layover in North Carolina, so we didn't end up missing our flight to San Jose. Meh, it wasn't too bad. 19 hours of travel isn't terrible in the whole scheme of things, and since Costa Rica is in the same time zone as the American Midwest, we didn't have to deal with jet lag!
We finally landed, caught a shuttle to our hostel, and got our first whiff of San Jose. I was expecting sweltering heat, but the weather was a perfect, late-spring warm. We checked in at Hostel Toruma, just north of downtown.
Not gonna lie, San Jose definitely isn't the greatest city in the world. It's full of uninspiring concrete buildings, fast food chains, pickpockets, and manic drivers. Most travelers make a requisite start there before heading out to the cloud forests and beaches. That being said, I didn't hate San Jose. We ended up staying there four nights and using it as a base for big day trips to explore the central highlands. We also spent a totally enjoyable afternoon downtown, checking out the historic buildings and colorful murals.
Obviously, San Jose isn't the main reason people come to Costa Rica, but I think spending time in the city helped us understand the country as a whole. We walked downtown to visit the Teatro Nacional, which was a big neoclassical building with a marble lobby and guilded auditorium. We grabbed lunch and coffee at the snazzy little on-site cafe. Afterwards we had good intentions of visiting the nearby museums, but almost everything was closed for the New Year holiday, so we spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out in city squares and parks. We barely saw any other tourists, and it was fun to watch the lives of typical San Jose residents -- lots of families grabbing lunch together and kids chasing pigeons. So while I wouldn't put San Jose on the top of my FAVORITE PLACES EVER list, the city does have its charms and it's not a bad place to hang out before you hit the road.
Good to know:
- Everyone warned us that San Jose was SO DANGEROUS, so at first we were a little wary. But honestly, we never felt sketched out. It's all common sense -- as long as you stay in groups, don't wander around in the middle of the night, and don't get black-out drunk, things will be fine. For example, even though it was only a short-ish walk from the bar back to our hostel, we took a taxi home on New Year's Eve. No problem.
- It's a Central American miracle -- you CAN drink the water! At first it felt weird drinking out of the tap, but we did it for 2 weeks and never got Montezuma's Revenge.
- Sure, you can get around if you don't speak Spanish, but life is so much easier if you master a few basic phrases, especially if you want to eat at non-touristy places or take the local bus. I was totally useless in this department (thanks, high school German,) but by the end of the trip Jordan had dusted off his Spanish skills and could order food, ask for directions, and negotiate fees. It helped a lot.
- Costa Rica is NOT as cheap as you think it'll be. Prices are almost comparable to small cities in the States. For example, we paid $50 for a private room in a hostel, $70 for a canopy tour, $10 per person for basic dinners, etc. It's definitely worth it, but don't go expecting Southeast Asia prices.