Getting to San José had already been an adventure, staying there for almost three days was another. Despite everything though, if you travel to Costa Rica, limit your time in San José. The country has so much to offer, that every day spent in the city, seems like a waste of time in hindsight.
The first and most important thing to do in a new city is a free walking tour. The tour in English is available in the morning but of course I arrived in the afternoon. I therefore decided to start my exploration of San José on my own and with a museum. The Pre-Columbian Gold Museum had intrigued me when I read about it. Since it was open on Sunday afternoon, this is where I headed first. The museum is in the basement of the national bank, going down three floors. It had been planned as a pyramid going up, but then it would have destroyed the view on the Teatro Nacional. So it ended up going below.
The design of the museum was super sterile and clean cut as you would expect it from a bank. But it’s definitely the right setting for the gold. I loved especially the idea to see some of the pieces made before the arrival of the Europeans. The gold itself had less meaning than the design of the object.
The start of the exhibition was on the third floor below beginning with the history of the indigenous people of Costa Rica and their lives. From there the show slowly worked itself forward to their believes. A lot of thought and details went it to the display, everything was well explained to understand what the objects meant and the animals stood for.
It was the golden item themselves which impressed me the most. The intricate details were outstanding and held therefore a lot of value for the owner. But not only the gold work, also the other artwork or instruments showed that this was an accomplished society.
After the museum I was in search of a relaxing coffee house or restaurant but I found the center very bustling and loud. I ended up in the Teatro Nacional Café, which has a beautiful setting. The sandwiches are mediocre at best though, at least the coffee was good. The cakes looked tasty, but overall the atmosphere didn’t seem inviting and I left quite right after my sandwich.
The next morning I met up with the free walking tour. It was the first time ever that I got an email with a picture and a phone number of my guide, with the explicit warning not to go with anyone else. Once we met Jess and started the tour, I understood why. There were really crazy people out there. Scammers who say they offer a free tour, lots of homeless who accost you and do not leave you alone. There is something to be said for the safety of a group in San Jose.
We started at a small park, next to the Aureola Holiday Inn, which houses the Templa de la Musica. Built in the 1920s it housed music concerts, with women on one side and men on the other. After the concert they would meet up in the park and talk. Basically the first version of Tinder.
Right around the corner are some Art Nouveau buildings, one a former newspaper and empty since forever. The second, the oldest cinema in town and closed for renovations since 2014. The renovations have apparently yet to start.
The social insurance building, which we passed next, was ugly as hell but apparently had won some design prices. It’s also on a square which has the recommended Empanada shop. The square is easily remembered since it is called Plaza De Las Garantia Sociales.
There is even a China Town in San Jose. I would never have guessed that, but this entrance door can’t lie.
Another museum to see is the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica, which sits in a former army fort. An army, which no longer exists, having been abolished in 1949. The museum’s entrance is a beautiful butterfly garden. Walking through it feels surreal with bright blue butterflies twirling around you. Of course taking a picture of them is almost impossible.
The museum gives a great overview of the history of Costa Rica. It also has an exhibition about birds and nesting, as well as changing art shows. I spent at least ninety minutes and immersed myself in the history of Costa Rica. It’s quite a peaceful country after they managed to get their civil war out of the way. They got their independence without a war and got rid of their army.
Another interesting tidbit. The Museo Nacional is only renovated from the front. On the side you can still see the bullet holes in the tower from the civil war in 1948 which lasted just 44 days.
In front of the museum sun spheres are on display, as well as inside (with a possible explanation of their purpose -> religious). Three on one side and one on the other side of the museum, with the one being encased in a glass wheel or so. Jess, the free walking tour guide, said that it looked liked a part of Millennial Falcon, Han Solo’s fighter plane in Star Wars. Whatever, in any case the sun spheres apparently align on certain days.
Interesting was also the government quarter. They had residential housing buildings for the congress, as well as a house for social events, and one for their actual work, passing laws in parliament. But then they decided to have it all in one building and organized a contest for it. The ugly building with no windows won. You can see it looming above the Nacional Museum (see the picture above).
This is what I did during my three days in San José, while waiting for my luggage. A visit to the Mercado Central, founded in 1880, is claimed as a must-see, but honestly I have seen better in-door markets. Yours, Pollybert