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When You’re Stuck in San Jose, Costa Rica

San Jose

 

San Jose does not have an overtly charming appeal.

 

San Jose

 

It lacks the architecturally layered fascination of Panama City, the hopelessly picturesque appeal of Granada, and the perfectly restored colonial squares of Cartagena.

 

San Jose

 

In fact it might be fair to say that San Jose is just a big dirty city.

And not a particularly safe nor affordable one.

 

San Jose

 

However for those who travel to and within Costa Rica, it is often a necessary stop en route to paradise.

 

San Jose street art

 

I have been to San Jose at least a dozen times since first landing in Costa Rica more than one year ago

but it wasn’t until recently that I actually gave it a chance.

 

San Jose

 

Spending two full days in the capitol of Costa Rica

I was swindled by numerous taxi drivers

 

San Jose street art

 

felt like a wild animal surrounded by the many city sounds and filthy streets

ate questionable fried chicken out of Styrofoam next to drunk locals

 

San Jose

 

was almost hit by at least twenty cars

yet somehow, still, I found moments of wonder.

 

San Jose Parque Nacional

 

Because even the roughest stones are beautiful if you look close enough.

 

San Jose Barrio Amon

 

I became captivated by the street art in Barrio Amon

 

San Jose Parque Nacional

 

marveled at the magical green oasis called the Parque Nacional

 

Jardin del Parque

 

feasted on organic cuisine inside of an intimate garden

 

San Jose mercado central

 

curiously explored the Mercado Central’s hectic maze

 

San Jose mercado central

 

wistfully stared at the encaged animals

 

San Jose mercado central

 

excitedly sampled spices

 

San Jose mercado central

 

indulged in Costa Rican sorbetto

 

San Jose Costa Rica

 

and when I left and ran through the rainstorm

surrounded by Tupperware stores, booty shorts, and large speakers

 

San Jose Barrio Amon

 

I felt that blissful unity that happens only when I’m truly present.

 

San Jose Barrio Amon

 

When I’m in the midst of an adventure.

 

 

Where to Stay

 

Hotel Aranjuez breakfast

 

Hotel Aranjuez

$35-$65 for a double room, includes breakfast

This hotel was recommended to me by several Costa Rican residents and for good reason. The location is ideal in a safe walkable neighborhood near the farmer’s market, museums, parks, and hip Barrio Amon neighborhood. The rooms and communal spaces are clean, tasteful, and homey. Nooks, gardens, and reading rooms are everywhere.

As if this weren’t enough they offer a complimentary full breakfast every morning which is more of a culinary event than a buffet. Tables boast trays of homemade pastries, cakes, breads, jams, puddings, fruit, bruschetta, grilled vegetables, roasted garlic, homemade spicy pickles, an omelette bar, and of course gallo pinto and plantains. The presentation is impeccable and you can enjoy unlimited plates of this artful display in the garden.

An incredible value for money.

 

Hostel Urbano

$14 for a dorm bed, $32 for a private room

Hands down the best hostel in San Jose, and one of the best in Costa Rica. The space is hip, modern, and clean with lots of contemporary furniture, but what makes this place a true gem is the people who run the place and the guests it attracts. Every morning they serve complimentary fruit and pancakes which are cooked by a Floridian who somehow makes them more perfect than even the most trafficked roadside diners.

On Friday nights one of the Italian hostel workers crafts handmade pizzas in the garden and bakes them in a wood fired oven. I enjoyed mine while sitting in a circle with a group of new friends over a bottle of wine listening to someone strum the guitar. Many guests hung around the hostel in the day reading, drawing, or playing pool. One night ten of us gathered in the livingroom and watched one of their many movie selections, The Big Lebowski. One of the hostel owners came around with homemade popcorn for each of us.

The hostel is located in San Pedro which is a cool college neighborhood that I felt relatively safe walking in at night. It’s not particularly close to the bus stations nor the airport, but the taxis aren’t too bad and the hostel is directly in front of a major bus stop.

If you plan to stay in San Jose for an extended period of time this is the place.

 

Hostel Pangea

Dorm beds starting at $14, Privates starting at $34

Ok, here me out. It is huge. It kind of looks like a jail. And the neighborhood is sketchy as all hell.

But I have found this hostel to be extremely useful when I am simply going in and out of San Jose and need to catch an early flight or bus. First of all, it’s close to the bus stations yet is quite secure with big cement walls and a guard at the door. The rooftop bar and lounge serves decent food until late and has a lively atmosphere where you can meet plenty of other travelers. They have several free computers for guests to use, a pool table, and an awesome deck with a view of the city. They offer an airport shuttle for $11 (a taxi costs about $30) and some of the hottest showers I’ve taken in Central America. Did I mention they have a pool? I’ve never seen anyone swim in it.

 

 

Where to Eat

 

Jardin del Parque

 

Jardin del Parque

$9 for plate of the day, includes a starter salad and drink

The location is ideal, the setting is lovely, the food is nutritiously delicious, and the price is right. Jardin del Parque serves incredible vegetarian organic fusion food for breakfast and lunch in a peaceful garden with a view of the Parque Nacional. The staff is wonderful and the service is prompt. On my last visit I enjoyed a chickpea curry with cucumber raita and a raw kale miso dressed salad topped with black sesame seeds. If you want to indulge a little, order the pizza which comes on a perfectly chewy whole wheat crust and is topped with daily goodies like mushrooms, goat cheese,  and caramelized onions. Yum!

 

Fuji

$40-$80 with drinks, expect to spend what you would in a nice sushi bar in the states

Perhaps I’m desperate for any Asian food I can get my hands on, but this sushi rivals some of the best in Seattle. The gyoza and seaweed salad are particularly exquisite. Keep in mind, the local seafood in Costa Rica is rather limited so don’t expect much from Salmon, scallops, and the like. They’re all previously frozen and imported. Stick to tuna, mackeral, and snapper.

 

La Esquina de Buenos Aires

$25 for a steak

This Argentinean steakhouse has a lively old world atmosphere. The interior is dark and romantic and perfect for a special meal. Steak is the highlight here, so order some churrasco with chimichurri.

 

 

What to Do

 

Wander the Mercado Central with no agenda and an open mind

 

Sit in the Parque Nacional in Barrio Amon, look at street out, and pop into a museum or two

 

If you’re in San Jose on a Saturday go to the Feria Verde (organic farmer’s market) in Aranjuez

 

 

Looking to have the trip of your dreams to Costa Rica? My eBook, The Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica will show you how!

 

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Comments

  1. These are really pretty pictures of San Jose! I agree with you though, it isn’t an attractive, safe affordable place in contrast to the rest of the country, but you did an awesome job finding the little things that are beautiful. Pura Vida 😉

    • Thank you so much Kathleen! Just saw your post summing up your time in Costa Rica. Glad you gave Puerto Viejo a shout out 😉 I have never been to Rio Celeste but will BE SURE to make it there on my way to Nicaragua.

  2. Melanie Says: June 17, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    Urbano was probably my favourite hostel is Costa Rica, I’m glad you gave them a mention because the people who run it are actually SO amazing and hospitable. I felt like I was staying with friends and not just renting a bed, and breakfast was just an added bonus!

    P.S. I love your blog! I’m currently suffering through summer classes and working in a factory, and reading this takes me back to my glory days in Costa Rica, especially PV <3

  3. I LOVE the murals!!

  4. […] this small country. Roads are unpaved and poorly maintained and often a stopover in the capitol, San Jose, is necessary when traveling from one coast to the […]

  5. FellowAmericanGirl Says: November 16, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Hey I am traveling to San Jose in Dec and want to know if you went there knowing how to speak spanish and if you went alone. I have family that stays there but I want to travel the country alone and want to know how safe/realistic is it if I speak no spanish and am a 19yr old american girl

    • This American Girl Says: November 16, 2013 at 11:17 am

      I went not knowing any Spanish at all, but first went with a friend. You can definitely do it without speaking Spanish as I have met many people who have. However, if you do, choose a laid back beach town to begin your travels, prearrange a hostel for at least the first few nights, and arrange a shuttle to get you from the airport as the bus stations can be confusing and they do not speak English there. Best of luck to you, you can totally do it!! <3

  6. Also look up the Enamorate de tu Ciudad on Facebook, there are always tons of events like concerts and free yoga and zumba in the parks on Saturdays!

    • Camille Willemain Says: December 28, 2013 at 8:41 pm

      Ah nice thank you for the tip Michele!! Really missing Costa Rica today…! I will definitely look into that the next time I’m there :)

  7. […] this small country. Roads are unpaved and poorly maintained and often a stopover in the capitol, San Jose, is necessary when traveling from one coast to the […]

  8. […] When You’re Stuck in San Jose, Costa Rica […]

  9. Thanks for this blog. It was cool getting to relive some of San Jose. I was there about ten months ago as a jump off point for a central and south american backpacking trip. I liked the pic of the fruit stand in the vw, the pic we documented San Jose with was also a fruit stand! Peace. Brian

  10. Love love love your blog! I love the way you write all your entries with pictures that make me wish I am traveling. I am planning on going to Costa Rica by myself. I am staying at Tamarindo for a few weeks and thinking of stopping by San Jose for a few days before my flight to Mexico. I am just wondering if San Jose can be a bit sketchy if I am traveling alone and speak very little Spanish.

    • Camille Willemain Says: April 24, 2015 at 11:08 am

      Thank you so much Jenny!! Hm, it can be challenging with no Spanish and the taxi drivers don’t speak English, but if you stay in a good hostel they will help you and take care of you. It is definitely sketchy at night, but in the day you will be completely fine :)

  11. […] the world and made tons of friends in the process. I stayed with one of her couchsurfing hosts in San Jose, Costa Rica who was totally sweet, gave us our own room, and even made a full Costa Rican breakfast in the […]

  12. Hi!
    Thank you so much for the tips! Made our stay in San Jose a bit more bearable :) but truth to be told, after traveling around Panama and Costa Rica, San Jose is definitely the downside of the trip! We stayed at Aranjuez and loved it! Specially the breakfast… Yummy!

    • Camille Willemain Says: July 27, 2015 at 9:25 pm

      Haha, I hear you! My least fave city I’ve been to despite how much I love Costa Rica :/ Glad you liked Aranjuez!

  13. Thanks for this article.I’m a guy from NYC and I appreciate your storytelling mixed with photos. I enjoy CR but never stayed in SJ. I’m liking changing where I’ll stay in San Jose thanks to your :)

  14. […] the world and made tons of friends in the process. I stayed with one of her couchsurfing hosts in San Jose, Costa Rica who was totally sweet, gave us our own room, and even made a full Costa Rican breakfast in the […]