San José: 11 things only locals know

Costa Rican smiling woman
A friendly local in Costa Rica. Photo: Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock


There are many things to learn about this city, and I certainly hope this will help you to enjoy Costa Rica and its capital.

A few years back, the city of San José started to change. Today, it has more parks, plazas, boulevards and open spaces than ever before, and it's hard to find a week in San José when there is nothing to do. Concerts, poetry readings, storytelling, dancing, acrobats, art exhibitions and a myriad of activities are permanently happening in a city that ten years ago was quite ugly and scary.

As a resident of San José, I’d like to share some of the things that I think you should know about my city:

It has a huge bus station. Buses and more buses; everywhere, wherever you look. As an easy way to put it: all roads lead to San José. Which is not accurately true, but so it seems when you are in the city because, to put it even simpler: all buses lead to San José. When you are in this city, wherever you are going, be it Panama or Nicaragua, the South Caribbean or the North Pacific, if you are taking a bus to go there, you must take it in San José. So, even if you have your own transportation, know that from San José you can go everywhere. It’s definitely a great hub.


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A million and a half people pass through San José every day, although there are less than 30,000 people actually living in the city. The government has been making an effort in the past few years to change this, and apartment buildings have definitely been changing the landscape of San José. However, when you actually live in it (and I live downtown) you can find every single little thing you need in a matter of three or four blocks. There are five different fresh fruit and vegetable markets, butchers and fisheries, and of course arts  and crafts and souvenir stores. There are at least five big supermarkets, within five or six blocks too. It’s still the type of city where there are a zillion little owners of a zillion different little stores.

Fruit stalls, Mercado Central, San José, Costa Rica. Photo: Corrie Wingate/APA

People here, in general, are truly happy (and will go out of their way to help a visitor). Yes, yes, I know, we are “the happiest people in the world”... We joke about it all the time actually. Whenever the government does one of “those” things, or whenever we hear sad or infuriating news, the first thing they say is,  “And here in the happiest country in the world…” However, it is true that the people, in general, are quite joyful. We really do spend a lot of time with our families, we do have a slower pace, we do value our quality of life…  And then, as my mother used to say, “In Costa Rica, you can have hope.” What I mean by this is that wherever you are born in this country, to study and to progress is possible and probably even easy, if you just work hard. We just don’t realize it I guess.

Children are cherished. There are few things in this country that will open more doors and bring more attention (in hotels, on tours and in restaurants) than a child. Whenever you have a child with you, Costa Ricans will truly go the twenty extra miles for a smile from your child. Costa Ricans will play around, bring them treats, toys and special meals. Family is truly important for Costa Ricans, we really think children are the foundation of it all.

Hair braiding at home in Costa Rica. Photo: Corrie Wingate/APA

You can easily find homemade food anywhere in the city. And yes, you can find almost any fast-food chain that you can think of, however, rice and beans, chopped vegetables, and salads are still top of the list. If you want a true Costa Rican meal, go to Central Market and ask for a “casado” (casados are a typical Costa Rican lunch and dinner: rice, beans, vegetables, salad and sweet plantain, all together in one single plate). They will serve it with a “natural,” which is a fresh fruit juice of your choice.

Look for the art! In every single museum and art gallery (and in some hotels too) you can find a little booklet called GAM (Great Metropolitan Area). It’s a calendar of all activities happening in San José (and the Central Valley) throughout the month. Easy to find, and bilingual, it is a great tool to have if you are spending a few days here. And there are all sorts of activities on offer, every single day of the year.

Safety. San José has become a safe city, that’s without a doubt. There are policemen on every corner in the center of the city and they know what they are doing. As this is a small city, whenever there are pickpockets or even gangs they are easily recognized and dealt with. Just stay in the center of the city.

Museo de Oro, San José, Costa Rica. Photo: Corrie Wingate/APA

We are all about being small here. Directions are given according to parameters we all know and cardinal points: “From the house of Matute Gomez, it’s 100 meters west.” (Matute Gomez died, literally speaking, in 1934, but we all know where his house was.) We don’t use street numbers and definitely, never ever a street name! However, you need to learn a couple more things about this system: all church doors face west. This means that if you stand in the front of the church looking out, north is to your right, south to your left and east is in your back. So, if you read a direction with cardinal points, now you know where you are. The parameter? Just ask! Us Costa Ricans love to help!

Beware! Not everyone is good and about helping! Despite what I just wrote, this is a city. And it has, unfortunately, the same vices as any other city - there will be people trying to take advantage of tourists and there are thieves and more, just be careful. Mind your things, and don’t trust everyone who crosses your path.

Taxis. I really don’t know if this is part of the job description (but I have seen this in other countries too), and of course you cannot generalize, but taxi drivers in Costa Rica are usually on the pessimistic side. You will find in many of your conversations with them that life is tough, everyone is stealing, Costa Rica is going downhill, and life is harder here than anywhere else… (in the world, and even the galaxy!) Never mind how much you struggle to make them see the good in things, they will find a problem for every solution!

Taxi rank, San José, Costa Rica. Photo: Corrie Wingate/APA

Crowds. If you walk around the city before 9am or after 4:30pm, it will be crowded: boulevards, sidewalks… It seems the whole country is walking through the city. (And at least one-third of the country is!) So just remember you are on vacation, bear this in mind, and step out between these hours. There will always be people around, just not as many. When you get out of San José… You will be amazed at how different – and beautiful - Costa Rica can be outside of the city and wonder why there are  crazy people (like me) who live in the city… All I can say is that it is practical, and again, a great hub from which to do everything!

Reading in Parque Morazan, San José, Costa Rica. Photo: Corrie Wingate/APA

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