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We have been to Costa Rica a few times and we flew into Liberia [LIR] in the northwestern part of Costa Rica every time. We should make an effort to explore more of Costa Rica.
Caitlin, of the blog Circumnavi-Cait, is doing a 4-year study abroad program and currently is in Costa Rica. Here are her tips for those visiting.
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San Jose is often overlooked when travelers flock to Costa Rica. Many see the city as a dirty metropolis that is not worth visiting when coming to the country for its beaches, adventure activities, and wildlife. However, I am here to say that these individuals are wrong, and they are missing out on an incredible city full of vibrant culture and kind locals.
Costa Rica’s currency is the Colón and the current exchange rate is about 565 Colones to 1 USD. U.S. dollars are widely accepted in popular tourist spots, but smaller, more authentic restaurants and shops are less likely to take U.S. bills, and businesses certainly won’t accept currency from neighboring countries or convert bills. It is my recommendation that visitors use an ATM card to withdraw colones or convert money before traveling to Costa Rica.
Some businesses accept credit cards, primarily Mastercard and Visa, but many places do not accept them or will charge a fee to run a card. So it is beneficial to have local currency on hand.
Where to Stay
There are so many options when it comes to finding accommodations in San Jose. There are the chain hotels, such as Marriott and Hilton, but I advise travelers to stay somewhere local.
Airbnb is a fantastic option as it allows travelers to stay in a local home for an affordable price. There are some cute apartments or private rooms in the city that individuals or groups can rent for as little as $11 USD a night. Some even include concierge help with tour bookings, restaurant recommendations, and/or a free city tour opportunity.
For younger or more adventurous travelers, hostels may be the best option. There are dozens of options in the city, and most include dorm beds, breakfast, security measures, and lockers, and at hostels you can often connect with travelers from all over the globe. Hostels can be found and booked at websites such as Hostelworld.com, Hostels.com, and Booking.com. Some of the best hostels in the city include Costa Rica Backpackers (dorm beds from $10 USD a night, privates from $35 USD) and Hostel Pangea (dorm beds from $10 USD a night, privates from $29 USD). Both have swimming pools, and Hostel Pangea even offers free breakfast, lunch, and dinner!
Costa Rica’s main airport in the San Jose Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO). Oddly enough, the airport is not located in San Jose (the city or province). It is actually located in the city and province of Alajuela, which is about 20 – 30 minutes from the capital city of San Jose.
There is a wide variety of travel options to get into the city, from taxis to Ubers to buses. Renting a car can be tempting as it allows for greater flexibility, but Costa Rican drivers are simply crazy and traffic laws seem to be mere suggestions. Travelers must also keep in mind that the majority of cars available for rent in Costa Rica are manual. I would not recommend driving in Costa Rica unless you are an incredibly confident driver comfortable in difficult conditions.
Uber is a great, budget-friendly option for any type of traveler. Visitors can use the app to pinpoint exactly where they want to go, and an Uber from the airport to San Jose will typically cost less than the equivalent of $10 USD. However, be aware that Uber is officially illegal in Costa Rica as a result of fights between Uber and taxi drivers. I have not heard of issues with Uber drivers and travelers, but it is something to keep in mind all the same.
If you are wary of taking an Uber, taxis are another viable option. Make sure to take officially licensed taxis, which can be identified by their red color and yellow triangles on the side of the car. The only issue with taxis is that Costa Rica does not have definite addresses so taxi drivers operate based on major landmarks, and often do not speak a bit of English. So if you plan to take a taxi, be sure to know the exact name of where you need to go in Spanish as well as some landmarks near your destination to be safe. Taxis are not as cheap as Ubers but are still affordable.
For day trips from San Jose, there are local buses that can be taken for only the equivalent of a couple USD per way, but these buses can be difficult for visitors unfamiliar with the area and language to navigate. It is for this reason that I recommend that visitors book tours through reputable tour companies for day trips from San Jose.
Things to Do
San Jose is a hub of culture and there always seems to be something going on in the city. Start at Parque Morazán, the center of life and culture in San Jose. On any given day, you can find people performing here or find some nice strangers offering hula hoops in exchange for a smile. This park is also the starting point for a lot of major events in San Jose, such as the Independence Day parade on the 15th of September or the Zombie Parade held each October. Ask locals or look online before traveling to San Jose to see what is happening in Parque Morazán.
Another park where major events take place is the La Sabana park. This park is the largest urban park and is considered “the lungs of San Jose.” The park is massive and weekend music festivals are often hosted here.
Visitors should also head down to the university area of the city near the University of Costa Rica to check out some incredible street art. Artists turn in applications to the government before being granted space to express themselves.
Museums are also a good option for those looking to learn more about Costa Rican history and culture. The Costa Rican Museum of Art is free and has new exhibits on a regular basis by Costa Rican artists. The National Museum is free for kids under 12, students with ID, and seniors over 65, and only about $4 USD for adults. The National Museum offers interesting exhibits about Pre-Colombian history and a beautiful garden exhibit with stunning butterflies.
And last but not least, one of the best ways to experience Costa Rican culture is to go to a soccer (or fútbol) game. The national soccer team sometimes plays in the stadium in San Jose, and an even better and cheaper way to see the country’s national pastime is to go to a local game. San Jose’s local team is called Saprissa and you can attend a game at their stadium 10 minutes outside of the city for about $10 USD.
What to Eat
The hands down best places to eat in any city in Costa Rica are Sodas. These are small restaurants owned by local families that serve traditional Costa Rican fare. Their main dish will surely be a casado, which typically consists of rice and beans, salad, a meat, and sweet plantains. Sodas are one of the best ways to experience authentic Costa Rican food and culture.
Other must-have dishes in Costa Rica are patacones, gallo pinto, and ceviche. Patacones and mashed and fried plantain chips dusted with salt. They are absolutely divine served with bean dip and picadillo (a chunky salsa). Gallo pinto is simply rice and beans, but it is a mixture eaten by Costa Ricans for breakfast each and every day. It can be found in just about every restaurant served with eggs and sweet plantains. Costa Rican ceviche is often prepared with white fish, cilantro, lime juice, and diced vegetables.
While in Costa Rica, visitors also have to try fresh cacao and coffee. One of the best restaurants in San Jose is Soleil Chocolate – Casa del Cacao. They have traditional dishes with a twist. They offer amazing chocolate drinks and desserts, and upstairs they offer chocolate making demonstrations and tastings. My personal recommendation is a chocolate shake with Bailey’s in it. Amazing. Many say that the chocolate in Costa Rica is incredible and that the coffee is unlike anything they have ever had in the States. The fresh, local fruit is also delicious!
While San Jose does have great restaurants for traditional Costa Rican dishes, they also have great international and eclectic options. Barrio Escalante is known as one of the best areas for more posh food offerings, such as gastropubs and breweries known for craft beers. One of the best gastropubs in the cities is Kubrick Café, known for its theme of all things Stanley Kubrick, and its delicious food and sangria.
San Jose has several shopping malls with the major name brand stores: Forever 21, American Eagle, Nike etc., the best being Lincoln Plaza. The giant mall has 3 floors, tons of stores, a food court full of American fast food options, and a movie theater. Most movies can be watched in English with Spanish subtitles for only about $5 USD a ticket.
If you’re looking for something more authentically Costa Rican, check out the artisan market near the Plaza de Democracia and the major museums, or San Jose’s Central Market. At both you can find typical tourist souvenirs and homemade crafts, and in the Central Market you can find flowers, birds, little restaurants, fresh herbs, and more.
San Jose has a thriving night life scene if you are looking to go out at night for drinks or dancing. The La Cali and Barrio Escalante areas of San Jose have several clubs and bars. Blue Bahamas often offers 2 shots for the equivalent of $2 USD and Club Vertigo is well known for the DJs it brings in for music. Antik and Castro’s Discotheque are great for dancing. Just keep in mind that most places don’t become exciting until at least after 10 pm, and remember to be aware of your surroundings when going out at night in San Jose.
A lot of Costa Ricans know English, especially those working in the tourism industry, but English is not as widely spoken as many believe. So, do your best to learn simple phrases, such as greetings and directions.
- Hola = Hello
- Buenos días = Good morning
- Buenas tardes = Good afternoon
- Buenas noches = Good evening
- Adíos = Good bye
- Hasta luego = See you later
- ¿Dónde está…? = Where is…? Useful for asking directions or where something is (¿Dónde está el baño? Where is the bathroom)
- ¿Habla Inglés? = Do you speak English?
- ¿Cuanto cuesta? = How much does it cost?
- Sí = Yes
- No = No
San Jose is a generally safe city but make sure to be aware of your surroundings when out and about, especially at night. In San Jose, do not walk around after dark, which is typically after 6 pm or so. Be sure to keep track of your belongings – do not leave belongings unattended in hostels or while riding buses.
Unfortunately for women, catcalling is common in Costa Rica and seems to be especially prominent in the city. You will find that men in the street often yell, honk, or make lewd gestures toward women, especially foreign women. My best advice is to ignore them and get out of that area. Sexual harassment is less common, but women should be aware of their surroundings, take taxis or Ubers at night, and go out with groups. If you or a member of your group ever finds yourself sexually assaulted, Costa Rica has strict laws regarding these matters and legal action can be taken against perpetrators.
About the Author
Caitlin is a student at the Global College of Long Island University, a four-year program that allows students to pursue a major in Global Studies and live around the world for seven semesters. She is currently living in Heredia, Costa Rica and travels any opportunity she gets. When she isn’t traversing the globe, she is reading as many books as she can get her hands on, kickboxing, or taking as many photos as possible. You can follow her on Instagram at @caitlinepstein and my blog Circumnavi-Cait.
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