San José is the capital and the largest city in Costa Rica. Most visitors to this beautiful country will arrive here before setting off on their travels to the volcanoes, beaches, and mountains. It's a modern city as with only 200 years of history but as the cultural hub of the country, it is home to magnificent museums and cultural exhibits.
Originally, San José was a small agricultural village. Costa Rica gained independence from colonial Spain in 1821. After a brief civil war between San José and nearby Cartago, it was declared the capital city and soon became the home of coffee barons who built some grand homes which can still be seen around the city. The major population growth came in the 1960s with migration from other areas in Costa Rica and neighbouring countries.
Like many travellers, I arrived in San José to join up with a tour group: G-Adventures before setting off to explore other places. I had booked an extra day onto each end of the trip so I could do some solo exploring of the city. (check out this post for a review of the tour). I had pre-arranged for an airport transfer and checked into the Autentico Hotel.
The hotel is a standard business hotel with a bar/restaurant and a lovely pool area. Everything was clean and well-presented. It's located about 3km (30 min walk) from Democracy Plaza along a pleasant route through neighbourhoods. There is also a public bus and a car-rental agency directly across the street.
Democracy Plaza I began my explorations in the Plaza de la Democracia (Democracy Plaza), a large open-area in the downtown area of the city between the National Museum, Jade Museum, National Palace and market. The official name since 2016 is Plaza de la Democracia y de la Abolición del Ejército when officials added the longer designation to honour the dissolution of the Costa Rican military in 1948.
After picking up some delicious fruit at one of the many fruit stands, visitors will enjoy wandering around the plaza looking at the sculptures and statues while indulging in some discreet people-watching.
National Museum of Costa Rica The Museo Nacional (National Museum) is housed within the bullet-riddled Bellavista Fortress, a former military fortress. The museum includes historical exhibits, colonial art and a butterfly garden.
There were no butterflies to be seen during the heat of the day but I was assured that if I came in the morning or later in the afternoon, it was better viewing. I enjoyed the garden even without butterflies.
A mysterious part of ancientCosta Rican history includes these mysterious spheres. They were first discovered in the 1930s when the forest in Western Costa Rica was being cleared for agriculture. About 300 have been located since then. Archeologists believe these were handmade by the ancient people of the Diquis Valley but their purpose has yet to be determined.
Some of the indigenous art. There are very few indigenous people left. Approximately 90 percent were wiped out by disease and slaughter brought by the Spanish conquerors. The cruelty of the Spanish reign is a recurring theme in Costa Rican history.
Jade Museum The Museo del Jade(Jade Museum) is a source of great national pride and is home to the largest collection of American jade in the world. Every local I spoke to recommended this as the best museum in the city. Other exhibits include ceramics, stone and gold works arranged by the originating cultural region.
Pre-Columbian Gold Museum The Museo del Oro Precolombino (Pre-Colombian Gold Museum) is a 5-minute walk west of Democracy Plaza. The museum is a stunning 3 level building beneath the Plaza de la Cultura, owned and operated by the Costa Rican central bank.
This museum is full of gold artifacts found throughout Latin America and narrates the indigenous history of the country. I enjoyed the indigenous focus and learning about the different tribal communities.
This would be a shaman. Shaman is the only role in the indigenous community that continues to this day.
San Juan Central Market
Markets are always a great place to get the feel for the local scene and to get affordable meals and souvenirs. I make a point of visiting markets wherever I go. San Juan's central market is a fascinating mix of vendors.
It occupies a whole block along the main street, Avenida Central and is a complex with hundreds of stalls, shops, and cheap restaurants known as sodas.
National Theatre A 10-minute walk from the market is the Teatro Nacional (National Theatre), built in the 1890's just as San José's population was growing with the establishment of a strong coffee trade. The demand for a grand opera house was initiated when a prominent Italian opera singer refused to perform in the city due to it's poor facilities. To raise funds, a coffee tax was created with the support of opera-loving coffee barons.
The inside of the theatre is spectacular with grand staircases, golden ceilings, intricately patterned wooden floors and lavish decorations. It is well worth the cost of a 40-minute guided tour. (approximately $10 CAD)
and what about Chinatown?
Knowing there was significant Chinese influence in Central and South America and having a hankering for some noodles for dinner, I asked a local for a suggestion and in a flood of Spanish, a bunch of gestures, and several repetitions of the word "Chinatown", I headed in that direction anticipating my dinner. I'm thinking something was lost in the translation. The gate seemed to be the whole experience... search elsewhere for your noodles!
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