At Journey Latin America we use cookies to give you the best experience on our website. By continuing to browse, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on our website.
Find out more

August 12th, 2015

The way to San Jose

Mary Anne

By Mary Anne Nelson
Travel Consultants

The thought came with the big news – British Airways will, as of May 2016, start operating direct flights from London to San José in Costa Rica. About time, we say, given the high demand for travel to this tiny, peaceful and environmentally friendly Central American country. But what do we really, factually, know about San Jose, apart from it being the capital? It’s not a beautiful city, to be honest, and so we spend as little as possible there. And I can’t help but ask myself, why? Where is the colonial centre, so attractive in the majority of capitals and minor cities in Latin America? You know, the central square, the usual “Damero” plan (streets running parallel and vertical from the square outwards. Classic Spanish; you will find it in almost every Latin American city colonised by them), a beautiful pedestrianised street and quaint doorways? Think Cartagena in Colombia, Antigua in Guatemala and Granada in Nicaragua to name but a few.
Absent. Nowhere to be seen. NADA. Oh, there are some nice buildings, of course – a National Theatre, National Museum, some colonial houses and the like – but these are few and far between and there is no well-kept pedestrianised street that you would like to photograph until death do you apart. So here’s what I found:

For starters, San Jose wasn’t even the original capital. This illustrious status was held, until 1824, by Cartago, 25 kms away. Until then, San José was a bit of a backwater with relatively sparse population, no planning or even a proper government because it wasn’t considered a city – or even a town. Strictly speaking, it was founded in 1738 with the building a chapel dedicated to San Joseph – hence the name - in order to concentrate the scattered inhabitants of the surrounding valleys, but there wasn’t an official act of foundation and was only recognised as a city well into the 1800s. Ironically, lack of water contributed to the population’s slow growth, though the building of ditches and subsequently development of tobacco industry helped to increase urban concentration.

San jose, costa rica

However, there were two other factors that eventually made the city and the first of which was independence from Spain. Two years after it was gained in 1821, there was a brief civil war that ended with the joint Republican strongholds of San José and Alajuela defeating the pro-Mexican Democrats of Heredia and Cartago and thus the capital was duly moved from the latter to the former. We could also argue that an earthquake in 1822 which completely destroyed Cartago might have helped, but there is no hard evidence and therefore I’m only going to sow the seed of doubt...

The other factor was the introduction of coffee in the Central Valley during the early 1800s. The trade brought money as a result and, with it, an urban merchant class that wanted a better city; modern and pleasant to the eye. These noveaux riches duly started looking to Europe as an architectural muse – look no further than the National Theatre – and San José grew. Haphazardly though. Did you know that addresses are either non-existent or useless? Try “the house to the left of the big tree, besides the green garage” and the fact that the tree burned down a few years back and the garage was repainted bright pink gives you an idea. But hey! What are memory and a bit of imagination for?

Having said this, Chepe, as it’s known by the locals, albeit big, noisy and difficult to get the hang of, is still attractive in an “I-have-taken-leave-of-my-senses” kind of way. Some places are changing, blossoming, as it were. Old houses are being converted into boutique hotels, new restaurants and quirky cafes are opening, cultural events are being hosted in different parts of the city and there is even a “fall in love with your city” movement with ongoing series of workshops and performances in urban parks hosted by the Culture Ministry – all free and public. In short, San José is worth a visit nowadays. Give it a try.

Post a comment

Upcoming Events

See full Event Listing

Other articles you may like

Browse our inspiration area of the site. It's packed with insider travel tips, Top5s, competitions, events, recipes and holiday ideas for Central and South America sure to whet your travel appetite.

Journey with the UK's NO1 specialist in travel to latin america

We Love Latin America

  • A passion for the region runs through all we do
  • All our Consultants have lived or travelled extensively in Latin America
  • Up-to-the-minute knowledge underpinned by 35 years' experience

Full Financial Protection

  • Fully bonded and licensed
  • ATOL-protected
  • On your side when it matters
  • Book with confidence, knowing every penny is secure 

The Real Latin America

  • Our insider knowledge helps you go beyond the guidebooks
  • We hand-pick hotels with character and the most rewarding excursions
  • Let us show you the Latin America we know and love

Wanderlust Reader's Travel Awards - Top Ten Tour Operator 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015

Latin American Travel Association – Award for Customer Service 2012

Sunday Times Travel Magazine – Specialist Tour Operator 2012

Sunday Times Travel Magazine – Best Value Tour Operator 2011

Sunday Times Travel Magazine - Editor's Award2013

British Travel Awards – Best Small Tour Operator Central & South America 2011, 2012

Condé Nast Traveller – Top Ten Specialist Tour Operator: 2010, 2011, 2012

Guardian and Observer Travel Awards– Top Ten Small Tour Operator: 2009, 2010, 2012

Page Full Path: /sitecore/content/JLA/Home/travel-inspiration/travel/the-way-to-san-jose

Page ID: {C30696C4-453C-4C67-AF1A-3CD32EA97AA4}

Page Name: the-way-to-san-jose

Page Display Name: The way to San Jose

Page Template Name: T031-PapagaioBlogPost

Page Template ID: {ECC6A232-9784-4CC7-BA26-18421546B8F5}

Parent ID: {DC65CFB2-D81C-4A04-A7F8-0A1B3D88E7EB}

Parent Name: travel

Parent Display Name: Travel

Parent Template Name: T029-PapagaioCategoryListing

Parent Template ID: {4D163066-ED7E-48E6-AF31-34B6C47536CD}