While spending five days in Costa Rica on vacation, we decided to leave one afternoon before our flight back to explore the city of San Jose. While San Jose is a capital of Costa Rica, it certainly does not look like one. When you think of a big city, you imagine tall buildings, adequate infrastructure and presentable surroundings. That is why San Jose greatly surprised us when we finally got there. While the central avenue running through the city is well lit and has policemen on every corner, once you take a step into one of the smaller streets or alleys, the picture changes completely.
We started our excursion at the bus terminal six blocks north of the central avenue and the central market. While making our way to the center of the city, we were surrounded by merchants who set up their shops right there on the curbs, yelling at the passing people in order to get their attention. We felt like we were already in the central market as it was very loud (even though we were on the street) and crowded. We saw vendors sell all kinds of goods, ranging from kids' toys to live hens and rabbits.
When we finally made it to the actual building of the central market, we were greeted with a labyrinth of different shops and cafes. Surprisingly enough, there were not that many shops that sold souvenirs. Most of the space inside of the market was occupied by vendors selling different kind of foods. Another thing that surprised us was the price of the souvenirs. You would expect the souvenirs at the local market to be dirt cheap, but this was not the case. After spending forty minutes wandering around the market, we finally found one vendor who was reasonable with his prices and we were able to stock up on souvenirs.
After the madness of the central market and surrounding area, we made our way to Central Park located just couple of blocks away from where we were. It was rather crowded since it was a Saturday and we saw a lot of people on benches and curbs enjoying the weather. Right next to the Central Park is Catedral Metropolitana. The original was built in 1802 but was later destroyed by an earthquake. It was replaced in 1871 and combined different architecture styles such as Baroque, Greek Orthodox and Neoclassical. As we made our way to the entrance, the mass was about to start. In order to respect the pastor and the visitors, we did not enter the cathedral but we still managed to get a peek inside.
Right next to Central Park is Plaza de la Cultura that features Teatro Nacional. The National Theater building was the most beautiful building we have seen in San Jose and we instantly fell in love. The theater first opened in 1897 and it's still an active theater. Besides being home for some of the plays, it is also one of the biggest tourist destinations in the city. While we did not make it inside, we still got to enjoy this beauty from the outside.
After spending some time at the Plaza de la Cultura, we asked a police officer for directions to any other tourist attractions near by. What pleasantly surprised me was the fact that a lot of people in San Jose speak English. They might not be fluent but they possessed sufficient language skills to point us in the right directions or share something interesting with us. Following the officer's advise, we continued east on the central avenue and soon made it to the National Museum. The museum is actually a fortress that was built in 1917 and was originally used as military barracks. It became a museum in 1950.
We then took a detour through the smaller streets and stumbled upon numerous walls with graffiti. After mindlessly walking around for half an hour, we were back on the main street right near Chinatown. It is funny how no matter where you go, there will always be a Chinatown. San Jose's Chinatown was not as exciting as its namesakes in San Francisco or New York so we did not spend much time there.
Right next to the Chinatown entrance, there is another Cathedral called Iglesia Nuestra Senora de la Soledad. As with the other cathedral, we did not want to disturb the people so we stood at the entrance and observed what was happening inside. It gets dark around 6PM in Costa Rica so we were limited on time. As such, we decided to call it a day and went to grab some dinner. We enjoyed some local karaoke night in one of the restaurants and grabbed a bus to the airport.
There, we were surprised yet again, but this time it was not a pleasant surprise. Apparently, Costa Rica charges everyone leaving the country $29 as a tax. Unless you have a ticket with one of the airlines that already include this tax in the ticket price, you will have to pay some money to be able to leave the country. This proved to be problematic as I had no cash left on me and my card kept getting declined. Luckily, we were able to pay with another card we had and Costa Rica graciously allowed us to leave. So travelers, beware! Always have some cash while staying in Costa Rica. This country will be expensive and it will for sure take all of the money you set aside and more!