Did you ever think you could spend 2.5 hours on a walking tour that only covers a few blocks? Of all the places in Costa Rica, the capital city of San José is the last place I’d imagine doing this.
If you look up things to do in Costa Rica, touring San José is probably outside the top 30. A lot of visitors don’t realize that in comparison to other Latin American capitals, this one really doesn’t have anything that competes with alternate activities such as the beaches or the rainforests. Or so I thought.
I dread San José. Traffic, pollution, crime etc. Everything that happens there is so exhausting. When I go, it’s usually for paperwork, which just involves more standing around, waiting in line, and trying not to get sunburned or rained on. I had been on tours of San José before, however when I heard about a free walking tour with round trip transportation from San Ramon I decided to give it a try. At least I’d learn something while walking and standing around in San José.
SJO vive. Translation: San José lives. That is the slogan designed to bring the city back to life. I have no doubt it “lives”, however I’m sure there are many ways to interpret that. They could be referring to a bar/restaurant district, a theater and arts area, or maybe the rat and cockroach population?
After enduring the traffic we arrived outside the national theater, where the tour would begin. The national theater I think exists as merely a meet up point. Without addresses, people rely on landmarks to get around and this building sure sticks out. Whether due to its elegance or the enormity of pigeon droppings, people know the place. It has never been a big conversation starter on any tours I’d been on and my eyes glazed over for most of this explanation, except when the guide told us if we go inside to the cafeteria, order something and then ask to use the bathroom, they’ll let you into the theater as that is the only way to access the bathrooms!
From there we walked across the street to “Chinatown”. The only thing chinese about the area was an oriental arch to mark the entrance of the plaza. There we’d see a Catholic church, a statue of John Lennon, and our guide told us he would give $50 to anyone who saw a chinese person. The only thing newsworthy about this plaza was apparently when they put it in they eliminated a city street which sparked criticism as it added further to the city’s congestion issues.
It was interesting to hear the guide put the focus on the oddities, or failures of the city,
which might give more context to why it’s not touristy. We went outside the National Assembly building where lawmakers allowed graffiti artists to paint the walls, but then got upset when they drew a former president to look like a monkey. We went into an enclosed, glass dome with a stone sphere in the middle that had some sort of healing or meditation purpose, but I couldn’t hear the whole explanation as the smell of urine forced me to exit early. We visited a Jade museum that is normally $18 to get in, however they have one free exhibition room which of course is where we went and got plenty of information.
Granted, this was a free, gratuity only tour so I didn’t have huge expectations, however I was more drawn to these outlier stories than the straight up, traditional tours I’d gone on in the past.
At the end of the tour I was shocked that we hadn’t gone into any museums or visited any markets, but I still felt like I got a lot of value out of it. To walk so little in so much time says a lot about the guide, as there isn’t a lot to work with. I remember doing a night tour of the rainforest and the guide took us about 200 feet in two hours. That was impressive, however I thought this guide got even more creative.
Still, unless you are spending more than a week in Costa Rica, don’t prioritize the city. As much fun as it is to observe the endangered bicycle rider using the bike lane you’re still better off at the beach or rainforest.