Spending A Few Days in San Jose, Costa Rica

Mark Stewart Travel Stories 18 Comments

An Easy Arrival

Being budget travellers, our typical means of transportation is often questionable at best. And while we’ve definitely upped our standards over the years, we certainly don’t travel in luxury. The journey from Granada back in Nicaragua, to San Jose, Costa Rica is in the ballpark of 8-10 hours; and considering our last day of transit involving border crossings, we decided that this time we’d spoil ourselves.

Already drenched with sweat following the half-hour walk under Granada’s hot morning sun, we climb aboard the giant Nicabus and bask in the air-conditioned glory. Less than ten hours later, the silent behemoth brings us comfortably to our destination – even the notoriously complicated border crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica passed flawlessly.

Shortly after arriving at our home for the week, the gracious hosts prepared some roasted plantains for us as a late evening snack. The soft, sweet fruit was exactly what we were needing after a long day in transit. The final touch prior to bed, was discovering the hot shower. While often overlooked by short-term travellers on wider budgets, they’re a more luxurious option for those in our position. Sleep came swift following the relaxing warmth of the shower – the first one with heat we’d had in over two months.

A Walking Tour

Church and Sulpture

Some Interesting Sculptures in San Jose

Venturing out early enough to avoid the hottest hours of the day, we make our way to explore what the downtown has to offer. San Jose, like quite a few other cities, has pedestrian-only boulevards; one of my favourite aspects of a city centre.

Many cities around the world are beginning to offer free walking tours guided by volunteers. Kylee found one prior to our arrival and after a little wandering around the central park, we meet up with the small group and begin the walk. What is fantastic about these types of tours is that while they do include some of the most important and historical tourist sites, they often include much more. In San Jose for example, we were shown a few prominent graffiti displays and a temporary art exhibit in one of the cities many parks. Although the guides are ‘paid’ by donation, a few dollars for a three-hour crash course on San Jose is more than worth what you’ll take away.

Walking Street

One of the Beautiful Pedestrian Streets in San Jose

Lunch at the Market

Returning to the pedestrian streets in search of lunch, we go to what is often the greatest place to find cheap eats in any Latin American city: Mercado Central.

The market itself is located directly in the centre of town and is where many locals shop for their daily provisions. Our first observation is that the unmistakable funk typically found in such markets is noticeably absent. Dotting the spaces between shops, small, inexpensive restaurants called sodas cater to those looking for a quick bite. Arriving shortly after noon, the place is crawling with business people in designer wardrobes weaving past the fish mongers and butcher stalls in search for a quick lunch. We follow suit – pun intended.

Clove Ice Cream

The Mysteriously Incredible Clove Ice Cream

Squeezing into the last remaining two chairs in the Rincón Retana, we stand out significantly from the well-dressed crowd as we wait for our meal. A simple pressed sandwich arrives, full of sliced beef, pork, peppers and an unidentifiable yet wonderful sauce. Given the quality of the meal, the $4 price tag was stunningly cheap!

One final stop before making our way home is on the advice of both our host family as well as several on the mornings walk. La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora is a simple stall with a simple menu. So simple in fact, the entire menu revolves around two or three variations on one thing: the magical yellow, clove and vanilla scented sorbet. Of the many dozens of interesting ice cream flavour combinations we’ve tried, from the strawberry-basil in Hungary to the kesar pista of India, this was the most unique. An absolute must try in San Jose.

San Jose is a Very Hip Town

Something that stood out significantly about San Jose, compared to other regions of Central America, is the complete mashup and intermingling of cultures. While the majority of the region is quite conservative and a little more reserved, San Jose showed a much more liberal attitude.

The youth were regularly showing off fresh body art and piercings, and rebellious fashion. Political activeness was prevalent and same-sex appeared completely comfortable being who they were in public. While there is still progress to be made, when compared to other countries in the area, Costa Rica is far ahead on many of these important issues.

The Festival

A Glimpse of the Festival

Regarding the laid-back attitude, our time in the city happened to coincide with the annual Transitarte festival. Three days of art and music spread throughout the many parks and streets of downtown. It was a fantastic mix of activities for everyone. Featuring everything from street performers to art exhibits, DJ’s in the streets and a food truck market.

On one morning at Parque Central, there was a huge local artisan craft market with an interesting soundtrack. The centre stage of the park showcased a local hardcore band belting out fantastically chaotic music to a frenzied crowd while families quietly shopped the small surrounding stands.

Eating San Jose

Aside from what we ate at home, including several incredible meals prepared by our hosts, most of our sustenance came in the form of quick snacks picked up around town.

We didn’t eat healthy, but we ate well.

Sno Cone

Sno-Cone, San Jose Style

Fried foods are everywhere. It seems like every corner has a small shop selling some combination of fried chicken or dough based deliciousness. Empanadas were everywhere, as were the taco chinos, which were oddly reminiscent of a spring roll. It turns out that’s exactly what they were. Chinese tacos, they’re spring rolls.

On top of the deep fried and carb heavy snacks that fuelled our long walks around the city, we also finally tried the shaved ice treat we’d been seeing around the region for the past few weeks. Essentially a hand-shaved sno-cone, topped with not only the radioactively bright syrup but a healthy portion of sweetened condensed milk as well.

Quite simply, it’s very easy to eat cheap while exploring the city, but don’t expect your health to improve as a result.

Cutting it Uber Close

The only real issue we had during our entire stay in the city is when we left. Having to reach the airport through notoriously awful morning traffic, we opt for an Uber to avoid complications.

However, the driver that shows up apparently tricked his way into the job. How any professional taxi driver would not know how to get to the capital city’s international airport is beyond my comprehension, yet it happened. After nearly 25 minutes of the driver confusedly driving in circles on the edge of downtown, pulling over every couple of blocks to check his GPS, he finally shrugged and drove us back to where we started.

Absolutely panicking at this point, if we miss our flight due to transportation issues, that’s on us. And being on a budget, that wasn’t an option. Thankfully our amazing hosts got us a replacement ride within a few minutes and we just barely made the airport in time for our flight.

With everything working out the way it did, I can confidently say that our time in San Jose was a near-flawless experience. Considering how many people fly in and catch the first available bus to the coast, it’s an unfortunate missed opportunity on their part. While I understand the draws of the jungles and beaches, it’s a shame that more people don’t give San Jose the attention it deserves.

Street Art

An Street Artist Perfects his Work in this Beautiful Gem of a City


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Sion Walton-Guest

Well timed for us, we head here next week. Glad to here same-sex couples in public are comfortable. Were they even holding hands? Not seen that in CA yet.

Alex Trembath

This is really helpful as we are planning to travel Central America in the next couple of years, and Costa Rica will definitely be on the list! The point about walking tours is great. We did a bunch of these in South American cities last year, and they are a great way to learn about a place and find your feet.


My travels are no longer the same thing … what you reminded me! 😉


Looking forward to visit CR, your tips – super useful!


Beautiful place! I haven’t visited any countries in Central America yet, I’ve only been there in stopovers (unfortunately not long enough to go out and explore). Costa Rica is gorgeous!

Supriya (SuBhaSun)

I am amazed by your intro part on this website. We wish we could also do it, leaving everything just to explore this beautiful planet.
About this post, you talked about fried food… Come to India, you will get a variety of cuisines here, you would not regret. 🙂
Thanks for sharing your experience!


Wow, I have never actually known what Costa Rica has to offer until I chanced upon this post of yours! It looks like an awesome place to be with its hip culture and atmosphere. Glad to hear that you had a great border crossing into the country!

Obligatory Traveler

Maybe it’s Costa Rica? When we arrived the taxi driver we chose didn’t know how to get to our accommodation. We had a map, but he said he couldn’t read it because he forgot his glasses and he couldn’t see too well (we didn’t digest this until later). Finally he called our place and got verbal directions, then blasted and sang Michael Jackson songs the whole way there. It’s still one of those stories we smile about.

Amber Tatton

That street art is so cool. I really want to visit San Jose and that meal in the Mercado Central was so reasonable


I’d love to go to Costa Rica and San Jose sounds great! Thanks for a fantastic read and some great ideas!