Go onto any website, read any guidebook, and most of them will say the following: “San Jose is dangerous,” “Fly into Juan Santamaria Airport and get the heck out of the capital city,” “San Jose is not representative of the beauty that is Costa Rica.” Okay-for most of the above I paraphrased but I certainly didn’t embellish. The Costa Rican capital of San Jose is not regarded in the nicest of manners. Worse than being labeled a “stopover city” it’s a place that some will say to avoid altogether. I don’t agree with that viewpoint, at all. I lived there for three months as a student when I studied abroad in college and while yes, it’s no Paris or London, it still has its charms.
While there are definitely plenty of seasoned travelers in Costa Rica, there are still plenty of tourists who flock there not necessarily comprehending that Costa Rica is in Central America, not the United States or Canada. Although Costa Rica is the wealthiest nation in Central America, many of its citizens are still knee-deep in poverty, forced to live in deplorable conditions. However, friends of mine who traveled to the Nicaraguan capital of Managua said that was a place they couldn’t wait to get the heck out of. Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Haiti, which is a terrible act to follow. Following the devastating earthquake that struck there in 1972 and razed the capital city of any of its beautiful buildings from earlier history, to this day, much of the city remains decrepit, much having never been rebuilt. I’ve not traveled to other Central American nations. However, with the exception of Panama City, which has been dubbed the Miami of Central America, due to its importance in the worldwide business sector and its multitude of skyscrapers, I’m going on an assumption that San Jose is paradise when compared with Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras and also considered murder capital of the world, or Guatemala City. While I could be wrong here, sadly I don’t think I am.
For everyone who says that Costa Rica is crime ridden and you will be robbed in a moment’s notice if you’re not careful, well I never once had a problem and it certainly wasn’t because I looked “native.” No, I kept my wits about me at all times, walked around with a “don’t mess with me look” (when I’m abroad alone I don’t try to give off any airs that consist of “look at me, I’m cute”), and the jaws of life would be needed to pry my handbag from me. Although I was leery about shopping in the artisan crafts market where I read that thieves and pickpockets really liked to hang out, I was fine. I made sure when I was purchasing something to basically have my bag in front of me like a baby carrier, and to have everything back into place and zipped again before I turned my back from the stand to start moving again in the aisles.
During my semester in Costa Rica, I didn’t hang out much at night save for when traveling to other parts of the country. I went out in San Jose less than five times in the evening (most when taking taxis home from the bus stations) but when I did I never felt unsafe. Granted, one night after returning from Puerto Viejo, I heard the next day that shortly after leaving the Coca Cola bus station, a couple of people had been robbed and pistol whipped after getting into a taxi. Now that was frightening, but sadly that’s also something that could have happened anywhere in the world. My savviest advice when traveling (or living abroad) that I always adhere to, is one, either never drink, or two, have a drink or two at the most. If one were to research every tragic event that has befallen a tourist, alcohol is probably a factor in 50% of those cases if not more. Feeling “free” sadly comes with a price sometimes, especially if you are in a foreign country.
I didn’t see all that I could have in San Jose. However, what I did see was charming in its own right. One Saturday when living there I played the part of “tourist in my own (temporary) city.” I toured the National Museum which is located in the Bellavista Fortress, a building which dates from 1917 and was originally a military barracks. What’s fascinating is that the exterior walls still have many bullets lodged in them from the country’s 1948 civil war (following the civil war, the army was dissolved and since then Costa Rica has no military, an impressive feat considering the bloody and horrific recent pasts of many of its neighbors).
I walked down pedestrian lined streets filled with beautiful towering palm trees, a symbol that could just as easily be found in Los Angeles or Miami.
And while I never went inside, I still admired the striking architecture of the Teatro Nacional (National Theater) from the street. Construction on the building began in 1891 and it opened to the public in 1897. It stood as a cultural asset of the country when coffee exports were a source of its success. The building is undoubtedly the most striking in the country and I heard that the inside contains lavish furnishings.
No, touring San Jose is not the reason most people travel to Costa Rica. However, it still is the capital city and has some items of interest that would provide a great way to spend a day or two. Not to mention it’s location in the Central Valley puts it in close proximity to some of the country’s most popular attractions. And the next time you read or hear someone say that San Jose is unsafe, take it from this red headed traveler-it’s as safe as you make it to be using your own common sense.