The capital of Costa Rica, San José is a city of contrasts. It is the geographical center of the country and its cultural heart. San José is a young city, even by Costa Rican standards. Although the city was founded in 1737, its importance to the people and the culture didn’t start until the end of the nineteenth century.
The city’s most famous landmark, the National Theater, was built in the 1890’s by the fortunes and increasing wealth generated by the worldwide boom in coffee consumption; the building is an exact copy of a París opera house. In fact, much of the architecture of the city is a collection of different styles from different áreas. This makes the feel of the city almost disjointed, but at the same time it has a certain vitality and spirit of adventure. San José ¡s a place that grows on you, a perfect stopping over and transition place for those travelers needlng a break to recharge their batteries. Beneath the surface, of San José beats the heart of a city, with a great deal to offer. The city’s night life is lively with plenty of different bars, restaurants and dance clubs from which to choose. In addition, there are more theaters in San José than anywhere else in Latin America. Its museums are many and varied, with something to offer just about any interest. From the Gold Museum’s excellent display of Pre-Columbian artifacts to the insect exhibits at the Joyas del Trópico, no two are alike.
Nowhere is the spirit and feel of San José and its people more evident than in the public parks, squares and markets. Spreading like fingers all throughout the city, this is where the common people of the city congrégate to trade stories and opinions about everything from the weather to the failings of the current president. Joséfinos are proud of their country and their city and they aren’t afraid to tell you what is wrong and how to fix it. As the people and the country face the challenges of the next century, San José will be at the forefront with a daring and style that says they are willing to try new things and ideas. San José, the city that stretches across Costa Rica’s pastoral past and connects it to its technological and economic future.
This northwest central valley town ¡s sometimes referred to as Costa Rica’s second city. Home of the country’s national Hero, Juan Santamaría, Alajuela has a busy downtown área and barely warmer climate than nearby San José. One kilometer from the International airport, the town is a convenient entry and exit stop and well worth a visit.
As with other provincial capitals, the central square in front of the large, red domed cathedral is impressive. The tall, dark green, tightly packed trees gives one an idea what the central valley musí have looked like prior to colonization. During the heat of the afternoon the park is the perfect place to sit and hang out, as the thick shade and cool breezes tend to draw a lot of locáis. It is the best time and place in the city to go people watching. Two hundred meters west of central park is the towns central market. Taking up an entire city block the market is much less crowded than that of San José’s and the prices are better. Alajuela is famous for its cattle ranches to the north and its production of sugar.
Every year on April 11th the town celébrales Juan Santamaría day with a large parade through town and a public carnival and dance in and around the central park. One block north of the town center ¡s the Museo Juan Santamaría, which is housed in a former jail. The townspeople are famous for their calm demeanor and ¡nfectious humor, except in connection with their soccer team, La Liga. Costa Ricans in general take their football seriously but year in and year out Alajuela’s team is at or near the top.
Just outside of town are a number of interesting and fun places to visit, Zoo Ave and the Butterfly Farm. Zoo Ave is located in the town of La Garita and is a park with dozens of different native species of rare birds with a host of other animals. Their captive breeding program, which is involved in the breeding and re-introduction of endangered species ¡s extremely important to the local environment. The Butterfly farm in La Guacima de Alajuela is exactly that, a farm where they breed and grow dozens of different species of multicolored butterflies. Tours are available year round and show visitors every step in the butterfly’s complex and interesting lite cycle. If you have children, this is the perfect place to take them as it is interesting, educational and fun.
Bus service to and from San José is available 24 hours a day in large comfortable buses. Service between the town and the airport is equally convenient, with most hotels offering free pick-up and drop-off service. With it’s slightly higher temperature and cióse proximity to the international airport, Alajuela is an attractive central valley alternative for travelers.
In the hills just north of San Jose, on the slope of Barva Volcano, is the smallest of the provincial capitals, Heredia. With a population of just over 30,000 people, the city has a slower more mellow pace. As with many Latin towns founded during colonial times, 1706 in the case of Heredia, the central square dominates the life of its people. One of the nicest central parks in the country, it is filled with large towering trees, covered bandstand, impressive water fountain and plenty of benches. It is the perfect place to while away an afternoon playing checkers.
To the north and east of the park are two of the best remaining examples of colonial architecture in the entire country. To the east is the church, La Inmaculada Concepcion, and to the north is a colonial fortress know simply as ‘El Fortin’. Inmaculada’s weather worn and bare stone exterior belies an interior that is tastefully ornamented with high vaulted ceilings and a beautiful, stain glass window encircled dome above theater. El Fortin is essentially the last remaining turret from a later eighteenth century Spanish fortress and has become the symbol of the town. Heredia is home to the National University which is on the east side of town and is the second largest university in the country. Located on the campus are tree lined walkways and gently sloping hillsides is the Museo Zoo Marino in the biology department. The school definitely adds to the nightlife and atmosphere of the town with a number of small bars, restaurants and dance clubs in the area. To the west of town are some of the nicest and most expensive residential neighborhoods in all of Costa Rica.
Most of the wealth of the city and its surrounding area is directly attributable to coffee production. The slopes of Barva Volcano are littered with dozens of small and medium sized coffee plantations, or fincas as they are called in Spanish. Cafe Britt is a working finca, with daily tours and stage shows that explain in detail the way coffee is grown and produced. The stage show is mainly dedicated to the history of coffee and its importance to the culture and economy of the country.
Heredia is an easy day trip from San Jose with direct bus service back and forth 24 hours a day. Also, buses run to the surrounding mountain side communities and the neighboring provincial capital of Alajuela. Heredia is the closest thing in Costa Rica to an example of a Spanish colonial pueblo.
Cartago, founded in 1563 by Juan Vásquez de Coronado, was the capital of Costa Rica until 1823. The years following the regions secession from the Spanish empire in 1821, were turbulent times for all of Central America and it was no different in Costa Rica. Following a couple of years of struggle in which all four of Costa Rica’s major settlements, Cartago, San José, Heredia and Majuela vied for the right to be the capital of the new country, Cartago lost a brief but bloody civil war with San José. Therefore relinquishing its political leadership while at the same time remaining the religious and spiritual center of the country.
Cartago is the home of La Negrita, a small black statue of the Virgin Mary. As the story goes, a young girl, on August 2, 1635, was playing in a stream while her mother was washing clothes. On top of a rock she found the little statue and took it home. When her mother found out she was very angry and ordered her to take it back because the real owner was probably very upset. The little girl went to the box where she had hidden it and it was gone. The next day when they returned to the stream the statue was again on the same rock. The mother, upon finding it was very upset, thinking that her daughter had lied. Again they took the statue, this time with the intention of bringing it to the local priest. The next day when they went to get the statue to take it to the priest, it was gone again. They immediately ran down to the stream and there it was once more atop the rock.
This was taken as a message from God and a shrine and church were built on the site. The original church was destroyed in an earthquake in 1920 and the current church, La Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles was built six years later. The Basílica is in the Byzantine tradition pilgrimage of the faithful to the shrine. People from all over the country walk to Cartago ¡n order to pray to the statue and to ask for miracles. The walls of the main room of the shrine are lined with gifts left by those that have been cured by the power of the Negrita. Most of the trinkets are miniature metal versions, some in gold, of the body parts that have been cured.
The town is a half hour drive from San José and there is good bus service to and is probably the most unique church in the country. The north side of the church is the shrine to the Virgin Mary, on the very site where the statue was first discovered. So, on August 2nd of every year, there is a and from. Because the town sits at nearly 4,800 feet it is much cooler than the other central valley towns. So, take your sweater and umbrella and enjoy a very unique and picturesque town.