San Jose, Costa Rica, is the biggest city in the country and it has the largest population as well. I love spending time in this beautiful city. It’s an incredibly exciting and popular vacation destination for expats and tourists alike. The capital city is named after St. Joseph and it’s found directly in the heart of this beautiful country. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the proud inhabitants of San Jose wouldn’t call anywhere else home.
Surprisingly, this city is incredibly modern when compared to other Central American capitals, which seems hard for tourists to believe but I’m telling you the truth, and it isn’t riddled with poverty. The business scene is thriving and the cultural atmosphere is flourishing as well. The Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) is one of two international airports located in San Jose. This guide will fill you in on everything you need to know about the capital of Costa Rica.
More About the Capital of Costa Rica
Layout & Geography
The city of San Jose is found smack dab in the middle of the Central Valley in Costa Rica. The area is made up of a flat, broad plain. It rests at an altitude of 800-1500 m well above sea level. The Central Valley geography, the vibrant soil fueled by nearby volcanoes, and more make this a phenomenal location for a city. Add up these factors and it isn’t very shocking to learn that San Jose has grown to become one of the most important places in all of Costa Rica.
Eleven districts make up San Jose, which might seem a bit confusing to the newbies but it’s easy to figure out. If I can figure it out then anybody can. Each individual district is split up into barrios or neighborhoods, which is necessary for administrative reasons. Downtown San Jose is stretched across four different districts including Carmen, Merced, Hospital, and Cathedral. The communities and the surrounding area mostly consist of residential properties. Nevertheless, you can still find significant buildings found along the outer neighborhoods. For example, the University of Costa Rica is in San Pedro, and the presidential house is situated within Zapote.
San Jose: The Center of the City
There is a large avenue in the center of San Jose, which the entire city is built around. This area is known as Paseo Colon or Avenida 2, depending where you happen to be on the street at the time. On one end, you’ll discover Sabana Metropolitan Park, which is a huge green space and the largest of its kind in the entire city. On the same side of the street, you’ll also find lots of diplomatic buildings and incredibly large businesses. The main city hospital is also located over here. As you go further down the block you’ll run into the oldest section of the city, in which you can find the Cathedral and San Jose’s Central Plaza located right where the street runs into Alfredo Vollo Street.
The remainder of the city center is organized via a grid pattern around the large avenue. After being here for nearly 30 years, I can tell you that this part of the city is awesome because it’s filled with so many great hotels, museums, and more shops than your heart could desire.
You’ll never get lost roaming around the city because the avenues and streets are all numbered, which makes it very easy to understand, even though in my years here I’ve noticed that it isn’t very well marked. So, for those brand-new to the city, it may seem a little tricky to get around in the beginning. And since this city has expanded rapidly over the years, the grid pattern is less reliable than at other times, but it’s easy enough for me to navigate so it shouldn’t be too difficult for you as well.
The Beautiful People Living in the Costa Rica Capital
The amazing people are one of my favorite reasons to live in the Costa Rica capital, which happens to be home to more than 2 million people. It’s also home to roughly 30% of Costa Rica’s entire population. On the whole, the population is a microcosm of the country. Every region in Costa Rica is well represented by its inhabitants. The bulk of the people are either mestizo (a Spanish/indigenous ancestry mix), but there are also aboriginal and black populations represented in this part of the country as well. It’s even home to Arab and Chinese communities, although they are much smaller than the other groups. Lastly, North American and European expats also call San Jose their home.
There are many famous people from San Jose, the nation’s capital. A number of Costa Rica’s presidents were born here or they moved here after taking office. A number of actors and singers have also called San Jose their home. The most famous of all is Giannina Facio, who many of you may recognize from the movies Black Hawk Down and Gladiator. She’s amazing and I happen to love both of these movies. Many top sports stars also call San Jose home including Brian Ruiz, Joel Campbell, and Paolo Wanchope.
Costa Rica History: Cartago, the First Costa Rican Capital
Did you know that the capital of Costa Rica was founded in 1738? It was created to act as an administrative center of the Spanish Empire, which was scattered all about. When it first began, the country was ruled from Guatemala and it was considered a backwater country. Due to this coincidence, San Jose is one of the youngest capitals in Latin America. And for a long time this region was considered unimportant even after it gained independence. Cartago was Costa Rica’s first capital. They eventually moved the capital to San Jose because in contrast to Cartago, it was in support of a Republican system. Cartago wanted to reunite and become a member of the Mexican Empire again. San Jose became Costa Rica’s capital in 1823. But the city wasn’t officially part of an independent nation until 1837 when the Federal Republic of Central America finally disbanded.
At this stage of the game, the city of San Jose began developing along with the country as a whole, which grew economically and became one of Central America’s most prosperous nations. In the 20th century, at the very beginning, there was a population boom and the area became a critical hub for commercial prosperity. Throughout history, San Jose was lucky enough to be blessed with stability and peace. This is hard to believe when compared to the capitals and other neighboring countries. There were two periods of violence in the 1900s during times of political upheaval. During these periods, two Costa Rican dictators were deposed.
San Jose’s Landmarks
San Jose is a youthful, modern city. It doesn’t appear to have a rich history like many other Latin American cities. Nevertheless, after inspecting it closer, I can tell you that there are some visible attractions and interesting landmarks. For example, the Cathedral dates all the way back to 1871. It’s the perfect example of an incredibly beautiful building in the nation’s capital. There’s much more history to discover in Barrio Amon, which has grand mansions and it’s one of the oldest neighborhoods in the entire city.
The Central Valley climate makes the weather very pleasant in San Jose. There are many uniform parks to enjoy the gorgeous spring-like weather that exists all year round. Sabana Metropolitan Park is the biggest of its kind and it shares a border with the national soccer stadium and a museum. Another exciting destination is known as Parque Nacional. And if you’re looking for a place to relax, check out Parque de La Paz, which happens to be a personal favorite of mine. Finally, if you want a wilderness Park experience, I highly recommend visiting Santa Ana Conservation Centre.
San Jose Theatres & Museums
San Jose is represented by other local landmarks including theaters and museums. You can find many of them around the city center. They are some of the most impressive buildings in the entire area, which I happen to love looking at. If you’re looking to learn about indigenous culture, art, or history, you’ll find a museum for it in this area. The National Museum is one of the best and exhibits beautiful pieces of the history of Costa Rica. In fact, the building itself is a part of its history because it’s made of an old Fort. There are bullet holes that go way back to the country’s civil war. If you love theater, the National Theatre is an amazing place, and the exterior looks similar to a palace, which makes it a beautiful sight to behold. Lastly, the Jade Museum is the perfect place to visit to learn Central American and Costa Rican history.
San Jose’s Suburbs
I like to visit the many suburbs that surround San Jose including Heredia, Cartago, and Alajuela. In fact, the Juan Santamaria International Airport is located in Alajuela. The Free Trade Zones exist in several places, they are a vital part of the economy, and they are growing rapidly. Lots of international companies have provided Ticos with hundreds of jobs and it’s fantastic for the community.
San Jose Day Trips
Are you thinking about taking a Costa Rican vacation? There are several things to do including hiking day trips, visiting the nearby coffee plantation, or checking out the local volcanoes including Irazu Volcano and Poas Volcano. While you’re here, remember to visit the Sanatorium, which I can say from personal experience is freaking scary as hell! Finally, if you’ve ever wanted to swim beneath a waterfall, then you hit the jackpot, my friend. There are waterfall day trips leaving from San Jose several times a day. The best places to visit are La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Los Chorros, and Bajos del Toro, so don’t hesitate to make reservations right away. You’re going to love it here!