Costa Rica’s capital city, San José, isn’t that great. It’s gritty, grimy, and good for only a few days. There are a few things to do to keep you busy before you move on to nicer parts of the country. From the glistening gold and jade museums to the forward-thinking National Center of Art & Culture, San Jose can give you a historical overview of the country. Food and accommodation is reasonably priced and there are a lot of good day trips from the city. Overall though, if you plan to spend more than 3 days here, that’s too long.
Hostel prices – Expect to pay between $10-15 USD per night for a dorm and upwards of $20 USD for a single.
Budget hotel prices – There are plenty of budget hotels in San José with prices starting as low as $5 USD, but $45 USD is more realistic for a place in the city center.
Average cost of food – Meals in restaurants typically cost between $3-11 USD, but by eating at ‘sodas’ (family run small restaurants) you can get a meal and drink for $3-6 USD. Fast food has become very widespread in recent years, and if you need your McDonald’s fix, you’ll spend about $7 USD. (Surprisingly, Taco Bell is really popular in the city!)
Transportation costs – All the major attractions in the city are within walking distance of each other., but if you need a ride, taxi fares begin at about $1.20 USD and increase by $0.20 USD per mile – it will rarely cost more than $5 USD to get around the city center. However, if you want to go to the outskirts of town, be prepared to pay around $14 USD. A trip to the airport is about $25 USD. Buses around the city are cheap with fares usually costing less than $1 USD.
Money Saving Tips
Student cards – Many attractions offer reduced admission rates for students with a valid student card. If you are a student, make sure you bring your to take advantage of the deals.
Skip taxis - Downtown San Jose is very walkable – even parts on the edge aren’t more than a 30 minute walk.
Eat at the Mercado Central - If you want to save money on food, eat at the central market. The food is cheaper than most other places in the city center and delicious. You can find meals starting at only $3 USD.
Top Things to See and Do
National Center of Art & Culture – This sprawling museum occupies an entire block and houses the offices of the Cultural Ministry, several performing-arts centers, and the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design where you can see the work of cutting edge Costa Rican and Central American artists. This is also the place to see contemporary dance and theatre.
The Gold Museum – The ‘Museo del Oro’ is part of a three story basement complex just off the Plaza de la Cultura. The museum has an extensive display of Pre-Columbian gold, as well as hundreds of exquisite glittering pieces to admire. Also included in your admission price is a numismatic museum featuring rare coins and bills, as well as an art gallery.
Costa Rican Art Museum – This art deco museum houses a permanent display of 3,200 national treasures which span the last two centuries. Traveling exhibits fill the remaining side galleries. There is also a garden of sculptures with works from Francisco Zuniga, Jorge Jimenez, and others. Many visitors combine a day of walking round the lush grounds of Sabana Park with a trip to the museum.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens – La Paz is one of the most popular day tours you can take from the city. Aside from the waterfalls, there’s also an aviary, hummingbird garden, butterfly garden, reptiles, and big cats. Unfortunately the area was damaged by a 6.4 earthquake in January 2009, and a couple of trails were lost to landslides, but the gardens are finally back to their magnificent selves after a lengthy repair program.
Jade Museum - The Jade Museum is located on the 11th floor of the National Insurance Building housing the world’s largest collection of Pre-Columbian jade with pieces dating from 500 BC-800 AD. Thanks to recent lighting fixture upgrades, you’ll see them in all their glory. The museum also offers an excellent view over San José and the Central Valley.
Doka Coffee Tour – Doka is a huge (4000 acre) working coffee plantation and offers visitors the chance to experience every step of the coffee making process. Many people combine a trip to the plantation with a day trip to the Poas Volcano.
Canopy tours – Like most other Central American countries, Costa Rica is covered in dense rainforest terrain. A canopy tour involves gliding over the trees on a zip wire and is an exhilarating experience which offers you the rare chance to see the most active part of the rainforest – the upper tenth of the trees.
Mercado Central – The Central Market is found in a bright yellow building on the Avenue Central – you can’t miss it. Buy your souvenirs or check out local food among the hundreds of colorful stalls. I don’t like the shopping here, but if you want to eat delicious, local food, you can’t leave this city without visiting it. Make sure you know Spanish if you want to bargain, or you won’t get any deals.
Poas Volcano - The best day trip out of the city, this volcano isn’t active anymore but instead features a sulfur water filled caldera. The water is so still and aquamarine, you almost think it’s fake like a painting. The area has some good hiking trails and will get you pictures that make your friends’ jaws drop.
Hike through Chirripo National Park - If you’re an avid hiker or up for a challenge, consider booking a multi-day trek through Chirripo National Park. This park lies in the middle of the Talamanca mountain range and will give you great exposure to the rainforest environment. Pack well, and be prepared and safe for unexpected conditions.
Explore the Orosi River Valley – If you need to get out of the city, consider taking a day trip to the Orosi River Valley, one of the most beautiful river valleys in the country. There are lots of little villages to explore along the way, and the river is very picturesque, making the area perfect for a lovely afternoon walk.
Bungee jump - Sure, maybe you’ve jumped off bridges before, but have you ever jumped off a bridge into the middle of the rainforest? Tropical Bungee Jump is located at the Colorado River in Naranjo, and offers an 260 foot bungee jump. The company offers round trip transportation from San Jose.
Admire Costa Rica’s art – A small (but free!) museum, the Museo de Arte Costarricense is located at the edge of Parque la Sabana. It offers a variety of permanent and temporary exhibitions of national and international artists. Most of the works inside are paintings, but there are also some interesting sculptures on the museum grounds.