A Glimpse of San Jose

Shortly after I landed in San Jose, Costa Rica, I realized how flawed my planning was. I knew there was a shuttle to the Best Western in downtown San Jose where I planned to spend the night. But I hadn’t taken the time to figure out where to find it, when it would arrive, and whether it ran on a regular schedule. I realized that I might be standing in that airport for hours, or that the shuttle might pass right by since I didn’t know a word of Spanish and there was very little English that I could see.

Luckily, I’d made a friend on the airplane and we saw each other again outside as she met her mother and started toward the parking garage. She called the hotel for me and found out that the shuttle would arrive any minute. It did, and I was off, waving good-bye to her from the window with her phone number and email address pressed into the palm of my other hand.

The driver did not talk to me, but radioed the hotel with my name. We careened through busy streets of erratic traffic and then into the downtown area, bursting with life and pedestrians and all sorts of storefronts that reminded me of my first Central American trip. I loved it.

The driver dropped me off and pointed down the streets. “No alone.”
I nodded. Understood. As a woman traveling alone, I knew to be cautious.

A security guard chatted with the driver briefly and opened the door for me. As I passed into the lobby, he repeated, “Senora, do not go out alone at night.” I nodded. I wouldn’t. But now, I started to worry that I might not see anything but the inside of the hotel.

The desk clerk said that I could walk around during the day, but not to walk alone at night. It was only 6:00pm. Disappointed, I decided that I was in for the night. I did lounge by the pool, which was in the center of the hotel instead of outside, but then I went upstairs to my room and looked out over the balcony at the sheet metal roofs and winding dirt roads behind the motel that I couldn’t wander out and explore.

A rooster kept me up most of the night. It reminded me of the roosters in Haiti, though the Haitian roosters must have liked their sleep more than the Costa Rican variety. After the continental breakfast, I headed outside to explore. It was barely morning, but surely it was safe. I couldn’t stay cooped up forever.

The streets were dirty and the traffic was treacherous. I walked the back streets where locals waited for buses. I held my purse to me and wandered on, thinking I might at least find a souvenir, but I didn’t come across any stores. Or at least, I don’t think I did. Instead I walked and walked until I had blisters on my feet. I saw a school and what I think might have been a museum. I walked through neighborhoods using a hostel as my touchstone. It was the only building I could differentiate from the others. I knew how to get back to the hotel from there.

Finally, done exploring, I decided to see the inside of the hostel before I went back “home.” I thought maybe one day I’d revisit San Jose and perhaps stay in a hostel and meet other people. But it wouldn’t be this one. The manager let me in and showed me the accommodations. The rooms were stripped bare of anything but a set of bunk beds and a table. $10/night, You’d have plenty of room to stretch out; the place was bare, except for piles of dog poop on the floor. Fresh ones.

I thanked him and left, then headed back to the hotel. I stood on the balcony a little while longer and watched life unfold before me as people returned home for the evening. Though I did and saw nothing of consequence that day, I felt like I saw San Jose, Costa Rica. Or at least, the part I’d been warned not to explore: life on the back roads where houses are shacks and the roofs are rust. I never felt unsafe, but knew I needed to proceed with caution. Sometimes I can’t seem to help myself; I need to see how other people live. After all, isn’t that why we travel in the first place?

Do you go out and explore even when you’ve been warned not to?

16 responses to “A Glimpse of San Jose

  1. We had a trip to Costa Rica planned a few years ago, but that was also the same year I left my full-time job to focus on writing and teaching. Naturally, we had to cancel but I had researched the whole thing and I was pretty bummed.

    There are definitely some splotchy areas there, so I’m glad you used caution. But like you, if it’s daylight, I do some real exploring and keep alert. I prefer life outside of the tourist areas.

  2. Dog poop in the rooms, not exactly the hotel amenities I’m looking for, haha! We’re planning on going to CR in a couple of years as we have some family friends who own a surf school there (can’t remember where right now, darn).

    • Oh, how fun!!
      The hostel manager seemed completely unconcerned by the piles of poop on the floor. But he wasn’t exactly hospitable, anyway. More like he could care less if I, or anyone else, stayed there. The place was completely deserted.

  3. We went to Costa Rica last year. The hotel we stayed in was apparently one of the best there was, but it was out of the city. We did go for awlak around in the early evening, but there was nothing much of interest. Thankfully we only stayed there for one night at the beginning of the tour and one night towards the end. I wouldn’t want to go to San Jose again.

  4. I’m glad you got out to explore a little bit. It would’ve been frustrating otherwise. But I know what you mean re the tension between wanting to check out the local scene and heeding advice as to which places not to venture into alone. Hmmm fresh dog poop … yeah, maybe not that hostel !

  5. WONDERFUL! An amazing read, Juliann. This is how I’ve lived my childhood and teenage days. It is difficult to even pull out my camera in a very urban territory like that. The things you’ve seen must have been very different but very nice.
    I once wandered around a very ghetto street in LA. I was scared for my dear life.

    • Wow. That took guts. I think it’s much scarier when you venture into an area you know is dangerous. Or at least to me, it feels more dangerous when it’s close to home and I know what I’m really up against. I think in places like San Jose, ignorance is bliss. I wouldn’t wander through LA. You are brave.

  6. I believe that parts of Costa Rica are fabulous, but clearly not the capital. As a six-foot bloke I suppose I’d have fewer concerns but I’d still exercise a bit of common sense if in a strange city.

  7. I do, but never after dark when I have been warned it might be unsafe.
    I helped our grandson with a Model UN project on Costa Rica that made me visualise a progressive country vastly ahead of the rest of Latin America! Your account of the capital is disappointing.

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