“If we don’t know the answer, we’ll invent it,” says a cheeky Vinicio, while Gladys giggles next to him. These two 20-something individuals are my Urban Adventure tour guides for the afternoon. It’s a beautiful, sunny day in downtown San Jose, Costa Rica and my skin is aching for some Vitamin D. I’m wearing shorts and a tank top even though it’s still morning and around 50 degrees Fahrenheit – everyone can tell I’m the Canadian. I’m in awe of Vinicio and Gladys’ energy at such an hour. I see pure passion in everything they introduce throughout the afternoon, as if they really do eat and breath the “pura vida” that Costa Rica has to offer. Both are students with big dreams in tourism and the arts in San Jose. Their excitement glows through their smiles as they mention our group of 12 is one of the biggest they’ve toured in a while. San Jose has become a layover city, tourists not really taking the time to adventure through its winding roads, with missing street names and hills that could give you a full glute workout as you ascend and descend through the vibrant city. I’m forever grateful to Google Maps for helping me even locate the tour's starting point at the corner of Calle 6 and Avenida Central - it’s quite the adventure to just find an address in this bustling city!
As the group gathers in the main market, Vinicio grabs our attention and says, “now that you see the market, let’s head in the opposite direction.” We all let out a small sigh of relief as we turn to walk away from the touristy market and towards a bunch of local fruit stands. On the way, we stop for a coffee at Café Trebol, a local spot since 1925, roasting local coffee beans with chocolate and nutty flavours in a charcoal roaster. I melt as I bring the coffee to my lips, feeling extremely grateful for having chosen Central America’s coffee capital for a winter escape. We sip our coffee and continue down the calle towards Mercado Borbon, a three story, cooperative market with unlimited fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs. The market is actually the first cooperative market of Central America, and all fruits and vegetables are purchased fresh each morning from the adjacent parking lot, where farmers come to sell at 5am each morning. The property was originally owned by a local family. When they tried to sell, the only offer was from a Chinese investor looking to build a shopping mall. The locals were not up for the change and decided to form the cooperative as a result, providing tenants with a large, rent free property, and locals a preserved piece of their cultural history.
At Mercado Borbon, we ate our weight in fruits, trying endemic goodies and fresh herbs, sipping water straight from green coconuts. The taste, simply incomparable to the fruits and vegetables that wind up in our grocery bags in North America. Allowing the glucose to fully develop and go to market within a week or two of harvesting, compared to shipping fruits 4 to 6 weeks before the sugars have had time to develop, makes such a difference in flavor. It really is such a shame to live so far north where fresh fruits are only available for a few months throughout the year.
As we lick our fingers, and begin to feel the early afternoon heat, we find shelter within Central Market, home to one of the oldest Cantina’s in San Jose, which came to be in 1860, 20 years before the market was formed in 1880. The market is quite spacious (and easy to get lost in). Onsite you’ll find all your daily needs, from fresh meats and cheeses, to florals and natural medicines, to mama’s cooking up fresh plates of gallo pinto. The grounds had originally been used as a sniper training field until the government shut down the Costa Rican military in 1948. Up until 1880, trade occurred on street corners and in squares around the city.
As we head to our lunch spot, we stop in to see the Post Office of San Jose, Correos de Costa Rica, a beautiful, French inspired building. It is so picturesque against the Banco Nacional building looming in the background, an interesting perspective on how architecture has evolved into such a concrete process, so boring compared to the art inspired European architecture pre-1900s. The Post Office is home to a few thousand (mostly unused) mailboxes that were once upon a time needed more than ever with the confusion that comes along with navigating a city missing street names. Vinicio tells us of his few friends who he believes are single handedly keeping the post service of San Jose alive, mailing friends overseas on a weekly basis to keep the tradition and a piece of San Jose’s history and culture. We giggle as he recalls growing up in a home with no real address, getting free pizzas when Domino’s Pizza came to town, offering 30 minutes delivery or free.
Just as the sun begins to beat down, we stop at a nearby soda for a beverage and lunch. I indulge in a Pinolillo, a traditional Costa Rican and Nicaraguan toasted corn and cocoa drink. Our group of 12, who are now the best of friends (of course!), dig into a big plate of sweet, corn tortillas with natilla, an extremely fresh and heavenly homemade sour cream, accompanied by gallo pinto, fresh eggs and some kickin’ hot sauce.
I take a walk after lunch and feel so inspired by how much the city has to offer, surprised by the negativity that travelers often share about San Jose, yet haven’t taken the time to get to know the cultural haven. As I walk south to discover the other side of the city, I find myself in China Town, and most definitely one of the smallest China Town’s I’d ever seen! This leads me on a small shopping excursion, purchasing handcrafted, woven sandals, and vegan sweets at a corner bakery serving up cinnamon buns and fresh vegan breads.
I enjoy people watching as I wait for my evening tour to start: San Jose by Night. I am thrilled to be introduced to a new guide, Eric Gomez, Manager of the San Jose Urban Adventures office. I feel very assured by the incredible presence of the organization here in the city and love that Eric was so positive and excited to lead a tour even after already completing a full day of work. Our small group of three is led through the markets then off to an incredible artisan market in another part of the city I had yet to explore. It seems there is something exciting to discover at every turn!
As the sun begins to descend, we scroll through streets of incredible politically-themed graffiti and Parque Nacional, displaying life-size sculptures and unique art pieces curated by local artists. The city’s street lights begin to turn on one by one, and we continue our evening scroll into Barrio Amon, a former French, high society area built in 1910. It’s just outside the core of San Jose and already feels like a suburb, with minimal people and cars passing by. We stop at a beautiful old home on the corner of Calle 3A and Avenida 11. We are greeted by a lovely gentleman outside awaiting our arrival, who escorts us into the house. Inside we are surrounded by a gorgeous bar and seating area with a living wall and the greenest of green planters hanging from the ceiling. Wine glasses sparkle from the light of the projector, displaying black and white short films like Sylvester the Cat and Charlie Chaplin onto the brick wall of the main dining room. I instantly spring from my seat as Restaurante Silvestre is just too tempting to explore. As my curiosity takes me down a floor, where gas lamps and the original floor are still prevalent in the décor, I run into the young chef of the gorgeous space, Santiago Fernandez Benedetto. He tells me his story of obtaining the property and the ongoing renovations due to weather and standard issues that arise when opening a new restaurant in the city. As he explains their farm to table menu, all food items being sourced from within 100 kilometres, I am literally jumping for joy in front of him, ecstatic to hear of such incredible young people in the city incorporating economic and environmental responsibility into the hospitality and tourism industry. My meal: a four-course dinner with red wine, including a delicious Nicaraguan-style vegetarian dish and deconstructed lemon meringue for dessert.
As I walk back to my Airbnb in the downtown core, I am in disbelief by how much I have overeaten and how incredibly safe I feel walking alone in the not-so-busy streets of San Jose by night. I’m glowing from such an incredible day filled with activities I would not have been able to find without the help of Urban Adventures. I’ve made new friends, eaten mouth-watering foods, explored unique parts of the city, and been given an opportunity to learn about the culture and heritage of San Jose.
As I lay on the floor of my Airbnb hoping digestion will happen soon, I hear salsa music play outside my window. I dance into my pajamas and into bed.
Urban Adventures offers unique day trips around the globe, with a speciality focus on supporting independent artists through their Made In collection, and tours focused on local impact through their In Focus collection. Whether you’re looking to eat, shop, meet new people or get active in the city, check out Urban Adventures in 96 countries!
And if you're headed to Costa Rica, stop by and say hi to the San Jose team!