Ins and outs

Air

San José's modern
Juan Santamaría International Airport
is 16 km northwest of the city centre on the outskirts of the town of Alajuela. The airport has international and domestic connections. After baggage reclaim and customs a tourist desk has supplies of basic maps and a selection of brochures. The desk can book accommodation and arrange transport to the city if required. There is an ATM machine, and a small bank for changing currency and travellers' cheques and several car rental agencies. Airport services close to check-in and the departure area include currency exchange, bank ATMs, a few small shops, a café and a restaurant. Beyond passport control there are a few cafés, a newsagent, a well-stocked perfumery and drink store. There are also a couple of well-stocked gift shops.

Transport for the 30-minute journey to San José downtown is easiest with one of the red taxis that greet international flights fixed fare, pre-payment from the booth. You can book in advance if you're really keen at www.taxiaeropuerto.com. A cheaper option is to take one of the regular local buses from the main road outside the terminal building just beyond the line of taxis. If you don't know exactly where your hotel is or if you arrive at night the simplest and safest option is to get a taxi. If travelling on your own, look for other travellers who may be happy to double up and share the cost.

Bus

San José has very good local, national and international bus connections. National buses provide connections throughout the country, serving most popular destinations directly. International buses link the whole of Central America from Panama to Mexico. The standard of bus varies greatly ranging from the shell of a bus with plastic seats to a comfortable air-conditioned luxury 'liner', sometimes fitted with TV and video. If your destination is off the main routes, expect to travel in a beaten up old vehicle.

Getting around

Central San José conforms to the extended grid system building outwards from two main streets that cross in the centre of the city - Avenida Central and Calle Central. Avenues run west to east, with the odd numbers (Avenida 1, Avenida 3, etc) north of Calle Central and even numbers (Avenida 2, Avenida 4, etc) to the south. Likewise, the streets or
calles
are numbered odd to the east of the city and even to the west.

On foot

Central San José is easy to explore on foot - most places of interest are close to the centre. Joining the general mêlée, you can bump and grind your way through the chaos or stroll at leisure. With the simplicity of the street layout, if you're lost just head back towards the lower numbered streets and you end up in the centre.

But hazards do exist. The streets of capital cities are rarely paved with gold, but in parts of San José they are barely paved at all. This is not a warning to watch out for the occasional raised or cracked paving slab, it is serious advice about looking where you are walking. Slabs stick up at shin-cracking angles and in some places they're missing completely, revealing precipitous drops to the drainage system below. Keep your eyes down while walking and stop when you want to look around (look on it as good training for jungle walks).

A second hazard, not that peculiar to San José, is the traffic. Crossing the roads is safest at pedestrian crossings which conform to the standard green man code (you'll be pushing your luck if you leave the kerb on anything but green). A complicated one-way system adds to the confusion, so when crossing roads the simple rule is to watch the vehicles, even if it is a pedestrian crossing. While courtesy does exist, few drivers at the lights hang around unnecessarily.

Bus

An extensive service covers the surrounding districts and suburbs of the city (cost 80-225 colones - try and have change ready). While buses can be a handy way of travelling longer distances around the city, snail-like paces are common, especially at rush hour. Once you get the hang of a few basic routes, judicious use of buses can be very convenient, but as a general rule unless weighed down with luggage, or late for an appointment (in which case consider a taxi), it's probably worth walking any distance up to 20 blocks or so. As ever, warnings related to busy places hold true. Pickpockets and bagsnatchers love cramped settings so take care.

Taxi

With over 7500 cabs cruising the streets, taxis are a quick and efficient way of moving around the city. Official red cabs are marked with a yellow triangle on the side and equipped with meters or
marías
that should be used for all journeys within the metropolitan district. Although meters are generally used if you're travelling with a
Tico
, visitors on their own often find them 'broken'. But taxi drivers know their patch and once you've made friends, they're an invaluable asset. On the whole, drivers are fair but get a rough idea of the cost before setting off.

Orientation and information

Centred on the
Plaza de la Cultura
, San José has little by way of geography or history to help newcomers get their bearings. The most useful locator is
Avenida Central
which for the course of its length draws a neat horizontal line through the city map. En route it guides you by, or pretty close to, the majority of the city's attractions from the streetwise banter of the
Mercado Central
in the west to the formal governmental chaos of the
National Assembly
to the east.

A little further afield, the districts of
Barrio Amón
and
Otoya
to the northeast transport you to a world built on coffee wealth where once-common colonial splendour now stands more as a monument to grand living and architectural extravagance.

The
ICT (Instituto Costarricense de Turismo)
, www.visitcostarica.com, has an efficient and helpful tourist office below the Plaza de la Cultura (in addition to
the information desk at Juan Santamaría International Airport). The staff can help with general information and maps, and assist with specific inquiries and problems. Other good sources of information are the numerous tour operators scattered throughout the city. While some may give you the hard sell, others are happy to provide the latest information on availability and accessibility.

Best time to visit

The best time to visit San José is from December to April when you are guaranteed clear skies and very little rain. At other times of year, trips out to the surrounding volcanoes may be eerie but ultimately disappointing because the peaks are often completely covered in cloud if you don't make an early start. The capital enjoys a comfortable climate throughout the year with temperatures fluctuating around the 20°C (68°F) mark by just a few degrees. The mildest time of year is January and February (15-23°C/59-73°F). By May the hottest weather is on its way but the temperatures have tweaked only slightly higher to 18-26°C (64-79°F). In essence you may want a jumper for early mornings, evenings and late nights, but by day a shirt is ideal. Rainfall, however, which becomes a regular occurrence from May to November, changes the situation dramatically. The rainfall is rarely permanent, and tends towards intense, torrential downpours that last a few hours.
Josefinos
prefer the umbrella to the raincoat as protection - vendors of cheap
paraguas
come out of the shadows when the rainfall begins. Get one and join in!

Festivals
and celebrations are held throughout the year in the Plaza de la Cultura but the single greatest festival in the capital is 15 September, Independence Day, when costumed parades move down the street, to the rhythm of marching bands.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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