San José has been the capital of Costa Rica and the seat of its democratic government since 1823. Nestled high in the Central Valley (1,253 meters/3,770 feet), between green volcanic mountain ranges, the metropolitan city of about one million people is oriented east and west, surrounded by suburbs that cling to the gentle foothills. The nearby town of Escazú, southwest of the city off the autopista, is home to the largest population of North Americans living in Costa Rica, either full-time or part-time, and is consequently more upscale than San José’s downtown or other suburbs.
Unlike other Central American capitals, San José is not a very colonial city, although the heart of the historic center features several beautiful old buildings. It didn’t become a decent-sized city until relatively late in the 1800s, long past the colonial era, and had a modern building boom in the 1950s and 60s. Because of its economic success from coffee exports, San José became the second city in the Americas to install electricity (1884). At its heart are the National Theater, Plaza de la Cultura, Parque Central, the Cathedral and Gold Museum, which are centered in a fourblock area with a long pedestrian-only shopping walkway bisecting the middle of downtown.
Despite the lack of stone and plaster colonial ambiance, many of San José’s buildings boast a unique and charming architectural style known as “Caribbean Victorian.” Just beyond the modern office high-rises are wood-framed clapboard houses built at the turn of the century. Graceful porticos and wrap-around verandas distinguish these appealing homes (some converted to offices or small hotels) painted in soft pastels. Many have the original metal roofs that sound rat-tat-tat in the rain.
San José is a very cosmopolitan capital with many welcoming qualities. Near-perfect weather is a big attraction to visitors as well as expatriates who call the Central Valley home. Some 250,000 foreigners, mostly North Americans, live in Costa Rica full time. The temperature is fairly consistent between 70 and 75°F. Occasional Northerlies, cold fronts, call for a jacket or sweater at night. The rainy season, when late afternoons and evenings bring showers, lasts from May to October, mas o menos.
As the cultural heart of the nation, San José is home to several theater groups, excellent museums, parks, a national symphony, cinemas and universities. It is also host to nightclubs, casinos, discos and fine restaurants. Residents of San José are known as Josefinos.
On the down side, the city is often crowded, dirty, noisy, ugly and disagreeable. It may take some getting used to – some people hate it, but the longer you stay, the more San José grows on you.
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