San José, Costa Rica

We weren’t even sure if we’d get to San José, as Volcan Turrialba had started to erupt just 30 miles from the airport, throwing ash and smoke a mile into the air, covering the surrounding area and potentially blocking our flight path.

When we arrived at the check-in desk at Heathrow, the woman working there seemed baffled, and said she didn’t even know they had volcanoes in Costa Rica. We hoped she wasn’t flying the plane.

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San José is described in guidebooks as everything from a ‘necessary pitstop’ to a ‘chaotic jumble of cars, buses, buildings, and people’. While its not going to win any prizes for architecture, it’s not a bad place to spend a day. We had a nice leisurely Sunday wandering through the city, past street performers, markets and bizarrely, hundreds of shoe shops. I’m not sure why they get through so many shoes in Costa Rica.

The highlight was in the west of town, where the former international airport terminal has been converted into a museum of Costa Rican art, and the land around it expanded into a park. The area was full of families having BBQs, playing sports and relaxing in the sun. We had a little wander by the lake, until a teenager starting walking towards is with a boa constrictor around her neck. We decided that was a good time to head in the opposite direction.

 

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Barrio Amón and Barrio Otoya in the north of San José are home to the most wonderful selection of dilapidated mansions. In the early 1900s, there was a coffee boom which saw the ‘coffee barons’ come into a lot of money. They built extravagant, colonial mansions and lived there in style. In the following years, they have been joined by a collection of art deco and more modern houses. We walked through the district, stepping over cracked pavements where the roots of hundreds of towering weeds were beginning to reclaim the area. In some areas, enterprising locals had converted small areas of the mansions into coffee shops, but there’s still an overwhelming sense of decay and faded glamour. I loved it.

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In the evening, we headed out to a steak house that had been recommended. It was a warm evening, so we decided a walk would be nice. After a minute or so of walking, we quickly realised that the streets were completely deserted. Not just quiet, but empty. The only movement came from shady figures lurking in doorways, and the occasional red and blue illumination of the street by a passing armoured police car. It dawned on us that wandering around a Central American capital at night probably wasn’t the safest activity to start a holiday, so we got an Uber instead. However much criticism Uber gets in London, it’s ideal abroad – you don’t have to speak the language or have any foreign currency, and you can trace where the driver is taking you.

I was having a wander around the hotel garden just before leaving for Tortuguero, when I noticed something strange. It wasn’t enough to be noticeable at first glance, but the closer you looked, you could everything was dusted with a thin layer of volcanic ash. Every leaf, every flower was covered in a fine grey powder. It might not have affected our arrival in the country, but we can confirm to the woman on the check-in desk that there certainly are volcanoes in Costa Rica.


We stayed in: Hotel Aranjuez (hotelaranjuez.com)
We commandeered an Uber to eat at: La Esquina de Buenos Aires (lonelyplanet.com)
We visited the: Museo de Arte Costarricense (musarco.go.cr)

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