- Summary: Costa Rican capital city; cultural center and a gateway to excellent day trips.
- Landscape: City, Mountains
- Attractions: Craft & Artisan Markets, Gold Museum, Jade Museum, National Theater
- Activities: Live Theater, Shopping
- Caters to: Budget Travelers, Culture Aficionados, Day Trippers
- Quick Facts: 12 miles from the Juan Santamaria International Airport ; 3,809 feet above sea level ; Temperate days and cool evenings ; 68-72 F
San Jose Snapshot
The city of San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica and the capital of San Jose province. Its proximity to Juan Santamaria International Airport, the country's largest, makes the city a frequent stopover for visitors and travelers. Perhaps due to this status as a forced destination, San Jose has garnered unfair criticism from those expecting beaches, palm trees and tropical living. In contrast, the mountainous city is lively and animated, with much to offer its visitors.read more close
San Jose is the hub of Costa Rican life; approximately two-thirds of the country's population lives in the greater metropolitan area, which is reportedly the most heavily populated in Central America. The city's busy nature is underscored by its bustling streets, which are filled with honking cars, painted public buses, weaving motorcycles and scooters, huge trucks and very wary pedestrians. Despite the population density, most city residents live in single-family homes, and few buildings are more than three or four stories high.
San Jose's downtown is a surprising mix of wealthy and poor, and expensive shops and boutique hotels often share the pavement with small wares vendors and musicians who serenade passersby for their spare change. Modern touches are everywhere – WiFi (wireless Internet) stickers decorate shop doors, and electronics stores are a dime a dozen – but San Jose retains its traditional charm with adobe-and-wood homes, brick-lined pedestrian streets and grand theaters.
Nestled in a lush valley set alongside Costa Rica's Cordillera Central, or Central Mountain Range, San Jose has the high altitude and moderate climate ideal for agriculture. When the city was established in 1737, most area residents farmed fruits, vegetables and the ever-popular coffee plant, which produces the tastiest beans in mountainous, shady conditions like those of San Jose.
The town began its modern life as "Villanueva de la Boca del Monte del Valle de Abra" (New Village of the Mountain's Mouth in the Open Valley), a mouthful even in those days. Soon, the name was changed to the shorter and more religious San Jose, honoring Joseph, the city's patron saint.
The newly-founded town soon attracted the valley's scattered residents, and San Jose began to grow and develop. By the end of the 18th century, the city had dominated Costa Rica's tobacco and coffee production, and profits lined the pockets of both the city's elite and the government. Military quarters, a beautiful cathedral, developed parks, a mint and other buildings were constructed, visual symbols of the town's growth and success.
In October 1821, after many years of colonial rule, the Spanish withdrew from Central America. Though Costa Rica's largest cities met to sign a constitution, which was based on the 1812 Spanish constitution, the towns remained divided and at odds. A civil war ensued, and on April 5, 1823, San Jose defeated Cartago at the Battle of Ochomongo, and was declared Costa Rica's new capital city.
San Jose's growing prominence and political power bred jealousy and resentment. In an effort to avoid further bloodshed, the city's leaders offered to rotate the national capital between Alajuela, Cartago, Heredia and San Jose, but the olive branch suggestion was insufficient. In March 1835, the other three cities banded together to attack San Jose and overthrow its government in La Guerra de la Liga, or the Battle of the League. Despite its rivals' best efforts, San Jose once again emerged victorious, and has remained Costa Rica's capital ever since.
By the mid-1800s, most of San Jose's political problems were behind it, and the city focused on expanding trade and developing itself as a political, economic and cultural center. The coffee industry continued to produce significant profits and, like many modern-day Costa Ricans, San Jose's new middle class devoted much of their wealth and time to promoting social good. Brick roads replaced muddy paths, tramways were built, kerosene lamps lit the streets, and San Jose developed into a bustling and modern city. In fact, the small Costa Rican capital was the third city in the world to install public electric lighting, and one of the first to develop a public telephone system.
Though much of the city's classic and colonial architecture has been destroyed by earthquakes, San Jose remains proud of its history and struggles. It is a modern and vibrant Central American city, with park-lined streets, historical and cultural museums, and live cultural events that can be enjoyed year-round.