“Be sure to check out Barrio Escalante!”
I’ve been saying this to people ever since my last trip to Costa Rica.
When you take surf trips, or really any trips to Costa Rica, you rarely hear anything from the other travelers you meet about their time in San Jose.
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The reality is that most don’t have anything to say because they didn’t spend any time in San Jose, or if they did it was minimized to a hotel at the Best Western the night before an early flight out.
Since the Liberia airport opened up in 2012 and gave close access to all of the amazing surf to be had on the Guanacaste Peninsula, many surfers traveling to Costa Rica don’t even fly into San Jose anymore.
I mean, being in Tamarindo within an hour or so of landing is a pretty efficient way to get your feet in the sand.
On my last trip to Costa Rica, I flew into and out of Liberia as I had become accustomed to as well, but on this trip I was meeting with a group of people associated with Ticos y Nicas: Somos Hermanos in San Jose which necessitated a rare mid-trip visit to the capital city and was the first time I had been there in well over 10 years.
Even so, I had planned everything out so that I would only be there for one night, driving in from Orosi where I took a coffee tour and heading back north to Santa Teresa after, so I intended to make the most of my short time there.
In fact, I was excited to see San Jose and experience what type of city it had become since I was last there.
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San Jose – A Place to Revisit
In doing some research, I grabbed a room at the Hotel Balmoral since it located on the bustling main walking mall on Avenue Central and the Plaza de la Cultura – home to the National Theater of Costa Rica and the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum – and close to many other attractions as well as some great coffee shops I wanted to try.
My lunch meeting the next day was out in the suburb of Escazu on the west side of town, so I planned to just pack up everything before I had to check out and rush off to grab the last ferry in Puntarenas when I was done.
Cafe la Mancha
I spent the day cruising the downtown area.
My first stop was the amazing Cafe la Mancha which was just on the far side of the Plaza from my hotel.
The cafe was a bit of a trick to find because it is nestled in the back of this cool old building with an interior courtyard so you don’t see it from the street.
It turns out that this building, called El Steinvorth or just El Stein, is a real architectural gem in San Jose, a city not really known for its architecture.
The building was built in 1907, but a recent restoration was spearheaded by then architecture student, Julian Mora, who envisioned a community space for art, music and like minded businesses.
The skylights in the center of the building create the open courtyard and were key to the original design as well as the restoration.
Being in San Jose after a week and a half of surfing and driving up and down the West Coast was a bit of a shock, so this quiet little oasis to ease into things was greatly appreciated.
Cafe la Mancha is a true third wave coffee shop and they clearly take a lot of pride in the high level of coffee they are presenting. I had a delicious espresso and steeled myself for a day of urban adventure.
Heading back out onto the crowded streets, I spent the rest of the day visiting museums and wandering the core center of town.
It was great to spend some time in the main commercial center of San Jose and get a taste for regular daily life here as well as some of the culture of both history in the Pre-Columbian Art Museum – a fantastic piece of architecture itself – as well as the more youthful MADC (Contemporary Art Museum).
The evening, however, was when I really stumbled onto my favorite part of San Jose, the hip and vibrant Barrio Escalante.
Barrio Escalante – Stumbling Upon San Jose’s Coolest Neighborhood
The walk to Barrio Escalante north and east from my hotel near the Plaza was only about twenty minutes.
Cruising along the Parque National and past the Atlantic Train Station at typical rush hour was another glimpse into the daily ebb and flow of this city – professional people leaving work, chatting on the park benches, and grabbing a train home to the outskirts of town.
I walked along the train tracks on Av 3, checking out the bars that were empty now but would be full of life when I passed on my way back home later that night.
I wanted to hit a few different places that I had researched, so I decided to start with a light snack at Franco and save room for a full dinner somewhere else.
Plus, since it was really too early for dinner, most of the restaurants were empty and I had no interest in just sitting there by myself.
Franco, on the other hand, had a great crowd since it was more a cafe that also catered to the remote working crowd.
Looking like the kind of place you might find in Brooklyn or LA, Franco had a diverse crowd – everyone from students meeting over projects, to the early cocktail crowd, digital nomads on their laptops, and even a father and young daughter grabbing a quick bite.
It was easy to settle in here and pull out the notebook and just people watch. I grabbed a cocktail and a salad, both of which were amazing and took my time enjoying them.
There was no rush and nowhere to go, plus this was clearly the spot to be.
After lingering over my food for an overly-long time, I settled up and headed back out to the streets. With night falling and lights coming on, the streets were filling up but the restaurants were still empty.
I walked over to the highly recommended Kalu, but it was still quiet, so I moved on.
I could have easily had a coffee at Franco, but figured I might as well try another spot, and Cafeoteca was on my list.
Cafeoteca is just around the block from Franco, so I took the long meandering way through the neighborhood while scouting out possible places for dinner later.
I made my way back to Cafeoteca and grabbed a spot right at the bar where I found the barista deep in a coffee-geek conversation with a couple of his friends who were seated to my left.
It was pretty clear that one of the friends was just as into the coffee conversation while the other was along for the ride.
The barista was making single serve pour overs so they could taste some new roasts while describing the tasting notes that they should be looking out for.
It was fun to listen to them really getting into it and feel their passion for the coffee they were serving. It also made me excited for the espresso I was about to order, knowing that some real love would be put into it.
I ordered an espresso and talked a little about what beans he was using in their espresso at the time – a beautiful roast from Tarrazu, of course.
It was wonderful, and I took my time enjoying it as I continued to pretend to take notes in my diary so I could eavesdrop as he lapsed back into the conversation he was having with my neighbors.
I know I hadn’t been to San Jose in many years, but it was still amazing to see how it has changed since then, and become so much cooler than I ever imagined.
As I sat here in Barrio Escalante enjoying my early evening and soaking in its myriad options for food and drinks, I couldn’t help but think that in the future I’m going to have to make a point to fly into San Jose instead of Liberia so that I can make time to stay here for a night or two.
San Jose no longer felt like a place I need to minimize or just skip altogether, but a destination.
Finally, it was time for dinner, so I again took to the streets.
There was a light rain falling, so while I still had some wandering to do, I was a bit more urgent in finding a place to not get soaked.
This was Central America in July after all.
I didn’t really mind being soaked on the walk back to the hotel, but if I could stay reasonable dry before I sat down to eat that would be preferable.
I had read about a few different hot restaurants in the area, but settled on Apotecario, mainly because I was able to grab this incredible seat along a bartop looking back out towards the sidewalk.
Technically I was sitting outside, but the sheer thickness of the vines growing around the front of the building made it completely impervious to the now dumping rain outside.
They had some specialty tonics on the cocktail menu, so I ordered a gin and tonic and watched the evening crowds building outside the bars and restaurants in the area.
Police were present on the streets, but less menacing than helpful as the traffic built both on the streets and the sidewalks.
The menu at Apotecario was simple upscaled pub food, but the atmosphere was great and the people watching was amazing, so I was more than content to have a burger.
After all, I had been living on casado plates for a long time at this point so it was nice to sink my teeth into something different, but people looking for a more adventurous menu might look elsewhere.
I lingered for a long time, but didn’t want to bar hop with my meeting planned for the next day.
Once the rain let up I started heading back to my hotel, still ducking under awnings when they were available.
Taking a bit of a different way through the neighborhood, I passed by the diamond-shaped Plaza de Francia with its little one block around park.
There was a younger crowd hanging around the park, fireworks popped on a side street, and kids yelled and ran around the area, a different energy than the dinner crowd over on Calle 33.
With the after-work rush hour complete, the walk back by the train station and Parque National was now dark and a bit desolate which of course in any city leads to a bit more apprehension and the feeling that you need to be aware of your surroundings.
Still I felt safe to take a few different side streets and let will lit corner bars and any hints of music and gathering guide me through the streets.
I eventually made it back to Av Central which had a different feel than during the day as shops were closed and the pedestrian traffic lighter.
Before ducking back into the Balmoral, I stopped at a pizza place that had a large crowd standing around to watch the soccer game that was broadcasting, good natured cheers and ahhs emanating from the gathering.
I ordered a slice to take to my room, and it turned out to be about a quarter of a pie.
It was a great day in San Jose although, to be honest, I didn’t feel the need to linger too long in the city.
I was looking forward to my lunch the next day with Ticos y Nicas, but also to being back on the road and back to the surf.
Perhaps it wasn’t the city so much as just the fact that I had been on the move this whole trip and was happy to keep that moving momentum going.
I was really happy to have seen Barrio Escalante though, and looked forward to coming back and staying right in that neighborhood sometime. There are definitely more things to see there.