Costa Rica’s capital city San José is full of things to do if you don’t have much money to spend. If you are traveling to San José on a budget, but still want to see all the important metropolitan sites, here are some ideas of how to spend a morning or afternoon in the city.
Wander the Central Market
There are few things cooler than discovering new fruits and vegetables. And Costa Rica, which holds 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity, is a great place to find them. Ever had a rambutan (or a mamon chino as they are known in Costa Rica)? What about the squash-like pejibaye? Depending on the season, you’ll find these edible treats and more in the Central Market, which is open from sunrise to dusk; Monday to Saturday. Be careful when walking around, as there are many pickpocketers. The farmers’ market in Escazú on Saturday or in Santa Ana on Sunday are worth checking out. Early mornings you can also find farmers’ selling their crops next to the municipal building in San José.
Estimated Cost: $5 in fruits and veggies
Visit a Museum
For a small country, Costa Rica has an impressive selection of museums. Some favorites are the Children and Gold Museums. The Children’s Museum has dozens of interactive displays and provides a simple and fun insight into Costa Rican culture. The Gold Museum has a notable display of intricately worked gold pieces, carved with the primitive tools of the Pre-Colombian era.
Explore the Simon Bolivar Zoo
Some exhibits in this neglected zoo will make animal lovers’ cringe in guilt, but watching monkeys swing through a jungle gym and turtles stream through pools can make the $4.50 entrance fee and a few spare hours worth-the-while. The park is open every day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. After visiting the zoo, plan on stopping in one of the local coffee shops or browsing the art galleries, which have flourished in this area.
Estimated Cost: $4.50
Photograph a Butterfly Garden
Best seen on sunny days, the Spirogyra Butterfly Farm is a perfect place to watch many species of local butterflies spread their wings. See the morpho, owl, Dutchman's pipe and passion flower butterflies in this shaded retreat in a corner part of the crowded capital city. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tel: 2222-2937.
Estimated cost: $7
Picnic in La Sabana
On Saturdays and Sundays, this large park in downtown San José fills with local families picnicking, playing soccer and riding bikes. With a large anomalously shaped pond, the National Stadium, a running track, a rollerblading rink, tennis and basketball courts; this park has all the ingredients of a family-friendly outdoor space. Buy some picnic foods at a local store—known as a pulpería here—and join the locals in this pastime. You might also stop in the Costa Rican Art Museum, which used to be the airport terminal when La Sabana Park was the country’s main airport.
Estimated cost: $10–20 in picnic foods
Take a Coffee Tour
Costa Rica was founded by coffee growers, who stitched together the central government, created the education system and laid the foundation for the metropolitan area. The country’s entire history can be told through this crop. The most popular coffee tour in San José is the Café Britt Tour, which is accessible by public transportation and a $4 taxi ride. Both Doka Estates and Finca Rosa Blanca also offer tours.
Estimated Cost: $25–35
Get a Cup of Coffee in the Historic National Theatre
San José’s prized National Theatre was built by a self-imposed tax on coffee growers who wanted to create a cultural center of note. What better place to enjoy a cappuccino, but within this celebrated treasure of the coffee community. Every Tuesday at the lunch hour (12:10 p.m.), the National Theatre is open to the public for a weekly show presented by local and foreign artists. Ticket prices are 1,000 colones. For a full schedule, visit the National Theatre website.
Estimated Cost: $3– 5
Take a Walking Tour
There’s no better way to orient yourself to the city than with an experienced guide. You’ll learn fun facts like which building was used as the old army barracks back when Costa Rica had an army and how Paseo de las Damas got its name. Most tour companies can connect you with a walking tour or look for Barrio Bird (Tel: 8926-9867), which offers a comprehensive two-hour tour for $15.
Estimated cost: $15–30
Explore Local Crafts, Books, and Art
If shopping is your aim, head first to the artisan market in front of the National Museum, where there’s a wealth of souvenirs and crafts made by local artists. If this doesn’t meet your fancy, you might try Galeria Namu, located behind the Holiday Inn in Barrio Amón, where you’ll find more unique, high-end crafts. On the way, you can stop in the Seventh Street Bookstore, where you can pass time listening to local musicians or leaf through the pages of books on Costa Rica.
Go for a Hike
Take a bus to the last stop at San Antonio de Escazú or Barrio Corazon de Escazú (both buses leave from the Health Ministry) and just start walking up. There are no trail signs or marked hiking paths, but eventually, you will climb onto a dirt road and then trail. Here you’ll find breathtaking views of the Central Valley, patches of pastures and isolated estates. We would recommend taking a friend as it’s uncommon to see foreigners walking alone. Other places to hike include the mountains behind Heredia and Braulio Carrillo.
Estimated cost: $.75 bus fare
Further afield: If you have a full day in San José, you might consider a trip to the Poas Volcano National Park, Cartago or the artisan town of Grecia.