A while ago we met Lair Davis, a very charming, affable and voluble ex-Californian who made Costa Rica his home 9 years ago after having visiting the country regularly on holiday for more than 20 years. In that time he has come to know Costa Rica inside out. Having determined to not own a car or drive, he has figured out how to get around Costa Rica employing nothing but public transportation, taxis, and the occasional day-trip driver. Lair’s specialty now is taking folks on a bus trip to San José to explore the city on foot.
We had never been in downtown San José, so for the price of expenses and gratuity we gladly commissioned Lair to take us on this adventure. Our friend Loraine came along, making a happy foursome.
We met at the Grecia bus depot and boarded the 9:00 express bus to San José (a bus leaves every 20 minutes). The hour-long ride went by fast, Lair filling the time with a recitation of information, tidbits and curiosities: “All churches in Costa Rica face west, so it’s easy to find your direction.” “The bag boys at the grocery store work only for tips; they are not hired by the store because they are too young (under 18) to officially work. So give them a couple hundred colones when they bag your groceries.” “The Valle Central is the dividing line between the continents of North and South America, where the continents came together. The mountains to the north are volcanic, the ones to the south are not.”
We arrived in San José around 10 AM, getting off the bus near the pedestrian mall which stretches several blocks through the city. There was the usual hustle and bustle of a big city, with street vendors galore peddling everything from socks and shoelaces to hair ribbons to watches.
We began our walking tour at the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Merced (Church of Our Lady of Mercy).
The church has recently been beautifully restored.
An “esfera” is displayed in the Parque Merced in front of the church.
Several hundreds of these pre-Columbian granite spheres have been found along Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast, especially around the Diquís Delta in Osa. Usually, they were discovered laid out in geometric patterns. Who made them and why remains a mystery.
Next stop was the central market. It occupies a full block, and here you can find just about anything you might want.
The Mercado Central in San José is a warren of narrow aisles filled with stalls stuffed from floor to ceiling with produce and merchandise of all kinds
We continued out on the other side of the Mercado Central towards the cultural center of San José, while Lair expounded upon the city’s history and lore.
“Presentes,” sculptures by Fernando Calvo honoring campesinos
When we reached the National Theater . . .
. . . we stopped for a delicious specialty coffee drink in its beautiful Café del Teatro . . .
. . . and heard the story how San José got its theater:
In the 1880s, a famous European opera singer Adelina Patti was touring Latin America. She had been booked into San José, then a rustic backwater of no more than 5,000 residents (the entire country had a population of less than 300,000). In preparation for the grand event, the people of the country prepared and lavishly decorated a huge tent. When Patti arrived in the bedraggled city, she took one glance at the venue and turned her back and left, huffing “Take me back to the port! I do not perform in tents!”
Costa Ricans were mortified with embarrassment. The country’s rich coffee barons immediately decided to tax themselves and build an opera house suitable for such occasions. Which they did. The National Theatre opened in 1896, and is still Central America’s most elegant and grand performance venue.
The inside of the theater is stunningly beautiful and richly adorned, but other than the lobby and the café it is accessible only by tour. Short on time, we opted to save the tour for another day.
Adjacent to the theater but securely nestled underground is the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, which is owned by the Central Bank of Costa Rica.
Walking across the park to the government sector, Lair explained that Costa Rica has not three, but four branches of government. In addition to the familiar legislative, executive and judicial branches there is the Elections Tribunal, completely separate and independent from the other three branches. It holds all power and authority in matters concerning elections, from when they are held to the rules that govern them – and their decision is final. The chosen authorities of the Tribunal, prestigious citizens who have not been active in politics – writers, former deans of universities, artists, retired statesmen – can serve only once, and for one election only. They are afterwards forbidden from entering the political arena in any capacity.
On our way to lunch we passed Bellavista Fortress, formerly the headquarters of the Costa Rican military. In 1948 following a brief civil war, Costa Rica became the first country in the world to abolish its military. This building then became the National Museum. It features historical exhibits and some of the country’s most precious historical treasures. The pock marks are from the 1948 conflict and were purposely left unrepaired as a reminder of the dangers of a military establishment.
Lunch was at the Café Mondo, a delicious and delightful restaurant located in the former home of a coffee baron. It has the ambiance of a tropical garden.
After lunch we strolled through an adjacent park in which stands the National Monument.
Each of the figures in this statue represents a country of Central America. The figure representing Costa Rica – a 14-year-old barefoot boy holding a torch rather than a member of royalty or a general – is Juan Santamaría. He is Costa Rica’s national hero, and here is why.
In the 1850s, the United States adventurer William Walker and his army of “filibusterers” came to Central America in search of territory to conquer. Financed by the slave-owning aristocracy of the South, Walker’s mission was to conquer Central America. Then, its small countries could become additional slave-owning states and allies of the South against the non-slave-owning Northern United States. Walker quickly succeeded in conquering Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, declaring himself President of Nicaragua and announcing his intention of next conquering Costa Rica.
In the 1850s Costa Rica could hardly be considered a country at all. It was really four city-states — Cartago, San José, Heredia and Alajuela — that rotated the presidency of the country among them. The President had little internal power, and functioned more like a Foreign Minister or Secretary of State than a President. But the threat from William Walker and his filibusterers forced Costa Rica to discover and develop its sense of nationhood — and quickly!
In order to defend their country, the people of the four cities that comprised Costa Rica grabbed their assorted farm implements (the only weapons available) and trekked the many miles north to the border with Nicaragua to where Walker and his army would invade. And sure enough, invade he did.
The Costa Ricans had the element of surprise on their side. Walker’s forces were startled by the unexpected resistance, paused in their advance, and withdrew a short distance to plan a full-fledged attack against the ragtag Costa Rican defenders for the next day.
During the night, the Costa Ricans prepared to meet their final end the next morning, knowing full well they stood little chance against the better equipped army of gringos. But one determined little boy, Juan Santamaría, wasn’t going to give up.
While the Costa Ricans were lamenting and Walker and his filibusterers were sleeping, Juan sneaked up to the filibusterers’ campsite and succeeded in setting it on fire with his torch, despite being mortally wounded. The result was the end of the invasion of Costa Rica, and the beginning of the end of Walker’s attempt to enslave the people of Central America. Walker was finally executed by firing squad in Honduras in 1860.
The afternoon was drawing to an end, and with it our stroll through downtown San José. At 3:30 we hopped on a city bus that took us to the Grecia bus terminal, where caught the bus back to Grecia.
We’ve had space to mention only a sprinkling of the many highlights of our most memorable day. Take advantage of Lair’s wealth of knowledge and experience San José for yourself, on foot!