First step, meet Stacey
Stacey loves San Jose. Like really really loves it, like passionately. I’m never going to forget her hallmark sigh of relief as she sees the twinkling lights of San Jose come in to view every time we crest the hill coming home from a beach trip:
“It’s so good to be back in the city.”
Me: “Girl, you crazy. I can’t wait to drop you off and get out of here!”
But that’s Stacey. Take her out of the city for more than a few days and she gets restless.
Because of her love for the city and her desire to share that and to help the city continue to improve, Stacey started a walking tour of downtown San Jose in 2009. Well, I’ve been hatin’ on San Jose since 2008, and decided to take her Barrio Bird Walking Tour to see if my mind could be changed.
The Walking Tour
Barrio Bird offers five different types of tours: overview, photography, art, food, and fiesta. Let’s face it, I’ve done the fiesta tour many many many times, bar hopping around downtown, with Stacey leading me here and there. I’ve always had a great time, so already my feelings towards San Jose started to warm up when I realized I’d done one of these “tours” and thoroughly enjoyed it (maybe too much).
I ultimately decided on the overview tour because I wanted to know, in general, what was so great about San Jose.
We started the tour in one of the many parks located throughout San José, where Stacey shared a ton of facts about the city’s history, as well as information about current, past, and future efforts to improve the infrastructure, safety, and culture.
She then proceeded to skillfully lead us through the busy streets of San José, stopping at key points to tell us about the architecture of a particular building, the history behind a piece of art, or tidbits about local culture. It was really nice to relax and be lead around, and to be told where to look as opposed to hurrily driving or walking from point A to B. I saw a ton of things I had never noticed before and developed a respect for things that I previously thought were ugly by learning about their history.
She led us up and down streets, in and out of buildings, through parks, plazas, the Central Market and new Chinatown. I’m surprised by everything I learned and saw in this city that I had been to so many times before, all within about two hours. I can’t believe I’ve been here for three years and missed all this!
My favorite part by far was the realization that San José is like this baby city, or maybe a teenager, but also an old man, that is trying to evolve and that by interacting with it, I am experiencing history in the making. I mean it seems pretty obvious in hindsight – duhhhhh it’s a mix of a developed and developing city with historically significant sections duh duh duh, but I had let the initial impression of too many cars and dirty concrete blind me from the obvious.
So what do I think about San Jose now?
I still don’t like driving in San Jose, but I don’t hate San Jose. I actually like it. Everyone likes to say that San Jose sucks and to avoid it, but so many people stay there for the first or last night or two of their vacation when they fly through Juan Santamaria (San Jose) International airport. I did when I first came to Costa Rica on vacation and I wish I had taken a walking tour instead of limiting myself to the one block that my hostel was located on. Next, I want to take the art tour and see some good graffiti – I hear there are many commissioned pieces in San Jose and I’d really like to know the stories behind them.
Have you been to San José? What was your impression?
For more information about Barrio Bird Walking tours, check out the website: http://www.toursanjosecostarica.com/ or give them a call: 6050-1952.
I would like to commend you on writing an excellent review of a city mostly misunderstood by foreigners. Being a north american myself, I have lived here eight years and have come to know it piece by piece and block by block. Indeed there is not only a lot of history, but an evolving culture struggling with its own place in the modern world. If one just takes the time to peel away the outer and sometimes dirty layers, it is a fascinating blend of old and new, constantly mixing itself into something new. Most never see beyond the outer layer.
Pura Vida Mae!
Thanks! It took me a long time to see it and honestly I probably would not have even tried if it weren’t for Stacey’s enthusiasm. I’m looking forward to exploring it more!
I had this same experience with Miami. Lived on the beach and never went to the mainland because I thought it was awful. A friend of mine runs a tour company, took one of his tours, and was in awe about all the things in the area I never even knew existed. And then the history. Tours are awesome, even when you live in the area.
oh yeah you know my uncle said the same thing about NYC. It’s fun to be a tourist in your own town sometimes 🙂
Totally agree, San Jose is awesome! I was lucky enough to couchsurf there in October and found that between walking, buses, and taxis one can do quite well in San Jose without the need to drive. I really fell in love with the city. My host and a group of his friends took me out late at night for dinner, and it all felt very safe walking and using the bus even after dark. There were so many people on the streets and bright lights– it felt as safe as being in Manhattan late at night. I still would not have done it alone. Also, on the weekends they always have random activities in the parks around downtown (dramatic storytelling, skits, music, mimes, etc.) I’m definitely looking forward to returning in a few weeks!
🙂 yeah they have tons of free activities like the enamorarte tu ciudad (spelling?!) – yoga, music, parkour etc or the Art City Tour when all the museums open up for free, that’s like 4 or more times a year. Even the paid events are affordable like seeing Sonambulo for 3mil. I’m glad my mountain town is only 20 minutes away!
Back in 1962 my mother had the great idea of sending me to C.R. to live with relatives and complete the sixth grade at Juan Rafael Mora. One of the activities was to see El Cid at the Variedades theater. It looks the same!
You must admit, San Jose has some of the ugliest buildings that I have ever seen. Did the architects study in East Berlin?
oh that sounds like an awesome experience.
lol @ your comment about east berlin. I have a confession, though – you know the caja building? the social security building? the one pictured above? I LOVE it. It reminds me of an older model futuristic space station. Like maybe a space pawn shop…
Okidoki Erin, but I think more like dirty Lego blocks! I do remember as a kid walking down Avenida Central and specially in December La Universal would display a huge Marklin HO electric train set up in their main window. My dad bought me quite a few locomotives there.
I was brought up in Port Limon in what was then called Zona Americana, or American zone, and for a kid my age 7 to 10 years old who only lived 200 feet from the beach, and who thought in retrospect that it was paradise, living in San Jose was always gloomy and raining. Not that it didn’t rain in Limon, but if it did, it would clear up and the sun would come back just as fast!
I remember taking the bus from close to the Balmoral Hotel down towards the central market and watching the people. Bus ride was .15 centavos. The exchange rate for Dollars was 6.65 Colones! Things do change.
dirty lego blocks lol 🙂
Limon has some pretty cool buildings…I wonder what it was like back in the day. I bet you saw some really amazing wildlife living only 200 feet from the Caribbean before all the development!
I’ve been living in the central valley for 7 years in Escazu. I like going downtown San Jose, but my wife that’s lived in the San Jose area all her life hates it. It’s no fun going with her, so I don’t go much. Every once in awhile I’ll sneak out and go downtown.
sneaking out to San José heehee, that’s funny 🙂
Loved San Jose! Lived near San Antonio de Escazu, just under the big cross on the mountain. We could watch clouds come over from the west and roll right in to us. Oh and at night, what a view when the lights came on in the city. So beautiful, the entire country. Hope to make it back one day. Thanks for your articles and pictures, really enjoy them!
oh that’s kind of like the town I am in now – the clouds roll down from the mountains and then spread over the Central Valley below. The beauty here takes my breath away, like everyday. I hope you can make it back, too!
Erin, the one thing I will always remember coming from Florida a flat state was that at night when driving you would see the street lights and houses lit up going up the mountain almost as if it was a stair way to heaven. Even today living in Indiana and I see a glimpse of the same view on a large hill brings a smile to my face thinking of CR. You are a lucky lady and judging by your posts, I can really tell you like it there and having a great time. I just wonder how much it has changed since I was their from 72-74. I look at google a lot and some places like along Paseo Colon are totally different. We used to eat at Los Antojitos all the time. Gosh I could go on and on~lol
I eat at Antojitos sometimes!! It’s still there! I can tell you A LOT has changed since 74. I’m told the difference is night and day compared to just ten years ago, so imagine 40…
How can I contact her about her walking tours? I have many clients that do stay the first and or last nights in San Jose . Her tours sound like a perfect beginning and ending tour for my vacationers 🙂
Give her a call: 6050-1952 or check out her website: http://www.toursanjosecostarica.com/
I designed the tours exactly with that in mind! Not many come to San Jose as a final destination, but majority of visitors pass through at beginning or end because of the airport. I’m trying to get them out of the hotel and out and about!
Feel free to email me BarrioBird@gmail.com. and please visit the site to learn more!
I did a tour with Stacey Feburary 2012 and had a great time! I highly recommend a walking tour with her; she is super personable and knowledgeable about the city and culture.
I sadly missed out on going to San Jose on recent travels because my trip was unexpectedly cut short – this post has made me sad I didn’t make it! One day for sure, looks beautiful. Thanks for sharing!
I would love to do the photography tour. Sounds like the guides know what they’re doing!
Thanks Christina! We love the photo tour because it’s customized so gives a chance to be creative! http://www.toursanjosecostarica.com/photographer-bird.html, let me know if you’d like to do one! – Stacey
Great post! Actually made me long to be in a city – weird! Will def take the walking tour if I find myself there 🙂
Funny part… even us, costaricans, hate San Jose. Ugly, dirty and smelly “city”