After 24 hours of travelling from England, they land in darkness, and take a taxi from the airport to the centre of San José. Traffic on the four-lane highway is leisurely, considerate, with the choice of lane seeming random, unrelated to the speed of travel. Within the city, Christmas lights reach across broad avenues, and transform dusty trees into magical sculptures. The night creates a sense of displacement – they have arrived, and yet have few references to define where they are.
A few hours later….
L: What the hell is that awful noise?
D: I don’t know. A warning siren? What time is it?
L: Err….5.10am. Maybe there’s about to be an earthquake. Or a tidal wave.
D: We’re 1200 metres above sea level, so probably not a tsunami. Look out of the window and see if there are flashing lights and things. I’m asleep.
L: I can’t see any. But there’s a train. In the road. Coming past the end of the street.
D: A tram, do you mean?
L: No, a massive goods train. Coming along the street.
D: That’ll explain it then. Nighty night.
10 minutes later….
L: Here comes another one.
D: Shush. I’m asleep.
10 minutes later….
L: And another. Are you really asleep?
D: Sigh. I’ll get up and go for a run – it’s getting light anyway and it’s mid-morning back in the UK.
L: I do apologise. The booking website didn’t mention that this was the noisiest hotel in the world.
D runs through the wakening streets as the light turns from grey to gold and the city reveals itself. It sprawls across a vast green plateau, ringed on all sides by the ridges of forested hillsides. The architecture is for the most part practical and undistinguished – low-level concrete buildings, many roofed with corrugated iron. Paintwork peels quickly here under a harsh tropical sun. Pavements are high, with frequent uncovered holes providing access points to services. Between kerb and street are concrete gutters, dry at this time, harbouring litter. In contrast to many European cities, there is, however, a pleasant absence of dog-mess. Along the main pedestrian avenue there is already a bustle of people heading to work. Pavements overflow with passengers at bus-stops, and shaded benches in parks and squares are occupied by those enjoying the cool early morning air.
L: How was your run? What does San José look like?
D: Lovely temperature. Plenty of friendly people about. I nearly fell into a lot of holes though. The streets are all laid out in a grid – numbered avenidas going horizontal, and calles vertical. Oh, and the pedestrian crossings make noises like chirruping birds. And clown horns.
L: Interesting. Did you talk to anyone?
D: I did. I stopped to look for a cash-point, and a cheerful fellow came up to me and offered to sell me some marijuana and cocaine.
L: At six in the morning? That’s a bit early. Did you run away?
D: No, I felt rather pleased to think that I might look cool enough to be after marijuana or cocaine before breakfast. Then I explained that I didn’t actually want to buy anything from him, but was looking for an ATM.
L: Then what happened?
D: He kindly pointed out where the bank was.
L: Very helpful.
D: And then he followed me there.
L: Uh oh, you didn’t get robbed did you?
D: Not at all. Once he’d made sure that I’d found it, and I’d told him that unfortunately, even once I’d got the cash I really wasn’t going to buy any drugs, we exchanged friendly Pura Vidas and off he went.
L: That was nice.
They amble along the main pedestrian drag, noticing the refreshing scarcity of global brands above shop doorways. There are a number of street vendors selling identical battery-operated, neon-coloured fluffy dancing dogs. They reach the Plaza de la Cultura and sit on a bench, watching people and pigeons going about their day. Across the square is the National Theatre. D is in his element, pointing out the central pediment, the smaller echoing pediments topping first floor windows, the half columns dividing the arches over the entrance, the contrasting grey and honey coloured stone exterior, and the roof with its distinctive red fly tower, providing height above the stage into which to lift scenery.
D: The National Theatre is probably the city’s oldest and prettiest building. It dates back to the 1890s and the inside is rather beautiful. My uncle Christopher said so. He was here in 1957.
L: Shall we see if we can book tickets for a concert or something, so we can experience the place properly? Music if possible. Not a play in Spanish.
Ticket office attendant: No, I’m afraid no performances this week. Or next week. Or the week after. How about the 29th? No? But you can visit today on a guided tour. Starting right now. $15 each. Just over there.
Guide: Bienvenidos al Teatro Nacional.
L: Oh dear.
40 minutes later…
L: Did you get any of that?
D: Not much. I hadn’t realised the tour was in Spanish.
L: Never mind. The auditorium was lovely – imagine sitting in one of those beautiful private boxes. And having interval drinks in that grand salon on the first floor with its chandeliers and frescoes and all that gold. And the theatre wasn’t too big – I reckon that wherever you sat, you’d still feel quite close to the stage.
D: Did you pick up that the architect was Italian? And the huge ceiling fresco above the stairs showing the commerce of the time – coffee growing and bananas and such like – was painted by an Italian too.
L: What was the bit at the beginning about taxes?
D: In order to build the theatre they raised a specific tax – on coffee I think – to raise funds, so everyone in the country felt that they had contributed to it, and it became a great source of national pride.
L: How very good natured of the general public – if that happened in England, we’d do nothing but grumble.
D: Look – there’s a tour in English just started over there. We could go and join it if you like.
L: Or we could go and find an ice cream instead.
L: Are we fleeing the scene of a crime?
D: Not that I’m aware of.
L: Then why is our taxi driver going quite so fast? We nearly ran someone over back there. Can you ask him to slow down?
D: Not really. He seems quite cross. And he’s talking to himself.
L: What about?
D: Colombians, I think.
Taxi driver: This is a bad area. Full of Colombians.
L: (observing friendly looking families and mothers pushing strollers on the pavement) Oh.
Taxi driver: We are taking a short cut. To avoid the traffic. I don’t want to get stuck. My boss doesn’t like it.
Taxi driver: He’s Colombian.
L: I don’t see why he has insisted on charging us such a massive rush-hour surcharge. There’s no traffic on these back streets at all. Only pedestrians! (She gasps as another fatal accident is narrowly avoided.) At this rate we’ll get there quicker than usual.
The car screeches to a halt outside their hotel. D argues with the driver at length over the price. The car drives off.
D: That didn’t go well. He kept demanding more money. Very unreasonable. I told him so. He was even crosser when he left.
L: Outrageous – he quoted us over the odds to start with!
D: (peering into his wallet). Hold on a minute. Oh dear. I think I got my notes muddled up.
L: (wailing) Oh no! Have you hugely overpaid him?
D: Err, no. Quite the opposite. I’ve very definitely, and quite by mistake, underpaid him. Significantly. No wonder he kept asking for more money. And was quite so cross.
L: Isn’t this fascinating? So many different shapes and colours of jade. And such variety – jewellery, deities, animals, tools.
D: Well we are in the Museum of Jade.
L: And Pre-Columbian Culture. It’s both.
D: Right. Good.
L: Apparently it’s the world’s largest collection. Of American Jade. But there are so many beautiful pots too.
D: So many pots.
L: Really interesting to see Costa Rica’s indigenous culture explained through the ceramics and artefacts that they left behind. It’s all here: food, shelter, music, family, battles, traditions, and death.
D: I think there’s something wrong with my eyes.
L: It’s wonderfully arranged. Beautifully lit.
D: It could be because of the train.
L: What’s the train got to do with anything? Do look at these stunningly carved stone grinding stools. These ones can’t have been used for grinding maize flour – I think they were ceremonial metates, for decorating burial mounds.
D: Or because all the rooms are all so dim.
L: What might be? What’s the problem? What’s wrong with your eyes?
D: I’m having awful trouble keeping them open.
L: We need to keep coming back to San Jose for a night or two in between trips. Where do you want to stay?
D: What’s wrong with this hotel?
L: What about the train? It seems to hoot deafeningly every 10 minutes between dawn and 10pm.
D: I’ve got used to it. I like the train. The train is my friend.
They head towards the entrance of the National Museum.
D: Seventy years ago it was still being used as an army barracks.
L: I wondered why there were bullet holes in that turret.
The first room appears to be a greenhouse.
L: It’s good that the museum has a butterfly garden in the middle of the city.
D: But there aren’t really any butterflies.
L: No. Still, it’s the thought that counts.
They continue into a large central courtyard.
L: Look – they’ve got a couple of diquis spheres.
D: Who’s Dickie?
L: Not Dickie. Diquis. They are mysterious ancient stone balls that were discovered in the far south eastern corner of Costa Rica, in an area called the Diquis Delta. All sorts of different sizes have been found, ranging from cricket ball sized right up to about 2 metres in diameter. It says here that there are around 300 of them known about but there may be more still lying around in the forest.
D: What were they for?
L: That’s the mystery. No-one really knows how they were made or why. But there’s a couple of archaeological sites down there which are still being studied.
D: You’re full of interesting facts today. What else is here?
L: No idea. I only wanted to read about balls. You take the book.
Note: In the above snippets I have done no justice whatsoever to either the Museo de Jade or the Museo Nacional, each of which we found very interesting and enjoyable to explore at length. They introduce visitors to the pre and post Columbian culture of Costa Rica and are well curated. I would recommend them both!