The capital city of Costa Rica is not typically a tourist destination, which made us like it all the more.
After our stint visiting the beaches, jungles, and volcanoes that attract so many visitors to this Central American country, we were ready for a taste of the day to day life that the locals describe as “Pura Vida.”
This catch-all phrase that the native citizens, known as Ticos and Ticas, use liberally literally means pure life, but has taken on the universal character of hello, goodbye, take it easy, hang loose, it’s all good, or just about any other positive response, outlook, or greeting.
It has come to embody the Costa Rican attitude that life is good, so be happy and thankful for it. Not a bad viewpoint.
Aiding our emersion into the local life was the fact that we stayed at an AirB&B in a neighborhood instead of a hotel. Our house was right in the center of town, so everything was within an easy walk.
Just a couple of blocks away, we started with a walk in the park, the Parque Nacional. This beautiful urban green space centers around what is considered the most important monument in the country, the Monumento Nacional.
The statue depicts Costa Ricans expelling private military expeditions into Latin America led by William Walker in 1857. His plan, known back then as filibustering, was to establish English-speaking colonies under his personal control by organizing mercenary armies.
The idea of controlling the region because of its strategic position as a location for a canal linking the Atlantic and the Pacific made it irresistible to businessmen, including Cornelius Vanderbilt.
The private militias from the US and Europe intervened in several Central American countries, especially Nicaragua, but a coalition formed against the usurpers from the north, with the normally peaceful Costa Ricans playing a vital role.
Venturing outside of the park, we encountered the first of what would be many street vendors selling fresh mango.
Cut like French fries and served with a squeeze of lime, a dash of salt, or even a splash of hot sauce for the daring, it was a delicious and refreshing snack.
Now that’s Pura Vida.
Moving on through the center of town, we came to the Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica. The national theatre is one of the premier landmarks in the city, and a symbol of the time in the late 1800s, when coffee was king and the economy was booming.
Built to house the National Symphonic Orchestra, the outside of the building is beautiful, but the interior is even more ornate.
The lobby serves as a defacto art museum, displaying works from some of the country’s most celebrated artists.
Veering off of the main drag, we turned right from the theater for a look at another of the city’s most famous buildings, the main post office, the Edificio de Correos y Telégrafos de Costa Rica.
For one hundred years this stunning structure has served as the headquarters of the country’s postal service.
It seemed like we were never more than a few steps away from a park as we returned to the center of the city and Parque Central. Scattered among the citizens enjoying the beautiful day, we noticed that one guy wasn’t moving.
The Street Sweeper was stuck in mid-sweep so David tried to give him a hand, but Edgar Zúñiga’s bronze tribute to the workers who clean the city’s parks and streets wasn’t having any of it. He has stayed stoically standing still since 2003 and wasn’t about to change that for us.
Could be he is too deep in his own private Pura Vida.
By this time we had walked enough to work up quite an appetite, so we ducked into an open air café on the busy corner across from the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de La Merced, the Church of Our Lady of La Merced.
Perhaps the most famous church in San José, it dates back to 1894, when it was built and dedicated to the Virgin of Mercedes, patroness of Barcelona.
The other corner is home to yet another park, Braulio Carrillo, usually just called La Merced Park.
We definitely got lucky when we picked La Casona Tipica because, as the name implies (tipica = typical), it turns out to be acclaimed as one of the best spots for authentic Costa Rican cuisine in San José.
When it comes to food, we take the When in Rome… adage as words to live by. We can’t get enough of local delicacies so, with that in mind, it was a must for us to try a casado.
The name means married man, ostensibly originating from customers entering restaurants and proclaiming that they wanted to eat like a married man.
The ingredients can vary, but they will always be hearty, usually including salad, rice, plantains, black beans, picadillo (a dish made of diced chayote), and a serving of meat such as beef, chicken, pork, or fish.
Another typical Tico dish is olla de carne, a stew of meat, potatoes, carrots, cassava, sweet potato, and corn.
It is often served deconstructed, as ours was, with the components removed from the broth and placed on a plate. The broth accompanies them in a bowl on the side.
We were more than happy to linger over our abundant meals while we took in the flavors, not only of the food, but also the quirky décor of memorabilia and odd-ball mannequins scattered about the dining room.
Definitely Pura Vida.
No meal in Costa Rica can be considered complete without coffee brewed right at the table. Costa Rican coffee is considered some of the best in the world, and even though bananas have surpassed it as the main cash crop, it is still an integral part of the economy.
Our server brought us a chorreador, which is an ingeniously simple coffee maker that drip filters the brew through what looks more or less like a sock.
Luckily, the results tasted nothing like it had been filtered through any footwear.
This was high on the list of the best java we had ever encountered.
Which was without a doubt perfectly Pura Vida.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com