San Jose: A Capital City

main street in San Jose, Costa Rica.  MacDonalds and KFC signs dominate the skylineReactions to San Jose were mixed.  Some of the girls loved the excitement and the bustle of a big city others found the Americanisation too much.  Personally, I dislike the overarching control that global organisations like Coca Cola and MacDonald’s have in developing countries such as Costa Rica.  However, that is not the fault of the Costa Ricans; they are sucked into the promises and the glitz that these companies bring in just the same way as the rest of the world.  Scratch beneath the veneer of the main streets – La Avenida Central and La Calle Central – walk a few blocks away, and the poverty is evident.  The homeless litter the doorways amidst the rubbish and the decay of the buildings.  The smell of the sewers and the waste is pungent and, as we walked through the streets to get to the bus station to pay for our tickets to Puerto Jimenez, the girls that were with us were visibly upset. Not so different from other big cities around the world – the wealth and shininess is but a mask for what lies beneath.  However, when most of us visit Auckland it is for the shopping or the theatre and we see no more than the surface of the city, the part that wants to show itself off to the world.  The poverty is there if you look for it.
square in San Jose with national flag and statue
But the central part of San Jose is vibrant, the parks and the squares hum with people shopping, working, eating, drinking, socialising.  The centre is pedestrianised so the challenge of dodging cars in a city centre is minimised. There is smile and an “Hola” (or “Pura Vida”) on everyone’s lips and although I held on tight to my bag and was conscious of keeping myself safe, I didn’t feel threatened at all as I walked around.  What we did notice was the very strong police presence; there were towers on most of the corners with police manning them and pairs of police either walked or cycled around the city.
two policeman on duty in San JoseOur plan for the day changed when the white water rafting company failed to pick us up at 6am as arranged.  Some miscommunication and incorrect information meant that they had cancelled our booking.  We were disappointed but looked for the silver lining in the cloud and made the most of a day to explore a Central American capital city.  We also managed to change our dollars into Colones and buy Costa Rican sim cards so that we could communicate with each other and safely let the girls explore in small groups.
bronze statue of large lady in the pedestrian area of San JoseI have noted over the years of taking students away that their comfort zones are a factor in keeping themselves safe. Rarely do they go far from where they feel comfortable.  Those who felt totally overwhelmed by the size and noise and bustle of the city stayed to the main street we had walked along together from the hostel. Others ventured a little further afield exploring down the side streets for a little way before turning back to familiar ground.  Once they had eaten, they made their way back to the hostel and then went the other way to a large park we had discussed visiting earlier.  They were prompt at checking in regularly via text message to assure us that they were all fine and tell us where they were going next.
sculpture made up of red, yellow and blue barrels joined together and set at angles against each otherIt was the girls who were most unnerved by the city centre who made their way to the park.  It marked a turning point in their impression of San Jose.  Whereas the centre for them was alien, impersonal and scary, the park which was full of families playing football together on a sunny Sunday afternoon, or riding horses or feeding the ducks or going on pedalos around the lake, provided them with the reassurance that this was a city with real people who had real lives.  I too enjoyed a walk around the park which was littered with interesting sculptures.  Some were a little the worse for wear but indicative of a city’s desire to develop cultural heritage.
sculpture which looks like a segment of a brick wall with a window in and a creature seated in the window.They also visited the museum of Costa Rican life that I disappointingly arrived too late for and loved it.  One girl said that she had thought that San Jose was devoid of any culture until she went to the museum and learned the history of the country and the city.
looking across the park and the lake to a tall white building and a Christmas tree.But our stay was short and the next day we were up bright and early and on a bus bound for Puerto Jimenez.  Eight hours to gaze at the magnificent scenery, doze, and gaze again.  We climbed high in the hills surrounding San Jose and then seemed to follow the range which forms the backbone of Costa Rica southwards before cutting across westwards to the Osa Peninsula.

Do you know the way to San Jose?

very pink bandstand with green stepsOur last morning in Rivas was spent shopping for food, and briefly exploring the town.  Negative first impressions of Rivas when we had passed through on our way to Ometepe, admittedly formed purely on an experience in the crowded and noisy bus station, were cast aside as the girls had a chance to look around.  It is a friendly, busy place with a very quirky and very pink Parque Central.  Market stalls line the streets where it is possible to buy anything and everything. The Lonely Planet suggested that with only two hours to visit Rivas, the museum was the place to go.  Unfortunately, we got there to find it was closed and was seemingly in a very bad state of repair; one whole wall was being reconstructed! Peeping through the windows it did look like there were some interesting exhibits but they will have to wait for another time!
large white church on the corner of the main square. tuktuks in the foreground
A few of us took advantage of tuktuk transport to get back to the hostel, made all the more exciting as the two drivers raced each other down the streets, cutting corners to overtake each other!
street in Rivas with men cleaning shoes sitting on the side of the road.  One man having his shoes cleaned, a bicycle propped against the kerb.I am always fascinated by the everyday lives of people and although I sometimes feel uncomfortable taking photographs of people I just can’t resist snapping scenes in the streets that capture what real life is like.  It is wonderful when sometimes the people spot me and wave and smile.  Rivas, just like Granada and Moyogalpa is multifaceted.  Initially you see the veneer, the commercial streets but if you head away from the main streets you find the little lanes that tell you so much more about how people live.  I loved the “shoe shine boys” sitting along the road as their clients sat on stools, the “auto motorbike and car wash” – a space where someone supplied water and sponges so you could wash your own motorcycle, and the men and women sitting in entrances of rooms repairing and creating garments on old treadle sewing machines.
Street in Rivas, bicycles propped against the kerb, woman, child and man in the foreground talking, two men sitting in the doorway to a house one sewing on a treadle sewing machine
Penas Blancas - the border crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.  A white and green building to the left, bare earth and phone towers. The rest of our day was spent travelling – another long wait for a bus that didn’t come at the appointed time but did eventually arrive and our first rain in ten days.  It came out of nowhere, bucketed down for about 15 minutes and then cleared away leaving us wet and steamy!  Crossing the border at Penas Blancas was uneventful. Off the bus on the Nicaragua side, hand over passports, back on the bus, drive through the 1km corridor of no man’s land, back off the bus with all bags to go through passport control and baggage scans to enter Costa Rica. Done!  Hola Costa Rica!
By now it was dark and scenery gazing was impossible so I slept!  Awoke to see the lights of a big city spread out as far as the eye could see.  Costa Rica only has a population of about 4.5 million, but the metropolitan area of San Jose accounts for more than a third of that.
Our hostel was basic but comfortable and we had an early start the next day so straight to bed!