The Hidden Gems of San José

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San José, Costa Rica doesn’t have many accolades despite there being so much to see and do all around the country so it has never been high on the priority list, but let me tell you, there are a few treasures to be discovered! Here are my top 5 things to do in San José.

1. Mercado Central (Central Market)

As with many Latin American cities, San José’s central market is easy to get lost in. It’s a huge labyrinth filled with stalls of anything and everything you might ever want or need, from fruits and veggies to fresh seafood to spices, home goods, tools, dried flowers and everything in between. It’s even a decent place to find souvenirs! I love that many people here still visit the central market to buy their goods rather than heading to one of the larger grocery or department stores. Spend some time wandering and get a feel for the ‘old world’. I’m sure you’ll come out with a treasure or two.

2. Feria Verde in Aranjuez (Organic Farmer’s Market)

If you’re ever in San José on a Saturday morning, be sure to check out the colorful Feria Verde at the Polideportivo Aranjuez just north of downtown. It’s a really fun gourmet/hippy/hipster market where you can buy organic produce, but also many specialty items such as hard to find cheeses and spices, but also clothing, jewelry, soaps, yoga mats, and lots more. There’s even a food booth section with all kinds of special goodies including pastries and fancy coffees and juices. It’s definitely worth an hour of two of fun!

3. Teatro Nacional (National Theater)

Located in the heart of the city next to the expansive Plaza de Cultura, Costa Rica’s Teatro Nacional opened in 1897 and is one of the country’s finest architectural buildings with beautiful furnishings inside. It offers regular high quality performances including operas, symphonies, concerts and plays as well as hourly guided tours for visitors and a lovely gourmet café open to the public. We haven’t yet made it to a performance, but it’s definitely worth a visit at least.

4. Museo de los Niños (Children’s Museum)

Okay, I realize this may not be for everyone, but if you have little ones , the Museo de los Niños in San José is definitely a must-see. We’ve been there twice so far and we STILL haven’t explored everything yet. There are tons of cool interactive exhibits from dinosaurs to space exploration to optical illusions to whole areas dedicated to the history, culture and wildlife of Costa Rica such as coffee production, the rise of banana plantations and how they function, historic train cars from the national train system, etc. There’s even a double decker bus, an old fire engine, an airplane and a helicopter that the kids are able to explore! We highly recommend a visit..or two…or three!

5. Barrio Amón

Barrio Amón is a lovely historic neighborhood in San José (check out Avenidas 9 and 11 just west of the zoo and botanical garden) that is going through a sort of revival. The beautiful historic mansions lining the streets were originally built by wealthy coffee growers back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of them have been beautifully restored into hotels or restaurants, and others are in total disrepair or covered with vines which gives the neighborhood an authentic…or maybe nostalgic…feel.

With every visit we make to the capital, we discover something new, so I’m sure there are other hidden gems just waiting to be uncovered. It just takes a little digging!

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Our Top 5 for Sámara

With Auntie Tay Tay visiting and the kids out of school for Semana Santa, we headed to the beach (along with everyone else!) for some quality R & R.  We chose to explore Sámara, a chill beach town on the Guanacaste Coast that I’ve long wanted to check out having heard lots of good things.

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Here’s our list of what’s not-to-miss:

1. Sunset at Sámara Beach

Everyone heads to the beach at sunset! It’s the best time of day when the heat subsides but still plenty hot enough to enjoy a dip in the warm water, go for a horseback ride, enjoy an ice cream or cocktail, and not risk burning your scalp and every other piece of exposed skin. On our first night, we checked out Lo Que Hay, a casual beachfront restaurant specializing in tacos but with lots of other options and super drink specials. High tide or low tide, there is plenty of beach for everyone…even during Semana Santa. Sunset is definitely our favorite time at the beach in Costa Rica!

 

2. Spend a Day Boogie Boarding at Carrillo Beach (and don’t forget your hammock!)

About 4k south of Sámara Beach is another lovely picture perfect beach called Playa Carrillo. You can park right along the beach for free, hang up your hammock and set up camp along with lots of other picnicking families. It had the most perfect waves for boogie boarding which helped soothe our poor burnt feet after running through the scorching hot sand.

 

3. Dolphin Boat Tour

Sámara offers lots of cool activities such as surf lessons, boat tours, wildlife hikes and hidden beaches, and we opted for a morning dolphin and snorkeling tour (THANKS Auntie Tay!) that was seriously awesome. We saw manta rays jumping out of the water all around us, the spotted dolphins were also fun to watch, and we even saw a couple sea turtles. The snorkeling wasn’t all that great for us, but still fun to give it a try.

 

4. Tide Pooling at Low Tide on Sámara Beach

On our final morning, we headed straight to the beach and it was perfect as there was almost no one there and it was low tide so we had a blast exploring the tide pools on the north end of the beach, and all the critters waiting to be discovered, before having to pack up and head back home. 😦

 

5. Check Out the Town

Samara is small enough to easily get around and find your own little slice of heaven, but big enough to offer some great services, such as some fabulous restaurants (beachfront places such as Gusto Beach, and others specializing in seafood, French, Mexican, etc.) and a couple watering holes (don’t miss Franks and the Flying Taco for live music on weekends), tours for visitors, some decent shopping and even Spanish language classes. There are also troops of howler monkeys that you can’t miss right in and around town, short hikes with lovely vistas that you can take and other nearby beaches such as the secluded Playa Barrigona (“Mel Gibson’s Beach”) to explore.

 

We only had 4 nights here so I’m sure there are other gems to be discovered in Sámara. We sure hope to return!

In Search of the Resplendent Quetzal

On a bit of a whim, we decided to spend a weekend up in the highlands near some of the tallest peaks in Costa Rica and the picturesque town of San Gerardo de Dota (about 2 hours south of San José on the Interamericana). We wanted to explore the cloud forest, enjoy some hiking and possibly even sight the elusive quetzal. So we booked an AirBnB (why don’t they have a loyalty program!?!), a ‘rustic cabin’ in the mountains, and jumped on the road Friday afternoon.

The drive there was gorgeous once we exited the San José sprawl and Cartago (the former capital) and started to climb into the mountains.

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We stayed in the tiny community of La Esperanza at about 7,000 feet and were enjoying the much cooler temps as it was such a change from Atenas and the coasts…until evening came and it got downright chilly. Good thing we brought extra blankets and the cabin had a fireplace so we could stay warm. I secretly wished I had a hat and gloves. Oscar still insisted on wearing shorts except for this first photo. The boy runs hot.

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The first morning we hooked up with a local guide named Luis who lives in the same community where we were staying and took us to his property for a bird-watching hike. There are a number of aguacatillo trees there which is the main food source for quetzals so he sees them often. Unfortunately, we weren’t so lucky, but it was a gorgeous place with amazing views, centuries old beautiful oak trees, and wild blackberries that the kids couldn’t stop eating.

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We then headed to the peaceful town of San Gerardo de Dota also known as the ‘Alps of Costa Rica.’ It’s a tiny town along a dead end dirt road with the beautiful Savegre River flowing through it. It offers cute cabins and boutique hotels, a few restaurants and is well known for bird watching and hiking enthusiasts as well as anglers hoping to catch rainbow trout. The drive was beautiful getting there and we enjoyed a fabulous lunch (as fabulous as lunch out with 2 little ones can be) at the lovely Café Kahawa. This was no ordinary café, but a feast for the senses – listening the river babbling alongside, watching the hummingbirds and butterflies dart around, and admiring the beautiful decor and landscaping, not to mention enjoying the delectable ‘trucha al coco’ (fresh grilled trout with a coconut sauce) which Palmer and I both chose and their delicious adult beverages. YUM!

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Our final day included a visit to Parque Nacional Los Quetzales and a short hike. I was thinking there would be more hiking trails there, but there was just one out and back 2k trail from the main entrance. We enjoyed the cool misty walk and moss covered trees, and are already talking about a return trip. It really felt like we were not in Costa Rica anymore!

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This is what we were hoping to experience:

This is as close as we got:

(A beautiful mural on one of the building in La Esperanza and an Oscar original. Haha!)