Welcome to my blog! Here I will share what it’s like to live in San José, Costa Rica as a gringa (a person from the U.S.).
Here in San José, I have found that more people than not go out of their way to say hello to you. In the morning it’s “buenos días.” Sometimes it gets shortened to “buenas,” a term that means hello/good day, which can be used any time of the day: morning, afternoon, or evening.
Whether you are in the car, or dodging the car while walking, transportation is pretty crazy in this city.
I’d say one of the most important things to know before coming to San José is that pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way. There is no such thing as a car slowing down or coming to a stop for you to cross the street. Some people even kid around and say that drivers speed up if they see that you are a gringo, but who is to say that’s just a joke.
I am currently living in Barrio Cordoba, about a 25 minute walk from the city’s center. I’ve had a couple month’s practice considering every morning on my walk to school I have to cross a highway. Although one time I didn’t realize that the street parallel to the highway was two-way and actually almost got my foot run over by a car. It wasn’t going to stop, so thank god my friend pulled me back. If nothing else does, Costa Rica will teach you how to cross a busy road.
When you’re not a pedestrian, you’re probably a passenger in a crazy taxi or bus. This is quite an experience, too. First thing, honking your horn is used for just about any means of communication in San José, and most of the country. If you don’t know how to use your horn, I don’t recommend you drive in Costa Rica. Cutting someone off isn’t a personal offense like in the States. Most people cut around other drivers and honk to say “thanks!”
Second, bumps and holes in the road are no joke. Drivers of buses and cars do not simply roll right over, or orientate the car so that the pothole passes underneath, but they swerve away from the pothole completely, so that the car is practically zig-zagging down the entire road. To make it even better, speed bumps are strategically placed all throughout the neighborhood streets.
Sidewalks go pretty hand in hand with the streets. The second week I was in Costa Rica I went for a morning run, like I had so many times at home. I do not know how it happened but I tripped on the sidewalk, fell, rolled, and scraped my knee and hands. Thank god no one saw because it was ugly. My 2 knuckles were all bloody and cut up. It’s week 8 and I have 2 scars, one on my left ring finger and one on my pinky finger. It’s okay though because I laugh about it now. I have a scar from running on the sidewalks in Costa Rica, not the worst thing that could have happened.
My recommendation: Use Uber if you have the option, rather than a taxi. Uber is actually illegal here in Costa Rica, however everyone uses it. It’s a nicer car than a taxi, it’s cheaper, and you can’t get ripped off.
Food, food, food
I love yummy food, who doesn’t? In San José, “sodas” are where you want to eat. No, not soda like Coca-a-Cola (those are called “refrescos” in spanish). Sodas are small, family-owned, inexpensive, restaurants that serve typical Costa Rican food. Some sodas are dingy and gross, but the really good ones are really good. Authentic food, cooked fresh, served with the fresca of the day, and most of the time you get a big plate of food for anywhere between 2.500-3.500 colones ($4.50-$6.50). Typically your options at a soda are casados with whatever meat you want: beef, chicken, or fish. However it’s very easy to ask for a vegetarian casado. They simply just give you a little bit more of everything else! It’s delicious and filling!
Because my fellow gringos and I commute to our international school every day, we get to know the streets and nearby in and outs. During the first month, we had a 4-hour intensive Spanish course Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.-12 p.m. At 10 a.m. every day we were allowed a half hour break at which time my friends and I would venture down the street to a Mini Super (a local chain convenient store- equivalent to a 7-11). On our way we would pass Maria’s place, Emme Cafe, Cafe Brulé, and a tiny little sandwhich place that no one actually knows the name of so we all just call it “The French Bakery.”
Mary’s Place is indeed run by Mary, and occasionally she has one other women helping her make the food. This quaint, little soda has a welcoming atmosphere, and not to mention delicious food. Maria is so sweet and accommodating. She has several times prepared me a completely vegan casado and it always costs me just C2.500. One of the cheapest, yet most delicious sodas I know around.
Grani-Ticos is another soda I have to give a lot of credit to. These restaurant owners are actually host parents to one of my fellow U.S. students, and their house kitchen is attached to the restaurant. Inevitably you feel welcome and at home when eating here. Carlos and his wife are so genial and friendly, and have also prepared me vegan casados with pleasure. Grani-Ticos is equally as cheap as Maria’s place. Which one I prefer usually just depends on the day!
Although typical Costa Rican food is in fact simple to prepare vegetarian, I have to say that I am disturbed by the amount of fast food chains that exist here, and quite surprised at the lack of veg-friendly restaurants. Instead there are a great deal of McDonald’s, Pizza Huts, and Taco Bells that satisfy some people’s appetites, but not mine. I surely thought living in the city would guarantee me innumerable charming little cafes with vegan options, but I was wrong. However, that does not mean they do not exist. You just need to look:
I actually found one while watching TV with my Mama Tica. They were interviewing one of the owners of a recently opened veg-friendly restaurant in downtown. One weekend when a large group of my friends left the country to Nicaragua and/or Panama, I decided to venture to downtown solo. Once I leave my house I do not get internet, and directions in Costa Rica are already confusing, therefore it took me about 2 hours before I finally came across the hidden restaurant called Cafe 13•30.
I took my friends back with me for lunch one day and I was so excited to finally try the plátano burger I had been craving since the day I saw it on TV. The entrance to the cafe is this expensive bohemian clothing store. But then you continue and there’s a counter with delicious-looking postres (desserts), and tables beyond that.
Before I talk about the food, let me tell you about las bebidas (the drinks)! I ordered the arándano menta (cranberry mint), and it was super yummy and refreshing! Not to mention that it was served in a pretty little mason jar! To eat, I ordered the Veggiesimo burger. The staff was so friendly and helplful to me and my friends who had questions about spanish ingredients, and the food came out pretty quickly. This restaurant serves meat burgers, wraps, sandwiches, and salads, but also has a veg version of everything!
For dessert, I ordered a piece of their dairy-free, egg-free carrot cake! Yes, one of my favorite desserts of all time! This carrot cake may have been the best I have ever had. The only thing I wished when I was leaving this place was that I could fit more food in my stomach. A spectacular meal, great service, and cozy atmosphere. I highly recommend Cafe 13•30.
A really great thing about San José is that the water is safe! Yes, it’s true. Drinking water from the faucet is safe and clean in the city. It’s when you leave the city, especially when traveling to the coasts, that you must be careful. When I leave San José for the weekend, I usually just play it safe and purchase water bottles near the coast.
This probably applies to all of Costa Rica, but I’m going to tell it from the perspective of living in a home in San José. Fruit flies, gnats, and ants basically live in the house with you. Seeing a bug flying through the air while I’m sitting on the couch or eating dinner has become something that does not phase me in the slightest. Costa Rica is quite warm, and then it rains— so it’s usually moist and humid outside. Bugs love that! Especially when you have fruits and veggies sitting on your counter. Despite growing accustom of those types of bugs, I don’t know if I will ever get used to the cucarachas (cockroaches). I was lucky enough to not see one until living here almost a month. I saw on the wall of the bathroom and had to do a double take because this bug was the size of my palm. It’s hard to decide what to do because they move super fast, so if you touch it it will run at you. But if you kill it, you have to hear the crunch of it’s body. So what did I do?… I left it there!
When I came to Costa Rica, one of the most important things for me was how I was going to exercise daily. I wanted to go running, but in the beginning I obviously didn’t know my way around as well as now, so that didn’t work out too often. I was hesitant to join the gym because even with a student discount it was about $35/month. After several weeks of a being sedentary I finally paid for a month at Gorgo Angulo Fitness in Zapote. It’s about a 12 minute walk from where I live, and they offered yoga, dance, and spinning classes! I really enjoyed the gym for a month, but after 4 weeks I decided not to spend more money on it. I knew the area well enough now that I could easily just live out the rest of my time with running routines.
The inclines and uneven streets of San José make for an intense, organic workout . You don’t realize how hard you have to work just to run uphill and downhill. I always go running when it’s light out, preferably early in the morning before it becomes too hot. My Mama Tica also recommended daytime for obvious reasons such as safety (safety just meaning against petty theft). I usually only carry my keys on my run with me, no phone or anything else. I’ve realized that you have to work with what you got. I do not need a gym to workout. Some of my fellow international students may argue that they need the gym and that the money is worth it to them. For me, I would rather find other ways to stay in shape and save the money.
Grow Juice Bar
So after a workout I often go to this place right next door to the gym called Grow Juice Bar. They have energizing smoothies and organic fruit drinks that they prepare freshly right in front of you. My favorite juice to order is papaya, piña (pineapple), and banano (banana), with soy protein powder. They also offer coffee, tea, and milkshakes, all reasonably priced.