My first foray into Central America and life back on the “not being in the US” plan commenced with an easy jaunt from Tucscon to the Phoenix airport. There’s a really convenient shuttle from Tucson directly to the airport, and it stops a mere 1 block away from my friends’ house I was staying at, so that RULED super hard. After years of diligent use of airline credit cards for frequent flyer miles, I paid a mere $12 for airport taxes & fees for a free one-way ticket from Phoenix to San Jose, Costa Rica. Surprisingly-but-unsurprisingly, there was no food on this 5-hour international flight. US-based airlines have become appallingly cheap these days. I almost had to pay to check a bag (on an international flight!), because I had received a free ticket, but I talked my way out of the $25 baggage fee through some “Does this really meet the common sense factor?” discussion with the employees.
San Jose. It was humid and warm when I departed the airport, exacerbated by the fact that I always fly in long sleeves and long pants, to cover my tattoos, since I always get stopped for extra screening when showing my tattoos. Apparently, tattoos set off the metal detector. Technology…
Anywho, there’s a convenient bus directly behind the parking garage at the San Jose airport (go left along the sidewalk toward where the cars are entering the area, then bear right behind the parking garage to find the bus stop). You want the buses on the near side of the road. These head into downtown. You can pay US Dollars or Colones anywhere in Costa Rica, and the bus costs a mere 75 cents roughly (exchange rate) for the ride to the downtown transit terminal Parada Alajuela, near Parque de la Merced. A taxi will charge you $20-30, so don’t even talk to them. It’s a waste. Depending on where you’re going in the city, you can walk or take a taxi from here. Locals can also help you determine where to get off the bus before the terminal, assuming you’re trying to get to the west side of the city, since the buses approach from the northwest, where the airport is.
I took a taxi for less than $2.50 (including a tip) to Hostel Van Gogh, near the intersection of Calle 7 & Avenida 7. In San Jose, the Avenidas run East-West, and Calles run North-South. Calles with odd numbers are east of the main boulevard (Calle Central), and even numbers are to the west. Simple trick for help you find your way around. Hostel Van Gogh is an awesome little hostel obsessed about developing itself as a reputable hostel. The owner has no problem giving people a refund and asking them to leave, because he lives there, also, and he doesn’t want to deal with awful humans, and this is refreshing. Knowing that obnoxious drunks won’t be stumbling into your room and making noise in the middle of the night helps you sleep better. The beds were comfortable, the hostel is centrally located, and security was good. The breakfast left a little to be desired for vegans (American sugary cereals with milk=out; white bread with sugar-added jam=in, but not desirable or filling), but it was an overall good spot to stay, and it’s only 1.5 blocks from a vegetarian café. Bonus! Also, the owner speaks like 6 languages fluently and is a geography master (we talked about small towns in America he’s never visited but knows from studying maps), so we bonded over this subject matter. What a guy.
I spent two days walking all around the city, hitting the four quadrants in a systematic approach: northeast the first morning, southeast that afternoon, northwest the second morning, and southwest that afternoon. There are TONS of pedestrian-only areas near the center of the city, and these are full of life at all times. In the evenings, between 5-7pm, you can see a dramatic shift in these areas as locals-oriented shops close up, and the crowd becomes tourist-focused, then another shift around 9-11pm, as the remaining stores close, and the crowd becomes nightclub-oriented.
My favorite part of the city was the inner northwest, which includes the area near my hostel. Watch street performers (and those practicing their skills to become street performers) at the Parque Morazan (Av 3 & Calle 7) and check out an area with TONS of AMAZING street art near Av 7 & Calle 13.
Vegan food round-up:
The Susbida café at Avenida 7 & Calle 5 opens around 11 or 11:30 each day and closes around 4pm (I never could figure out their exact hours), so it’s basically a lunch spot. It’s vegetarian Chinese food, but it’s not anything spectacularly. They’re really friendly and were stoked that I had found them on HappyCow.net (shameless plug: great website!). They understand veganism and were friendly helping me figure out what’s what. I’m honestly writing this after much has passed, so I don’t remember what I actually ordered. I remember thinking it was good, not incredible, but I’d go again.
Where I wouldn’t go again: Vishnu. I went to the location at Av 1 & Calle 3 and ordered “plata del dia,” and I got something else entirely. Yes, my Spanish is a work-in-progress, but I can communicate enough to tell the waitress that I wanted the “plata del dia, con frijoles, pero sin queso.” I somehow got lasagna. WTF. It was vegan, so I ate it, but I’m not a huge fan of lasagna in its original form, let alone when people try to church it up with a bunch of vegetables. Everything comes with a free pastry, but attempting to communicate with the staff about eggs & milk (plus their lack of understanding of actual vegetarian concepts, like why lard wouldn’t be vegetarian, even though you’re not eating anything resembling meat) made trying to determine whether any pastries were vegan pointless, because I felt like I’d get a “yes” that probably should be a “no,” so I skipped the process altogether. Imagine the shocked looks on the employees’ faces when a gringo turns down a dessert that’s included in the price of the meal. You also get a free drink in the price of the meal, and the lemonade is definitely good. All in all, Vishnu (multiple locations) isn’t BAD, but it’s not GOOD, either. It’s meh, plain and simple. Dying and can’t find vegetarian offerings anywhere else? Fine, go here. Not close to collapsing from starvation? Find something else. Also, make sure your Spanish is on point, or you will be using a lot of hand gestures.
I also ate at a local spot on Av 7 just east of my hostel for my first meal, after dropping my bags and finding the nearest thing still open, because I was famished. This was an upscale, touristy spot (Menu in English? Expect to pay more.), and it was my first lesson that Central Americans include eggs on your plate whenever possible. The “arroz vegetariano” came with scrambled eggs on the side, which I could pick around, but it was still a bummer to receive an item not listed on the menu and that I didn’t want/to which I am ethically opposed. Lesson learned. “Sin huevos” needs to be in your vocabulary for Central America.
My last night in town, I missed the closing of Susbida and couldn’t stomach the idea of Vishnu, so I wandered around looking for other options. I found an Egyptian café (Al Masri) on Av 7 between Calles 3 & 5, and the falafel plate with hummus, tahini, salad & pita was god, filling, and inexpensive. Lemonade again (notice a trend?), and the family was really stoked that I greeted them with “Assalamu Alaykum” and knew to say “shuqran” as “thank you.” My only two Arabic phrases were enough to put smiles on their faces in a foreign culture far from their homeland, so that’s a positive.
Next up: journey to La Fortuna, further north in Costa Rica.