San José, the capital city of Costa Rica, is really the only “city” in the country. Oh sure, there is Alajuela, with perhaps 100,000 folks living in its center and its suburbs, but this provincial capital itself is in the metropolitan area of San José – only 18 kilometers northwest as the macaw flies.
Another provincial capital, Heredia, is only 11 kilometers north of San José. It is a college town of about 50,000 residents. The provincial capital of Cartago, population around 70,000, is a mere 22 kilometers to the south.
One-third of all the people in Costa Rica live in the San José metropolitan area. Once you travel a bit more than 25 kilometers from San José, however, you are in the country. Indeed, some tiny pieces of “country” are quite evident within the metropolitan region itself.
You cannot think in United States terms when you speak of a “metropolitan area” here. For example, there is a quiet, little country town called Santo Domingo that seems a hundred miles from the city. Yet, it is within five kilometers of the center of San José. To get there, you travel a winding, mountainous road, crossing a deep canyon and its river.
You can live in the “campo” (country) here, have lunch in the city with little effort, and then return to the tranquility of home in time for your afternoon nap. I did that yesterday. Traveling from my small city of Grecia to San José takes about an hour on the bus.
I enjoy going to the “big city” (and it IS big: population 1.5 million at least) for a taste of what big cities throughout the world have to offer. Although enjoying Chepe is an acquired taste, it can provide much pleasure once you get to know it well. (“Chepe” is what those in-the-know call San José.)
There are excellent restaurants to be discovered in several delightful neighborhoods of San José. Try wandering through the streets of Barrio California, popping into any place that you choose.
Although much of San José’s legitimate theater is of the sex-comedy variety, there remain many other productions that are presented with thought and style in tiny theaters scattered about the city. The national theater company does superb work. The symphony is top-class as well. Want to see the latest Hollywood epic? San José is the place.
Of course, life on the streets of the city is hustle and bustle and chaos and noise and smog and crazy drivers and potholed sidewalks and vendors blocking your way. It all makes one appreciate the “tranquilo” life at home in the “campo” even more.
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