When Belkis Cortés, tireless promoter of the new Tico Walks, approached me with an offer to tag along on one of its two-hour walking tours – educational trips designed to highlight the “architectural and cultural beauty” of Costa Rica’s capital city – I was suspicious.
This was San José, after all, a place heralded by Lonely Planet travel guides as a “necessary evil” before headed to more “virtuous landscapes.”
Cortés sensed my hesitation immediately. “You’d be surprised how much you’ll learn that you didn’t know,” she assured me.
Images of rotting, fly-splattered trash, endless, honking traffic and decrepit, paintchipped buildings raced through my mind.
“Oh, really? Like what?” I asked.
I’d long ago learned to detour around treacherous sidewalk ditches, trick sewage covers and kamikaze bus drivers. I carried my wallet in my front pocket, and I knew to stay away from the Coca-Cola bus station area at night.What more could there be?
“Well,” she said, “did you know there is a piece of the Berlin Wall in San José?” No, I didn’t – and now I was interested.
Tico Walks run four times weekly, departing at 10 a.m. from the National Theater on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. The two-hour tour costs just $10.
The idea, hatched last year, according to Cortés, was to establish a different kind of tour in San José, and give people the opportunity to see the city on foot, at a slower pace – a requirement, she said, for discovering the city’s hidden secrets.
“There are lots of bus tours,” Cortés said.
“But walking the city gives you a very different
Our tour guide was Laura Cruz, a spunky, backpack-toting college student from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) with a deep love of her city.
Our group – a retired lawyer and a chocolatier from the U.S. state of Texas, a retiree who’d lived in Costa Rica for more than 20 years, and the head of a local Spanish-language school – unanimously agreed that anyone who could get as excited as Laura about the splendors of San José was worth spending at least two hours with – and off we went.
The walk began with a short discussion about the National Theater, with its stately columns out front and marble staircases and cocobolo hardwood floors inside.
The well-known San José landmark, explained Cruz, was built in 1897, funded by an export tax on coffee, and has since been a powerful symbol of national and city pride.
It seats 1,040 people in a grandiose auditorium decorated in gold and festooned with paintings from the 19th century.
Our next stop was the Metropolitan Cathedral, rebuilt in1871 after an earthquake destroyed the original. After a bit of history about the building and its many reincarnations after subsequent earthquakes, Cruz took us inside and explained the importance of Catholicism to the country.
She pointed out a set of candles on the south wall, and explained that Catholic tradition is to light a candle and say a prayer for friends or family.
These candles, however, had a unique Costa Rican twist. The light emanated from a bulb, not a flame, to prevent smoke from damaging the ceiling in the cathedral. Each of the 100 or so electric candles was locked securely in a display case, with an arcadestyle coin slot below.
To speak with God in San José, the charge is ¢50 ($0.10).
History on Foot
Catholicism, we were told, is one of few things San José has in common with its Spanish motherland. Colonial Spanish architecture, common in Panama and Nicaragua, is as rare as street signs downtown, Cruz explained.
Cartago, 30 minutes to the east of San José, harbors most of what little Spanish colonial architecture has survived in the country.
Frequent earthquakes, Cruz explained, have remodeled the city’s architectural landmarks time and time again – hence the hodgepodge of styles and eras so frequently seen from the city’s crowded streets, and the lack of truly historic buildings.
Unlike Panama City, whose skyline is more reminiscent of New York than most Central American cities, San José’s buildings are mostly squat, two-story affairs, with but a few exceptions downtown.
According to Tico Walks co-founder Cynthia Walsh, the tour, which includes dozens of stops in the city center, was designed by historian Julio Fernández, a Fulbright scholar who wrote his thesis on San José. It is intended to highlight the city’s unique mix of architecture and cultural quirks, many of which are unknown even to Ticos.
“What makes this city so interesting, and so different, is the great mix of architecture,” Walsh said. “You have influence here from France, Belgium, Spain, countries all over the world.”
The heart of San José is a stretch of pedestrian boulevard known as Avenida Central. People cram between its tall buildings and storefronts like legions of ants, funneling in and out of a compelling mix of pharmacies, clothing stores, restaurants, pawnshops and typical window-front sodas, mom-and-pop eateries.
We stopped for a minute to people-watch, one of the city’s most compelling tourist activities, according to Cruz.
A Different Approach
Once off Avenida Central and winding our way down other shady avenidas and calles, we headed past the Central Post Office and eventually to a huge metal building, the Escuela Metálica, with students dressed in primped brown uniforms playing out front.
“The metal for this building was shipped here from Brussels. It’s now a school (Buenaventura Corrales),” explained Cruz, who added that the metal was among the few materials that could withstand the country’s frequent earthquakes.
As we continued on, we noticed buildings in various states of disrepair: the Central Post Office with paint chipping from its sides and the abandoned former French Embassy, with grass and odd tropical plants growing out of cracks in its walls, among others.
It was obvious that some had once been quite beautiful, as Cruz assured us, but that lack of funding, earthquakes and the rigors of the tropical environment had taken their toll.
As the tour came to an end, we visited quiet parks shaded by sprawling mango and avocado trees, then strolled through historic Barrio Amón, an upscale neighborhood home to the Foreign Ministry and the Mexican Embassy.
In contrast to the hodgepodge of architecture we’d seen earlier, houses here were brightly colored, in true tropical fashion, and palms and flowers adorned the lush patios and front yards.
When we came to the Foreign Ministry, known as the Casa Amarilla (Yellow House), I noticed an odd chunk of jagged concrete positioned smack in the middle of the ministry’s front yard.
Anywhere else, it would have seemed strangely out of place. But here, amidst the chaos of San José, it seemed to fit right in.
I asked Cruz what it was.
“The Berlin Wall,” she said.
Contact Tico Walks
Tico Walks can arrange tours for school, business and travel groups, in addition to its regularly scheduled walks. For more information, call 283-8281 or 234-8575, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.ticowalks.com.