Stacey Auch walks down Calle 19 with the coolness of someone who has lived here an entire lifetime. Motioning to the old Atlantic Train Station, she mentions the mayor’s plans to construct a metro train in the city by 2014. Farther down the street, she points to the colorful wall on the right covered with vivid graffiti. Then the 29-year-old San José resident begins to talk about the city’s urban revitalization plan.
“Barrio Escalante has an urban plan,” Auch says. “They’re planting new trees, doing new walkways. You’re going to be able to walk from the San Pedro Mall, through Barrio Escalante, all the way down this street and into the city center.”
Auch, a native of the U.S. state of Indiana and former resident of Tucson, Arizona, moved to San José almost two years ago and has been giving walking tours of the city since last February. The tours aim to help people get to know a positive side of San José and to experience the cultural richness of the city, in light of its reputation as a crime-ridden, dirty capital.
“I started the tour business, the walking tours of downtown San José, specifically because I used to be a backpacker here,” Auch says. “So I was the one reading guidebooks, reading that San José is dirty and dangerous, and then I moved downtown and I found all of these really neat buildings and urban street life, culture, icons. And one day I just thought, man, I should really show people this.”
The two-hour tours cost $15 per person and can be arranged by contacting Auch by e-mail or phone. To keep the tour enjoyable and efficient, she doesn’t take more than eight people at any one time. Auch feels “nothing but positive” about the city, and designed the tour to showcase as much cultural diversity as possible.
“They’re really not experiencing San José if all they know and do is walk Avenida Central and go to the National Theater,” Auch says, referring to tourists who generally don’t spend time exploring the city. “That doesn’t even begin to touch the breadth of culture and architecture and history that’s here. So, I was like a spy, and I investigated everything and I did a lot of research and I put together the overview tour that’s a little bit of architecture, art, history and street culture.”
Auch gathers most of her information from talking to people, collecting stories, searching the Internet and using resources such as the Culture Ministry and local newspapers. She says she makes sure her sources are credible and backs up her information by verifying it in numerous places.
The savvy urbanite guides her guests under a concrete bridge to view two opposing walls covered with ceramic tiles and plates. Wise-looking cats adorn one side; a wild, hungry cat chasing a chicken is displayed on the other. These two walls, Auch says, represent the two contrasting sides of San José: the wise, calm side and the dangerous one.
Farther on, she guides guests to a street corner where eclectic styles of architecture can be seen from each corner. The Casa Amarilla, a bright yellow building that houses the Foreign Ministry, stands across from a contrasting, old, gray, Gothic-style building that is home to a fashion store, a café and residences.
Auch then leads her followers to an old, decrepit mansion that was built in 1905 and is currently in the midst of a legal battle in the city, she explains. Weeds and ferns grow out of the sides of the building, and trash and debris are scattered over the ground out front. Broken windows display a spacious interior, and the building’s majestic structure hints at a grand past. The house is known as Casa Jiménez. Auch explains it is one of the few houses in San José built in the art nouveau style, which is known for taking nature as a design element. Culture Ministry officials recently came to look at the run-down mansion, Auch says, adding that she hopes the building will be restored.
Later, the tour guide speaks of the government’s efforts at restoration throughout the city.
“There are things continually happening to improve the city, whether it’s the city itself or the Ministry of Culture funding restorations of historic buildings,” Auch says. “I’d say in the last year, at least 10 major buildings were completed or restored. So that says a lot, I think, about what the government cares about.”
Auch says the biggest challenge of her tours is getting Costa Ricans to believe again in San José being a nice place.
“When I tell people I do tours of downtown San José, Costa Ricans will say, ‘Of what? What do you show people? It’s not a nice city.’ So I want Costa Ricans to reclaim San José for themselves again,” she says.
Despite the many negative opinions about San José, Auch continues to feel quite the opposite.
“I live in the city. I walk these streets every day, and I always arrive home happy,” she says. “There’s good energy here. There’s a lot of potential. I see the government care, like investing money in its buildings and making the streets better.”
Most of all, Auch has a passion for the work she does and enjoys sharing it with others.
“I get to show people every day the things I love about the city,” she says. “I remind myself every day why I love San José, why I want to be here.”
… and yoga, too
In addition to her walking tours, Auch is also launching the Downtown Yoga Studio as part of her efforts at urban revitalization. The studio, located in the historic Barrio Amón neighborhood, will offer a variety of yoga classes throughout the week, as well as aromatherapy massages. She also plans to host films and showcase art on the studio walls, working with contemporary Costa Rican artists who sell their art and fashion. The studio is on Calle 7, between Avenidas 5 and 7, building 735, third floor.
Yoga prices are ¢5,000 ($10) for a full day of classes; ¢10,000 ($20) for 10 classes; ¢4,200 ($8.40) a week; ¢15,000 ($30) a month; and ¢165,000 ($330) a year (one month free).
Tour package options include: A Day in San José, one-hour yoga or fitness class, one-hour massage, two-hour city tour and lunch, $65; tour, one-hour massage and choice of yoga class or lunch, $60; tour and one-hour massage, $50. A two-hour city tour costs $15 per person.