For those who have never stepped foot in a hostel, the very idea of anything other than a proper “hotel” can raise apprehension. For me, an 18-year-old wannabe globe-trotter just out of high school, it was no different.
Though I fit the demographic of the backpacking, soul-searching young person who typically patronizes hostels, I was a little skeptical about the offerings in Costa Rica’s grimy capital city of San José.
Over the past three months, my preconceptions were tested as I visited more than a dozen urban hostels as part of an assignment for The Tico Times. I traveled from peaceful locales set in the tranquility of eastern San José’s Los Yoses neighborhood to party shacks in the bustle of historic Barrio Amón. With each place I visited, my prior notions of run-down lodgings full of shady characters gradually transformed.
The hostels I visited offer travelers passing through the capital not only cheap, safe accommodations, but also a means of experiencing the city beyond the air-conditioned, characterless confines of the typical hotel room.
One man described hostels to me as “a place to congregate and exchange ideas,” adding that they provide the opportunity to socialize with people from all walks of life and from all regions of the world.
While I was hostel-hopping, I met people from dozens of countries. Some had landed in Costa Rica to teach English to impoverished children, others to study Spanish in a place where they could be immersed in the language, and still others wanted to explore a country renowned for its diverse ecosystems and beautiful landscapes.
What I found is that there is a hostel for every type of person: the party animals, the hermits, the explorers, the vacationers, the businessmen, the students and the retired. No matter your reason for visiting this wonderful country, there is a hostel in San José for you.
Location: Barrio Amón, Avenida 7, Calle 3
Accommodations: 30 dorm rooms, 25 private rooms, 4 suites (capacity 250)
Cost per night: $13 dorm, $32 private with shared bath, $40 with private bath, $60-70 suite
Good for: A party
Hostel Pangea has all the right ingredients for a bumpin’ party. This is not just a hostel; it’s a bar, a restaurant, a movie theater, a pool and a nightclub. With a stripper pole and a variety of club lights, this rooftop hangout begs you to get your groove on. The bar is fully stocked with every drink imaginable and boasts “the coldest Imperial in San José.”
The best part? Thanks to the tight security system, you don’t have to put up with some of the riffraff that frequent the San José nighttime scene. The party is exclusively “in the house” as only hostel guests are allowed in the complex.
Other cool features are the solar-heated pool, which makes for a balmy swim even on a cloudy day. The movie theater is reinforced with soundproof, double-paned glass so the loud surround sound stays in. And with a capacity for 250 guests, Pangea hosts an eclectic mix of travelers from many cultures, all mingling together.
Pangea sets the bar high among hostels in the city. The spring – not foam – mattresses are replaced once a year, the doors feature electronic locks, and the hot water is piped, not heated by an electric showerhead attachment. All the walls are decorated with colorful murals.
Costa Rica Backpackers
Location: Barrio La California, Avenida 6, Calle 21/23
Accommodations: 13 dorm rooms, 32 private rooms (capacity 145)
Cost per night: $13 dorm, $32 private
Good for: A balance of sleep and celebration
Costa Rica Backpackers manages to provide the best of both worlds: a party and a tranquil retreat. The party scene is based in the Mochila Bar, while the rooms allow guests some semblance of peace. The lineup of live bands, DJs and reggae music is lively, and at 10 p.m. the place fills up with a nice mix of Ticos and international guests. The bar is open until 2 a.m., and at any point you can walk 100 feet to a nice quiet area in the hostel.
On Sundays, when the bar is closed, the hostel has a movie night with films selected from its DVD library. During the day, the Mochila Bar offers an international menu at reasonable prices.
The hostel features a tropical courtyard with a pool in the center, so even though you are hours from the beach, you can still work on that tan. There are also several computer stations, a TV room and plush couches throughout the building.
Services include laundry for only $2 per kilo, international calls for 20 cents a minute and free storage for up to three months. Group rates and transportation are available.
Daniela Carvajal, hostel manager, said the staff aims to help guests feel comfortable, giving them “a little relaxation in the city” in a place to be “away from the smog for a little bit.”
Casa del Parque Hostel
Location: Barrio La California, northeast corner of Parque Nacional
Accommodations: 3 dorm rooms, 3 private rooms (capacity 25)
Cost per night: $8-13 dorm, $22-42 private
Good for: A place to take the family
If I were traveling with my family, this is the place I would go. It is definitely not a party hostel. Owner Federico Echeverría strives to provide a place that is clean, comfortable and calm, and Casa del Parque is just that.
The house is a renovated Spanish Revival-style home with a mid-century modern interior. The interior design is very aesthetically pleasing, with various pieces of art throughout. Hoping to associate his space with art and culture, Echeverría aims to host art exhibits and shows at the hostel. Future plans include adding a small restaurant in the courtyard.
Among the amenities are a fully stocked kitchen, free Wi-Fi, laundry for $10 a load, a TV room with cable and DVD player, free storage, board games, a book exchange, hot water, real mattresses and cozy hangout areas. Staff members can facilitate tours, car rentals and transportation.
The hostel is close to museums, the National Library and other attractions. Security is not an issue here. The front gate is on 24-hour video surveillance. Inside the hostel, I personally felt safe enough to leave my stuff lying around and felt no need to lock my room.
Casa del Parque is a very tranquil and personable hostel where you are not just a number; you are part of the family.
Location: Los Yoses, 250 meters west of Spoon restaurant
Accommodations: 9 dorm rooms, 8 private rooms (capacity 110)
Cost per night: $13 dorm, $19-38 private
Good for: A wide selection of activities
Casa Yoses was already a great hostel, but recent additions may make it one of the best in the city. Manager María Eugenia Cenni said the hostel is in the process of installing a convenience and souvenir store and a new wing complete with more rooms, an Argentinean restaurant and a cinema.
The hostel is currently equipped with two TV rooms, a game room with foosball and pool tables, several computer stations and lush gardens with chill hangout spots. The new wing, named Collage, is furnished with comfy couches, artwork, Jacuzzis and bathtubs. A notable installment is the gallery of guests, with people in famous locations all over the world holding signs reading “Casa Yoses” with the direction and the distance to the hostel.
Besides the relaxed atmosphere and great location, many other features set this hostel apart: wheelchair accessibility, buffet-style complimentary breakfast of toast, jam, cereal, milk, coffee, tea and fruit, a small library, board games and laundry service at $6 a trash bag.
La Damajuana restaurant, which opened Dec. 1, serves a wide selection of food, but specializes in Argentine dishes. Both the restaurant and coming movie theater will be open to the public.
The staff is accommodating and welcoming, and the location is safe and agreeable.
Location: Los Yoses, 325 meters west of Spoon restaurant
Accommodations: 4 dorm rooms, 5 private rooms (capacity 52)
Cost per night: $13 dorm, $32-38 private
Good for: Making you feel at home
Hostel Bekuo creates an atmosphere of belonging. The friendly staff makes a point of spending time with guests. When I was walking around the hostel, I couldn’t tell who was a staff member and who was a guest. Hostel manager Stephanie Crephead said the hostel is “more like a home, not party central. … It’s what brings people back.”
Various hangout areas allow travelers to mingle and include a TV room with a large plasma screen, DVD player and complete DVD library, and a game room with several board games, a book exchange, a pool table and Wii with GarageBand on a large TV. There are two computer stations and Wi-Fi. In the center of the hostel is a nice garden with several seating areas and hammocks.
A night’s stay includes free breakfast of pancakes, coffee, pineapple and tea, and the hostel has a fully stocked kitchen for guest use. Barbecues are held once a week. Guests are offered free towels and free calls to the U.S. and Canada.
In&Basic Hostel Lounge
Location: Los Yoses, 300 meters south and 75 meters west of Spoon restaurant
Accommodations: 5 dorm rooms, 4 private rooms (capacity 50)
Cost per night: $11-13 dorm, $30-34 private
Good for: Budget travelers
This new hostel offers the most bang for the traveler’s buck.
For $11 a night, you get many of the standard hostel amenities as well as some that are not usually included. In&Basic offers free towels, plush couches, a plasma-screen TV and an Xbox 360 with several games and DVDs. Two computers are available for guest use, and Wi-Fi reaches every nook and cranny. Just beyond the TV room is a hangout area with a book exchange, magazines and board games. There is also a hookah offered for $5 a bowl. The outside garden area is a pleasant place to have breakfast or a barbecue. Guests have full use of the hostel’s kitchen. Van service to or from the airport is offered for just $10.
In&Basic is conveniently located in a safe area two blocks from Mall San Pedro, close to several bars, a bowling alley and other attractions. Owners Ron Manger and Karlis Macias view the hostel as a place “to meet other people and learn about the world.”
Molino Rojo Hostel
Location: Paseo Colón, Calle 32, diagonal to KFC
Accommodations: 2 dorm rooms, 10 private rooms
Cost per night: $10 dorm, $30 private
Good for: A good time
The Molino Rojo is meant to feel like home, at least to people in their 20s or 30s. It is a place where you can relax, escape stress and do what you want. The hostel has a lounge with a TV equipped with DVD player and sound system and a wide selection of recent films. An Internet lounge offers three computers, and the rooms have Wi-Fi.
The decor is a feast for the eyes, with knickknacks, murals and bumper-sticker humor adorning the walls. Beer and soft drinks are available for purchase. If you can’t find what you are looking for within the grounds of Molino Rojo, the hostel is conveniently located on Paseo Colón near an ATM, restaurants and stores.
Guests wake up to a complimentary breakfast of toast, jam, coffee and tea, and have full access to the kitchen as long as they clean it afterward. A courtyard hangout area features many chairs, tables and hammocks.
The Molino Rojo used to be a hotel, so every room has its own bathroom.
The staff makes sure everything works and has a positive relationship with guests. The hostel plans to have movie nights in the courtyard during high season and often throws parties with DJs and bands.
Location: La Sabana, Avenida 2, Calle 40, 100 meters east of Soda Tapia
Accommodations: 2 dorm rooms, 4 private rooms (capacity 53)
Cost per night: $9-10 dorm, $22-26 private
Good for: Energetic yet homey vibe
This hostel had by far the best energy of the hostels I visited. Its rather eccentric motto, “We are all here because we are not all there,” is reflected in both the staff and the decor. The place is filled with knickknacks and decorations from past parties, emitting a feeling of home, complemented by the friendly staff.
The hotel has a tiki-style bar that offers a “periodic table of drinks” and boasts the “best selection of beer of any bar in the neighborhood,” including its own brew called the Rugged Pineapple. Two plasma TVs show surfing films when there are no sports games on. The bar is open only to guests and friends.
In addition to amenities such as Internet and a common kitchen, the hostel offers free calls to the United States and Canada, use of guitars, a book exchange boasting “the largest Hebrew library in San José” and several animals. Board games and cards are available, as well as a balance board and an extensive DVD library.
All of the staff is required to stay at the hostel, which gives it a more familial vibe: It’s not just where they work; it’s their home, and they invite you to be a part of it.
Mi Casa Hostel
Location: Sabana Norte, 150 meters north of west corner of ICE building
Accommodations: 2 dorm rooms, 13 private rooms
Cost per night: $13 dorm, $30-34 private
Good for: Customer service
This hostel prides itself on great customer service and offers all the standard amenities – towels, cable TV, two computer stations with Internet, a kitchen for guest use and tour information – in addition to pool and foosball tables, books and board games.
Mi Casa owner Roberto De Mezerville has plans to build a pool in the garden area. Smoking is permitted in the garden area, but not in the rooms. Although a party atmosphere is not what hostel management wishes to promote, they allow guests to bring in their own alcohol as long as they don’t get too rowdy.
This is a family-oriented hostel with nice amenities. Like the name suggests, Mi Casa aims to make guests feel at home.
Location: Rohrmoser, 100 meters north and 25 meters south of Te Con Té coffee shop
Accommodations: 2 dorm rooms, 1 private room (capacity 23)
Cost per night: $10 dorm, $15-16 private
Good for: Longer stays
This may be the best hostel for an extended stay in San José. Nómadas is near the new National Stadium and the massive La Sabana Park in western San José. Guests get a true family experience at this hostel, as it is run by husband and wife Gabriel González and Magdalena López, who live at the hostel with their two sons.
Nómadas has all the standard amenities: a computer station, TV room, free Wi-Fi, towels, storage, tour information and a stereo system. A peaceful garden area features hammocks and a patio with a small grill. The kitchen is available for guest use, and a night’s stay includes complimentary breakfast of coffee, toast, jam, juice and fruit. There are also two exercise machines, a piano and free laundry for long-term guests ($1 for those staying a short time).
A relatively new hostel that opened eight months ago, Nómadas is very small and very safe. One guest staying there while I was visiting felt comfortable enough to leave his computer lying around while he was out.