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Gringo hunts cheap beer in San José

From the print edition

There’s no getting around it. Most tourist and expat bars in San José charge a lot of money for beer. 

The popular hotel and prostitution hub, the Del Rey, sells Pilsen for 1,600 ($3.20) a bottle; Chubbs sports bar down the way sells it for 1,200 ($3.40). In any bar targeting the North American and European crowd, you’re less likely to spot a cheap beer than a drunk sloth dangling from the rafters. 

But in a country like Costa Rica, where beer choice usually comes down to Imperial, Pilsen or Bavaria, travelers must ask themselves why they’d be willing to pay almost double for the same product. 

A 1,750 ($3.50) Pilsen at the ritzy Jazz Café tastes the same as a Pilsen at downtown Bar Don Pollo (which translates literally to Mister Chicken Bar) – when, with a little bit of footwork and an adventurous spirit, you can peel back the layers of San José and get to the grime underneath: where middle-aged men in stained white T-shirts sip their beer on ice and spend the afternoon listening to Spanish ballads on the jukebox. This is the heart of San José.

My race to the bottom began in Chinatown, which contains some of the most reasonable beer prices downtown. The Chinatown sector, near Plaza de los Artes, is a little strip of Chinese restaurants and shops carrying a hodgepodge of goods from plastic dragons to cooking spices. The main strip is currently being upgraded to a pedestrian-only boulevard, which will raise the status of the area, and most likely beer prices too.

But for now a 900 ($1.80) Pilsen in Bar Restaurant Huang was no trouble to find. The bar sits in the center of the recently declared Chinese neighborhood, right near – you guessed it – a Chinese restaurant, and across the street from a naughty sex theater. Its sign out front advertises karaoke and brags that it has music videos showing inside. Another surprise: The Pilsen tastes like Pilsen.

Kitty-corner at Bar La Victoria (The Victory) the price of beer drops 50 more. It’s a dimly lit place where everyone seems to know each other. Here, it becomes clear that as the price of beer drops, so too does the amount of natural light inside. La Victoria has black paint on all the windows. But what is more noteworthy is that it hits the 850 ($1.70) sweet spot, a seemingly perfect price for a Pilsen; any cheaper and it gets fuzzy.

There are several great bars in San José that sell 850 beer, such as Rafa’s in Barrio California, a fun student hang out with classic rock music, and the spacious La Embajada (The Embassy) on Avenida 1.

Alfonso Pereira Paz, manager of five bars in the downtown area, including La Victoria and La Embajada, which all sell beer for 850, explained the business model behind the chain of affordable cantinas. He said it is targeted at a San José patron without much expendable income. A typical monthly salary in Costa Rica can be around $500 per month.

“These are some of the best places for the working class to go and have three or four beers before going home, and maybe a little bit of food for dinner too,” Pereira said. “It’s better to have low prices so the people leave happy.”

Pereira´s father immigrated to Costa Rica from Spain and started with a single bar in San José about 50 years ago, and then grew the business. Pereira said that his father is owner of all the buildings where the bars are located, and the liquor licenses too. Even so, considering the 500 bulk price he pays per Pilsen, and the cost of staff, taxes and other expenses, his profit margins are still not huge.

The five bars managed by Pereira have the competitive advantage that they are situated alongside other establishments that generally sell beer at higher prices. But as I ventured past the Parque de las Garantías Sociales, further west on Avenida 6, a strip marked by one-room video arcades, little fried chicken stands and closet-sized shops, I found that the 850 became the standard. The price was displayed frequently on the generic signs outside bars packed side-by-side with names like La Argentina, Bar Colt 47 and Bar Golfiteña. Nobody went above 900 ($1.80).

As I stood in front of a pair of bars deciding which one to enter, I was informed by one employee that the other bar was dangerous and sold beer for 1,000 ($2) – a price that until that day I would have been happy to pay. The dangerous part worried me a bit and I chose to keep walking.

About six blocks from where the street finally ends at Hospital San Juan de Dios, I wandered into Bar 7. Canadian owner Ray Forte bought the place three years ago from a Korean owner. He said the area was not dangerous, and that it has changed for the better over the past few years, following the installation of a surveillance camera at the street corner in front of his bar and increased police presence. Pairs of police officers now stand on every other corner along the avenue.

“At night, though, it’s like anywhere else in the world,” he said. “You have to be on your guard.”

Already selling Pilsen at 900 ($1.80), Forte lamented that he couldn’t think of raising his prices in his neighborhood. He said because of the makeup of his clientele, referring to the large majority of Nicaraguan immigrants that reside in that neighborhood and frequent his bar, the market is very price-sensitive. From a business perspective, he said, he was confused that around the hospital, prices dropped even more. “People will cross the street for 50 less,” he said. 

And they did. Bar El Disco one block west, sells Pilsen for 800 ($1.60) during the day then raises the price to 850 ($1.70) at night. Bar La Gaviota (The Seagull), a block further, championed the consistent 750 ($1.50) Pilsens. It was full and boisterous on a Sunday afternoon, standing room only. 

Moreover, I was informed that if I headed north to a dangerous part of town known as the Red Zone, I could find clandestine haunts selling Pilsen for 700 ($1.40) or less. But I was starting to feel like it was a losing game.

Then, one patron turned to me and shared his thoughts in slurred Spanish on a notably inexpensive price of alcohol. 

“It’s a cheap poison,” he said.

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