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TBT: An oasis for expats in downtown San José

From the 1980s through the early 2000s, San José was an epicenter of entertainment and nightlife for both Costa Ricans and expats.

During those days, the expat community consisted of a whole bevy of colorful characters who would gather at the many local watering holes to shoot the breeze, catch up on local gossip and, above all, playfully joke about any old subject.

One example: The Soda Palace, located on Avenida Segunda and across from the north side of San Jose’s Central Park. For years, it was the gathering place for Ticos and expats. Open 24 hours, you could always find interesting people there.

The famous and the infamous all found their homes at the Soda Palace — the likes of Fidel Castro, Anastasio Somoza (Nicaraguan dictator), Carlos Andrés Pérez (exiled Venezuelan president) and even John F. Kennedy in 1962. Sadly, the Soda Palace closed its doors on Oct. 31, 1999 and with it came the demise of an important part of San José’s history and culture.

Many of the local hangouts in the 1980s were frequented by soldiers of fortune who were involved on the Iran-Contra affair — when the Reagan administration secretly sold weapons to Iran to effect the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon.

Money from the Iran weapons sale then was used to fund the Contras, a group of guerrilla “freedom fighters” opposed to the Marxist government of Nicaragua. Lt. Col. Oliver North, who was one of the key figures in the scandal, was known to have frequented a certain bar near Central Park where many expats hung out in those days.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, some of the well-known expat stomping grounds were Nashville South Bar, Happy Days, Tiny’s Tropical Bar (the country’s first sports bar), El Grupo 19 (co-owned and operated by 19 U.S. citizens), the Star Club, Risas, Our Club, La Bella Dona, Troy’s Hotel and Porky’s.

Old bar scene in San José
Photo via Christopher Howard.

Toward the middle of the 1990s, there was an interesting new phenomena that affected the local bar scene. Expats began to frequent their favorite haunts with wads of money to burn. Where did they suddenly obtain these riches? The source was sometimes the high interest they had earned from a popular local Ponzi scheme called The Bothers.

Until it was closed by the local authorities in 2004, after operating for nearly 20 years, Enrique and Oswaldo Villalobos and company paid their investors  36-42% yearly interest on their money. Too good to be true? It was. In the end, many investors made a lot of money while others ended up losing their shirt and had to return home. To this day, nobody knows what became of Enrique Villalobos or how he really made his money. One thing is for sure: While The Brothers’ business flourished, so too did the local gringo bars and hangouts.

Near the end of the 1990s, the most popular expat watering holes were the Piano Blanco Bar and New New York bars. Both bars were run by the legendary dynamic duo of Pat Dunn and his partner Michael Yafanaro.

Nowadays, it’s possible to experience a bar similar to one from the good old days but with the addition of Internet and satellite TV.

Bar Poás is the gathering spot for many expats and Ticos. Six large screen televisions, soccer banners, flags and other paraphernalia adorn the walls and help to create a warm and unique ambience. On one flat-screen, TV patrons can view a whole slew of music videos from yesteryear. They can even select their favorite video via remote control, so no DJ is needed. On Sundays during the NFL season, there is always a lively crowd watching their favorite teams play. When there are soccer matches, the place fills up with boisterous but friendly beer-drinking Ticos. Expats are always welcome to partake the festivities.

On Tuesday afternoons, a group of long-time expats gathers to have a few cold ones, reminisce and celebrate the great life they have enjoyed over the years in Costa Rica.

The food is good, with a variety of U.S. and Costa Rican fare, and congenial bartenders will do their best to make you feel at home and quench your thirst with a variety of local beers, rum and other spirits.

It’s no Soda Palace, but tourists and expats can experience a slice of the old Costa Rica in a comfortable atmosphere and make some interesting acquaintances in the process.

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