I can see why San Jose is more of a city that tourists pass through on their way somewhere else rather than the focus of a visit. Still, we saw a couple of museums (kind of!) and had a day trip out of town to La Paz Waterfall Gardens, so our stay had merits. The biggest highlight of this city for us was the dinner at La Terrasse Restaurant, a truly unique dining experience.
When writing about a city, I try to capture an essence of that place, not just what I saw, but what it felt like to be there. I have to admit that this will be difficult for San Jose, mainly due to the sweet woman who was really quite ‘miscast’ as our guide and driver. Maria (not her real name) was personable enough, but her lack of knowledge of the places she took us to, and the fact she was easily distracted by her desire for sweet treats meant that we were left to explore museums without a guide. In some instances, this wasn’t a huge deal – we managed the Costa Rican Art Museum quite nicely without much input (housed in San Jose’s first airport, the building itself was quite lovely), and the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum had decent explanations in English so, again, we managed (while she parked the car and got an ice-cream), but it was the confusion that reigned at the National Museum while she was off getting a chocolate bar that made us sigh. We were exploring the butterfly enclosure and did not realise that at the top of a ramp through a door that appeared to discourage entry laid the museum. So we exited the way we came, to her great surprise, and off we went. It’s quite amusing in hindsight that she thought we had ‘finished’ the whole museum in the 10 minutes it took us to look at the butterflies, and didn’t question this choice. Maybe she was happy to just cross another thing off her list and enjoy her chocolate. She was a funny little character.
So San Jose leaves no great lasting impression, which is certainly not the fault of the city. We did experience the Christmas shopping madness and the traffic that comes with it, and we saw beauty in the architecture of the National Theatre of Costa Rica and the Bellavista Fortress that now houses the National Museum, but we experienced little beyond that.
We certainly LOVED our evening at the French restaurant, La Terrasse. This restaurant is a little tricky for the taxi drivers to find; it’s in a residential part of San Jose in a private home owned by chef Patricia Richer and her husband Gérald. When our cabbie managed to find it (with the help of our phone GPS), Gérald was waiting out the front to ensure we didn’t drive past. From the moment we saw him with his big smile we felt like we were visiting friends for a private dinner. They were entertaining only one other party (they cater to a very small number each evening), which is why it is so important to book well in advance. The dining area was intimate, yet still provided seclusion to the different parties in attendance. Gérald was maître d’, sommelier and waiter, but all the time we felt like we were guests at a dinner party, because he would pause and chat and charm us. The blue cheese and pear tart seduced me for entrée, and this was followed by vegetarian lasagne…the largest individual piece of lasagne I have ever seen, and the most delicious I have ever eaten…and I ate it all! As our group was the last to leave, we had the joy of some extended time with both of our hosts as they shared some very special Armagnac with us, and the broken English/French/Spanish of all parties made for fun conversation.
The next day, our ‘miscast’ Maria took us out on a full day trip, which is when we discovered she was as good a driver as she was a guide. Not only was there revving of engine, clunky gear changes, spinning wheels and hitting speed bumps so that we would’ve flown off the seat if not strapped in, but the real fright came when we turned on a recently graded road that was all dust and gravel. When I saw the windy road sign, I thought ‘uh-oh’ and had a vision flash into my head of us sliding across the road. Five minutes later my premonition became a reality, but luckily the fishtailing didn’t take us into oncoming traffic! Maybe our Maria is an excellent cook?
The day, itself, however, was lovely. We started at Doka Coffee Plantation for a tour, and learned a heck of a lot about coffee production. For instance, I had no idea that the beans were white until they are processed. The darkness (and flavour) is then determined by the roasting time (Doka’s strong espresso gets 20 min, the French roast gets 15 min). The other surprising thing was that they ship some of their unroasted beans to Germany to have the caffeine removed through a hot water filtration process (no chemicals). It costs the company nothing because the German company keeps the caffeinated water and sells it to companies that use it in their soft drinks (Coke, Red Bull, and others of their ilk). Fascinating.
From there we went to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. This place is owned by the company that owns The Springs Resort and Spa (where we stayed in Arenal), which you can tell immediately thanks to the similar décor and the level of service and cleanliness. Quite a menagerie they have there: birds, butterflies, snakes, monkeys, frogs, snakes and wild cats. The wild cat refuge is a new thing at this place, and they say it’s a temporary arrangement, but it looks pretty permanent. The sister of the handsome puma from The Springs was there, with her mate and 2 one year old cubs (although the male is in a separate enclosure). There were ocelots and margays as well who seemed pretty content, but the male jaguar looked particularly unhappy with his pacing.
A substantial buffet lunch was included in the entry price, and that provided sustenance to continue our downhill wandering. The waterfalls themselves were exhilarating, and the walk down to them through the rainforest was lovely. But after the strolling and steep decline, we were very grateful for the shuttle bus back to the reception! This is a great attraction for people of various mobility statuses – as long as you can handle a few stairs going down, you’re fine.
Our final dinner in San Jose was had at Tin Jo Asian Restaurant, and we kicked off the evening with a ginger margarita – unusual, but very tasty. A bottle of cool viognier was the perfect accompaniment for our edamame and vegetarian Thai green curry, which was all fresh and flavoursome. The only problem was that our waiter forgot to mention when he was knocking off for the night that there were no more orders to the kitchen after 9pm – so no coffees or dessert. Had to go back to the hotel for that…and a cognac.