Central America’s eco-adventure playground. When people ask me how to describe it I always say, “It is like Puerto Rico on steroids.” That being said, if possible, you should travel and invest in other places rather than visit this one. Why?
Costa Rica is the most expensive country in Central America and has been transformed into a giant tourist trap. It also lacks personality and the local cuisine is weak. I had the strange feeling of being in an eco-amusement theme park. The top, most expensive restaurants, if placed in other countries like Colombia, Mexico, or even Puerto Rico, would be rated as average. Through the years, young Americans and retirees have driven up prices, significantly affecting the culture and economy.
Many budget travelers skip the country altogether because of how expensive it is when in comparison with their Central American neighbors. I believe it’s a hugely popular destination because social media accounts have made it so. Is it beautiful? Yes! It’s incredibly beautiful: volcanos, rivers, wild life, paradisiacal beaches, and barely any population. The place is the number one destination for the retirement of the rich for a reason. But you can get way more for your money in other Central America cities with similar geography and more distinctive culture.
About 70% of Costa Ricans live in the capital of San Jose and the surrounding central valley cities. That leaves a lot of free wild life space to play and wonder. The city itself isn’t really that great. At night it looks like no man’s land, keeping in mind that most of the population of the entire country is here. There are a couple of nice parks and museums to spend your days in, but other than that there is not that much.
Food in the entire country is below average and expensive, so you might as well eat in the cheap “cantinas” or small cafes. For tourists, San José is honestly a gateway to access the other places where the big eco-attractions are. Come for just a weekend so you can dance with the locals and then hit the road up to the jungle or down to the coast.
Gay City Guide
Costa Rica Gay Parade June 25, 2017
Most of Costa Rica’s gay bars and clubs are centered in San José. If partying and cruising around is what you are more interested in, then you should stay the longest in San José.
The bars and clubs are not the most exciting, although they bring a fairly amount of curious straight guys to them if you are into that. Tico’s (How the locals call themselves) from all over the region come into San José for its nightlife and can drive up to two hours just for a night of fun. Because they are coming sometimes from far towns, you will find bars and especially bathhouses busier earlier than you would expect. The city gets pretty empty at night so be careful. Take a taxi every time you get out of a club. I had an incredible time because I was traveling with my brother and some friends. Not sure how I would’ve felt if traveling alone. Here is a list of the coolest places and which night of the week you should go:
Best Drag shows in town. They have shows most days of the week but the main event usually happens on Wednesday. It is a pretty tiny place and people come here to enjoy a cold beer, a drink, or a show. Not a place to come and dance, although the music is fairly good, playing mainly electronic and dance music. It is popular with locals and queer crowds, including lesbians and trans people. Best day to go is Wednesday or Friday and Saturday as pre-game before hitting the clubs.
Location: Calle 11, 10 and 12 Avenues Central San José, Costa Rica
This cruising party happens in different bars each month and it’s charged with sexual energy. Like most bars in Costa Rica, the venues they choose are usually small and tend to get crowded after 10 pm. Famous for their underwear and boxer parties, people come here to look for a hook up more than anything. Cheap drinks and go-go boys. Parties happen usually on Saturdays.
Location: Check their Facebook page to see each week’s location.
More of a night club, it is famous for their dark rooms and stripper shows. The most popular days to visit are Thursdays and Saturdays. The crowd here is usually younger and mostly gay. Entrance is Free.
Location: Calle 11, San José, Costa Rica near la Casa del Tornillo
Club Venue (Friday)
Having a special place in my heart, Club Venue was the first gay club my brother and I raved all night in our visit to Costa Rica. Incredible music with multiple rooms and VIP areas, the Venue is an incredible spot for locals and tourists alike. Although I have to admit the location of the place is odd, placed on the second floor of a shopping mall, the place is well equipped with top sound and light systems. Will never forget that moment my brother and I took over the stage and did a dance off, and as soon as we came down we were offered a Go Go position at the club. If you have to make it to a dance club in San Jose, Venue and Teatro are your best bets.
Location: San José Province, San Pedro, Costa Rica
Club El Teatro (Saturday)
Hands down the best gay dance club in the country, here is where all the roads lead every Friday and Saturday. Open only on these two days and originally known as Club Oh!, they rebranded and upgraded the venue last year. On my visit, I came here only once and wished I had partied there more. Music is usually dance, electro, and top 40, with some latin tunes here and there. The light effects are really fun and the Go Go dancers were the hottest I saw in all the venues I visited in San Jose. Their drag shows were top of the line as well. The biggest gay venue in town will entertain you for sure.
Location: Avenida 16, San José Province, San José, Costa Rica
La Avispa (Sunday)
This local institution has been open since 1979. A must-see for its historic relevance in the Central America Gay community, like Stonewall in NYC it brings a mixed and older crowd every weekend. More popular on Friday nights, this old, charming club plays mostly Latin and urban tunes.
Location: Calle 1, San José, Costa Rica
Top 3 Hotels
My favorite hotel in town. Hotel Grano de Oro was started by a Canadian couple who frequented Costa Rica for vacation. They loved the natural beauty of the country and the people, and after finding that San José was lacking an upscale boutique-style hotel, offering a unique, personalized service, they decided to do it themselves.
Their rooms are simply pieces of art. Their signature suite, reached by a private staircase, commands a breathtaking view of the Central Valley skyline. The suite reflects the turn of the century style of the original home with handmade tiles, complemented by rich wood paneling. The suite is stylishly furnished with exquisite antiques and a luxurious king size bed. This Victorian house, boutique hotel with 21 guest rooms, a jacuzzi, a gift shop and one of the top restaurants in the city is your best bet if looking for true luxury. Best Rate $260
This is a decent luxury hotel in Costa Rica’s capital with an exquisite modern architecture and design. Hilton Garden Inn San Jose La Sabana offers stylish accommodation in central San José just across the street from the National Stadium. The rooftop pool is one of the most stunning assets of this contemporary building. From a business center to a fully equipped fitness room, you will find everything a good hotel should have. Right in the heart of the city, the Metropolitan Cathedral is 3.7 km away, the National Theatre of Costa Rica is just 3.9 km, and Juan Santamaría International Airport is 18 km. Best Rate $280
The Hilton and Grand Oro are truly the only luxury hotels that are worth a stay. I’m including this one because I promised to add the top 3 hotels in each city. I added the Radisson to this list mainly because of their location and fun design. The hotel places you within walking distance of downtown, several business parks, and the well-known Paseo Colón, the city’s main avenue.
The rooms and suites are spacious and they offered top comfort, each with amenities like Free Wireless High-speed Internet. It is a great hotel to stay with a big group of friends or family. Their on-site restaurant, RBG Bar & Grill, is decent. Other amenities include a pool, jacuzzi, and business and fitness centers. Best Rate $140
Top 3 Restaurants
Incredibly pricey for what it is, sadly this is one of the top restaurants in the city. It is more of a visual and socialite experience than a culinary one. Being located in the grandiose Grano de Oro Hotel gives it a certain status for not only the tourists but also the locals. I had a four-course meal with desert and a tropical drink, all by recommendation of my friendly waiter. None of them were memorable. I say go if you have the money and if you feel like having a fancy experience. But it is truly not worth it. Still was one of the best meals I had in San José.
Argentinians saving the day. The only enjoyable meal I had on my two weeks trip. Authentic Argentinian Parillada with first quality fresh meat and tasty salad options. Still, when I compare this restaurant with the ones I went to in Argentina, it fails to meet their standard. But that doesn’t cancel the good work and good experience they provided. Their fresh squeezed juices are delicious. I had the best watermelon juice I’ve ever had. Watermelon being my favorite fruit, I left with a big smile. Not a luxury, fine dining restaurant but definitely one of the best kitchens in town.
Not a fine dining restaurant but an experience that you must have if visiting the city. Chef Patricia Richer of La Terrasse offers the service of Chef à Domicilio. She will basically be receiving you at her home. A beautiful, old colonial house built entirely from wood in 1927. She had the idea after being disappointed herself with the culinary offerings in the city. She wants to share her culture and French gastronomy with all her visitors. I had the duck and it was delicious, but the highlight of the dinner was the incredible chocolate cake and the delicious Macaroons. An elegant and luxurious place for intimate dinners with a great attentive service. La Terrase is a must.
You can expect to pay around 5,000 CRC per night for a dorm and at least 10,000 CRC for a private room. Most hostels include free WiFi and free breakfast and have kitchens in case you want to cook. The two best hostels in the city are Pangea and Costa Rica Backpackers. If you’re going to stay in a hostel in this city, stay at one of those! For those traveling with a tent, there are no campgrounds in the city.
There are plenty of budget hotels in San José with prices starting as low as 12,000 CRC, but 27,000 CRC is more realistic for a place in the city center. You can find the best variety of listings on Booking.com. WiFi is generally included, as is free breakfast, and a few hotels even have a pool! Airbnb is also available in the city, with shared accommodation starting around 8,000 CRC per night. For an entire home or apartment, expect to pay closer to 16,000 CRC per night.
Meals in restaurants typically cost between 1,600-5,875 CRC, but by eating at ‘sodas’ (family-run, small restaurants) you can get a meal and drink for 1,600-3,000 CRC. Fast food has become very widespread in recent years, and if you need your McDonald’s fix, you’ll spend about 3,800 CRC. (Surprisingly, Taco Bell is really popular in the city!) If you plan on cooking your own groceries, expect to pay around 15,000-20,000 CRC per week on groceries.
All the major attractions in the city are within walking distance of each other, but if you need a ride, taxi fares begin at about 640 CRC. It will rarely cost more than 2,670 CRC to get around the city center, but if you want to go to the outskirts of town be prepared to pay around 7,500 CRC. A trip to the airport is about 13,400 CRC. Buses around the city are cheap with fares costing as little as 300 CRC. For intercity travel, the public bus from San José to Arenal and Monteverde both cost around 2,000 CRC.
Top Things to Do
This volcano stands more than 5,000 ft high and it was the highlight of my visit to the country. The volcano sat dormant for hundreds of years, but on July 29, 1968, an earthquake shook the area and a subsequent explosion of lava wiped out three nearby villages. Eruptions continued until 2010, when the volcano re-entered a non-active state.
Arenal is often covered by a thick layer of fog, but if you visit between February and April, you will have a better chance of unobstructed views. Don’t take a tour, I recommend getting your own car and do a road trip. General admission to the park is $15 USD. The park welcomes visitors every day from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. It is an approximately a 3 1/2 hour drive from San José. If coming to the area I recommend to stay in one of their unique Hot Springs Hotels at least a night. Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa is by far the best.
Nosara Beach’s is the best spot in the country to enjoy the sunsets and it is located along the 80 mile Nicoya shoreline. Famous for their colorful fish and turquoise waters, it is an ideal spot for surfers and beach lovers alike. Bring your sun screen when visiting this region, it gets pretty hot and shade is limited.
Other incredible beaches in the region are Tamarindo’s Playa Grande and Playa Aveyanas. Both are located in the Peninsula region and are known by locals as the best beaches in their country. If you enjoy more off the beaten path hidden gems like me, Playa Carillo is your best bet. You can reach the peninsula by car from San Jose. The drive will take approximately four or five hours.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Lying on the Pacific Coast, south of the town of Quepos, the park has four beaches, idyllic and unspoiled. Antonio’s national park also covers a great area of the coastline and mountains of the Puntarenas region. If you are lucky it’s likely you’ll see a three-toed sloth hanging from one of the trees. The four beaches are named Espadilla Sur, Manuel Antonio, Escondito, and Playita. The park offers excellent surfing, swimming, and snorkeling. Visitation is limited to 600 people on weekdays and 800 on weekends, so arrive early to make sure you can enjoy a day at the beach.
Corcovado National Park
This reserve is located on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula in the southwest, and it protects varied tropical ecosystems. Considered one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, its wildlife includes scarlet macaws, tapirs, jaguars, and squirrel monkeys. Hiking trails follow coastal and inland routes through habitats ranging from Pacific beaches and mangrove swamps to lowland and montane rain forests. For a better understanding and detailed planning for this one of a kind eco park, read Ray and Sue’s Costa Rica Guide on Corcovado National Park.
Monte Verde National Park
Better known as the dreamy forest in the clouds, Monte Verde is one of the most visited sites in the country. Famous for their hanging trails, the fog, the altitude, and the sea of tall trees, you will get the illusion of walking in a heavenly forest dream up in the skies.
With more than 100 mammals, 400 types of birds, 450 species of orchids and 2,500 plant species, extending in a 25,700-acre reserve, no wonder it is overcrowded by tourists. There are ways to avoid the massive traffic of people and, of course, they involve paying for high priced private tours. But if you are going to invest extra money in an experience let it be here. Get a Ziplining or a Sky Walk tour to avoid the crowds.
White Rafting at River Pacuare
One of the top-rated rivers in the world for rafting, the Pacuare river offers beautiful views and crazy rapids to traverse. The river runs alongside the Talamanca Mountain Range, home to a vast array of exotic wildlife including monkeys, toucans, parrots, jaguars, deer, butterflies, and ocelots! Due to the intensity of the rapids, age requirements for this trip are 12 years old during the dry season (December through May) and 14 years old during the rainy season (June through November). If you want to learn more about the Pacuare River and their myriad options of excursions, visit Costa Rica Experts web site for more detailed info.