San José, the capital of Costa Rica, is many towns. At its center are steel-and-concrete towers, shops with plate-glass windows displaying the latest fashions and consumer electronic gadgetry, thoroughfares busy with traffic, and sidewalks crowded with neatly dressed businessmen and office workers. All might have been transplanted from a medium sized Spanish city.
Just west of the main square is the bustling market area, much more Central American in character, where tinkerers, wholesalers, and vendors of food and every necessity of daily life eke out their livings from tiny shops and market stalls and street stands, where buses and delivery trucks and taxis battle to advance through the throngs and commerce overflowing the sidewalks. Here, the buildings are one-and two-story, relatively dingy, and mostly unseen by the casual observer for all the activity around them.
Farther west of downtown San José, and in some of the surrounding suburbs, are the areas of gracious living, where huddled constructions give way to spacious, ranch-style houses with green lawns, always surrounded by substantial fences. This is where California and Florida style living -all the amenities in a benign climate- has grafted itself onto the local scene.
And there are the working-class neighborhoods as well, once once-independent villages that lodge in simple, neat and non-unpleasant tin-roofed houses, among clusters of coffee and banana trees, the thousands of people who make San José run.
Avenidas in San José run from east to west, with odd-numbered avenidas north of Avenida Central, or Central Avenue, and even-numbered avenidas to the south. Calles, or streets, run north-south, with odd-numbered calles east of the Calle Central, even-numbered streets to the west. Youll quickly get used to this scheme as you go around the city, though youll probably confuse your avenidas and calles at first.
The two main areas of interest are the central business district, around the intersection of Avenida Central and Calle Central; and the high-toned Paseo Colón district, to the west. Paseo Colón is a continuation of Avenida Central. From the western end of Paseo Colón to the center of the city is just over a mile, a distance easily negotiated on foot or on the many city buses that run along Colón.
North, east, west and south of the central area are the barrios, or neighborhoods, of the capital - Los Yoses, Sabana Sur, Bellavista, and several dozen others. Adjoining suburban municipalities, such as Guadalupe and San Pedro, comprise the Area Metropolitana (Metropolitan Area) with San José, and are, for practical purposes, part of a single city.