North Americans may be tempted to think of tropical countries as places that exist only for their benefit. In Costa Rica, with its lucrative and sophisticated tourist infrastructure, the locals are only too happy to encourage such fantasies. Drivers can pick you up at the airport and take you to isolated compounds where birds or turtles are present, and the only Costa Ricans you see on your vacation will be the hotel staff and the professional naturalists. There is nothing wrong with the ecological tours that are popular here; we went on several of them. The landscapes here are diverse and strange. You can find bleak alpine tundra, swampland and deserts, rainforests and cloud forests. One could explore this tiny country for months or years and still not visit all of its national parks. If you are looking for the people, however, most of them live in and around San Jose. It was raining the day we arrived. November is still the rainy season, or "winter," and it's only dry here from Christmas to April. The city sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains, and when you fly over it, while it is raining, the dominant color is a dark and intense shade of green. As you drive toward the city center, the green mostly disappears; simple houses that would create a monotonous and oppressive skyline, if unadorned, are painted orange, pink, yellow; and even when the rain stops, there is a dampness that seems to hang in the air.
San Jose is not a large city, and the buildings are low. (Whether this is a precaution against earthquakes or a consequence of cheap land, I'm not sure, but Costa Rica does not have the population pressures that one finds in much of the developing world.) Yet on a weekday afternoon, the entire population seems to converge on the downtown pedestrian avenue, where the people are pressed shoulder to shoulder and weave between taxis as they cross the streets. There are tables set up on the side of the street at regular intervals, where someone calls out specific numbers: Lottery wins? Or maybe related to the casinos and bingo parlors where you can go in and donate money to the Red Cross. For just a few blocks, it really feels more like Manhattan than it's like L.A. or Europe, except I also spotted the one of the ugliest, or else one of the most interesting buildings I've ever seen.
But the city's architecture mostly is utilitarian and rarely striking. (It's sometimes hard for me to distinguish between Costa RIca and other places I've been, such as Mexico or Turkey, where the buildings share superficial yet ubiquitous characteristics, such as the garage doors that lock up storefronts at night.)
The energy in San Jose comes from the shops and the people, and from the many lively clubs and restaurants that one can find in slightly out-of-the-way neighborhoods.