Thrifty Nomad: Top 10 San José, Costa Rica

This summer I organized a study abroad program for Benedictine College students in affiliation with Modern Languages Study Abroad that took us all to sunny (and sporadically rainy) San José, Costa Rica. While this was first and foremost a work trip, I also had some time to explore on my own. Here are my top ten sites/activities to check out if you ever find yourself in this beautiful region:

#1. Mercado nacional de artesanías: Located near the the Museo Nacional and Museo de Jade, this market consists of what seems like an endless line of vendors selling beautiful souvenirs from Costa Rican coffee to miniature hand-painted oxcarts.

Thrifty Tip: When in markets like this or the one mentioned below, it never hurts to haggle a little. Vendors will often lower their prices if you buy more than one item and/or pay cash. Even a simple gesture such as being friendly and chatty with vendors will sometimes help drive the price a bit lower. If you still can’t get an item at the price you want, no worries. There are about a dozen other vendors in the same market selling the same items.

#2. Mercado Central: If the above mercado doesn’t overwhelm you with vendors pushing their handicrafts and other beautiful souvenirs, then try Mercado Central. There are plenty of opportunities to buy souvenirs, but this is also where you’ll find lots of locals shopping for every day items like groceries. Set some time aside for this one, and don’t worry if when you get lost. Pause at one of the many restaurants and grab a delicious batido de chocolate as you sit and people-watch.


#3. Teatro Nacional: Even if you don’t see any performances, it’s worth visiting one of San Jose’s most beautiful historic buildings just for its interior. Admission: At the time of publication, admission is $10 for tourists (includes guided tour in English or Spanish).


Teatro nacional


#4. Irazú Volcano: Even if you’re only planning to visit San José as I did, venturing out of the city a little is an absolute must if you want to experience some of the natural beauty of Costa Rica (and as a bonus, you get a break from the city’s ongoing congestion). This was one of the two active volcanoes I saw near San José (located near the town of Cartago) and seemingly the lesser visited of the two. On the morning of my visit, only the half dozen people from my tour group could be found walking among the ashes and peaking down at the vast crater.

Admission: I myself booked this visit with Gray Line Costa Rica through Expedia and paid $63. This included admission to the volcano, a pit-stop in Cartago to tour a beautiful church, and pick-up/drop-off right in front of my hotel. While the price doesn’t exactly scream “cheap thrills,” a lot is included in the deal, and there is the added comfort of travelling with a group and being led with a knowledgeable tour guide that makes $63 a very good price.

#5. La Paz Waterfall Gardens (includes wildlife refuge): This was hands down my favorite site. Even an animal-phobe like myself mustered up the courage to hold a toucan, and later a butterfly (coming from someone who usually gets jumpy when a butterfly flutters near me). And the multiple waterfalls are absolutely stunning. (see below for admission info).

#6. Poás Volcano: In my opinion, this volcano is more impressive than Irazú, with a much clearer view of the crater; but then it was a bit foggy on the day I went to Irazú. Poás is also a bit further out and more crowded.

Admission: While I was lucky enough to visit La Paz Waterfalls and Poás on MLSA’s invitation, I think these two sites are probably the most worth seeing on my list, even with the cost attached to it. Gray Line Costa Rica (again, can be reserved through Expedia) also has bundle tours for La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Poás Volcano and Doka Coffee Plantation for $126. That includes admission into three different sites, guided tours, pick-up, drop-off, breakfast and lunch (and by the way, if lunch is at La Paz, you’re in for a fantastic buffet in a beautiful outdoor restaurant). If you’re interested in only one or two of those sites, you can easily find cheaper deals that do tours at only one or two of the aforementioned sites.

#7. Museo de Oro Precolombino: Located in downtown San José, this museum boasts well over a thousand gold artifacts from the pre-Colombian period. Within the same building is also the National Coin Museum, which includes displays of coins and banknotes. Both are included with admission.

Thrifty Tip: While the rate for foreign tourists is $11 for adults, it is only $8 for students, and free on the evenings of Art City Tour and International Museum Day.

#8. Museo de Jade: My familiarity with this museum is purely accidental – I had gotten lost during a very sudden and very heavy downpour, and when I figured out where I was when I  saw the now familiar Mercado Nacional, I went inside the neighboring Jade museum to pass some time as I dried off. This is a beautiful museum, with five floors and a very extensive collection.

Admission: $15

#9. Chinatown: As the first of its kind in Central America, this area is a mix of Costa Ricans and Asians and is home to numerous supermarkets, restaurants and shops. While Chinatown isn’t exactly a long-standing tourist attraction, it’s a bustling neighborhood that’s enjoyable even for a simple stroll.


#10. Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo: This is a very small museum of contemporary art, but it’s free, has some very interesting and eclectic pieces, and is in a cute part of town, near Parque Morazán and Parque Nacional, and only a couple of blocks from the Jade Museum.

Honorable Mentions:

Two activities that I never got around to doing while in Costa Rica was rafting and zip-lining. I would have loved to have gone rafting, but I was nervous about going alone, I hadn’t packed adequate gear, and it was raining almost every day that I was there (in May, during the wet season).

Zip-lining in the forests is another popular activity in Costa Rica – and there are a number of places to try it near San José – but with a fear of heights and heavy sensitivities to mosquito bites, this was a no-go for me with no regrets.

Have you ever traveled to Costa Rica? If so, what were some of your favorite (budget-friendly) things to do there? Leave a comment below!

Many thanks to Benedictine College for supporting this study abroad program for both BC students and myself, and to MLSA for being such welcoming hosts! 🙂 


One thought on “Thrifty Nomad: Top 10 San José, Costa Rica

  1. Nina says:

    Hi, Farah. Thanks for traveling with us and for directing the group of students this summer. Though I personally have only visited San Jose for a two week trip, I agree that the the mercados and Teatro Nacional were at the top of my list! (Nina, MLSA Coordinator)


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