Diego van der Laat is one of Costa Rica’s star architects as well as a prize-winning author. He combines these two skills, story telling and architecture, in his unusual firm Sanjosérevés, which specializes in a narrative approach to architecture. Aside from designing buildings and spaces throughout Costa Rica, Van der Laat’s firm specializes in the conceptualization of grand architectural projects — the “fun part,” as he calls it. Sometimes he finds inspiration in surprising places. For example, Van der Laat based his design of the Jade museum on a line from a Leonard Cohen song he heard in the shower. “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” inspired a building resembling a huge rock with a crack at its center for the purpose of lighting it. In keeping, Van der Laat has published four books of critically-acclaimed short fiction. Here he offers a guide to Costa Rica, for those who want to experience it beyond the resorts and gated communities.
In a country without much public transportation, Barrio Escalante stands out as a truly walkable area, and this gives it a wonderful energy. Its lush parks and authentic restaurants provide a great contrast to the gated communities and resorts outside of town. For a long time, people in the suburbs would say there’s nothing in San Jose but grime and crime, and tourists avoided the city. This area is an example of how things have changed over the past decade. There has been a spontaneous local movement to reclaim the city’s public spaces. A lot of small businesses have popped up, run by young people, a blessing in a country with a few too many chains. The parks here used to be sketchy but now they’re full of events, dancing and outdoor films. This cultural energy has manifested in the art city tour, where all the nearby museums are open late. All of this could easily switch in the wrong direction and become generic. But for now it’s still on the right side of hipsterism.
Barrio La California
This barrio offers further proof of this renewal. Over the past decades, a lively new bar scene has exploded here. Many of the students and artists that used to hang out in the bars near the university now bring this area to life every night. Most of the bars are tiny, and so the patrons spill out onto the street. The energy is palpable, the joy of young people taking back their streets.
The local art and music scene is experiencing a revival of its own. Once you’ve seen the big museums, like the spectacular Museum of Modern Art, it’s worth visiting the many new small galleries around town. Veinti4/Siete Galería (24/7 Gallery) in Barrio Amón is an experimental gallery in a tiny garage, which hosts contemporary art, music, and readings. Its smallness gives it an independence from the formal conception of art — the state conception of art. The little room fills up quickly. There is a great communal feel, like every show is a small festival. When someone has a performance, their restaurant-owner friend will provide the food, and the local beermaker will bring the beer. What else do you need?
Federico Herrero, arguably the most famous young artist from Costa Rica, started this gallery on the third floor of a beautiful old building as a platform for young local talent. The results are often brave, funny and surprising. Central American art is having a good moment, and this place brings together some of the best artists from all over: Honduras, Guatamala and Nicaragua. This is part of a growing exchange between these countries, and it’s a beautiful thing. You can see people experimenting with contemporary art, forging new languages, a constant dialogue about art in the background.
This small independent bookstore is the best that literary San Jose has to offer. It is based in the former living room of an apartment in a vintage building, giving it the flair of an old world literary salon. The smell of coffee wafts through the room, literary chatter abounds. The books extend from the floor to the ceiling. The selection is unusual, lovingly curated by Andrea, the bookseller. I like knowing my bookseller like one usually knows one’s dentist or doctor. Andrea knows my writing, knows what I like to read, and makes thoughtful recommendations, prescriptions, all part of a soothing literary homeopathy.
The smell of coffee is wafting in from across the hall, from what used to be the apartment’s kitchen and dining room. This is Café Rojo, a resplendent café that, like Libros Duluoz, seems to contain the air and light of another era. Every detail of this café is affectionately considered. Bring your book, get a coffee and one of their delicious Vietnamese sandwiches, and sit out on the terrace overlooking the street as night falls and the salon inside lights up even more.
Once you get hungry, go to this restaurant for some authentic Costa Rican fare. Al Mercat is authentic in more ways than one. This restaurant gets most of its ingredients from the owner’s farm South of San Jose. He makes rare cheeses and grows rare vegetables, ingredients that were last known to my grandmother’s generation. The food draws on all of Costa Rica’s heritages, combining Latin American flavors with Carribean food, and it’s all very very good.
Parque la Libertad
The urban renewal of San Jose is not only benefiting hip neighborhoods, as this park in the South of the city shows. Surrounded by densely populated communities, this former industrial plant now contains green spaces, as well as several venues offering music, visual arts, theater, and dance classes to local kids. It’s a spellbinding place to walk. Passing by the mountains with their colorful houses, you encounter art installations, and the students playing violin, dancing, and skateboarding — an opportunity to see the other side of San Jose, and the true generosity of its people.
If you want to take a trip out of San Jose, I suggest you first head East. The Caribbean side of Costa Rica is the more unusual of our two coasts. While the Pacific side is dominated by corporate tourism, the Caribbean side stands out through its local food and culture. It attracts a different type of tourist — the kind that doesn’t expect AC in their room, and is fine with just a fan. The vegetation runs wild here. The green spills over into the sea. Porto Viejo is my favorite town. Some years, it only gets about two months of sun, and is rainy in that intense tropical way for the rest. Rainy beach days are highly underrated, in my opinion.
If your excursion takes you West of San Jose, go to the Cloud Forest outside of Monteverde — tropical woods on a mountain covered in mist. Entering the jungle on one of its beautiful bridges, you feel like you’re walking straight into a cloud. But then, from deep inside the cool forest, through the mist, you can suddenly see the ocean — an excellent surprise.