By Ryan Xavier, the “Homeless Writer”
If you are coming to Costa Rica in search of a beautiful beach experience, then Samara & Carrillo are probably your best bet. Take it from someone who has explored most of the country’s beaches and towns, these two lovely stretches of sand and sun are at the top of my list. My wife and I visited many other beach towns in search of something beautiful, peaceful, and unspoiled. We wanted a town that felt rustic, but one that still offered enough modern conveniences to satisfy our technological, culinary, and fitness addictions. We came back to Samara because it was simply the best and since being here we have discovered that most people that are lucky enough to discover Samara & Carrillo, will continue to come back to the same two beaches, year after year.
If you are planning your first visit to Costa Rica, you have probably been exposed to Costa Rica Travel Tip #1. Well, I think it’s time that we talked a little bit about why every Costa Rica guide book tells us that we should skip the capital city of San Jose. For some reason, it has gotten the reputation of being a must-miss attraction for tourists visiting this gorgeous country.
San Jose is not Paris, New York, London, or L.A. Of course it isn’t ! It is San Jose.
Cities are like people, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but we all have something unique to offer and the same is true for San Jose. Yet upon arriving to Costa Rica, the tourist is generally instructed to make their way from the international airport in San Jose to anywhere else as quickly as possible.
The capital is seen as no more than a place to rent a car or find a hotel if your flight arrives too late or departs too early to make avoiding San Jose practical. We recently spent a couple of days there, if only to be rebellious, and we found out that the only must-miss thing in Costa Rica is the must-miss attitude directed at San Jose.
Teatro Nacional in Downtown San Jose
This picture is of my lovely wife (and favorite travel buddy) Jennifer, in front of the National Theater in San Jose. It is quite beautiful in its Neo-Classical meets Belle Epoque design, and it is one of the few buildings drawn as a cartoon on the tourist maps handed out by hoteliers. As you know, this is a sure sign of any site’s cultural value.
Ironically, many visitors use this building not as an example of what the city has, but of what it lacks. While it is admittedly one of the very few examples of European architecture to be found here, to judge a Central American city for its lack of Greek architecture is like faulting the Grand Canyon for not having enough polar bears. Anyway, it’s a little small minded to say the least.
Inside National Theater in San Jose
To find out a little more about this city, we took a few mandatory photos of the National Theater and then went off in search of something that we could use to disprove Costa Rica Travel Tip #1. We soon came upon the “Museo Nacional”, the Costa Rican national history museum, and this place gave us all the ammunition we needed to debunk the myth.
The first thing we learned was that it would be a terrible shame for anyone to travel thousands of miles from home, land in the heart of a nation’s culture and history, only to pass it up in favor of a few more hours taking pictures of one’s toes in the sand. Unfortunately, should they trust the advice of their guidebooks and go straight to the beach, they would be unaware that they were being served drinks by the very same people that they should have come here to meet, talk to, and learn from.
To discover the very first lesson offered up by the Museo Nacional, you don’t even have to go inside.
National Museum in San Jose
What you see here (behind Jenni) is the museum from the steps leading up to the front entrance. The two crenelated, castle-like, gun towers are hard to see now that they have been given a fresh coat of orange paint.
This is what they once looked like:
Bullet-Scarred Museum Tower
The previously named BELLAVISTA CUARTEL, was a military barracks built in 1917 and it was once an important post for the Costa Rican Army. Like many countries in Central America, Costa Rica repeatedly found itself at war, either with other nations, or itself. Then, in 1948 the president showed up, took a great big mallet up to the tower and knocked down one of the crenulations, changing the course of Costa Rican history forever.
December 1, 1948: An “Adios” to Arms
After the 1948 Civil War, a conflict that has been described by the US Department of State as the “bloodiest event in 20th century Costa Rican history”, the president wisely realized that armies are dangerous things and bigger armies don’t necessarily make people safer. As can be observed all over the world and throughout human history, both ancient and recent, armies are more often used to oppress one’s own people than to protect them from outside aggressions.
Let’s not permit the importance of this event to be disregarded as the quaint local history of a small and insignificant country. Do you think any of us will live to see the US turn the Pentagon into a concert hall? This is a valuable lesson for all nations and for any visitor wishing to look beyond the palm trees and umbrella drinks to find something of far greater worth than an iguana refrigerator magnet.
Weapons Armory turned Butterfly Sanctuary
In a clear rejection of the brutal events that took place here, Costa Rica rewrote its constitution and redirected its financial resources away from fear and war and committed itself to fostering literacy and culture. As a result of this investment in itself, the people of Costa Rica now enjoy a higher standard of living than all other countries in the region. They have access to free public medicine, compulsory education to age nine, attendance of 99%, and as would be expected by such low rates of truancy, they experience a literacy rate of 96%.
This is what the US Department of State says about Costa Rica:
Costa Rica has long emphasized the development of democracy and respect for human rights. The country’s political system has steadily developed, maintaining democratic institutions and an orderly, constitutional scheme for government succession. Several factors have contributed to this trend, including enlightened leadership, comparative prosperity, flexible class lines, educational opportunities that have created a stable middle class, and high social indicators. Also, because Costa Rica has no armed forces, it has avoided military involvement in political affairs, unlike other countries in the region.
Whether we realize it or not, visitors like ourselves are benefitting from the good governance of the country and most of the reasons that we come to Costa Rica are a direct result of the events of 1948. We are able to meet friendly and educated locals that are proud of their natural resources, indigenous culture, and the political history that has allowed them to live in peace and relative prosperity. When we come to Costa Rica, we are attracted by the very same things that make Costa Rica a good place to live for locals.
And all of this was gleaned before going inside the museum. Imagine what you might discover if you spent a little time exploring it. Inside its doors, you will be simultaneously awed and educated as you view the indigenous artifacts carved into the shapes of iguanas, hawks, jaguars and monkeys. The respect that the natives felt for their flora and fauna is still evident today.
Visiting the National Museum, and San Jose itself, is an imperative if you want to know what makes Costa Rica such a special place. If you run straight for the water, without giving the culture a chance to reveal itself to you, the time you spend here will be remembered as just another beach and just another vacation. Learning something valuable about each destination should be part of any travel experience, and anyway, it will give you something to think about while you are sitting on Samara’s beach and wiggling your toes in the sand.
-Ryan Xavier the “Homeless Writer”, San Jose Costa Rica. February 2012
About the Writer: Ryan Xavier is a freelance travel writer, also known as “The Homeless Writer”. With no fixed address, he travels the world and writes about his experiences. More exciting travel stories, photos, videos, and tips can be found on his blog: www.Happy2bHomeless.com