San José doesn’t receive much love from the plethora of Costa Rica guidebooks that send travelers to your typical variety of coastal destinations and national parks. Most imply danger around every corner, especially at the former Coca Cola plant that serves as the public bus system’s hub. Muggings and pickpockets, you read and hear, are as frequent and rampant as insufferable children on a long flight. In summation, a visit to San José is a request to lose your valuables.
I must admit that San José would not have made my itinerary for a week’s vacation in Costa Rica. But when you live a mere 22 kilometers away from a nation’s capital for nearly a year, the guidebooks become rather irrelevant. You do things for the sake of doing them. You visit San José, because it’s an easy bus ride away.
As of September, I had visited San José three times. Each time I wondered where this imminent danger was lurking. For me the central city was perfectly safe. There is a bit of a police presence, which for some screams danger, but it also seems there are usually too many people around for anything serious to occur. To put it simply, I have been bothered far more often in various American cities than in San José. In fact, I have yet to have any unwanted disruptions to my visits. Unless you count the rare passerby awkwardly attempting a greeting in English. But at the rate I’m butchering their language, it’s the least I can endure.
The qualification, however, had been that I was always out of San José by sundown. Perhaps this is when all the thieves, murderers, and general evils of the city came out to play.
To rectify this, I signed up for a bar crawl that promised booze in four different establishments throughout the city. It also just so happened to be my birthday, an event I typically care for as much as a dental exam. I personally never understood making a fuss over warding off death for another year only to get closer to its inevitable conclusion. However, I do understand and proudly take part in the justification of exorbitant drinking.
The organization in charge of the bar crawl is called Carpe Chepe, a play off the famous Latin aphorism to “seize the day” and San José’s nickname bestowed upon by locals. We were to meet at Craic Irish Pub by 8 p.m. to begin the festivities. Knowing a high level of alcohol consumption was likely in the cards, a small group of willing participants and myself stopped at the Q Café along Avenida Central on the way toward the pub. With a belly quite full of chicken fajitas, I was ready to pretend to care about my birthday.
Craic Irish Pub is just over a 30-minute walk away from the Coca Cola bus station, so we split the distance with the aforementioned dining stop. Though only 6 p.m., the sun had already set, thus giving us our first glimpse of San José at night.
We agreed everything looked the same as during the daylight. Ticos crowded pedestrian-only Avenida Central. Street salesmen and women were shouting their deals, including pirated movies and phone companies. Perhaps fewer suits than during business hours, but the rampant crime we had been forewarned about from the guidebooks was nowhere to be found.
Granted things did slow down after the pedestrian plaza ended near another collection of major bus stops. And it did admittedly strike us as a bit sketchy given our relative unfamiliarity with the area, though we had been down this path before during the day. Something about barbed wire and sliding steel doors mixed with the sudden absence of people gave us, to put it academically, a bit of the heebee jeebees.
That said, we later agreed that we were likely fine the entire time. Unfamiliarity makes me feel uncomfortable back home in Cleveland let alone a foreign city where I can only barely speak the language.
Finding Craic at the end of our light urban trek proved a bit tricky as well. Though San José looks to have a perfectly understandable grid street system, street signs are few and far between. Plus it seemed we were in some sort of industrial area with a spattering of residential homes. A bar around the corner seemed highly unlikely. We checked our smartphones several times to reaffirm our proximity. It was always just around the corner.
Finally, indeed it was just around the corner. Whereas the block we had come from seemed like a quiet residential street mixed with light industry, Calle 25 between Paseo Rubén Darío and Libertador Juan Rafael Mora was as lively as you’d expect on a Saturday night in any city.
The bizarreness of it all was that Craic actually does look like an Irish pub with its chipped white and green paint and celebration of all things Ireland. What caught our eyes, however, was the largest selection of beers on tap we had seen since moving to Costa Rica. Pardon the trite expression, but it was a sight for sore eyes. And yes, Guinness was featured prominently. However I went with a Perona IPA from Treintaycinco — a Tico cervecería or craft brewery.
Though perhaps it was the sudden switch from American craft beer to an almost constant stream of Imperial, Costa Rica’s standard light beer, my glass of Perona tasted as if it had been hand-crafted just for me by the beer Gods themselves. The hops, an ingredient I hadn’t tasted in over a month, danced on my palette like a Russian troupe.
We hunkered down at a corner table next to a foosball table, a sport Ticos evidently take quite seriously as evidenced by two players actually able to pass the ball around whilst seemingly fondling the handlebars. The Carpe Chepe organizers introduced themselves, happily collected our money in exchange for wristbands and shots. A theme of the Carpe Chepe shots, offered at each of the four bars we visited, was that the typically resembled some sort of alien goo. The taste, I imagine, wasn’t far off either.
Growing impatient, our group of approximately 10 made our eagerness for more alcohol known. Finally we started our jaunt to the next bar along with a much larger group of presumably Ticos equally excited to explore the lesser-known corners of their capital with the promise of booze.
Not Some Lameass
San José is difficult to navigate in the day, let alone at night, thanks to a lack of street signs. Thankfully for the navigationally-challenged, they have at least embraced a grid street system. That said, I simply could not keep track of all the twists and turns we took with Carpe Chepe from one bar to the next. Unfortunate for the sake of record-keeping, but that does mean we walked distances and streets we otherwise would not have had we been told to bar hop on our own, which was kinda the point.
The second bar more closely resembled an American dive bar. Bar stools were aplenty along with simple square slabs for tables and a consistent red glow throughout the establishment. A couple of musicians seemed to be setting up for a gig that never materialized. And from hereon out, we were back to drinking Imperial with the exception of whatever heinous shot we needed to throw down our respective gullets. In this instance it was, I believe, agua dulce chile, which basically tasted like spicy tomato juice with salt on the rim. I was, however, somehow in the minority, wanting to projectile vomit this awful concoction across the room.
Our third establishment was a the swanky polar opposite to the aforementioned dive. Everything from the chairs to the tables were sleek and stylish, at least as much as guy who always wears tee shirts and jeans can tell. Though we seemed to increase in class, those of us still drinking continued with Imperial until our next shot sent us out the door to our final destination — a club.
Now in almost any other occasion, I would hear the bass thumping of the club and take that as my cue to head home. But I was in Costa Rica. Who just goes home when they’re in Costa Rica? Maybe some lameass gringo in an oversized Hawaiian shirt, but not this guy!
That said, we didn’t stay much longer.
The space was actually pretty cool. It reminded me of the former industrial loft-style joints back in the States that either become breweries (awesome) or clubs (meh). We had to go up a series of stairs after walking through a dilapidated door that made it feel like we were trespassing. After climbing two or three floors of fire escape-esque staircases, we found our way into a large space with an incredible view of the Chepe city lights. It made for better viewing than the throngs of sweaty, grinding josefinos who we had to inadvertently join in the sweaty grinding in order to get to the bar for a drink. Some might have enjoyed looking up where a handful of strategically placed, scantily clad women were thrusting themselves about for, I guess, the enjoyment of folks who dance while staring straight up. I took more enjoyment out of watching the giant film projector screen that was rolling, I’m guessing, the music videos for the respective indistinguishable sounds that were reverberating through the club.
Needless to say it didn’t long before I felt safe in calling it a night. With a friendly pirate taxi we knew from Ciudad Colón at our service, I quickly fell soundly asleep in the backseat, occasionally smacking the poor girl sitting next to me in the head as my lifeless neck whirled around with the bumpy road.
I had lived the evening in San José to the fullest. Carpe Chepe, indeed.