Catering to a mix of tourists, college students, and party-loving Ticos, San José has a host of options to meet the nocturnal needs of visitors and residents alike. You’ll find plenty of interesting clubs and bars, a wide range of theaters, and some very lively discos and dance salons.
To find out what’s going on in San José while you’re in town, go to www.ticotimes.net, or pick up La Nación (Spanish; www.nacion.com). The former is a good place to find out where local expats are hanging out; the latter’s “Viva” and “Tiempo Libre” sections have extensive listings of discos, movie theaters, and live music.
Tip: Several very popular nightlife venues are in the upscale suburbs of Escazú and Santa Ana, as well as in Heredia (a college town) and Alajuela. See “The Central Valley” chapter for more info on nightlife in these areas.
The Performing Arts
Visiting artists stop in Costa Rica on a regular basis. Recent concerts have featured hard rockers Aerosmith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Metallica; Mexican crooner Lila Downs; pop legend Elton John; Colombian sensation Shakira; and Latin heartthrob Marc Anthony. These performances take place at one of San José’s performing arts theaters or one of the city’s large sporting stadiums.
The National Symphony Orchestra ((tel) 2240-0333) is respectable by regional standards, although its repertoire tends to be rather conservative. Symphony season runs March through November, with concerts roughly every other weekend at the Teatro Nacional. Tickets cost between C4,000 and C7,000 and can be purchased at the box office.
Costa Rica’s cultural panorama changes drastically every March when the country hosts large arts festivals. One of these is El Festival Nacional de las Artes, featuring purely local talent. El Festival Internacional de las Artes (FIA) is a month-long party with a nightly smorgasbord of dance, theater, and music from around the world. For dates and details, visit the festival’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/festivaldelasartescr), although information is in Spanish.
It is possible to buy tickets to many cultural events and concerts in advance from E-Ticket (www.eticket.cr), though the site is entirely in Spanish.
The Club, Music & Dance Scene
You’ll find plenty of places to hit the dance floor in San José. Salsa and merengue are the main beats that move people here, and many of the city’s dance clubs, discos, and salons feature live music on the weekends. You’ll find a pretty limited selection, though, if you’re looking to catch some small-club jazz, rock, or blues performances.
The daily “Viva” and Friday’s “Tiempo Libre” sections of La Nación newspaper have weekly performance schedules. Some dance bands to watch for are Gaviota, Chocolate, Son de Tikizia, Taboga Band, and La Orquestra Son Mayor. While Ghandi, Foffo Goddy, Kadeho, and Akasha are popular local rock and pop groups, Marfil is a good cover band, and the Blues Devils, Chepe Blues, and the Las Tortugas are outfits that play American-style hard rock and blues. If you’re looking for jazz, check out Editus, El Sexteto de Jazz Latino, or pianist and former Minister of Culture Manuel Obregón. Finally, for a taste of something eclectic, look for Santos y Zurdo, Sonámbulo Psicotrópical, or Cocofunka.
Most of the places listed below charge a nominal cover charge; sometimes it includes a drink or two.
The Bar Scene
San José has something for every taste. Lounge lizards will be happy in most hotel bars downtown, while students and the young at heart will have no problem mixing at the livelier spots around town. Sports fans have plenty of places to catch the most important games, and a couple of brewpubs are drastically improving the quality and selection of local suds.
The best part of the varied bar scene in San José is something called a boca, the equivalent of a tapa in Spain: a little dish of snacks that arrives at your table when you order a drink. Although this is a somewhat dying tradition, especially in the younger, hipper bars, you will still find bocas alive and well in the older, more traditional San José drinking establishments. The most traditional of these are known locally as cantinas. In most, the bocas are free, but in some, where the dishes are more sophisticated, you’ll have to pay for the treats. You’ll find drinks reasonably priced, with beer costing around $3 to $4 a bottle, and mixed drinks costing $4 to $10.
Hanging Out in San Pedro
The funky 2-block stretch of San Pedro ★★ just south of the University of Costa Rica has been dubbed La Calle de Amargura, or the “Street of Bitterness,” and it’s the heart and soul of this eastern suburb and college town. Bars and cafes are mixed in with bookstores and copy shops. After dark, the streets are packed with teens, students, and professors barhopping and just hanging around. You can walk the strip until someplace strikes your fancy—or you can try one of the places listed below. Note: La Calle de Amargura attracts a certain unsavory element. Use caution here. Try to visit with a group, and avoid carrying large amounts of cash or wearing flashy jewelry.
You can get here by heading east on Avenida 2 and following the flow of traffic. You will first pass through the neighborhood of Los Yoses before you reach a large traffic circle with a big fountain in the center (La Fuente de la Hispanidad). The Mall San Pedro is located on this traffic circle. Heading straight through the circle, you’ll come to the Church of San Pedro, about 4 blocks east of the circle. The church is the major landmark in San Pedro. You can also take a bus here from downtown.
The Gay & Lesbian Scene
Because Costa Rica is such a conservative Catholic country, the gay and lesbian communities here are rather discreet. Homosexuality is not generally under attack, but many gay and lesbian organizations guard their privacy, and the club scene is changeable and not well publicized.
The most established and happening gay and lesbian bar and dance club in San José is La Avispa ★, Calle 1 between avenidas 8 and 10 ((tel) 2223-5343; www.laavispa.com). It is popular with both men and women, although it sometimes sets aside certain nights for specific persuasions. There’s also Pucho’s Men's Club ★ ((tel) 2256-1147), on Calle 11 and Avenida 8; El 13 ((tel) 2221-3947; www.el13cafebar.com) on Calle 9, btw. avs. 12 and 14; and El Bochinche ((tel) 2221-0500), on Calle 11 between avenidas 10 and 12.
Gambling is legal in Costa Rica, and there are casinos at many major hotels. However, as with Tico bullfighting, some idiosyncrasies are involved in gambling a la Tica. If blackjack is your game, you’ll want to play “rummy.” The rules are almost identical, except that the house doesn’t pay 1[bf]1/2 times on blackjack—instead, it pays double on any three of a kind or three-card straight flush. If you’re looking for roulette, what you’ll find here is a bingo-like spinning cage of numbered balls. The betting is the same, but some of the glamour is lost.
You’ll also find a version of five-card-draw poker, but the rule differences are so complex that I advise you to sit down and watch for a while and then ask questions before joining in. That’s about all you’ll find. There are no craps tables or baccarat.
There’s some controversy over slot machines, but you will be able to play electronic slots and poker games. Most casinos here are casual and small by international standards. You may have to dress up slightly at some of the fancier hotels, but most are accustomed to tropical vacation attire.