Thursday, October 07, 2010

San José, Costa Rica

The unusally — for CA at least — distended belly of Costa Rica's almost comfortable middle class is very apparent in this pleasant capital city. At its upper end, San José is sophisticated without being especially cosmopolitan, which is in a sense, the opposite of the situation here in Antigua.

'Chepe' is in fact roughly Oaxaca-sized and can easily be explored on foot, unlike Guatemala City, where more pressing dangers than blisters take shape the moment one strays a KM or so in any given direction. And the main commercial artery — the Avenida Central — and the two blocks running parallel to it, seemed to bustle until several hours after dark, unlike Arzú's hailmary regeneration of the area around the Paseo de la Sexta in Guate, which tellingly features large plackards admonishing those who would seek to preemptively re-scummify the zone, and which still empties out rapidly every evening as citizens scuttle off at sundown, as if there were a snoozing vampire in every sótano.

The largest, most serious bookshop on the Avenida Central was stocked a full set of Bolaño novels, which predominated over lesser collections from the literary nobelity (e.g. Saramago, Gabo and Vargas Llosa), but alas not Paolo bloody-Coehlo.

This street is as good a place as any to indulge in some Tica-spotting. It struck me that there are three basic types on display:

1) The professionals: from basic presentable to seriously elegant — an appropriately dominant female type in a nation now led by one of their number
2) The lookers, from eye-catchingly fair to jaw-droppingly gorgeous
3) The eaters, from low centre of gravity to roly poly - possibly the largest group in terms of membership as well as urban footprint.

All seem to favour the kind of overtight denim legware that was even more fashionable up here in Guatemala in the 80s. All, but especially the type 2s, are likely to be seen wandering around town carrying a baby like a sack of potatoes. (I've never been a big fan of strollers in shopping centres, but this struck me as odd.)

San José does appear to have an unfortunate appeal for the Clete Purcell-type of tourist, and one couldn't help but notice the bars around town where the walls are covered with photos of bearded men in loud shirts holding large fish. Many are probably after the big catch up here on the high plain too, but should any of the Tica-types categorised above appear unusually available in that sense, they are a) most likely not Costa Rican and b) even more likely not female.

I once heard some young American tourists reviewing Antigua's market as they exited it as "a maze full of Walmart shit". Well, San José's version is an appropriately more urbane environment, with comparatively spacious walkways leading to a central core of cleanish-looking eateries known locally as sodas, with an interesting emphasis on medicinal herbs in some of the outer lanes. Tipico-wise, there's nothing much worth acquiring here.

And the truth is, once you've taken in the Teatro Nacional and a couple of the museums, what's left isn't really that much more interesting than Tapachula, and its central civic life around the Parque Central is considerably seedier. Cross several of the even-numbered avenidas to the south of it, and the pavements start to crumble and the clapboard properties which abound here look a lot more Belize City than Guatemala City.

It's just as pricey as Guate. It's not ridiculously expensive but you often sense that you're not quite getting your money's worth, and that with this kind of underlying backwater ambience, things really ought to be considerably cheaper. (This problem is not as pronounced as it is in say Scotland however.)

As for the grub, more on that later...

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