“This isn’t a good place for walking,” says Mariana.
“You mean this suburb?”
“I mean, the whole valley.”
“All of San José?”
“Plus there are unsafe areas. Not a good idea to walk through those, even in daylight.”
“But…I have these weekly blog posts that I’m supposed to be…”
She purses her lips. “I know. It’s going to be tricky.”
San José, Costa Rica, is the oddest city I’ve ever lived in.
Imagine you were of a godlike size, and you were tasked with placing a large city in the middle of an enormous valley. Imagine the fabric of the city was a soft, moldable substance, like guacamole. You start by identifying where ‘downtown’ should be, and you drop the whole city onto that spot, splat. Then you get a fork and push the edges down, leaving a raised dollop at the city centre, because that’s where all the tallest buildings are. You smear the edges outwards with your fingers, thinner and thinner, and then there’s a point it stops, and whatever is outside it begins. That’s your standard city. A big lump of humanity, and all it brings with it.
The Greater Metropolitan Area of Costa Rica is what would happen if you got a spoon and smoothed that city more or less evenly out across the whole valley, end to end, over 2000 square miles of buildings, laid down as thinly as possible until it contains half of the country’s inhabitants – most living in San José, and also in the surrounding provinces of Alajuela, Heredia, and Cartago.
There are no edges inside the Central Valley. Not really. It’s impossible to see where anything stops and anything begins. The real edges are the mountain and volcanoes surrounding it. That’s where the city ends.
At first glance, San José looks scatterbrained. It wasn’t formally founded, and it took 80 years to be designated a capital city in need of a proper government, after independence came in 1821. Its suburbs chiefly feature a mix of colonial-style townhouses and pragmatic tin-roofed box buildings, in cantons usually centred on a church & plaza. There’s little impression of town planning at work. Outside of the historic city centre, most buildings looks designed to function rather than impress. The roads are flanked with enormous storm drains, and – most alarmingly to new visitors – every window is covered in iron bars.
You’ll also find empty wooden kiosks by the side of the road in the wealthier neighbourhoods, and when night falls, the lights go on, the shutters go up, and security guards peer out of them, keeping an eye on everyone’s house for a monthly fee.
This Costa Rica guide puts things nicely:
“What every tourist wants to hear is Costa Rica has the lowest crime rate of any Central American country, but it would be imprudent not to point out that this is a dubious distinction at best.”
It’s incredibly hard to talk about any country’s safety record without missing the truth. Everything I’ve written above fails to capture how safe and welcoming this country has felt over the last 6 weeks, and remains for the vast majority of visitors and residents. The previous sentence ignores how the roads feel during rush hour, where it looks like Costa Rican cars are fitted with a second horn where the brakes should be. That statement feels conclusive until you see the amount of people out walking, day and night – or cycling along in spandex, as cars weave around them.
Then there’s this, from the UK’s Foreign Office website:
“You should maintain at least the same level of personal security awareness as in the UK, including when using ATMs. Petty theft of personal items including passports is a significant problem.”
And I think, if I can handle Western Europe, I can handle this – and then I remember how easily I was robbed in Dusseldorf.
So – walking in Costa Rica does indeed look tricky. I’m faced with the same dilemma every tourist negotiates and every guide-book writer agonises over. There’s no neat, pithy answer that doesn’t miss the mark in some way – so it’s stupid to expect one, and equally stupid to ask that question in the first place.
(A smarter question would be, “What can I do to stay safe when I’m in Costa Rica?” There are many practical answers to that one.)
For now, the best thing I can do is listen to good advice, hone my awareness skills (see Further Reading, below) – and carefully and prudently join the 2 million tourists every year who go to find out the truth for themselves.
Best foot forward, then.
Most weekdays this year, I’m going for a walk to explore the limits of my ignorance and write about what I find. Want to follow along?
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