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San Jose History

The Central Valley’s rich volcanic soil and cool, healthy climate have attracted settlers from North and South America for some 6,000 years.

Spanish conquistadors arrived rather late to the Central Valley, settling in small agricultural villages throughout the 1600s. Without any gold, silver, or imperial wealth, there was little to tempt the Europeans. Tiny San José was not even declared a village until May 21, 1737.

The colony was so isolated from the rest of New Spain that, when Central America declared independence in 1821, San José didn’t find out for a month. The power vacuum left behind by the Spanish, however, soon plunged the Central Valley into civil war. When the smoke cleared, San José emerged as the national capital, wresting the title from neighbouring Cartago.

The coffee boom (and later, banana boom) of the late 1800s benefited Costa Rica enormously, funding rail projects, social programs, and some of San José’s finest buildings, most constructed after the devastating 1888 earthquake.

The global crises of the 1930s and 1940s took their toll on Costa Rica, and in 1948 simmering tensions erupted after a particularly dirty presidential election. The 44-day Costa Rican Civil War killed more than 2,000 people, the nation’s bloodiest modern conflict.


Revolutionary leader José “Don Pepe” Figueres emerged the winner, but rather than declaring himself president (in typical Latin American fashion), he installed the legitimate elected president. He did help rewrite Costa Rica’s constitution, which notably abolished the military, and would go on to serve as president several times.

Today, Costa Rica is one of the world’s oldest democracies, and among the region’s wealthiest, freest, happiest, and best educated nations, on track to be the world’s first carbon neutral country. Recent deals wih China and USA, and businesses like Intel and Microsoft, promise continued growth and stability in the future.

Did you know?
• The city's original name was a bit of a mouthful - Villanueva de la Boca del Monte del Valle de Abra (New Village of the Mountain's Mouth in the Open Valley).
• San Jose was the world's third city to install public electric lighting and one of the first to install a public telephone system.
• In 2012, the city decided to erect its first street signs - 22,000 of them.

Featured Hotels

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Hotel Grano de Oro

The luxurious grand dame of San José’s hotel scene is named for the “Grain of Gold,” an old Tico (Costa Rican) nickname for coffee. Though this world-class boutique hotel offers every modern comfort, the style is that of Costa Rica’s caffeinated heyday, the boom years between the 19th and 20th centuries. The Victorian exterior’s soaring lobby, with a renowned restaurant, serves 34 excellent rooms, each beautifully designed and decorated.

Hotel Posada del Museo

Rising from the hustle and bustle of San José’s political district, this rambling, antique-filled 1928 mansion is a treasure. Accommodations are simple but well decorated, and more expensive rooms are considerably larger, with better views. The polished tropical hardwood construction lends a warm glow to the hotel, but also squeaks a bit at night. Attached Café de la Posada is outstanding, the perfect place for quiche, coffee, and the best people-watching in town.

Hostel Pangea

This popular hostel in the fashionable Barrio Amón district has long been a top stop on the Gringo Trail. Amenities include a swimming pool, rooftop bar, breakfast, internet access, private rooms, and shuttles to well maintained partner hostels all over the country. It’s a great place to meet other travellers and plan your further adventures, and is surrounded by several other cheap San José hotels if it doesn’t suit you.

Marriott San José

Though more international luxury hotels in San José are opening, this venerable five-star resort, wrapped in lush gardens and coffee plantations just 7km (four miles) from the city centre is still one of the best. The flawless Spanish colonial theme includes wonderful antique furnishings and a tiny, Mission-style Catholic chapel onsite. Guests enjoy modern amenities, however, such as several pools, fine dining restaurants, flawless rooms, spa treatments, and more.

Xandari Resort & Spa

Overlooking the international airport from the jungled slopes of Poás Volcano is remarkable Xandari Resort. Created by an artist and architect the spacious modern award-winning suites are an exercise in stylish luxury. Elaborately landscaped sculpture-strewn gardens surround the swimming pools but give way to wilder rainforest with trails past several waterfalls. Enjoy the view over the sparkling Central Valley night from your private patio or at the good restaurant worth a visit even if you can’t stay.

Hotel 1492

This 10-room gem among boutique hotels is about ten minutes east of downtown, on a pleasant residential side street. The original home was handcrafted over four decades by its artistic original owner, Amalia Jimenez Volio. Her eye-catching Portuguese tiles, original mosaics, murals, and sculptures decorate the living areas and soothing interior gardens, a nice compliment to the hotel's rather retro furnishings. Amenities include Wi-Fi.