“I desperately need a holiday!” I told my friend, almost in tears for how seriously exhausted I feel. “Preferably, that has to be in the Dominican Republic. I shall start looking for a Dominican Republic Villa,” I added.
“But you are always traveling!” These were his few words of consolation to me. The way he stared at me made it quite clear that he thought mine was an oxymoron.
A perfect holiday view – photo courtesy of Ben Kucinski (flickr)
I know, I know. To most people, travel bloggers live a fantastic, glamorous life where they go from place to place and have a blast all the time, and working is just a side thing. This is a bit far from the truth, though. While we certainly have a lot of fun, we also work very hard. My average working day counts between 8 and 10 hours (pretty much as any other job), and I work 6 days a week. I even wrote a post about the real life of a travel blogger a few months ago.
To find out more about what travel blogging really means, read my post “13 things I have learned about travel blogging.”
Looks like I can get a good dose of vitamin sea in the Dominican Republic – photo courtesy of Ben Kucinski (flickr)
Besides, our trips are actual trips, not holidays. And there’s a big difference between the two. First of all, trips imply a high level of activities, which is usually even higher in the case of travel bloggers – we do in one day the same amount of things that the average traveler may do in 3 or 4. In my mind, holidays are far more relaxing, the only transportation involved is a flight to get to the final destination (and no long bus rides day in, day out), and once there I can unpack my bags (I can never really unpack during my trips, because I stay in the same place for 3 nights at most) and forget about it all.
So yes, although I have been on a countless number of trips in the last couple of years – to India, to Spain, and more – I haven’t really taken a vacation in a long long time. And I am becoming pretty desperate for one.
I need to go to a place with beautiful white sand beaches, palm trees, and clear waters. A place where I can go out if I want to, without feeling obliged. Somewhere where the local culture is warm and fun, the local music seductive, and the people kind. So, it sounds like the Dominican Republic might really be what I need.
This is how I envision my holiday in the Dominican Republic
After sleeping in a huge comfortable bed, I will walk to the kitchen to prepare a delicious cup of coffee and a healthy breakfast, packed with local fresh fruit. I will sip while I lazily flip the pages of a glossy magazine – I don’t want to read a newspaper, because I want to disconnect from the world. I don’t even want any internet connection. I already spend too much time online and social media, emails and work can wait. This is all about me time.
After a very slow breakfast, and a long relaxing shower with the most luxurious toiletries, I will make the extreme effort of wearing my bikini and smothering my skin with a good amount of sun block, I will wear a sarong and a hat, carry a book and walk to the nearby beach.
There, I will lay on a recliner, under the umbrella (the sun hurts my skin) and move just to go swim in the clear waters, perhaps snorkel a bit, and wave my hand to order a much needed cocktail – because that’s what a girl’s got to do on her vacation.
This is the kind of sunset I should be seeing during a holiday – photo courtesy of Joe deSousa (flickr)
Once I will be completely soaked in the sun, I will walk back to my villa, and continue relaxing by the pool until sunset, when I will enjoy a leisurely stroll at the beach to take a few pictures. Once home, I will enjoy another long shower (and perhaps throw in a massage) and get dressed for a delicious dinner which will be served al fresco, and freshly prepared just for me and a few other friends that may wish to join me.
After a relaxing chat and a bit of star gazing, I will be ready to grab my book and make my way to bed.
And if I really, truly am up for the effort, I can still venture for a day trip to explore a bit more of the island: I could go on a day catamaran cruise to see the coral reef; I could go zip lining; I could take surf lessons; I could go horse riding; see the waterfalls or even visit the capital Santo Domingo.
Now, this is what a real holiday looks like to me.
What is your ideal holiday?
Chepe, as Ticos lovingly call their capital, is the heart of Costa Rica. While most travellers do not spare it negative comments, I find that despite its messy architectural style, due to the economic boom and urban expansion, this modern city is a cool place to hang out for a few days and it offers some of the best things to do in Costa Rica. And even people who live in Costa Rica actually enjoy it, such as Samantha of My Tan Feet, who clearly states in her post on 50 things to do in Costa Rica that visiting San Jose should be one.
I suppose the bad reputation of San Jose is partially due to the fact that the lush nature of the rest of the country – with its sloths, crocodiles, volcanoes and rain forest – fascinates visitors and is unfound here. Yet, since most backpackers follow the gringo route and foreign residents opt to visit and stay in other regions where they can enjoy the nature of the country, this ends up being the best place to experience the true Costa Rican identity.
The city was founded in 1737 and it was originally called Villanueva de la Boca del Monde del Valle de Abra. The name was then changed to remember that of its saint patron. Interestingly, for a long time it was only of secondary importance to the bigger Cartago. After Spain took everyone by surprise by abandoning its colonies in Central America, Cartago and San Jose signed a number of treaties while preparing for war in secret. On 5 April 1823 San Jose won the battle of Ochomongo and became the capital of the country. Later on, Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela attempted to ransack the city in a siege known as La Guerra de la Liga, but the capital managed to win and confirmed its status.
San Pedro is among the nicest neighborhoods of San Jose – photo courtesy of Alquiler de Caches (flickr)
In more recent times, San Jose has undergone a vast urban development, as many Ticos and Nicaraguans moved to the capital in search of a better life. This has led to the creation of vast shantytowns and to the increase in criminality rates.
Chepe is a modern town, with a functioning transportation system, and compared to other cities in Central America, it will feel extremely European with its shopping malls, traffic lights, modern buildings and trendy restaurants. Despite being a large city, the atmosphere is relaxed and the people are very friendly (a typical scene would be meeting someone, asking for information and eventually be greeted with a “Pura Vida!”) and ready to give a hand and directions to lost backpackers.
It is said that certain areas, especially in the city centre, may be dangerous especially at night, but I did not encounter any problems while visiting. Of course, it is important to always keep one’s wits about and pay extra attention.
Another reason to spend a few days in the city? Compared to the rest of the country, temperatures here are milder, giving backpackers a nice break from the extreme heat of the coastal areas.
Best things to do in San Jose Costa Rica
Costa Rica is by far the richest and most advanced country in Central America (certainly much more than Nicaragua), making it the most expensive too. But, since I like walking and don’t mind using public transportation, I was able to save my pennies and still enjoy the city.
There are a good bunch of places to visit in San Jose. The most interesting areas to visit are in the city centre, where I took a nice, long (and free) walk through Avenida Central, Plaza de la Cultura and Calle 8, as well as Boulevard Ricardo Jimenez south of Parque Nacional. The nicest “barrio” to visit is Barrio Amon, a colonial district which is still the residence of “cafétaleros” (coffee producers), with homes built between the 19th and the 20th centuries. Some of the buildings have been recently restored and turned into hotels, restaurants and offices, making it extremely pleasant to walk around. This is by far the most popular area among tourists.
Another charming visit may be that of the Mercado Central. Sure it may not be as great as the markets in Peru or Guatemala, but it is a good introduction to Central America culture, and it is lively and busy and has a great selection of fresh produce.
The center of San Jose – photo courtesy of Alquiler de Caches (flickr)
At the top of Paseo Colon, Parque Metropolitano La Sabana is the best place to escape the greyness of the city and it hosts two museums, a lagoon, a fountain and a number of sports courts and swimming pools for those wanting to keep fit. On the east side of the Parque there is the Museo de Arte Costarricense, with a permanent exhibition of Costa Rican art of the 19th and 20th centuries and located in a nice colonial building. On the south west side there is the Museo de Ciencias Naturales La Salle, for those wanting to see embalmed animals and butterflies.
Plaza de la Cultura is considered by Ticos as the geographic heart of Costa Rica, and it hosts the Museo de Oro Precolombino.
Finally, San Jose is a good place to do a Spanish Course, and some travellers may want to couple the experience with volunteering.
Street life in San Jose – photo courtesy of Jean-François Schmitz (flickr)
At a 45 minutes bus ride from San Jose, Cartago may be an interesting city to visit for its religious significance and its conservative charm. Highlights include the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles, a byzantine style church which has been renovated in 1926 following the 1910 earthquake and where I could admire the famous statue of La Negrita (a black Virgin statue) and Las Ruinas de la Parroquia, the ruins of the Iglesia del Convento built in 1575 in honour of San Juan and destroyed by an earthquake in 1841. Reconstruction works were interrupted in 1910 after the earthquake.
Where to stay:
My choice in San Jose is Hostel Urbano, in the heart of the student and residential area of San Pedro. This is a great choice for backpackers on a budget, with dorms at $ 14 per night: beds are comfortable and have great lockers, rooms are spacious and clean, with large wardrobes; bathrooms are spotless; a pancakes and fruit breakfast is served daily; there is a very well equipped kitchen, a lovely backyard, a great common area, a game room and book exchange; the staff is incredibly helpful and friendly and will provide plenty of information on restaurants, transportations, courses, activities and what not, and the overall atmosphere of the hostel is so great that it made me want to stay longer just to enjoy it.
Not far from it, the cheaper Castle Tam is an option if one can bare its dirty dorms, a messy kitchen, the stench of cigarette smoke, a grumpy atmosphere and a moody owner and staff who change the prices of accommodation as quickly as their mood.
Where to eat, drink and enjoy nightlife:
Save some pennies by shopping in one of the many supermarkets – some of them are so upperscale that I could prepare a gourmet meal. This is especially true if lodging in Hostel Urbano: backpackers will find that great kitchen and cozy dining room will be perfect to enjoy their meals. If not, this student area offers plenty of budget eateries with set meals for as little as 4 US dollars.
Not far from the hostels, there is a very busy street packed with bars where students like having a drink. Pick any, they are all busy!
In Avenida Central in San Pedro there is the Jazz Cafè, the best bet for quality live music with bands that play from jazz to salsa. Going to the Jazz Café is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica!
The beautiful national theater in San Jose – photo courtesy of Randall Elizondo López (flickr)
How to get to San Jose
There is no real public bus system and no central terminal, but a number of private companies operate from hubs scattered through the city. The biggest stations serve entire regions: Gran Terminal de Caribe has buses to the Caribbean Coast; Terminal Coca Cola connects to the Central Valley and the Pacific Coast. Terminal San Carlos serves Monteverde, La Fortuna and Sarapiquì. Tracopa links to San Isidro de General and the South.
Tica Bus and Transnica are the best long distance, international companies that connect Costa Rica to Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Book the ticket in advance to ensure a seat.
If in Nicaragua, catch a Tica or Transnica bus from Managua through Rivas all the way to San Jose. The advantage is that it is much easier to go to through immigration if on one of these international buses, with the staff that clearly explains everything there is to do. For more border crossing information, check my other post.
Here it is possible to find complete information on the bus services and timetables in Costa Rica.
If wishing to explore an off the beaten place in Costa Rica, this would have to be my pick. Easily reached from San Jose through Cartago, not many visitors venture in this mellow yet appealing town, famous for its mountain air, strong coffee and what is known as Central America’s best white water rafting. The area is also great for mountain biking, kayaking, and canyoning. These activities may blow a daily budget (costing up to 100 dollars for the whole day), but they are worth a try!
Rio Reventazon has the most difficult rafts in the country: 65 km to keep your adrenaline going. Rio Pacuare has the most scenic rafting in Costa Rica, with a view of spectacular canyons, rainforest, and it goes past indigenous villages and will give anybody a chance to take a view at the great Costa Rican wildlife.
Want to find out more about Costa Rica? Click here for more posts.