At first, San José might seem little more than a chaotic jumble of cars, buses, buildings, and people. The central downtown section of San José is a jumbled mess, where once-quiet streets are now burdened by traffic in a near-constant state of gridlock. Antiquated buses spewing diesel fumes and a lack of emission controls have created a brown cloud over the San José sky. Below the cloud, the city bustles, but it's not particularly hospitable to travelers. Sidewalks are poorly maintained and claustrophobic, and street crime is a problem. San José will invariably serve as a default hub or transfer point for most visitors to Costa Rica, unless you are flying in and out of Liberia. Most visitors quickly seek the sanctuary of their hotel room and the first chance to escape the city.
Still, San José is the most cosmopolitan city in Central America. Costa Rica's stable government and the Central Valley's climate have, over the years, attracted people from all over the world. There's a large diplomatic and international business presence here. As a result, there has been a proliferation of small, elegant hotels in renovated historic buildings, as well as innovative new restaurants serving a wide range of international cuisines. Moreover, things have been improving in recent years. Mayor Johnny Araya has led ambitious and controversial campaigns to rid the narrow sidewalks of impromptu and illegal vendors, to reduce the clutter of billboards and overhead signs, and to bury a good share of the city's electrical and phone cables. There's even a move to more intelligently regulate bus and commuter traffic.
San José was built on the profits of the coffee-export business. Between the airport and downtown, you'll pass working coffee farms. Glance up from almost any street in the city and on the surrounding volcanic mountains and you'll see a patchwork quilt of farm fields, most of which are planted with the grano de oro (golden bean). San José was a forgotten backwater of the Spanish empire until the first shipments of the local beans made their way to sleepy souls in Europe late in the 19th century. Soon San José was riding high. Coffee planters, newly rich and craving culture, imposed a tax on themselves to build the Teatro Nacional (National Theater), San José's most beautiful building. Coffee profits also built the city a university. Today you can wake up and smell the coffee roasting as you wander the streets near the Central Market (Mercado Central), and in any cafe or restaurant, you can get a hot cup of sweet, milky café con leche to remind you of the bean that built San José.
Why does coffee grow so well around the city? It's the climate. The Central Valley, in which the city sits, has a perfect climate. At 1,125m (3,690 ft.) above sea level, San José enjoys springlike temperatures year-round. The pleasant climate, along with the beautiful views of lush green mountainsides, makes San José a memorable city to visit. All you have to do is glance up at those mountains to know that this is one of the most beautifully situated capitals in Central America. And if a glance isn't enough for you, you'll find that it's extremely easy to get out into the countryside. Within an hour or two, you can climb a volcano, go white-water rafting, hike through a cloud forest, and stroll through a butterfly garden -- among many, many other activities.