San José as a Multicultural City

I’ll admit it. Some of my expectations about San Jose, Costa Rica were way off.

Before coming here, I assumed that “Costa Rican culture” was a suitable way to describe the traditions, food, language, and general way of life that makes this country unique. Wrong. That term is ridiculously broad. The truth is that Costa Rica is a stunning mosaic of different ethnicities, dialects, cuisines, and immigrant communities. As the capital of Costa Rica, San José is the perfect area to see all the different communities come together.

This is a jaw-dropping Japanese garden at Lankester Botanical Gardens in Cartago. The koi fish were adorable!

For example, Costa Rica has 7 provinces, and, not to brag, but I’ve learned them all by heart. Even within the provinces, there are 84 cantones, similar to our idea of municipalities. (I have not learned them all by heart.) You can imagine that there are all kinds of different regional identities shared among the populations. My host mom explained that the seven provinces even have their own specific accents. As a San José native, she also insists that her province is the coolest. Limón is one of the provinces that I find most fascinating. Located on the Atlantic Coast, Limón is home to a large Afro-Costa Rican and Caribbean population, with their own music, cuisine, and dialects. There are also small indigenous communities in rural Costa Rica that have their own languages.

This is Villa Mariposa at El Miro, an abandoned residential complex in the mountains of Jacó Beach.
A gorgeous green café in Barrio Escalante, a neighborhood in San José home to the best restaurants and bars in the city.

Another thing that I have to brag on is the food. Traditional Costa Rican food is muy rico (very tasty), as my host mom says, but Costa Rica is also home to a myriad of international cuisines. I’ve seen Japanese, Mediterranean, Thai, and American restaurants all around San José. Mexican cuisine is extremely popular in Costa Rica, as well as Chinese food. Chinese culture has a strong presence here, and there’s even a Chinatown in downtown San José! In general, many immigrants come to Costa Rica from places like East Asia, the Caribbean, and South America. The largest immigrant population comes from Nicaragua, that shares its southern border with Costa Rica.

A delicious vegetarian ramen bowl from Ramenezco, a Japanese restaurant in Barrio Escalante, San José. I hated mushrooms before eating this, but this bowl changed my mind.
At El Columpio Bistro in Escalante, I ordered patacones (bottom plate) and they were heavenly. The side of pico de gallo made me reconsider returning to the US.

The importance of diversity should never go unnoticed. As someone that grew up in the United States, I love seeing people of different ethnicities and languages around me. As an American of African descent, it’s fun to see Afro-Costa Ricans and compare how different our cultures are. The variety of people is one of the most impressive things about Costa Rica. Diversity welcomes all people and opens up space for experiencing cultures and perspectives different from your own.

This is a restaurant in Plaza Lolita, a gourmet food court, also in Barrio Escalante. Grab some kiwi ice cream at Dolce Gelato in my honor.

The multiculturalism of San Jose is what adds complexity and nuance to the term “Costa Rican culture.” It’s something that will forever be beautiful to me, and I hope you experience it too!

Ahavah Warr is a student at University of North Carolina – Wilmington and an ISA Featured Blogger and is studying abroad with ISA in San José, Costa Rica.

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