A City of Portraits: Street Art in San José, Costa Rica

All we had experienced of Costa Rica’s capital city was dark streets lined with junkies inside cardboard boxes, barbed wire and broken glass, lentejas and rice dinners in the local supermarket canteen, and a hostel to lay our heads in. Suffice to say that we weren’t enraptured by the short blips of time we had spent in San José.

This time around, we freed up a couple of days to explore the city before our bus ride north to Nicaragua. We had low expectations, but once we escaped to downtown San José and the San Pedro area we found ourselves surrounded by an array of street art and street performance.

Russian granny doll street art san jose costa rica - Charlie on Travel

San José is a city full of portraits

Wandering around San José, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the murals were facial portraits. In Costa Rica, this is unusual. It’s far more common to see street art and paintings celebrating Costa Rica’s wildlife with monkeys and sloths adorning the walls of hostels all around the country. In the city, the focus isn’t on nature but on the people.

Portraits ranged from familiar local faces of street vendors and farmers to international cultures, from traditional style sketches to more modern representations, from realistic impressions to abstract concepts.

Womans face street art san jose costa rica - Charlie on Travel

Farmers face street art san jose costa rica - Charlie on Travel
Ice cream man in my photo san jose costa rica - Charlie on Travel

Crazy street art face san jose costa rica - Charlie on Travel
Luke and man street art Costa Rica - Charlie on Travel

The vibrant, diverse people of San José

I’ve travelled to cities all around the world and never once taken a photo of someone on the street. At home, I traipsed around London with my camera pretty often but mostly spent my time head down en route to my next destination. In San José, it was different…

As we walked through the city, we came across cultural festivities in one of the parks where street performers played music, others learned to dance, free runners practised on the stone walls, skaters flipped their boards on the cordoned off roads, hula-hoopers congregated and even expressionistic umbrella performers ran around the square. I was captivated by the lively, diverse and vibrant people – and I took my first photo portraits.

Street performers in San Jose - Charlie on Travel

Dancers in San Jose Costa Rica - Charlie on Travel

Umbrella people san jose costa rica - charlie on travel

Hula hooper in san jose costa rica - Charlie on Travel

Skate boarder san jose costa rica - Charlie on Travel

After some real reservations about San José, we were pleasantly surprised by the eclectic street art adorning city walls and the creative, cultural, lively vibe that we experienced along the way. The saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover is certainly true of San José.

Which cities are your favourites for street art portraits? What do you think of them?


Charlie Marchant

Charlie is a long-term traveller from the UK who writes about simple ways to travel sustainably, including how to become a house sitter and slow traveller, eating local and vegetarian, and making responsible travel choices.

21 thoughts to “A City of Portraits: Street Art in San José, Costa Rica”

  1. I think I would like San Jose for its artistic and lively side alone. I’m a huge street art fan and I love stopping and watching people performing in the street, I’m not sure why but it changes my appreciation of a place completely. I guess that’s why I love Berlin and London too so much.
    francaangloitalian recently posted…LOCATE CAVEY – Return to BerlinMy Profile

    1. I agree and I think it changes mine too. If there hadn’t been street performers and sunny weather to appreciate all the street art in during the day then perhaps I would still have a negative perception of San Jose.

    1. Yes, definitely. I felt like I really experienced both sides of it too, and we also stayed in one of the less than lovely areas, it was so great to be able to walk around the arty, vibrant areas.

    1. Hey Kami! I know right, me too, it really surprised me. It was a much more vibrant place than it first appeared, you have to explore much deeper into the heart of the city before it’s revealed.

  2. Great photos! Often the best way to explore an otherwise scummy city seems to be to look for the hidden culture- street art, music, open-air performers. I had a similar experience in Bogota apart from the weather was bad too there- not that inspiring as a city, but beautiful street-art. Thank-you for sharing! I’m glad you found a positive side to San Jose.
    Katie Featherstone recently posted…Coiroco- tropical garden of the Yungas, Bolivia.My Profile

    1. Thanks, Katie! Yes, I completely agree about that – and also spend more time in cafes and coffee shops when you come across a good one! Street art can really make all the difference. Thank you for commenting!

    1. Thank you, Heather! Your remark is so true. I was listening to a group of tourists discussing San Jose the other day. A solo female traveller had asked about it and a group of tourists all chimed in to say how dangerous it was and how women should never go out on their own in San Jose, and that there was nothing to see anyway – it was better just to stay in the hotel room. I was like :/ not true.

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