The Mercado Centrale
The Mercado Centrale, or Central Market, lies at the heart of Costa Rica's capital city of San Jose - the daily center of activity, socializing, and daily shopping in the city. It's the largest marketplace in San Jose, and by extension all of Costa Rica. Situated between Avenidas Central and 1 and Calles 6 and 8 in Barrió La Merced, the market is a sight to see in San José.
This is the main market in San Jose and a bustling atmosphere for locals and visitors. It's also a great place to people watch, browse, and eat your way through - there are several good very casual spots to eat.
Skip the Airport Souvenirs
If you're a first-time visitor to the country and plan on waiting until the end of your trip to pick up souvenirs at the airport - trust me, don't!
Allow yourself some extra time to visit the Central Market. Take a cab to the market, and do your shopping here. The prices are much better and you'll gain a flavor of the real, workaday Costa Rica.
If you've been to Costa Rica before, but haven't visited the Mercado because of the traffic and congestion, or maybe you're a little intimidated about the hordes of people, you really have nothing to fear. Like any market, you'll find the peak times are generally in the morning hours until around 10am, and late afternoon rush hour as people are on the way home from work. But even at these times, the market and streets are easily navigated. Parking a rental car may be challenging but not impossible. If you can, avoid this by taking a taxi.
First - BEFORE you get in a cab, agree on a price from your starting point to the Central Market. Second - there are a dozen entry points into the market due to its size which takes up several city blocks. You'll see vendors just outside the market and people bustling about from your taxi and should exit when you do - don't let the driver run up your fare by keeping you in the taxi longer than necessary, or tell you he has to go around the block to drop you off.
You'll find all sorts of goodies at the Central Market from fresh produce and tropical fruit, meats and the freshest catch of fish, to leather goods, textiles, handmade guitars, livestock, and flea market finds. The livestock can be of the cuter variety like bunnies and peeps, so if you bring the kids along, don't tell them where they're really headed!
A Few Words on Safety
If you're concerned about theft, I would offer the same advice as if you were visiting a crowded market in ANY city in the world: leave your valuables or fine jewelry at home, and keep your money stowed away in a backpack or shoulder bag. Theft is rare, and most locals seem too busy to give your presence a second thought. I've found them to be welcoming, but busy, especially during peak times of day, but always willing to explain things and help out.