city slicker San Jose

San Jose, Costa Rica, is the new HQ of the UN's Group of 77 developing countries, and was also recently appointed presidential country of the Grupo de Rio - a consultation body working for peace in Central America

Hottest nightspot: La Esmeralda is the home of Dial-a-Serenade. Most nights, this city centre heaves with troupes of uniformed mariachis (musicians) wearing huge sombreros and skin-tight, braided trousers. Rival groups tout for trade among courting couples, playing them Latin golden oldies at ear-splitting volume. But when their mobile phones start to buzz, summoning them to an emergency serenade across town, they make a dash for their transit vans and speed off into the night.

Catch-phrase: Pura Vida: "Hi, how are you?" "I'm fine," "see you later" and "lovely day" are just some of its meanings. Best translated as "living in Costa Rica is so pleasurable, every day is a delight". Very handy for the non-Spanish speaker trying to get out of an awkward confrontation with a street trader, or sweet-talking a policeman into cancelling a speeding ticket.

Hottest ticket: A cramped space on the terraces among the Ultra, the fanatical followers of San Jose's leading football team, Sapprisa. They provide tireless displays of jungle drumming, fireworks and chanting at even the dullest of matches. They sing good-natured ditties such as "My heart is so purple" (in adoration of the team's lurid strip), but the charm lapses when they launch into their Spanish rendition of "The referee's a bastard".

Latest fad: Despite living in the safest and most peaceful country in Central America (they abolished their army nearly 50 years ago), Joseffinos (San Jose folk) have gone security mad, erecting thick metal bars on every window and doorway they can find. Keeping up with the Rodriguezes next- door has meant the city's suburbs look more like those of south central Los Angeles.

Wildlife: In a country where rainforests are crammed with a staggering diversity of animal and plant species, it is not surprising to see a number of them wandering the city. Don't be alarmed if a man approaches you in a bar carrying a young crocodile for sale, or you see a cyclist making his way to work with a pet racoon clinging to his shoulders.

What to drink: Guaro, the local firewater. This clear spirit is made from sugar-cane and is very popular with mariachi singers, who are ordered by their severe band leaders to steer clear of beer lest it dry up their voices.

What to eat: Bar snacks, or bocas, are delicious and often free with drinks. Pork scratchings, jalapeno peppers and cheese wrapped in tortilla chips are the most popular, but for the Latin man whose libido needs a boost, a bowl of chilled ceviche (raw fish marinated in lime juice) is recommended.

Biggest hassle: The capital's frenetic one-way system and numerous gaping potholes make driving not dissimilar to an amusement arcade game. Broken traffic-lights, determined taxis and swarms of buzzing pizza delivery bikes add to the confusion. If you're in a hurry, take a taxi, and if you're lucky, you'll get Ramon, the moonlighting policeman who grins maniacally at the wheel and waggles his revolver at other terrified motorists who wisely swerve out of his way.

Greatest danger: Earthquakes. Most Josefinos refuse to talk about them. Minor tremors happen several times a week, as twisted buildings around the country show. The last big one was on 22 April, 1991 and measured 7.4 on the Richter scale. It killed 27 people, caused pounds 100m worth of damage and lifted long stretches of the Atlantic coral reef clean out of the water.

MATTHEW BRACE

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