A gringo discovers San Jos'e

This past week, Costa Rica has made the front page with President Oscar Arias's leadership in the Central American peace plans. Usually, though, when this quiet country makes headlines at all, it's in magazines like National Geographic or Natural History.

``When people first hear of Costa Rica, they think we're some little island off Puerto Rico, and that's bad enough [for us],'' says David Reid. ``Then when they get a map and find it's ... right next to Nicaragua, that's even worse!''

Mr. Reid, a transplanted Californian, runs cruises to local islands from Puntarenas, a port on this country's Pacific Coast. He was lamenting over the tourist trade in this tiny Central American country. ``But,'' he added with some hope, ``more and more knowledgeable tourists are finding what a quiet, undiscovered haven we have here.''

Indeed, Nicaragua and El Salvador have not done much for the neighborhood in the way of drawing tourism to Central America. But Costa Ricans, or Ticos, as they refer to themselves, are fiercely proud of their democratic government and are quick to remind anyone that their Switzerland-size country doesn't even boast a standing army. Their constitution doesn't allow one.

The Army was abolished in 1949. Its headquarters, the former Buena Vista Fortress in downtown San Jos'e, now houses the National Museum, an impressive collection of pre-Columbian art and other exhibits of historical and natural interest. And the country's ex-presidents all live quietly here - not behind armed security in Miami. Costa Rica does, however, have a visible and active National Guard.

San Jos'e is tucked in the central valley, surrounded by high, verdant mountains. This favorable location ensures a fine temperature year round. It's a perfect central jumping-off point for exploring the beauty here - the diverse countryside replete with cloud forests, national parks, jungles, volcanoes, and Caribbean and Pacific beaches.

Whatever personality and color may be lacking in architectural style in San Jos'e is certainly made up for by its residents. On every street corner, local vendors sell their wares. Fruit merchants, up and active at 5:30 a.m., prepare fresh, pink mangos, orange melons, yellow pineapples, and green avocados at their modest stands, ready for the hungry commuters. Lottery ticket hawkers bark their slogans into every passing car.

In late afternoon, a wiry little man wearing a baseball cap was blowing iridescent bubbles at commuters as they exited at a bus stop. His homemade bubble mix, bottled in old Gerber Vegitals Mixtos jars, sold for just pennies.

Costa Ricans seem, by nature, warm, patient, and pleasant. They are largely middle-class, about 95 percent European in heritage. And they delight in hearing visitors stumble through their two years of high school Spanish.

The architectural jewel is the National Theater, right next to the Gran Hotel Costa Rica. It is, without question, the most beautiful building in Costa Rica (which isn't saying too much). Most of the credit for this magnificent music palace goes to Italian prima donna Adelina Patti. In 1890, while touring Guatemala, Patti did not visit Costa Rica. There was no facility large enough for her voice, which, it was said, could ``reduce grown men to weep like children.''

Local wealthy coffee merchants boiled. They devised a plan to tax each bag of exported coffee to finance construction of a theater. Belgian architects, Italian artists, and German engineers all sprang to action. The theater was inaugurated Oct. 19, 1897, with a presentation of Gounod's ``Faust.''

The Ticos' love of music continues. In 1972 the only National Youth Symphony in Latin America was founded under then-president Jos'e Figueres, whose much-quoted words still ring: ``We need to concern ourselves not only with the standard of living but the quality of life as well. Why have tractors without violins?''

San Jos'e's outskirts are mostly residential villages of small, one-story cement block or painted wood houses with high iron fences and small brick-enclosed front yards. Beyond are hills and mountains that once were covered with virgin forest. In a continuing controversy, more forest is being leveled to make room for sugar, coffee, cattle, and banana farms. Trucks, straining under the weight of mammoth logs, can be seen on every highway.

If you come from the States, don't make the mistake of saying you're from ``America.'' In Costa Rica, you are in America - Central America. Costa Ricans are very proud and sensitive about this. You are, if anyone asks, a North American!

People here can be quite winning. Even local sidewalk hawkers are never pushy. Charm is their gentle lure. One young man selling homemade clay whistles [see photos at right] outside the Gran Hotel was especially delightful.

``You want to buy a whistle, sir?'' he said, plucking one the size of a sweet potato from his collection, playing and dancing about like a Pan. ``Look,'' he added, going for my eye after having caught my ear. ``You get three whistles in one. Hold it this way: It's a bird, and this way a pig, and you turn it like this so, and it's a `rhinuncerous.' The pig and bird they have here; the `rhinuncerous' comes from Africa. It is my idea,'' he said proudly. Walking can be rather awkward with four bird-cum-pig-cum- `rhinuncerous' whistles stuffed in your trouser pockets.

Although San Jos'e is considered quite a safe city, there is one notable exception. Guidebooks and hotel employees quickly alert you to beware of pickpockets. Men are advised not to carry their wallets in the usual back pants pocket. Women should be more than nonchalant with their purses.

A word about taxis: They're not equipped with meters, so settle on price before you jump in. Tipping, by the way, is appreciated, but by no means expected.

Shopping in San Jos'e is best confined to those items produced exclusively in Costa Rica. Imported items are extremely pricey. A jar of instant iced-tea mix that got me through two weeks from city to jungle in this tropical climate cost 450 colons (about $7.50) in a local supermarket.

Often locally made items are right alongside imported ones, so seek them out. Leather products are generally a good buy. Luggage is usually of good quality. Shoes may be inexpensive, but shop for quality. Handmade hammocks are sold everywhere. Furniture is also a bargain.

Most wood products come from Sarchi, a small town about half an hour's drive from San Jos'e. It's a colorful place and worth the trip, if woodworking interests you. Here is where you'll see the once-popular ox carts painted with charming and colorful mandala/Arabic designs. Replicas of these carts, in a variety of sizes, are the most typical souvenir of this country.

San Jos'e's better shops are along Avenida Central and the Plaza de la Cultura, right near the National Theater. The National Museum, on Calle 17, has an excellent gift shop, with copies of Indian artifacts and ceramics.

There are several other interesting museums in San Jos'e, including the Museum of Costa Rican Art, the Jade Museum, the Gold and Currency Museum (with more than 1,600 gold pieces on display), and the Museum of Entomology, run by the University of Costa Rica. Opening times, addresses, and entrance fees are listed in pamphlets in any hotel lobby and in guidebooks.

If you go

For more details, contact the Costa Rican National Tourist Bureau, 200 S.E. First Street, Suite 402, Miami, FL 33131, tel. 800-327-7033 or (305) 358-2150, or the West Coast branch at 3540 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 802, Los Angeles, CA 90010; tel. 800-762-5909 for more details.

Always carry your passport and the tourist card that you will be issued upon entering the country. Police may stop you at any time and ask to inspect them. It is because Costa Rica is such a safe and desirable country in Central America that frequent checks on illegal entry are necessary.

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