I’m not quite sure why I was so surprised. Driving in from the airport to San José last night, I was quite taken aback to see McDonalds. Taco Bell. Denny’s. All the American favourites. I know Costa Rica is in Central America and the clue is in America, but I still didn’t expect quite as much Americanisation.
We’re staying at Hotel Don Carlos, a family-run hotel that has been in operation for four generations. Don Carlos himself came over from Liechtenstein back in the day and after working at the main hotel in town, decided to open up his own. It’s a gem of a place. A warren of nooks and crannies with steps and stairs everywhere. The food is good and the bar does a mean Whiskey Old Fashioned.
What I’ve seen of the hospitality business in Costa Rica and the level of customer service is impressive. Nothing is too much trouble. People are quite happy to spend some time chatting. And they’re very appreciative of the business they get. The central market is closed on Sundays so we took ourselves to the National Craft Market up by the National Museum. Here, about 100 families exhibit their stuff. And setting aside the disappointment I felt when I realised that the chap in Cuba had fibbed when he said he’d carved the hummingbird I bought, it’s impressive. All sorts of arts and crafts and all sorts of prices. Speaking Spanish gets you a long way here. Anyway, there we met Don Maximilien and his chocolate-covered coffee beans. [Turns out that Maximilien Peynado used to play with TICO – a great defender, apparently, who was retired by injury. And he never said a word]. And we chatted and we dealt and he thanked us for helping him keep his business going. Now, call me gullible if you want to, but he seemed pretty genuine. As did the waiter in the great little restaurant across the road with its fabulous steak and excellent cocktails. As did the priest we met in the Cathedral. Genuine Costa Rican.
The Cathedral was full. We caught the tail-end of mass. And afterwards, many of the people lined up to hug the priest. Most peculiar. It’ll take some investigating to find out who he is – he did tell me (of course I had to queue, too) but I must have gotten the name wrong because I can’t find him anywhere on the Net – a Fr Victor Hugo. Still, everyone seemed rather in awe. We dropped by another church later that morning and this time, all the kids were dancing the altar after communion. It, too, was full.
We spent a few hours in the National Museum (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica), a fascinating place that was once a barracks. Laid out in rooms around a rooftop courtyard, it charts the history of the country with lots of interesting stuff on display. From flying panels, carved out of a single piece of volcanic rock, symbolising various belief systems dating as far back as 1-500 AD, to the sixteenth-century mortuary panels that decorated graves.
I was particular taken by the packet bundles, also known as secondary burials. After the tissues had decomposed, the bones were packed neatly and wrapped in tree bark tied up with woven fibres. Quite something.
The museum dates back to 1887 when it was designed to ‘provide the country with a public establishment to deposit, classify, and study natural and artistic products’. Its current location, the former Bellavista Headquarters, is its fourth. It moved here in 1950. I was amused to see that the old latrines were one home to a display of religious objects. And that the cells still have original graffiti on the walls. It’s all rather spectacularly done with some excellent facts and figures about the men and women who made Costa Rica what it is today. Well worth the $9 entrance fee.
Perhaps most interesting of all is that to get into the exhibits, you have to first pass through a butterfly farm. The butterflies here live anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months and vary in size and color and timidity. Some are quite bold. One woman had a massive one attached to her jean pocket. Others were completely camera shy. More again were so quiet they may well have been dead.
We had intended going to something in the National Theatre, but it was in Spanish, no music, and the audience had to wear blindfolds. But we did luck out and get tickets to see the musical Chicago. I’ve seen my fair share of musicals and this was one of the better ones. Everyone could sing AND dance AND act. It’s a shame it was in Spanish because I don’t remember Chicago being laugh-out-loud funny but tonight it was. I have a theory though that the Spanish language and the animated delivery means that the actors didn’t have to act – they just had to be themselves… and sing and dance.
San José is a walkable city with some nice parks and green spaces. It’s home to about 280 000 people. Add the suburbs and it houses nearly a third of the country’s population. There’s a definite element of Spanish Colonial mixed in with some odd metal-tiled palatial manses (the building in pink below) and its fair share of grunge. It’s not the cleanest place I’ve been or the prettiest but it’s lived in. And the people are lovely.
There’s a serious homeless issue though with someone sleeping rough on every street. While one of the safest cities in the region, unemployment and a widening gap between the haves and the have nots are shaping up to cause problems.
But the most disturbing thing I saw when walking around today were the advertising billboards featuring a pig with human teeth. Now, that’s the stuff nightmares are made of.