Introduction to Costa Rica
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Destination content © Christopher P. Baker, used from Moon Handbooks Costa Rica, 5th edition.

Historically, Costa Rica has been relatively impoverished in the area of native arts and crafts. The country, with its relatively small and heterogeneous pre-Columbian population (devastated at an early stage), had no unique cultural legacy that could spark a creative synthesis where the modern and the traditional might merge. Social tensions (often catalysts to artistic expression) felt elsewhere in the isthmus were lacking. More recently, creativity has been stifled by the Ticos' desire to praise the conventional lavishly and criticize rarely.

In recent years, however, artists across the spectrum have found a new confidence and are shaking off rigid social norms, exciting for a country long dismissed as a cultural backwater. The performing arts are flourishing, and the National Symphony Orchestra sets a high standard for other musical troupes to follow. Ticos now speak proudly of their "cultural revolution."

The new sophistication in culture is amply demonstrated by the introduction of an International Art Festival in 1992 (see Festivals and Holidays, this chapter), an annual event that has won a place among the arts festivals of the continent. The festival has brought inspiration and new ideas while raising the quality of local groups by allowing them to measure themselves against international talent.


Santa Ana and neighboring Escazú, immediately southwest of San José, have long been magnets for artists. Escazú in particular is home to many contemporary artists: Christina Fournier; the brothers Jorge, Manuel, Javier, and Carlos Mena; and Dinorah Bolandi, who was awarded the nation's top cultural prize. Here, in the late 1920s, Teodorico Quiros and a group of contemporaries provided the nation with its own identifiable art style--the Costa Rican "Landscape" movement--which expressed in stylized forms the flavor and personality of the drowsy little mountain towns with their cobblestone streets and adobe houses backdropped by volcanoes. The artists, who called themselves the Group of New Sensibility, began to portray Costa Rica in fresh, vibrant colors.

Quiros had been influenced by the French impressionists. His painting El Portón Rojo ("The Red Gate") hangs in the Costa Rican Art Museum. In 1994, at age 77, he was awarded the Premio Magón award for lifetime achievement in the "creation and promotion of Costa Rican artistic culture." The group also included Luisa Gonzales de Saenz, whose paintings evoke the style of Magritte; the expressionist Manuel de la Cruz, the "Costa Rican Picasso"; as well as Enrique Echandi, who expressed a Teutonic sensibility following studies in Germany.

One of the finest examples of sculpture from this period, the chiseled stone image of a child suckling his mother's breast, can be seen outside the Maternidad Carit maternity clinic in southern San José. Its creator, Francisco Zuñigo (Costa Rica's most acclaimed sculptor), left for Mexico in a fit of artistic pique in 1936 when the sculpture, titled Maternity, was lampooned by local critics (one said it looked more like a cow than a woman).

By the late 1950s, many local artists looked down on the work of the prior generation as the art of casitas (little houses) and were indulging in more abstract styles. The current batch of young artists have broadened their expressive visions and are now gaining increasing international recognition for their eclectic works.

Isidro Con Wong, from Puntarenas but of Mongolian descent, is known for a style redolent of magic realism and has works in permanent collections in several U.S. and French museums. Once a poor farmer, he started painting with his fingers and achiote, a red paste made from a seed. "Children, drunk bohemians, or the mentally regressed--in other words the innocent chosen by God--are those who understand my works," he says. His paintings sell for about $35,000 each.

In Puerto Limón, Leonel González paints images of the Caribbean port with figures reduced to thick black silhouettes against backgrounds of splendid colors. The most irreverent of contemporary artists is perhaps Roberto Lizano, who collides Delacroix with Picasso and likes to train his eye on the pomposity of ecclesiastics.

Alajuelan artist Gwen Barry is acclaimed for her "Movable Murals"--painted screens populated by characters from Shakespeare and the Renaissance. Rafa Fernández is heavily influenced by his many years in Spain, defined as "magic realism, where the beauty and grandness of women is explored with a sense of intimacy and suggestion." His ladies often appear in quasi-Victorian guise wearing floral hats. And Rolando Castellón, who won acclaim in the U.S. and was a director of the New York Museum of Modern Art before returning to Costa Rica in 1993, translates elements of indigenous life into 3-D art. His studio gallery in Zapote, Moyo Coyatzin, is named for the indigenous deity of creativity. And you can't travel far in Costa Rica these days without seeing examples of the works of another Escazú artist, Katya de Luisa, whose stunning photo collages are complex allegories. Katya initiated "Encounters With Art," a collaborative effort in which artists from different media contribute to a single work. Aldo Canale works with stained glass, producing what Chakris Kussalanant calls "a tendency for the organic-- large glasses full of sensuous lines and earthy colors." And a Cuban aesthetic finds its way into the works of Limonese artist Edgar León, who was influenced by travels in Cuba and Mexico.

The Ministry of Culture sponsors art lessons and exhibits on Sunday in city parks. University art galleries, the Museo de Arte Costarricense, and many smaller galleries scattered throughout San José exhibit works of all kinds.


The tourist dollar has spawned a renaissance in crafts, and many new forms (several of them experimental) have emerged in the past few years. The revival is most remarkable in the traditional realm. At Guaitil, in Nicoya, not only is the Chorotega tradition of pottery retained, it is booming, so much so that neighboring villages have installed potters' wheels. Santa Ana, in the Highlands, is also famous for its ceramics: large green ware bowls, urns, vases, coffee mugs, and small típico adobe houses fired in brick kilns and clay pits on the patios of some 30 independent family workshops. In Escazú, master craftsman Barry Biesanz skillfully handles razor-sharp knives and chisels to craft subtle, delicate images, bowls as hemispherical as if turned with a lathe, and decorative boxes with tight dovetailed corners from carefully chosen blocks of tropical woods: lignum vitae (ironwood), narareno (purple heart), rosewood, satinwood, and tigerwood.

Many of the best crafts in Costa Rica come from Sarchí. Visitors are welcome to enter the fábricas de carretas and watch the families and master artists at work producing exquisitely contoured bowls, serving dishes, and--most notably--carretas (oxcarts), for which the village is now famous worldwide. Although an occasional full-size oxcart is still made, today most of the carretas made in Sarchí are folding miniature trolleys--like little hot-dog stands--that serve as liquor bars or indoor tables, and half-size carts used as garden ornaments or simply to accent a corner of a home. The carts are painted in dazzling white or burning orange and decorated with geometric mandala designs and floral patterns that have found their way, too, onto wall plaques, kitchen trays, and other craft items. Sarchí and the Moravia suburb of San José are also noted for their leather satchels and purses.

Much of the art that exists has been co-opted by the tourist dollar, so that art and craft shops now overflow with whimsical Woolworth's art: cheap canvas scenes of rural landscapes, rough-hewn macaws gaudily painted, and the inevitable cheap bracelets and earrings sold in market squares the world over.

There's not much in the way of traditional clothing. However, the women of Drake Bay are famous for molas, colorful and decorative hand-sewn appliqué used for blouses, dresses, and wall hangings. Of indigenous art there is also little, though the Borucas carve balsa-wood masks--light, living representations of supernatural beings--and decorated gourds, such as used as a resonator in the quijongo, a bowed-string instrument.

Sarchí is famous as the home of gaily decorated wooden carretas (oxcarts), the internationally recognized symbol of Costa Rica. The carts, which once dominated the rural landscape of the central highlands, date back only to the end of the 19th century. Sadly, they are rarely seen in use today, though they are a common decorative item.

At the height of the coffee boom and before the construction of the Atlantic Railroad, oxcarts were used to transport coffee beans to Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast--a journey requiring 10-15 days. In the rainy season, the oxcart trail became a quagmire. Costa Ricans thus forged their own spokeless wheel--a hybrid between the Aztec disc and the Spanish spoked wheel--to cut through the mud without becoming bogged down. In their heyday, some 10,000 cumbersome, squeaking carretas had a dynamic impact on the local economy, spawning highway guards, smithies, inns, teamsters, and crews to maintain the roads.

Today's carretas bear little resemblance to the original rough-hewn, rectangular, cane-framed vehicles covered by rawhide tarps. Even then, though, the compact wheels--about four or five feet in diameter--were natural canvases awaiting an artist. Enter the wife of Fructuoso Barrantes, a cart maker in San Ramó n with a paintbrush and a novel idea. She enlivened her husband's cart wheels with a geometric starburst design in bright colors set off by black and white. Soon every farmer in the district had given his aged carreta a lively new image.

By 1915, flowers had bloomed beside the pointed stars. Faces and even miniature landscapes soon appeared. And annual contests (still held today) were arranged to reward the most creative artists. The carretas in fact, had ceased to be purely functional and had become every farmer's pride and joy. Each cart was also designed to make its own "song," a chime as unique as a fingerprint, produced by a metal ring striking the hubnut of the wheel as the cart bumped along. Supposedly, the intention was to allow the farm owner to hear his laborers. Once the oxcart had become a source of individual pride, greater care was taken in their construction, and the best-quality woods were selected to make the best sounds.

Today, the carretas forced from the fields by the advent of tractors and trucks, are almost purely decorative, but the craft and the art form live on in SarchÍ, where artisans still apply their masterly touch at two fábricas de carretas (workshops), which are open to view. A finely made reproduction oxcart can cost up to $5,000.

The Ox-cart Museum, in Salitral de Desamparados, on the southern outskirts of San José, has displays of campesino life, including a collection of hand-painted oxcarts, in a typical old adobe house. Also, the Pueblo Antigua, outside San José, has a living museum featuring the carts.


In literature, Costa Rica has never fielded figures of the stature of Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Jorge Amado, Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende, or Jorge Luís Borges. Indeed, the Ticos are not at all well read and lack a passionate interest in literature. Though the government, private donors, and the leading newspaper--La Nación--sponsor literature through annual prizes, only a handful of writers make a living from writing, and Costa Rican literature is often belittled as the most prosaic and anemic in Latin America. Lacking great goals and struggles, Costa Rica was never a breeding ground for the passions and dialectics that spawned the literary geniuses of Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, and Chile, whose works, full of satire and bawdy humor, are clenched fists which cry out against social injustice.

Costa Rica's early literary figures were mostly essayists and poets: Roberto Brenes Mesen and Joaquín García Monge are the most noteworthy. Even the writing of the 1930s and 1940s, whose universal theme was a plea for social progress, lacked the verisimilitude and rich literary delights of other Latin American authors. Carlos Luis Fallas's Mamita Yunai, which depicts the plight of banana workers, is the best and best-known example of this genre. Other examples include Fallas's Gentes y Gentecillas, Joaquín Gutierrez's Puerto Limón and Federica, and Carmen Lyra's Bananos y Hombres.

Much of modern literature still draws largely from the local setting, and though the theme of class struggle has given way to a lighter, more novelistic approach it still largely lacks the mystical, surrealistic, Rabelaisian excesses, the endless layers of experience and meaning, and the wisdom, subtlety, and palpitating romanticism of the best of Brazilian, Argentinean, and Colombian literature. An outstanding exception is Julieta Pinto's El Eco de los Pasos, a striking novel about the 1948 civil war.

One of the most prominent contemporary authors is Alfonso Chase, a renaissance man known for his irreverence. Chase won the 2000 Magón Culture Award, the nation's highest honor in the field.

Popular author José Joaquín Gutiérrez, creator of Cocorí, the little negrito cartoon character (Costa Rica's equivalent of Huckleberry Finn), died in 2000. His characters captured the idiosyncrasies of Ticos.

A compendium of contemporary literature, Costa Rica: A Traveler's Literary Companion, edited by Barbara Ras, brings together 26 stories by Costa Rican writers spanning the 20th century. The essays have been selected to provide a sense of Costa Rica's national psyche and are arranged "according to the geographical allusions they contain." Says former President Oscar Arias, "This anthology offers an accurate synthesis of the literary perceptions that accompanied Costa Rica's transition from a rural, rather isolationist, society... to a highly urbanized society increasingly open to the cultural and commercial currents of the present decade of globalization." I found it to be dull reading!


Ticos love to dance. By night San José gets into the mood with discos hotter than the tropical night. On weekends rural folks flock to small-town dance halls, and the Ticos' celebrated reserve gives way to outrageously flirtatious dancing. Says National Geographic: "To watch the viselike clutching of Ticos and Ticas dancing, whether at a San José discotheque or a crossroads cantina, is to marvel that the birthrate in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation is among Central America's lowest." Outside the dance hall, the young prefer to listen to Anglo-American rock, like their counterparts the world over. When it comes to dancing, however, they prefer the hypnotic Latin and rhythmic Caribbean beat and bewildering cadences of cumbia, lambada, marcado, merengue, salsa, soca, and the Costa Rican swing, danced with sure-footed erotic grace.

Many dances and much of the music of Costa Rica reflect African, even pre-Columbian, as well as Spanish roots. The country is one of the southernmost of the "marimba culture" countries, although the African-derived marimba (xylophone) music of Costa Rica is more elusive and restrained than the vigorous native music of Panamá and Guatemala, its heartland. The guitar, too, is a popular instrument, especially as an accompaniment to folk dances such as the Punto Guanacaste, a heel-and-toe stomping dance for couples, officially decreed the national dance. (The dance actually only dates back to the turn of the century, when it was composed in jail by Leandro Cabalceta Brau.)

Costa Rica has a strong peña tradition, introduced by Chilean and Argentinian exiles. Literally "circle of friends," peñas are bohemian, international gatherings--usually in favored cafes--where moving songs are shared and wine and tears flow copiously.

On the Caribbean coast, music is profoundly Afro-Caribbean in spirit and rhythm, with plentiful drums and banjos, a local rhythm called sinkit, and the cuadrille, a maypole dance in which each dancer holds one of many ribbons tied to the top of a pole: as they dance they braid their brightly colored ribbons. The Caribbean, though, is really the domain of calypso and reggae. The Music Festival of the South Caribbean Coast, tel. 750-0062 or 750-0408, which debuted in 1999, features artists from around the country, from saxophonist Sonsax to piano virtuoso Manuel Obregon.

Folkloric Dancing
Guanacaste is the heartland of Costa Rican folkloric music and dancing. Here, even such pre-Columbian instruments as the chirimia (oboe) and quijongo (a single-string bow with gourd resonator) popularized by the Chorotega are still used as backing for traditional Chorotega dances such as the Danza del Sol and Danza de la Luna. The more familiar Cambute and Botijuela Tamborito--blurring flurries of kaleidoscopic, frilly satin skirts accompanied by tossing of scarves, a fanning of hats, and loud lusty yelps from the men--are usually performed on behalf of tourists rather than at native turnos (fiestas). The dances usually deal with the issues of enchanted lovers (usually legendary coffee pickers) and are mostly based on the Spanish paseo, with pretty maidens in white bodices and dazzlingly bright skirts circled by men in white suits and cowboy hats.

A number of folkloric dance troupes tour the country, while others perform year-round at such venues as the Melico Sálazar Theater, the Aduana Theater, and the National Dance Workshop headquarters in San José. Of particular note is Fantasía Folklorica, a colorful highlight of the country's folklore and history from pre-Columbian to modern times.

Vestiges of the indigenous folk dancing tradition linger (barely) elsewhere in the nation. The Borucas still perform their Danza de los Diablitos, and the Talamancas their Danza de los Huelos. But the drums and flutes, including the curious dru mugata, an ocarina (a small potato-shaped instrument with a mouthpiece and finger holes which yields soft, sonorous notes) made of beeswax, are being replaced by guitars and accordions. Even the solemn indigenous music is basically Spanish in origin and hints at the typically slow and languid Spanish canción (song) which gives full rein to the romantic, sentimental aspect of the Latin character.

Classical Music
Costa Rica stepped onto the world stage in classical music with the formation, in 1970, of the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of an American, Gerald Brown. The orchestra, which performs in the Teatro Nacional, often features world-renowned guest soloists and conductors, such as violinist José Castillo and classical guitarist Pablo Ortíz, who often play together. Its season is April through November, with concerts on Thursday and Friday evenings, plus Saturday matinees. Costa Rica also claims the only state-subsidized youth orchestra in the Western world. The Sura Chamber Choir, founded in 1989 with musicians and vocalists from the country's two state universities, was the first professional choir in Central America, with a repertoire from sacred through Renaissance to contemporary styles. The Goethe Institute, Alliance Fran¨aise, the Museo de Arte Costarricense, and the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center, all offer occasional classical music evenings; see the San José chapter

Costa Rica hosts an International Festival of Music during the last two weeks of August (P.O. Box 979-`007, tel. 282-7724, fax 282-4574, email:;

There's also an annual six-week-long Monteverde Music Festival, tel. 645-5125, each January-February, combining classical with jazz and swing. It's held at the Hotel Fonda Vela, in Monteverde. Book early.


A nation of avid theater lovers, Costa Rica supports a thriving acting community. In fact, Costa Rica supposedly has more theater companies per capita than any other country in the world. The country's early dramatic productions gained impetus and inspiration from Argentinian and Chilean playwrights and actors who settled here at the turn of the century, when drama was established as part of the standard school curriculum.

The streets of San José are festooned with tiny theaters--everything from comedy to drama, avant-garde, theater-in-the-round, mime, and even puppet theater. Crowds flock every night Tuesday through Sunday. Performances are predominantly in Spanish, although some perform in English. The English-speaking Little Theater Group is Costa Rica's oldest theatrical troupe; it performs principally in the Centro Cultural's Eugene O'Neill Theater. The prices are so cheap--you could go once a week for a year for the same cost as a single Broadway production--that you can enjoy yourself even if your Spanish is poor. The Tico Times and Costa Rica Today offer complete listings of current productions and whether a play is in Spanish or English. Also see the "Viva" section in La Nación.

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