Part 1 of the series ‘Culture in Costa Rica’

I occasionally like to visit San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, just to travel around. Most of my friends and acquaintances from the Costa Ballena only go to San Jose when traveling internationally, and/or to shop. They tell me that they don’t really like San Jose and it doesn’t have much to offer in terms of tourism.

However, if all we see of San Jose are the airport and the big box stores that line the national vehicular arteries, where do we get the idea that there’s not much culture to enjoy in San Jose, and other major cities in Costa Rica?

By now, I think that most of us know about the natural wonders that Costa Rica has in stock. But what about the incredible museums, archaeological mysteries, venues for worship, and all of the history, traditions and myths that litter the streets of the nation’s cities and settlements? What about the culture in Costa Rica’s communities?

According to website LiveScience, culture is “the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.”

If we look at culture as the evolution of our biological dispositions to fit with the conditions present for physical survival, it is no wonder that pura vida or “pure life” would become so heavily adopted by Costa Ricans throughout the nation. The entire landscape is an ecological wonderland and appreciation of life is easy when surrounded by so much beauty. Pura vida describes this value of protecting the innocence and innate beauty of life. With every new government action to protect nature, it has evolved to become an important part of Costa Rica’s common consciousness.

Beyond this popular aphorism, I want to point to the many other ways that Costa Rica’s culture is thriving in a three part series, the first of which will focus on the arts in Costa Rica: .

Visual Arts

There is a noticeable mix of indigenous and foreign talents in Costa Rica; a nation where many expats come to make their homes. This mix of cultures fosters a diversity of perspective in what we notice about the world

The Museo de Arte Costariccense and other smaller galleries in San Jose give us many different genres of painting (I was recently enthralled to see an entire exhibition on sex in art from only Costa Rican nationals).

This is an avid nation of theatre lovers and Costa Rica is said to have more theatre companies per capita than any other country in the world. Drama is an established part of the standard school curriculum, helping to cultivate young actors, theatre in Costa Rica has expanded in scope and technicality.

Museums are rich with the cultural, historical and artistic legacies of their host nations, and Costa Rica’s are no exception. The nation’s long history of peace means that finances typically reserved for the military are being continually invested in the conservation of culture.

Jade Museum – displaying native jewelry, pre-colonial jade, and one of the most extensive collections of jade in the western hemisphere.

Coin Museum – coins from the colonial period to modern times. Museum of Pre-Colombian gold – collection of delightful jewels

National Museum – pre-colonial artifacts from clay or stone, religious art and the building itself was a fort, marked with bullet holes from the 1948 Civil War, kept as a reminder of the nation’s violent past.

Natural Science Museum – fossilized remains of animals, dinosaurs, and an incredible collection of butterflies.

Contemporary Art Museum – located in the old national liquor factory, you can also find amazing live performances.

Costa Rican Art Museum – the old location of the International Airport. A magnificent building with fine exhibitions of paintings, drawings and sculptures.

Criminology Museum – bizarre pictures, body parts, and other grotesque artifacts showing the history of criminology and law enforcement in Costa Rica.

National Identity Museum – all about Costa Rican cultural and national identity. The Children’s Museum – a big yellow castle with interactive exhibits for littles.

Theater

Playwriting is a new phenomenon, stemming from the colonial times in the nineteenth century. Made originally to depict religious, historical events, and folklore as a sort of news reel depicting what was happening in society in those days. Stereotypical representations of urban and rural characters would be combined with humor, including depictions of criticisms of the corruption seen in the system – a common theme throughout Latin America. Other traditional depictions include the dehumanization during the industrial era and its effect on society.

Streets in San Jose are decorated with small theaters. I recently went out for a romantic dinner for one in a small, dark, Argentinian restaurant. In the back, behind a heavy curtain, I could hear periodic laughing all night. After paying, as I was about to leave, I peaked behind the curtain to find a hidden room full of dozens of theatre-goers enjoying an avant-garde comedy performance. I could tell it was edgy by the shocks of laughter.

Popular theaters: Try Teatro Variedades, Teatro Nacional (exquisite interior design and full of history), Teatro Popular Melico Salazar, Teatro Eugene O’Neill.

Music and Dance

The most common dance style in Costa Rica is salsa. Tico’s love rhythmic Latin beats in combination with sensual movements, which include cumbia, bachata and merengue.

Latinos tend to be known by their flavor of dance. The majority of Ticos love to dance regardless of age, and many flock to the nearest dancehall on weekends. Dancing is an excuse to flirt and to show off your moves, both of which are central to Costa Rican culture.

Many younger Ticos enjoy electronic music, creating a positive environment for the growth of music festivals around the country like Envision Festival, Bass Fest, and Jungle Jam, many of which also promote Costa Rica’s cultural message of sustainability.

Caribbean flavour is also present in reggaeton, calypso and reggae. Music Festival of the South Caribbean Coast debuted in 1999 and features artists from around the country.

Folkloric Dancing originates in Guanacaste and involves traditional dress, choreography, and incredible handmade instruments.

Literature

No indigenous texts have been found to exist in Costa Rica. Early writing from the 1900s reflects the grim lifestyle in Costa Rica, and how the population longed for and sought social progress, such as from the struggles of banana farmers under the United Fruit Company. Costa Rica has always been under the influence of the most famous Latin American writers who have become household names such as Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Jorge Amado, Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende, or Jorge Luis Borge.

Architecture

Architectural design in Costa Rica is up and coming. Most commonly, architecture in the major cities is the typical tightly-packed, sometimes very colorful but heavily gated housing and retail spaces that line nearly every major street in Latin America.

On the other hand, new commercial and residential developments are unique and sophisticated in terms of engineering and design. There are thousands of architecture firms in Costa Rica, and the newest trends are in eco-development. Creativity is put to the test in this natural landscape, where appealing and functional designs also take into account the shape of the land and how to maximize the natural resources like earth, air, water, and heat.

San Jose’s National Theatre is the crown jewel in architecture. Ornate and neoclassical in style, it is full of incredible art and architectural details from the colonial past up until the present.

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Read part two of the series ‘Culture in Costa Rica’ next week where we write about religion, rituals and mythology in Costa Rica.