It’s (Not Just) a Jungle Out There: The Flip Side of Costa Rica

Jun 22, 2018

Costa Rica has a reputation for being naturally endowed—and deservedly so.  But as stunning as the nation’s cloud forests, volcanoes and river gorges are, there’s more to the country than canopy tours and white-water rafting. In fact, you could craft an amazing trip entirely from the cultural offerings. Here, seven favorites that prove the point:

The National Theater in San José

Dress to the nines, sip Champagne at intermission and snap a selfie next to Beethoven’s statue when you attend a performance at the Teatro Nacional. A multicultural mashup—think Carrara marble, Belgian metalwork and local tropical-wood floors—the 1897 theater was modeled after the Paris Opera House in hopes of luring the A-list of European opera stars. The ploy worked, and this neoclassical beauty just celebrated 120 years of dazzling audiences.

The intermezzo ceiling mural of a coffee and banana harvest, painted by an Italian who never set foot in Costa Rica, is not to be missed—or judged too harshly: The coffee is shown growing in the wrong region and the bananas are upside down. Still, USA Today rated this one of the world’s best ceilings. Nab tickets for the National Symphony Orchestra from April through November, or for productions such as the International Piano Festival July 17, an all-Costa Rican concert Sept. 11 or a flamenco fest Oct. 2. Not that you need attend a show to soak in the glamour; there are also guided hourly tours.  

The oxcarts of Sarchí

Two-wheeled oxcarts—known locally as carretas—are as Costa Rican as pura vida (the multipurpose saying that will make its way into pretty much every conversation you have in the country). Dating back to the 19th century, these utilitarian carts—often pulled by a pair of mighty oxen—were once used to haul coffee beans, sugar cane and tobacco from fields to market. Today, the artisan community of Sarchí honors that tradition by crafting miniature oxcarts and painting them in vivid colors and intricate patterns. You’ll find one in almost every Tico household.

In the town square, see what the Guinness Book of World Records pronounced the biggest oxcart on the planet: a 2-ton, 45-foot-long creation, about five times the size of a normal oxcart.

The Museum of Jade in San José

Think you know jade? Think again. This museum is a revelation, starting with the rainbow’s worth of shades the stone comes in. See the entire surprising spectrum as you wander through the starkly modern halls—all designed to resemble a piece of glistening jade.

Juxtaposed against this modernity are the ancient history lessons you’ll learn: From about 600 BCE to 500 CE, jade was worth more than gold. And indigenous craftsmen have long carved the stone into anklets, pendants, vessels and figurines. See more than 7,000 examples from the world’s largest collection of pre-Columbian jade. You’ll also see ancient tools and ceramic pottery (don’t miss the polychrome terra-cotta vase embedded with human teeth).

Afro-Caribbean culture in Cahuita

Sway to the rhythms of Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean music in the tiny beach town of Cahuita, where banjo, washtub bass and percussion players—primarily descendants of 19th-century Caribbean laborers—liven up bars and restaurants with a uniquely local brand of calypso. Cahuita even hosts an annual festival to honor local crooner Walter Ferguson, whose soulful singing made Costa Rican calypso a thing.

Want to know what pairs perfectly with the local restaurants’ calypso soundtrack? Costa Rica’s ever-popular staple, gallo pinto (rice and black beans spiced with onion and cilantro), plus Caribbean jerk chicken, rondón stew (meaning whatever the chef can “run down”) and all manner of fish and vegetables doused in coconut sauce.

The pottery of Guaitíl

Though it looks perfectly at home in a 21st-century living or dining room, the earthenware you’ll find in the hamlet of Guaitíl is the result of 5,000-year-old techniques. Local Chorotega potters still harvest mud clay in the nearby hills, then mix it with freshwater “iguana sand”—so named for the iguana eggs often laid therein. Before the clay pieces are fired, artisans decorate them with hummingbirds, toucans and other natural motifs.

Shop for your favorite design at stalls and stands near the town’s soccer field, then learn more about ancient pottery practices at the Ecomuseum of Chorotegan Ceramics in San Vicente.

The cowboy culture of Guanacaste

Call it four-hoof drive: Horses remain a hugely popular way to get around in Costa Rica, nowhere more so than in Guanacaste, where cowboy culture has thrived since the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Celebrate the noble steeds and the sabaneros who ride them at the 133-year-old Hotel Hacienda Guachipelín, home to a Saturday rodeo of high-stepping horses, straight-backed cowboys and bull-wrestling ranch hands. You can also pitch in with ranch work during the Cowboy for a Day adventure, which starts at 5:45 a.m. with cow-milking and then might include saddling horses, herding cattle and fixing fences. 

In the evenings, hit a restaurant for another infusion of local culture—performances that highlight the percussive sound of the national instrument, the marimba, a wooden cousin of the xylophone. Slurp a bowl of sopa de albondigas (spicy meatball soup) or olla de carne (meat and vegetable stew), then raise a frosty glass of Imperial to cowboys everywhere.

The ceremonial masks of Boruca

Costa Rica is famous for splendid wood carvings, but few are more intriguing than the fanciful devil masks made by the Boruca indigenous people. At the annual New Year’s Festival of the Little Devils (Fiesta de los Diablitos), Boruca villagers don painted balsa-wood masks to fight a theatrical battle against the Spaniards, collectively represented by a man in a bull costume who invariably loses. Take a scenic drive along mountain roads to the Boruca reservation and visit its small Museo Comunitario Indigena de Boruca. Shop the museum store for devil masks, along with intricately carved gourds and hand-woven shawls and purses. Ask for permission before taking photos and be sensitive to this unique culture; the Boruca want to protect their ancient traditions while also opening up to modern tourism. 

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