Friday, March 20, 2009

Catedral Metropolitana, Mercado Central, Teatro Nacional

I started my day at the Catedral Metropolitana, at the corner of Avenida 2 and Calle Central, across Calle Central from Parque Central, San Jose’s central park. The cathedral’s interior was cool and dim, illuminated by sunlight filtered by colorful stained glass windows depicting biblical scenes. Rows of pews and thick marble columns lined the long nave which ended in a large altar and huge crucifix, all beneath a dome. Leaving the cathedral, I walked north up Calle Central and then west along Avenida Central; these two roads split San Jose into four quarters. I found San Jose’s central market, the Mercado Central, at Avenida Central and Calle 6 & 8.

The Mercado Central is a city block sized indoor labyrinth of twisting, turning narrow walkways lined with cramped storefronts. I navigated its maze for over an hour. Every time I thought I had seen everything, I found a new alley which took me to a previously undiscovered quarter. It all seemed so random at first, but it isn’t. The Mercado’s outer paths led past florists, jewelers, herbalists, and people selling spices of all colors and flavors. These outer layers also included people selling leather goods, souvenir hawkers, coffee bars, coffee bean sellers, and people selling backpacks, bags, children’s clothing, and even school supplies. Deeper in the Mercado I found more herbalists, pet stores, pet food stores, ice cream stores, produce sellers, fresh fish sellers, and people selling every cut of beef, pork and chicken. Finally, the heart of the Mercado held the sodas. Sodas are small restaurants that offer Costa Rican foods, mostly rice and beans served with beef, chicken, or fish. Some of the sodas in the Mercado had seating inside, just like a small restaurant. Others had seating only around a counter with the kitchen in the middle, and patrons ate as though they were eating at a bar. I ate a delicious and filling gallo de pollo y salad, which apparently is fried chicken with rice and salad, at a quiet soda for only 850 colones (about $1.70).

Leaving the Mercado Central, I walked east on Avenida Central to the Plaza De La Cultura and Teatro Nacional at Avenida Central and Calle 3, where I arrived just in time to join a guided tour in English by Alberto for $7. Construction began in 1890 and concluded in 1897. A French opera company performed Faust, the Teatro's first production, on October 21, 1897. The Theater’s lobby floor, hall floors, and pillars are Italian marble. Most of the sculptures and ceiling paintings were done by Italians; some sculptures were done by Spaniards. The notable exception is the mother and child statue Maternity in the lobby, which a Costa Rican sculpted. The theater’s marble sculptures, especially Dance & Music, and Comedy & Tragedy are easily as good as anything I’ve seen in Rome, Florence, or Paris. The lobby painting showing banana and coffee farmers was painted by an Italian who never visited Costa Rica. Consequently, it contains 20 documented errors including incorrect representations of Costa Rican women and coffee farming. The theater’s bronze is Belgian, some windows are French, the iron is English. Nearly every lamp and relief surface is covered in gold leaf. The theater seats 1,034 and has hosted American presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Bush Sr. and Clinton. The entire building is a small replica of the Paris Opera House. The theater hosts performances every day of the year. The most expensive ticket costs $20.

The theater’s meeting room, which is on the second floor across a hallway from the theater’s second-level balcony incorporates Rococo, German Classicism, and Spanish Baroque elements. The meeting room’s hardwood floor was fashioned from 20 different Costa Rican hardwoods and its three ceiling paintings depict poetry, dance, and personifications of Costa Rica’s seven provinces. The room also contains the statue of Glory, a 15 foot marble statue of an angel holding a wreath.

I left the Teatro and continued further west along Avenida Central to Calle 7. San Jose is not an architecturally beautiful city in the way European capitals are, but it is vibrant and alive and beautifully chaotic. I passed street merchants selling DVDs from black blankets spread out on the cement, countless small stores selling everything from refrigerators to lingerie, store owners standing in doorways loudly advertising their wares in Spanish to the passing crowds, street artists happy to be photographed, businessmen in coats and ties holding leather cases, groups of students laughing and gossiping together, Costa Ricans of all stripes sitting, walking, waiting. I traveled through a sea of exactly the kind of human energy Americans have fled from for generations starting after World War II -- soccer moms and workaholic fathers who demanded soul-dead cookie cutter suburbs with two car garages, enough space for lifetimes of junk, and 300 square feet of Bermuda grass, leaving all of us more disconnected because of it.

From Avenida Central and Calle 7, I turned north and followed Calle 7 uphill to Parque Morazan. Parque Morazan is split by Avenidas 5 & 3 and Calles 5 & 7. One part of the park has a small fountain in the center. The main part offers many tall trees, numerous stone benches, a large stone dome called the Templo de Musica, and a statue of Simon Bolivar. Then I turned east from the corner of Calle 7 and Avenida 5 and reached Parque Espana. Here I broke from the path on my tourist map and headed uphill again, following Calle 11 north toward the city zoo, Parque Simon Bolivar. Calle 11 led to the back of the zoo, what looked like a large forest down a steep embankment. I followed what I think was Avenida 11 east around the outside of Parque Simon Bolivar. This road was quiet, a sudden break from San Jose’s noise, traffic and pollution. Parked cars lined the narrow streets. I was the only pedestrian. The road led me past a purely residential neighborhood, but for a small bar called the Sportsmens Lodge. The houses here were large and clean, nicer than anything I had yet seen in San Jose. There was no trash in these gutters. Past the bar I climbed a stairway up to a lonely residential street. A father, just home from his commute hugged a young girl and she laughed. A dark grey cat eyed me, and then ran beneath a car. I turned back and returned to the hostel by following Calle 11 south through Parque Espana to Avenida 6, and then by following Avenia 6 east to Costa Rica Guesthouse.


  1. beautiful day! thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. Hey, great to find a fellow Costa Rica blogger! San Jose needs to get more credit!