By Peter Majerle Photo by Andrés Madrigal
Downtown San José pulses with Costa Rica´s culture in its iconic central market.
Weaving past the vocal lottery vendors flanking the cavernous entrance, I let the dark labyrinth swallow me. This is not your typical tourist spot, I thought to myself as my eyes adjusted to their new environs. The narrow passageways are always filled with people, frantically bargaining and pointing to merchandise hanging from the steep walls. The air is thick with various distinct aromas: piquant tropical herbs proclaim their ability to cure any calamity; sweet fruit and vegetables dance in the nose; fresh fish pungently declare their presence. The sights, sounds, and tastes of the Mercado Central, or Central Market, located in the heart of San José, are a delight for any traveler looking to connect with the local culture.
The Mercado Central in San José dates back to the early 1800s. Like many towns in Central America, the Central Park became a market one day every week. In the beginning, before a formal building had been constructed, eager vendors and hungry buyers gathered around the park to examine the produce, meat, and dried goods brought in from all over the country. As the population of San José grew, so did the necessity for a fixed, daily market. The park filled with people on Saturdays, and the local economy became dependent on the park’s fruits. Eventually, a centralized site was needed to accommodate the amount of commerce the weekends brought. Late in the nineteenth century the government responded. A governor’s decree stated that “in the capital, especially, because of the increase in progress and the growing demands made by her inhabitants, the necessity is felt to have a daily market, for which it is indispensable to have a dedicated building.” In 1880 the government erected the building for the Mercado Central, which still stands between Avenidas Central and 1 and Calles 6 and 8.
The Mercado has sat as the central point of urban congregation and interaction for over 120 years, a decade ago it almost lost its life. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Costa Rica experienced a tourism boom. Each day brought more foreign dollars to Costa Rica’s soil, and the poor country was looking to reinvest that money. With the new prospect of increased incomes came talks of modernization, including a movement to tear the Mercado down and put up a modern shopping center in its place. “This old building gives the tourists a bad idea of San José,” wrote Roberto Delgado, a leader in the anti-Mercado movement in 1994. “It is [the building] that emits bad smells and is the place where many delinquents hide. Additionally, it’s necessary to modernize San José,” Delgado continued. Fortunately, the preservationists won and the wrecking ball didn’t swing. Today one can enjoy the market much as it was a century ago. Costa Rica has modernized while still retaining many of its cultural and historic icons, helping preserve the unique feel of Costa Rican life. The Mercado Central may be the best place to experience the this unique way of life. “In spite of the recent surge in modern shopping centers,” writes Alejandra Zúñiga, “the Mercado continues to be the place where hundreds of Costa Ricans hang around daily to buy, to eat, and to feel our culture.”
Actually, the figure is more like thousands. The municipality of San José estimates that more than 50,000 people traverse the market’s floors daily to meet, shop, and share a common experience. Because of this, the Mercado Central may be the best place to truly sense San Jose’s culture. Walking through the streets of Costa Rica’s capital, a foreigner is greeted by familiar sights of shopping centers, fast food chains, and zooming cars. But stepping into the Mercado one actually steps into Costa Rica’s past. The antiquity of the locale gives the dark hallways a timeless feel, harkening back to the Costa Rica of 120 years ago. The prospect of conversation and a filling meal packs the local diners, or sodas, with Tico laborers rubbing elbows and telling jokes over inexpensive, tasty local dishes. To sit at a soda at lunchtime is to truly know the Costa Rican populace, sharing traditional fare, ambiance, and conversation.
After a meal, one can wander through the maze of hallways. There, one can encounter many typical products, ranging from hand-tooled saddles to straw hats to religious icons. A little exploration can reveal much about the local culture: myths and objects of reverence; tendencies in diet and medicine; popular culture. Take the time to breathe deeply, to explore thoroughly, and to savor the unknown that lurks around every fascinating corner.
An original shopping center, the Mercado today houses around 250 different merchants and has changed from the base of Costa Rica’s trade industry to the basis of the local culture. From friendly folks to fine flowers to fresh fish, the Mercado Central is a must-see for the culturally minded visitor interested in truly feeling Costa Rica.
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