San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Barrio Escalante Fusing Past and Present

SAN José changes its clothes and moods every half-dozen blocks, but in the northeastern neighborhood of Barrio Escalante, past and present personalities are stitched up in a stately, schizophrenic creation shocked to life with a steady infusion of business from a discriminating clientele.The neighborhood first grew out of coffee haciendas, cracked under modernization and then patched itself into its present incarnation of art-flick theaters and lounges.The result is the dignified quirkiness of restored plantation owners’ mansions sharing street space with bars and restaurants sprawling through former living rooms and covered patios, all overlaid with century old single-gauge train machinery.A concentration of the city’s most offbeat and mellow nightspots, coupled with quality, occasionally edgy art and film shows, draw manageable, international flocks of college students, young professionals, and escapees from the smog and reggaetón clubs elsewhere in San José.The relics of the coffee plantations hunker on odd corners and square off in residential streets where bay-windowed mansions are trimmed with carved wood, framing stones set in plaster or stucco. Some wear their age flashily, like feather boas, some gracefully, like antique pearls, and a few are crushed under it.COFFEE plantations studded with the mansions of coffee barons and the old guard of public officials covered Barrio Escalante’s hills throughout the first quarter of the 20th century. The Pacific and Atlantic narrow-gauge railroads join in front of what is today Olio tapas and wine lounge.It is the junction of what was perhaps a tyrannical legacy of international investment and extraction. Minor Cooper Keith, the U.S. empresario who put the word “banana” in front of this republic, arrived in 1871 to supervise the work his uncle did on a first segment of track that he eventually stretched from the Central Valley (and Barrio Escalante) to the Atlantic coast in the 1870s. He did so on the backs of Chinese and Jamaican workers, with labor that killed about 4,000 of them. Then he began hauling bananas in what was the forebear to the United Fruit Company.In the beginning of the 20th century, the government supervised the laying of the Pacific track, this time with Hispanic Costa Rican labor. Blacks on the Caribbean coast were officially barred from passage to the Central Valley, ostensibly to save railroad job openings for Hispanics. The train station lies on Escalante’s west flank.IN a bid to help drivers defray expenses as gasoline prices rise, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) recently resurrected the commuter train that was taken off the tracks in 1995 (TT, Oct. 14). It cuts along the neighborhood’s southern border on its way through the city to the eastern and western suburbs, along the same tracks used by banana companies for more than 120 years.Directions in Barrio Escalante are most often given in terms of distance from two venerable landmarks – the Catholic Santa Teresita Church and the Farolito, a turn-of the- century streetlight, now immortalized as the centerpiece of a small roundabout on the northern edge of the neighborhood. Sights and Activities Iglesia Santa Teresita. Though interest in Catholicism is dwindling – with regular church attendance in the low 20% range – the Catholic church in Barrio Escalante, the Iglesia Santa Teresita, retains at least some of its former clout as a landmark for street addresses. It also packs in weddings on the weekends – an average of three – and maintains a steady schedule of masses. Inaugurated in 1927, it is a cross-aped, domed and whitewashed standard church that, like all of Costa Rica’s churches, is nondescript among the ranks of colonial feats of artistry and engineering in other Latin American countries. Location: Avenida 9, Calle 25. Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-noon and 1-5 p.m. Masses are held Monday-Friday at 6 p.m., and Sunday at 8:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., noon, 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Contact: 222-7131. Centro Cultural de España. The Spanish Cultural Center hosts a varying array of art and photography exhibits weekdays and presents films most Wednesday evenings. All films, informational placards on art displays and promotional material are in Spanish, and the films are not subtitled.The center attracts a small number of Spaniards living in Costa Rica and a larger number of Costa Ricans and Latin American expats. Its films are sometimes risqué, as in the transvestite and other sexual subcultures-themed movies by Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, or educational and politically charged, as in a series of experimental videos on Nicaragua after the civil and Contra wars of the 1980s. They are often followed by a group discussion that can continue as the viewers disperse to the nearby artsy cafés and bars. All events at the center are free.Location: Avenida 13, Calle 31, facing the Farolito. Hours: Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Friday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Contact: 257-2919, Histórico Calderón Guardia. Named after former President Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia (1940-44), this museum looks as if two museum directors with opposing philosophies staked out their territories and set up shop. Two of its rooms are full of old-school, stodgy displays of open tomes, knickknacks in glass cases and a wax figure of Calderón, and two rooms feature a mixed-media history lesson and rotating art and photography exhibits.The main hall displays the featured art exhibit, which has nothing to do with the museum’s function as an homage to Calderón and is often high-quality, such as complex art jewelry in jade by Costa Rican jewelers. The exhibit can overflow into a branching corridor beside the multimedia history presentation of some of the earliest photos of San José and its movers and shakers, explained by placards and a recorded voice at the touch of a button (but the sound system doesn’t always work).The dowdy displays are behind the main hall and are highlighted by framed presidential and inspirational words (in Spanish) uttered by Calderón in his storied career as a doctor and a socialist statesman: “There will be peace, finally, when we learn to be real humans without such archaic pretensions and useless complexes of social separatism,” for example.Entrance to the museum is free. Location: Calle 25, between Avenidas 11 and 13, 100 meters east and 100 meters north of the church. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Contact: 244-1218.Editus Academia de las Artes. Three-time Grammy award-winning instrumental trio Editus founded an arts academy last year in a turn-of-the-century mansion that will soon be declared a part of the country’s cultural heritage. Photography, oil and now watercolor exhibits by acclaimed Costa Rican and international artists are displayed in the labyrinthine corridors and offshoot rooms. Visitors can stop by for coffee and pastries at the Café de las Artes and browse the artwork or attend a concert.But the real work of the academy, and what makes the newcomer invaluable to the neighborhood, is the world-class music, arts and writing courses taught by respected Costa Rican professional musicians and artists. Short term visitors can take part in one- to three-month workshops on subjects as vital or sometimes esoteric as lyric writing, by Malpaís’ Jaime Gamboa, acting, drawing cartoon storyboards or baby expression, among many others. Some courses are offered in English.Location: Avenida 9, Calle 31, 300 meters east of the church. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; office hours are Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Contact: 234-0491, 234-5061,, (a new site under construction,, should be up by the end of November).Where to StayHotel 1492 Jade y Oro. This Costa Rican family-owned hotel is in one of the bubbles of peace among the cacophony and occasional danger in San José, sheltered by a towering street-side garden of palms, orchids and rain-forest flora. It is a mid-20th-century, colonial-style home with 10 guest rooms, some situated around an open-air patio. As its Web site attests, it wallows in its own sense of Costa Rican art appreciation. The pre-Columbian-style ceramics are worth a glance, but the painted jungle scenes and flowers haven’t found a way to avoid the gaudiness inherent in those subjects, especially beside the real flowers just outside the windows.Free Internet, fax, laundry, tourist information and tour booking, airport pickup, free parking services and a gift shop are available.Singles cost ¢60,000 ($125) and doubles ¢70,000 ($145), including an evening glass of wine and breakfast.Location: Avenida 1, between Calles 31 and 33. Contact: 225-3752, 256-5913,, Toruma. The impression from the outside of this former home of one of the founding fathers of Costa Rica’s demilitarized democracy, José Figueres Ferrer (“don Pepe”), is appropriately dignified, if yellow; but once through the doors, it is belied by an almost purely functional, pack-‘em-in hostel. Austere rooms of sets of two and three bunks on two floors and shared bathrooms in the vein of Hollywood conceptions of prison showers are offset by a wide, high-ceilinged common area where young travelers hang out on couches, peruse travel brochures and watch cable TV.The trade-off for the comparatively high price for a bunk bed is the opportunity for socializing and the services offered.There is a dining area, stove and refrigerator available for use. Free Internet, fax, laundry, free tourist information and tour booking, free parking services and public and international phones are available. Dorm beds cost $10, singles and doubles $20, including breakfast.Location: Avenida Central, between Calles 29 and 31. Contact: 234-8186,, Orquídeas. The restored former home of a turn-of-the-century coffee baron, the house is currently divided into 18 rooms and an attached restaurant and bar, El Yos. Light, airy and cozily decorated, it has retained its hominess and is well endowed with the trappings of higher priced hotels, such as natural wood trim and furniture and ceramic tile floors.The bar is an original Costa Rican neighborhood bar, sparsely decorated and economical. It sometimes hosts rock bands.Free Internet, fax, laundry, free tourist information and tour booking, airport pickup, free parking and childcare services are available. Singles cost $41, doubles $53, including breakfast.Location: Avenida Central, between Calles 35 and 37. Contact: 283-0095,, Olio Pub y Restaurante. Right at the junction of the former Pacific and Atlantic railroad tracks, which still run along the restaurant’s northern wall, this former railroad storage house is a magnet for young professionals. The lounge specializes in Spanish tapas, about 40 to choose from, with options such as jamón serrano, hummus, pan con tomate and dozens of others.Their small size disappoints big appetites, but only because the flavor is missed when the plate is empty. The restaurant also serves 50 wines from around the world. Plates range from $5-10.Location: Avenida 3, Calle 33. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight. Contact: 281-0541.Café Expresivo. This café is hung with sheer cloths, mismatched iron and cut gourd lamps from the ceiling, original, striking paintings on the walls and ringed with futons, armchairs, couches and coffee tables. The music varies from jazz to mellow electronic and the menu features specialty coffees, drinks and mostly vegetarian creations such as breaded eggplant and a grape, lettuce, apple and cheese salad. Plates range from $3-6.Location: Avenida 9, between Calles 31 and 33, 375 meters east of the church. Hours: Monday-Friday, 4 p.m.-midnight, Saturday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m., Sunday, 6 p.m.-midnight. Contact: 224-1202, 281-1690, Buenos Aires. This is one of the few places in Barrio Escalante that is today what it has always been – a bar. The Argentinean name hasn’t changed, though the owner is now a Costa Rican. He still dabbles in hosting Argentinean tangos occasionally. This neighborhood sports bar is hung with soccer team banners from around Europe and Latin America, including Costa Rica’s La Liga, but not its rival, Saprissa. The drinks are standard and cheap, and you won’t find a foreigner unless he’s asking for directions.Plates cost $2.Location: Avenida 9, Calle 23, on the north side of the church. Hours: Monday- Saturday, noon-10 p.m. Contact: 221-6738.Shopping Galería Valanti. The work of dozens of Latin American artists, living and dead, nursing their newfound talents or at the peaks of their powers, are displayed in this unassuming corner locale. High-quality exhibits are now under way, including Sara Morales, Ana Broenimann and the recently deceased Benjamín Cañas, from El Salvador, whose paintings of horribly stretched and lumpy nudes, angels and other subjects are truly surprising. The gallery offers painting reproduction services, appraisals, consulting and courses in painting, drawing and art history.Location: Avenida 11, Calle 35, 100 meters south and 200 meters east of the Farolito. Hours: Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 1:30-5 p.m., Saturday-Sunday by appointment. Contact: 253-1659, 234-0938, 399-7038,,

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