San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Fun on the Cheap: Pointers for Penny-Pinchers

I am a bargain hunter. In restaurants I look at the prices before I look over the food. I shop the markets rather than the malls. And I always ask “¿Cuánto vale?”(“How much?”) before making my decision.

So I also search out events that are free or low-cost but seem interesting. One such event is the International Book Fair, which is held the last week in June. This year it was at Pedregal event center in San Antonio de  Belén, west of San José. Yes, I know, thebooks are all in Spanish. But if you like books, you’re also interested in what’s available in Latin America. And if you can’t read the books, you can always judge them by their covers. Besides, it only cost ¢500 ($1) to get in and looking around inside is free.

First bargain: everyone going in gets a free book and some bookmarks. I sometimes think I go for the bookmarks just to replace all the torn-off pieces of paper and covers of greeting cards that fill my books. A free book isn’t so bad either.

Then there are also lots of other exhibits, such as stamps and coins and pre-Columbian figurines. The former displayed a slew of envelopes from days of yore when a name, a street and a country were all that was needed to send your letter winging to its destination.

The coins and bills were a little depressing as they reminded you how much five colones used to buy. Now those colorful bills are seen only in antique displays and in the hands of peddlers who charge tourists considerably more than five colones for them.

For kids there were free balloons, and I saw a few grown-ups in the balloon line if that’s your thing.

The book dealers and publishers were arranged in a huge circle around the hall so you couldn’t miss any of them. Other things were easy to miss. I planned to meet a friend there and learned the next day that she had been walking in the same direction around the circle but at a different radius.

For those who aren’t afraid to take on reading in Spanish, there were plenty of books. Casa de Revistas had the most tantalizing display on Da Vinci,Mary Magdalene and the Knights Templar, cashing in on the new popularity at ¢13,000 ($26) and more.

Much too steep for us pinches (think of penny-pinchers), I moved on. The Bible Society had some children’s books on Bible stories with cute illustrations and stickers. And cheap – probably keeping in mind the tale of Jesus and the money changers. With Christmas a mere six months away, I bought a bunch for the kids around my neighborhood, especially those who need to be reminded now and then of their catechism lessons.

Some of the booths were pass-bys – too technical or too limited in scope. But Oceano, which handles dictionaries, encyclopedias and computer equipment, is a good place to find Spanish-English aids or material for the student set.

There were booths for publishers from other Latin American countries, Nicaragua, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Colombia, giving an idea of the span of literature published in the region. The bookstores were there too, Lehmann, Universal and Internacional, offering 10 and 15% discounts on all books.

I headed for the booth of the StateUniversity at a Distance (UNED), whose selection is extensive, with lots of books on Costa Rica by local authors, and very reasonable.

My kind of books. By buying two, I got a discount, a pen and a big paper shopping bag.

My kind of shopping. If books aren’t your thing, they also have a food court.

At three o’clock the whistle blew announcing that the train waiting at the back door would soon depart for the Pacific station in San José, and it was all aboard for those going that way. I go to Alajuela, northwest of San José, but what the heck, I can take the train to San José and catch an express bus back, and it’ll be just as fast as the stop-andstart bus to Alajuela.

The train charged a whopping ¢1,000 ($2) and wobbled all the way to San José, but it was fun, especially seeing a couple of the above-mentioned balloons fly out the window as the train paused over a bridge suspended half a kilometer over a river. Then the train wobbled through the western districts of La Carpio and Pavas, blowing the horn and stopping traffic, and all the passengers waved to the kids along the way, who waved back.

And that concluded my inexpensive excursion about which I had no complaints.

By checking through The Tico Times’ Calendar section, you can find other events that are cheap and choice. Book presentations and inauguraciones (opening nights) of art shows are always free, give you an idea of what’s happening culturally in Costa Rica and serve snacks.

Film festivals held at various cultural centers are also a good value, especially when they’re free. Fairs, festivals, concerts and programs in the parks are other inexpensive ways to see the sights.

Chances are you’ll see me there, too.


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