Shopping. The very word scares me. Where to go? What to buy? How much to pay? Do I know how to say, “I’m fine, thanks, just looking,” in Spanish? So many questions, not a single answer.
The task is made even more difficult by being in a foreign country. Different customs, different fashions and a different language all conspire against you. On top of that, a foreign shopper in Costa Rica is under the additional pressure to find something truly Tico, which can be surprisingly difficult amongst the multinational chain stores on San José’s Avenida Central.
There is a solution: the Calle Nacional de Artesanía y Pintura (National Handicraft and Painting Street) in downtown San José.
Just off busy Avenida 2 near the National Museum, at the eastern end of the city center, almost 100 stalls make up this handicraft market described by Lonely Planet as “one of the best shopping experiences in the city.”
As the name suggests, the market takes up a street. The parallel lines of stalls form an enclosed tunnel of bright colors and bustling activity that feels a world away from the bleak concrete of neighboring Plaza de la Democracia. However, unlike many similar places in Latin America, it remains friendly and welcoming, with none of the labyrinthine alleys and snarling traders that can make market shopping such a daunting and claustrophobic experience.
U.S. tourist Ashley Warner, a student at the University of Miami, for one, was grateful. “Here (the stallholders) are nice,” she said. “It is more civilized and calm. I tried a market once in Mexico and I ran out.”
The range of things on offer means there is something for everyone, whether Tico or Gringo, grown-up or little one.
“There is a good variety … I like little things to decorate my apartment with so I bought some letters that are really cool to hang up – my initials,”Warner said.
Stallholder Mayra Trujillo explained the broad appeal of the market: “Everyone here is so friendly, and there are prices to suit everyone, both Ticos and foreigners.”
To prove her point, prices at her stall range from $5 for handmade cards or jewelry to $100 for leatherwork done by her father. In fact, many of the stalls are family businesses: Trujillo’s family has run its stall for 11 years; Flor Morales’ husband and daughter help out at her jewelry stand; and at Jorge Arias’ soda (mom-and-pop eatery), customers were treated to his young son Maykel’s beaming grin to go with their steaming plates of gallo pinto.
And everyone seems to genuinely enjoy working here.
“It is very laid back and so pretty,” Trujillo said.
“There is a lot of companionship here,” Arias said, adding with a smile, “It’s not going to make me a millionaire, but it certainly keeps body and soul together.”
So if you’re looking for a souvenir, a birthday is looming, or your flight home is tomorrow and you’ve promised the family something, you could do worse than head down to the handicraft market. If not, start practicing: “Estoy bien, sólo quiero mirar.”
Made in Costa Rica?
It’s hard to deny that Costa Rica lacks the great artisan tradition of other Latin American countries such as Guatemala or Mexico.
One trader, Marco Vilca, admitted as much; he even revealed that some of his brightly colored textiles and fashionable shoulder bags, many of which are emblazoned with “COSTA RICA” in big letters, had actually been made in Thailand. On the other hand, he was careful to point out that the woodwork he sells is made in the country.
Another stallholder, Mayra Trujillo, was proud of the fact that her family had made the items at her stand, and plenty of others were crafting their own wares.
Flor Morales defended her country’s artisan tradition: “Here there are many indigenous people who make a variety of things. Of course, that is true of a lot of other countries, but I do think we have something of a tradition as well.”
It was hard not to agree with her as she continued to weave beautiful and intricate designs while giving her opinion. Although the technique she was using, macramé, is used worldwide, she said, “It is done a lot here … for baskets and other things as well as for handicrafts and jewelry.”