San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

El Pueblo Center Trying to Shake Bad Rap

Prime San José tourist attraction El Pueblo has had just about every insult thrown its way over the last few years.

After a string of high-profile crime incidents – including the murder of a security guard – around the site of the colonial-style commercial center, the number of people visiting nose-dived as panicked revelers and tourists were warded away from the facility.

In June 2005, the U.S. Embassy even fired a warning to its personnel to steer clear of the center after a killing that month. The incident, one in a long line, sparked fears the area was a wild drug den, where the chances of becoming another victim were heightened.

But things are taking a turn for the better,  claims assistant administrator SeidyChaves, who blames much of El Pueblo’s woes on bad publicity unfairly thrown its way.“When incidents happened near or around El Pueblo, it was easy for journalists to write ‘El Pueblo’ and we suffered, even though they had nothing to do with us,” she said.

The center, first opened in 1977, has had a facelift and the clientele circulating among its once bustling alleyways and attending its bars, restaurants, art galleries and gift stores has been completely transformed, she said.

A casual walk around the site at night on a Friday or a Saturday appears to confirm the revitalization claims. Bars and restaurants seem to be enjoying a steady stream of customers.

Yet “For Rent” and “For Sale” signs can still be spotted in several outlets, particularly deeper inside the confines of the spidery network of El Pueblo. And many onlookers point out the center is often bereft of visitors during the day.

However, Alicia Aguilar, who works in gift store Suraska, said tourist traffic has seen a rise, both during daytime and at night. “We have buses of people coming and security is now a lot better,” Aguilar said.

Vendors say improved security has been key. A security camera system has been installed, guards are now connected to a radio network and patrons are put through a rigorous inspection at the front entrance.

The center’s appearance was also enhanced, receiving a fresh coat of paint and a new, grand entrance in the form of a giant arch, which had previously been situated farther inside the site.

Lidia Susana Castelli, secretary of the center’s administrative council, said since the current administrators were contracted two years ago, vendors’ fortunes have greatly improved.

“Everything was down to security before and now that has been totally changed for the better,” explained the art store owner. “All of the problems before were to do with places in front of El Pueblo but not inside.” Mario Ovares, another artisan, agreed.

“People are checked at the front entrance so that they can’t enter with drugs or weapons. Things are a lot better and we have more people coming.”

Victoria Castro, of Gallery Suraska, reckons there are more tourists and Costa Ricans visiting El Pueblo. She also believes some of the empty stores are being occupied, saying less now appear available. “The stores are active,” she said.

But the chorus of support could paint a slightly skewed picture, others say. Some voices within the center reckon the level of trade still doesn’t match supply the way it did in the past. Many vendors, they add, appear to occupy more than one outlet.

After dark, the bars and nightspots near the front entrance and niche offerings such as the Argentinean Tango Bar and the Bolivianthemed Mi Peñita seem to attract the greatest numbers. The middle section often feels like a ghost town, some visitors say.

Despite the widespread optimism, assistant administrator Chaves was more guarded in assessing the center’s progress.

Asked for statistical estimates on the number of people attending now compared to last year, she said that though none were available, management was able to establish that the composition of the clientele had been altered.

“We don’t have any more people coming than a year ago (in terms of numbers),” Chaves said. “What has changed is the type of people coming.We don’t have the type of people here that we had before. Our security has changed that.”


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