San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ceramic Artisan Community Hopes to Draw Tourists to Eco-museum

Five men encircled a greasy pole, like cheerleaders building a gravity-defying pyramid. The goal was to reach the top for a windfall ¢20,000, about $37.

Three times, the pyramid heaved upward toward its goal. Three times, the human blocks crumbled to the ground.

One last push – powered by others’ advice, reproach and laughter – sent the team to the top. The winners left the field tired, greasy and a little wealthier.

Much like the palo encerado contest, life in San Vicente is about struggling together toward a common goal. For the past couple of decades, this small community of artisans on the NicoyaPeninsula, in the northwestern Guanacaste province, has fought to have its Chorotega-style ceramics recognized, and rewarded, by tourists.

Last month’s San Vicente Cultural Fair was one small step in that direction. From July 10 to 13, a stream of folk dancers, musicians, artisans of all stripes and tourists flowed through the town. The smell of traditional foods such as tamales, rosquillas and chicheme wafted from the concession stand. And traditional Guanacaste games, such as palo encerado, entertained locals and visitors alike.

In the eyes of María Eugenia Murillo, a marketing executive at the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) and veteran San Vicente advocate, the fair was achieving its goal: “It’s promoting San Vicente as a cultural tourism destination.”

The biggest attraction for the people of San Vicente was its eco-museum. The project started in the late 1980s, and the road to its inauguration in May 2007 was often two steps forward and one step back.

San Vicente has a long tradition of working in ceramics fashioned in the style of the Chorotega Indians who once inhabited the region. Everyone plays a part, from the harvesting of clay in the hills encircling the tiny town to the firing in homemade kilns of the most intricate Chorotega replica jaguar pots.

Part of the tradition is utilitarian, part targeted to the tourist market. Women craft comales for tortilla toasting and ollas to use for cooking over open fires. Both men and women work clay into copies of Chorotega ceramic pieces, modeled after pictures and originals robbed from indigenous grave sites in the past.

Almost every San Vicente family has its own ceramics workshop, some with a roadside stand from which they sell their wares to passersby. Therein lies the problem: Few pass by.

Tourists who do visit the area for its ceramics usually arrive in Guaitil and go no farther. The paved road ends at the town limits, two kilometers from San Vicente.

In an effort to attract more tourists to the town, a Peace Corps volunteer living in San Vicente spoke with members of the Greater Chorotega Foundation about launching an eco-museum in the community, according to Clara Padilla, a foundation member at the time.

The foundation purchased land for the museum, Padilla said. Since then, a string of volunteers, anthropologists and national and international organizations have stepped in to fund and advise the project.

Maribel Sánchez, a local artisan and diehard community activist, worked tirelessly during that time to make the eco-museum a reality. To her, the project is more than just a tourist attraction.

“(The goal) of the museum is to avoid the emigration of youth to the capital,” Sánchez said.

It appears to be working. Ronald Martínez, director of the NationalMuseum’s Regional and Community Museums program, said the younger generation is participating more in the working committee.

“A group of youth has more confidence in the project,” he said.

The NationalMuseum, ICT and the StateUniversity at a Distance (UNED) have also increased participation in recent years, and sponsored the four-day festival.

Stepping on a wooden crate into the museum, visitors are greeted by a display of Chorotega replica ceramics. Everything from large vases and jaguar pots to decorative plates and toy whistles are for sale.

A temporary photography exhibit of local artisans in their workshops and a National Museum-loaned display of Central American typical dishes fill the other half of the exhibit hall.

Out back, a model ceramics workshop and conference hall, still under construction, welcome visitors. Aloe vera, coffee, basil and other plants fill a classic Chorotega garden to one side of the museum.

Much work remains, according to those close to the eco-museum project.

The community must decide what it wants on permanent exhibit, as well as put the finishing touches on the museum’s logo and Web site.

San Vicente has faced several other hurdles along the way. Funding ran out before construction was complete on the workshop and conference rooms. And mobilizing a loosely aligned group of artisans has been a struggle at times.

“The project is not moving along as quickly as we would like,” said Padilla, a member of the eco-museum’s board of directors. Padilla advises San Vicente and Guaitil artisans to be patient and to continue working together.

“The idea of the eco-museum includes both the towns of San Vicente and Guaitil,” she said. “They have to become very good brothers,” and let go the competition of the past.

Despite the slow going, Martínez has faith in the San Vicente eco-museum and said it serves as a pilot for other Costa Rican communities.

“It’s the museum project that has had the most action,” he said.

The fair’s cultural events were a hit, while the more cerebral museum discussions garnered few attendees. A trickle of tourists passed through the exhibits before turning back to the music and activities outside.

Bismarck Fernández from Sabanilla, east of San José, who came to the fair with his DJ service, admired a ceramic-making contest featuring artisans from Guaitil and San Vicente. He understood a key part of the weekend’s activities.

“It’s bringing the two communities together,” Fernández said.

Getting There

San Vicente is 17 km east of Santa Cruz and 20 km north of Nicoya. From Santa Cruz, take the route toward Guaitil and continue along the gravel road 2 km to San Vicente.

The eco-museum is open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free, but visitors are encouraged to give a donation at the door.

San Vicente has small markets to buy snacks and drinks, but it does not yet have restaurants or lodging for tourists.

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