San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Art city tour enlivens downtown San José

Wednesday night just after 5 p.m., scores of patrons made a pilgrimage to La Sabana’s Costa Rican Art Museum for the first stop on the Art City Tour, a citywide gallery crawl in downtown San José. Most guests appeared to be teenaged girls, dressed in heels and eye shadow and patterned scarves. Others were young men in skinny jeans, looking like misplaced skater punks. But they took their time with the art, circling respectfully around each room and giving each canvas due attention.

“This one is interesting,” said one twenty-something girl to another, as they stood in front of Pedro Arrieta’s abstract landscape of a ladder on a scarlet background. “It reminds me of a hacienda, or maybe a swimming pool.” They chuckled at the title (“Sin Titulo”) and moved on.

Organized by GAM Cultural, the Art City Tour is designed to showcase the arts and culture in San José — for free. Not only could patrons enter upscale museums without spending a single colón, they could also hop aboard a complementary shuttle and ride from gallery to museum to arts center in minutes. In a city much disparaged by tourists and Ticos alike, this open house — held every two months — reminds residents just how creative and dynamic their capital can be.

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A temporary exhibit in which patrons were invited to draw, paint and write on the wall.

Andrés Madrigal

For most people, the Costa Rican Art Museum was only one stop along the way, but it packed a lot of activity: Paintings adorned the walls, sculptures were lit up in the back patio, and toward 6 p.m., a pair of performance artists darted around the rooms wearing animal masks and handing out secret messages. Patrons whipped out iPhones and photographed themselves in front of the artwork. The highlight was Arrieta’s “Cógito de Pasión” (“Contemplation of passion”), a mural of graffiti that covered an entire wall. Guests also were encouraged to take pencils to the wall and scrawl whatever they were contemplating.

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At the Gold Museum, a temporary exhibit focuses on the five feline species found in Costa Rica and how they are represented in pre-Columbian artwork. Visitors are encouraged to try on the indigenous masks.

Andrés Madrigal

A full 24 venues participated in the event, even hallowed institutions like the National and Jade Museums, which usually charge admission fees. As hundreds of patrons took to the streets, crowding into shuttles and flooding art galleries, their youthfulness was noticeable: Instead of retirees and tourists, the vast majority were Tico, college-aged, and traveling in couples and packs. Docents sold event pins for ₡1,000 ($2), and outside the National Museum, a pair of clowns performed for an enthusiastic crowd.

At the Gold Museum, visitors surveyed exhibits of gold jewelry and indigenous stone sculpture. Tucked into an underground concrete superstructure beneath the Plaza de la Cultura, the Gold Museum is one of those cultural touchstones that locals rarely trifle with. But last night the place was packed; people of all ages and fashions meandered the exhibits, murmuring remarks. 

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In the Costa Rican Art Museum’s Salón Dorado (Gold Room), this bass relief mural depicts the history of Costa Rica.

Andrés Madrigal

“I heard about [the Art City Tour] from the Carpe Chepe tour,” said Laura Ku, 26, of San Francisco, California. Ku recently lost her job, decided to travel Latin America, and bought the cheapest ticket she could find — to San José. The Carpe Chepe tour is a dress-casual pub-crawl for young socialites.

“It’s very, very fortunate that we just happened to be here at this time,” said her friend, Linda Tsan, also 26. “I love museums, and I’m always telling other people about free museum tours. We’ll probably leave here and visit the Jade Museum next.”

“We will?” said Ku, raising an eyebrow. 

“Yes,” said Tsan. “That’s why I’m the museum person.”

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A temporary art exhibition at Costa Rica’s National Museum, which is housed in old military barracks.

Andrés Madrigal

With any luck, there will be more.

Contact Robert Isenberg at

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