Costa Rica is famous for its natural beauty and friendly people rather than for its culture. Because of the overwhelmingly European population, there is very little indigenous culture influence. And because the country was a poor subsistence-agriculture nation until the middle of the 19th century, cultural and artistic activities have only really developed since the late 19th century. Ticos consider San José the cultural centre of the country, and it is here that the most important museums are found.
Theatre is one of the favourite cultural activities in Costa Rica, and San José is the centre of a thriving acting community. Plays are produced mainly in Spanish, but the Little Theatre Group is well known for its English-language performances.
The most famous theatre in the country is the Teatro Nacional, built between 1890 and 1897. The story goes that a noted European opera company, featuring the talented singer Adelina Patti, was on a Latin American tour but declined to perform in Costa Rica for lack of a suitable hall. Immediately, the coffee elite put a special cultural tax on coffee exports for the construction of a world-class theatre.
The Teatro Nacional, in the heart of San José, is now the venue for plays, opera, performances by the National Symphony Orchestra, ballets, poetry readings, and other cultural events. It also is an architectural work in its own right and a landmark in any city tour of San José
The National Symphony Orchestra is perhaps the most cosmopolitan of Costa Rica's performing arts groups. It has toured the USA, Eastern Europe, Spain, Asia and other countries in the recent years and has a high standard. International guest artists often perform with the orchestra, and tickets are inexpensive.
The world record for a musician holding a single note is held by Costa Rican saxophonist Geovanny Escalante of the famed local band Marfil, which has played in Costa Rica for many years. In 1998, the then 24-year-old artist held a steady 'A' for 90 minutes and 45 seconds, almost twice as long as the previous record held by the US saxophonist Kenny G.
Costa Rica's biggest cultural event is the International Arts Festival, held annually in San José for about two weeks in March. The festival features theatre, music, dance, film, and a variety of art shows, with participants from many countries. Also important is the annual Monteverde Music Festival, held around February, concurrently with the South Caribbean Music Festival, held in Puerto Viejo.
Carmen Naranjo (born in 1930) is the one contemporary Costa Rican writer who has risen to international acclaim. She is a novelist, poet, and short-story writer who also served in the 1970s as ambassador to India and as the Minister of Culture. In 1996, she was awarded de prestigious Gabriela Mistral medal from the Chilean government. Gabriela Mistral, a Chilean, won the 1945 Nobel Prize for Literature. Narajo's works have been translated into several languages, including English. Two of her short stories are found in Costa Rica - A Traveler's Literary Companion, which is the best introduction to Costa Rican literature.
Many crafts are available in Costa Rica, ranging from from the balsa birds to jungle-seed jewellery. Most of these are similar to crafts available in other tropical Latin American countries, but a few of them have a special Costa Rican niche.
A few decades ago, the carretas(gaily painted wooden carts drawn by oxen) were the common form of transportation in the countryside. Although carretas are rarely seen in use today (you'll occasionally see one in the most rural areas or during a fiesta), they have become something of a traditional craft form, both a symbol of agricultural Costa Rica and a souvenir peculiar to Costa Rica. They come in all sizes, from table-top models to nearly life-size replicas that double as liquor cabinets. They all fold down for transport. Sarchí is the main centre for carreta construction.
Wooden bowls sound like a humble art form, yet they have been elevated to international art status by Barry Biesanz, working in Escazú, San José. Biesanz's handcrafted wooden bowls are light and luminous, almost defying the definition of wooden. His best pieces sell for up to US$200, and some of his bowls have been presented to US presidents. Biesanz also makes boxes with exposed joinery and other wooden objects - he signs each of his pieces. Numerous other woodcarvers have tried imitate his work; some look quite similar at first glance but close examination will reveal inferior technique and lack of his signature
The village of Guaitil on the Península de Nicoya is famed for its pottery. The attractive pots are made from local clays and use natural colours in the pre-Columbian Chorotega Indian style. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes - many of the huge pots seen decorating houses and hotels in Guanacaste come from here. Other distinctive, boldly painted ceramics are made by Cecilia Facio Pecas Figuers, the sister-in-law of President Figueres (1994-1998). Her work is often identifiable by the painted initials PF
Coffee and bananas have long been associated with Costa Rica, and now artisans have developed various crafts based on these crops. The most interesting is banana paper (and, to a lesser extent, coffee paper), which is made into stationary, greeting cards, and notebooks. The gnarly roots and trunks of coffee trees yield mysteriously twisted sculptures and keepsakes.
Pictures by Jörn Malek. The team of 1-CostaRicaLink and Costa-Rica-Information-Mobile wishes you the best of times in our little paradise called Costa Rica.
Text by Lonely Planet.
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