Part 1 of the series ‘Culture in Costa Rica’

Occasionally, I miss the city and like to visit San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, just to travel around. Most of my friends and acquaintances from the Costa Ballena only go to San Jose when traveling internationally, and/or to shop. They tell me that they don’t really like San Jose and it doesn’t have much to offer in terms of tourism.

However, if all we see of San Jose are the airport and the big box stores that line the national vehicular arteries, where do we get the idea that there’s not much culture to enjoy in San Jose?

This got me thinking: what even is Costa Rican culture and why do we hear so little about it?

By now, I think that most of us know about the natural wonders that Costa Rica has in abundance. But what about the incredible museums, archaeological mysteries, venues for worship, and all of the stories, traditions, and myths that populate the nation’s cities and settlements? What about the culture in Costa Rica’s small communities?

According to the online magazine, LiveScience, culture is “the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.”

If we look at culture as the evolution of our biological dispositions to fit with the conditions present for physical survival, it is no wonder that the pura vida philosophy, or “pure life,” would become so heavily adopted by Costa Ricans throughout the nation. The entire landscape is an ecological wonderland and the appreciation of life is easy when surrounded by so much beauty. Pura vida describes the value of protecting the innocence and innate beauty of life, and avoiding the things that cause pressure or stress, like consumerism and concrete structures.

With every new government action put in place to protect nature, pura vida has evolved to become an important part of Costa Rica’s common consciousness. But beyond this popular aphorism, I want to point to the many other ways that Costa Rica’s culture is thriving in a three part series, the first of which will focus on the arts in Costa Rica.

Visual Arts

There is a noticeable mix of talent from indigenous and foreign communities within Costa Rica. This is a nation where many expats come to make their homes and inevitably leave their mark. This mix of local and foreign cultures fosters a diversity of perspective in what we notice about the world around us.

The Museo de Arte Costariccense and other smaller galleries in San Jose give us many different genres of painting.

Museums here are rich with the cultural, historical and artistic legacies of their host nation. And Costa Rica’s long history of peace means that finances that would typically be reserved for the military are being continually invested in the conservation of culture.

Here are a few of San Jose’s other fine arts offerings:

Jade Museum – displaying native jewelry, pre-colonial jade, and one of the most extensive collections of jade in the western hemisphere.

Coin Museum – coins from the colonial period to modern times. Museum of Pre-Colombian gold – collection of delightful jewels

National Museum – pre-colonial artifacts from clay or stone, religious art and the building itself was a fort, marked with bullet holes from the 1948 Civil War, kept as a reminder of the nation’s violent past.

Natural Science Museum – fossilized remains of animals, dinosaurs, and an incredible collection of butterflies.

Contemporary Art Museum – located in the old national liquor factory, you can also find amazing live performances.

Costa Rican Art Museum – the old location of the International Airport. A magnificent building with fine exhibitions of paintings, drawings and sculptures.

Criminology Museum – bizarre pictures, body parts, and other grotesque artifacts showing the history of criminology and law enforcement in Costa Rica.

National Identity Museum – all about Costa Rican cultural and national identity. The Children’s Museum – a big yellow castle with interactive exhibits for littles.


Playwriting in Costa Rica is a relatively new phenomenon, stemming from the colonial times in the nineteenth century.  Plays were originally performed to depict religious, historical events, and folklore as a sort of news reel showing what was happening in society in those days.  Stereotypical representations of urban and rural characters would be combined with humor, including depictions of criticisms of the corruption seen in the system – a common theme throughout Latin America. Other traditional portrayals included the dehumanization of the working classes during the industrial era and its effect on society.

This is an avid nation of theatre lovers and Costa Rica is said to have more theatre companies per capita than any other country in the world. Drama is an established part of the standard school curriculum, helping to cultivate young actors, and expanding the enjoyment of local theatre in scope and technicality.

Streets in San Jose are decorated plentifully with small theaters. I recently went out for a romantic dinner for one in a small, dark, Argentinian restaurant. In the back, behind a heavy curtain, I could hear periodic laughing throughout the evening. After paying my bill, as I was about to leave, I peaked behind the curtain to find a hidden room full of dozens of theatre-goers enjoying an avant-garde comedy performance. I could tell it was edgy by the shocks of laughter and the hands covering mouths agape.

Popular theaters: Try Teatro Variedades, Teatro Nacional (exquisite interior design and full of history), Teatro Popular Melico Salazar, Teatro Eugene O’Neill.

Music and Dance

The most common dance style in Costa Rica is salsa. Tico’s love rhythmic Latin beats in combination with sensual movements, which include dances to music like cumbia, bachata and merengue.

Latinos tend to be known by their flavor of dance. The majority of Ticos love to dance regardless of age, and many flock to the nearest dancehall on weekends. Dancing is an excuse to flirt and to show off your moves, both of which are central to Costa Rican culture.

Many younger Ticos enjoy electronic music, creating a positive environment for the growth of music festivals around the country.  Annual festivals like Envision Festival, Bass Fest, and Jungle Jam also tend to promote Costa Rica’s cultural messages of sustainability and the protection and enjoyment of ecology.

Caribbean flavor is also present in the music of reggaeton, calypso and reggae. Music Festival of the South Caribbean Coast debuted in 1999 and features artists from around the country.

Folkloric Dancing originates in Guanacaste and involves traditional dress, choreography, and incredible handmade instruments.


No indigenous texts have been found to exist in Costa Rica prior to the late 1800s. Early Costa Rican writing from the 1900s reflects the grim lifestyle in Costa Rica, and how the population longed for and sought social progress.  Some examples of literary themes from this time include the struggles of banana farmers under the United Fruit Company and those working in other plantations around the country.

Costa Rica has always been under the influence of the most famous Latin American writers who have become household names here, too, such as Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Jorge Amado, Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende, or Jorge Luis Borge.


Architectural design in Costa Rica is up-and-coming in technological and aesthetic progress. Most commonly, structures in the major cities is typical of the tightly-packed, sometimes very colorful but heavily gated housing, office and retail spaces that line nearly every major street in Latin America.

On the other hand, new commercial and residential developments are unique and sophisticated in terms of engineering and design. There are thousands of architecture firms in Costa Rica, and the newest trends are in eco-development mixed with modern designs and top-of-the-line materials.

Creativity is put to the test in this natural landscape, where appealing and functional designs also take into account the shape of the land and how to maximize the natural resources like earth, air, water, and heat.

San Jose’s National Theatre is the crown jewel in architecture. Ornate and neoclassical in style, it is full of incredible art and architectural details from the colonial past up until the present.


Read part two of the series here, and part three here.

These articles were originally published in December 2017.

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