May 27th, 2009

The Old Corner Grocery

About thirty years ago, shopping in Costa Rica was very different from what it is today. Imported goods were scarce and very expensive. Manufactured goods—clothing, furniture, and large appliances—were all but unavailable, and shoppers with the means would buy them outside the country. However, fruits and vegetables were plentiful, and most Costa Ricans could buy these at small corner grocery stores called pulperías. Once a vital part of daily life, the pulpería has all but disappeared from the newly modernized Costa Rican landscape. Many Costa Ricans fondly describe the pulpería as a symbol of the country’s slow-paced and charming past.

Pulperías were always small, modest buildings that crouched unassumingly on street corners. They usually had colorful names that referred to nearby attractions or to desirable attributes. Locals gathered there daily to buy milk, cheese, and eggs before refrigeration was common. Pulperías were popular gathering places, and most customers prolonged their visits, talking and joking with their neighbors as they bought their daily supplies.

Pulperías had a feel and look uniquely their own. Their floors were often unfinished wood planks. Because the doors stood open all day, pulpería floors were warmed by the sun and slightly dusty. To either side of the open doors wooden bins held fresh fruits and vegetables, and plantains and onions often hung from hooks in the ceiling. Employees stood behind wooden counters that had been worn smooth with use. Customers requested items stored on shelves behind the counters. Pulperías always smelled of warm wood and gently ripening fruit.

For children, the best part of the pulpería was the glass-fronted shelf that held candy. It sat at eye level on the wooden counter, each candy relegated to one section of a vertical grid. Just as children could buy one individual piece of candy, adults could buy an individual cigarette, a match or a cotton ball pre-moistened with nail polish remover. One-colón coins and smaller céntimo pieces still had value, and almost every transaction involved just a few small coins.

Pulperías—also known as abastecedores—still exist in Costa Rica, and they still retain some of their traditional flavor. However, flashy new stores are slowly taking over what was once the sole domain of this small corner grocery.

Read about an art exhibit dedicated to pulperías.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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May 6th, 2009

A Boggy Past

Visitors to the Hotel Sleep Inn might be surprised to learn that, in the early 1800s, the surrounding area was primarily marshland. Costa Rican historians refer to this part of town as the “lagoon,” a swampy area just north of the Sleep Inn’s current location. In fact, if the Sleep Inn had existed during this period, guests in north-facing rooms might have had pleasant lagoon views. As the 19th century progressed, San José grew in size, and the area where the Sleep Inn now stands became one of its most vibrant centers.

Until the mid-1800s, San José’s lagoon occupied an area bordered by the current Morazán Park (Parque Morazán), the Park of Spain (Parque España) and the beautiful metal-clad school (Escuela Metálica) that overlooks the Parque Morazán. Neither the parks nor the Escuela Metálica existed at the start of the 1800s; the liquor factory was the only building on the banks of the lagoon before the late-19th-century building boom. Across the boggy marshland from the liquor factory stood the train station to the coast.

In the latter half of the 1800s, coffee became Costa Rica’s leading export product, and the entire country changed and grew. San José’s population increased, as did train travel to and from the coasts. As the population shifted toward San José’s lagoon, city planners soon realized that they would need a way to connect the lagoon areas with the busy nearby train station. Until then, train passengers struggled to traverse the boggy lowlands on their walks to and from the station, and train workers slogged through the marshes to reach the railroad yards. In 1875, work began on this traffic connector, which would essentially traverse the marshes to allow for more efficient traffic flow. Upon completion, the connector became Third Avenue (Avenida Tercera), which is the street bordering the Hotel Sleep Inn to the north. At the time it was built, the street was called Paseo de las Damas, a reference to the beautiful trees growing along its edges.

At about the time that the city finished construction on the new Paseo de las Damas, city officials decided to drain the lagoon completely. On this former swampland, the city established the Parque Morazán. This new park, the National Liquor factory and the train station soon demarcated one of the busiest and most important regions in late-19th-century San José. Train passengers bustled to and from the station along the new street, which was soon dotted with businesses and restaurants. Wealthy Costa Rican families moved into the area, and elegant new neighborhoods grew up around Amón, Aranjuez and Otoya, on the outskirts of this fashionable new part of town

Although the city has shifted and changed several times since the heady late 1800s, visitors to the Sleep Inn’s neighborhood can still see the fine old buildings and beautiful parks of Costa Rica’s past. The Hotel Sleep Inn is proud to stand in this lovely historic neighborhood.

[from a radio broadcast based on research by Raúl Francisco Arias Sánchez, a Costa Rican historian]

Read more about the history of coffee production in Costa Rica.

Read more about the Hotel Sleep Inn, the Escuela Metálica and their historic setting.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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