August 3rd, 2011

Making Her Rounds

It’s romería time again, and the streets from San José to Cartago have been filled with pious pilgrims making their way to the Basílica in Cartago. Most have made a promise to La Negrita, the patron saint of Costa Rica, and they walk in honor of that promise. Some have come from countries outside Costa Rica, and many have completed the last hundred meters of the journey on their knees.

A Cartago resident and friend of the Sleep Inn told her own firsthand account of the pilgrimage and the important day after. She reported that she had spent the night of August 1 in San José, just so she could make it to work on time on August 2. She said that the thousands of devout pilgrims flowing into the city on August 2, the Virgin’s day, made the streets impassable for outgoing Cartago citizens but that the spiritual energy was palpable in the city. Most of the pilgrims, she said, arrived in time to attend the 9:00 AM mass in the park, where the Virgin, clothed in her festive garments, was presented to her followers.

But the festivities do not end on August 2, because the following day marks the start of another important time for worshipers of La Negrita. On August 3, Costa Ricans celebrate “La Pasada,” when the clothed Virgin is transported from the Basílica in Cartago to that city’s cathedral, where she will remain for a month. Our friend tells us that this journey mirrors the Virgin’s long-ago journey from San José to Cartago, when the country’s capital made the same shift. After her month at the cathedral, La Negrita returns again to the Basílica to await the next influx of pilgrims on August 2.

Costa Ricans describe La Pasada as a moment of incredible spiritual feeling. The streets of Cartago are carpeted in blossoms of yellow and white, the colors of the Virgin, and the clothed statue passes in front of her adoring masses. Schoolchildren are given the day off, and store owners decorate their windows in the Virgin’s yellow and white. A glow of spirituality infuses the city and those who witness the procession, whether or not they consider themselves devout followers of La Negrita.

This last August 2, 2011, an estimated two million pilgrims completed the romería to Cartago. This year marks the 375th anniversary of the Virgin’s first apparition.

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September 15th, 2010

Happy Independence Day!

Costa Rica celebrates its independence today. Enjoy this rendition of the Costa Rican national anthem, played by the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica.

Read more about Costa Rican independence day.

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November 16th, 2009

Costa Rica, in Haiku

Costa Rica has long inspired literary and artistic tributes to its natural beauty and charming lifestyle. Painters and poets, enchanted by Costa Rica’s history and its people, create great artistic works with the country as their inspiration.

This posting showcases three haiku pieces that pay tribute to facets of the Costa Rican experience that visitors always find remarkable. The first haiku describes the ominous beauty of Costa Rica’s volcanoes, which lend a thrilling, dangerous edge to the country’s otherwise serene beauty. Visitors to the Magnolia Restaurant can enjoy a similar geologically themed painting, by artist Denis Salas, in the niche over the piano. The ethereal grays and blues of the painting suggest the smoky landscape around an active volcano. The haiku captures the volcano’s explosive energy:

Active volcano,
Red-rimmed, rumbling at night.
The violent earth speaks.

A second haiku draws its inspiration from Costa Rica’s abundant tropical fruit, a real tourist favorite. The lively fruit paintings in the Sleep Inn breakfast area similarly celebrate this marvelous tropical abundance:

Slices of sunshine
Lying on a morning plate.
Fresh mango breakfast.

A final haiku hearkens back to Costa Rica’s past, a quieter time when ox carts and their drivers slowly crisscrossed the countryside, delivering farm goods and supplies to a country not yet industrialized. Just outside the Sleep Inn’s smoke-free casino, guests can enjoy a beautiful depiction of the ox carts in old Costa Rica. The haiku showcases this same nostalgic sense of history:

Oxen and driver
In the days before cities.
Driving on the brink of change.

Read more about Costa Rica’s volcanoes.

Read more about Costa Rican mangoes and other tropical Costa Rican fruit.

Read more about Costa Rican ox carts, now a part of the UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 19th, 2009

The Past, in Architecture

In the past fifteen years, Costa Rica has witnessed the same kind of building boom that has affected many other parts of the world, often with depressing results. In Costa Rica, new construction has encroached upon the jungle at the beach and carved its way into the country’s lush, green mountainsides. Some animals and birds have lost their homes, and air quality has suffered. But new construction might also have had another often-ignored effect on the emotional landscape of building occupants. Brand-new buildings have changed the relationship people once had to architecture in Costa Rica.

Throughout most of the last century, construction happened only gradually in Costa Rica. Building materials were expensive, and construction itself took a great deal of time. People built both houses and commercial buildings solidly and with little expectation of tearing them down to rebuild. When a new business or an organization needed a building for its headquarters, few ever considered the construction of a brand-new building. Instead, almost all moved into existing buildings–mostly houses–and adapted them to their particular needs. Schools, religious groups, cultural groups and small businesses almost always used old houses for their activities, and members and clients were accustomed to the idea of conducting business and activities in former residences.

This architectural repurposing was, of course, very economical, but it had an interesting emotional component as well. Users of the adapted buildings felt a connection to their former occupants and sensed the organic continuity of the architectural space. Schoolchildren often attended classes in former kitchens, reading and doing math problems with the reassuring awareness that someone once washed vegetables and cooked the rice and beans in that same room. Students in a repurposed school library or science lab could make out the former entrances to grand living rooms or graceful halls where former occupants once had parties or gazed out onto private gardens. Office workers grew accustomed to the awkwardness of bathrooms and closets in every room and enjoyed the unexpected interior patios that once illuminated the bedrooms of their houses-turned-offices.

Even when they weren’t consciously aware of doing so, users of repurposed buildings shaped their movements and their activities to the spaces and architectural arrangements of the people who occupied these buildings before them. New uses and altered internal configurations could never obliterate the sense that the new occupants were standing at the same windows, walking through the same hallways and enjoying the same plays of interior light that the previous occupants once knew. Users of these old buildings could always feel the traces of movement and activity of the people who came before them. Architecture retained a sense of the recent past, of a history that had only recently slipped away, leaving behind built traces and hints of itself.

As in all modernizing countries, Costa Rica now needs a great deal of new construction. Old houses often get torn down to make way for sleek offices and other commercial spaces with highly specific architectural needs. But lovers of Costa Rica’s past can still visit some of the old houses and feel the memories of those who passed through them.

Read about repurposing and inadvertent recycling in Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 11th, 2009

Columbus Day Complexity

Costa Ricans, like Americans, have historically celebrated Columbus Day on October 12. Originally, the subtext of those celebrations was that Christopher Columbus (known as Cristóbal Colón) had brought civilization to previously barbarian lands. People in Costa Rica commemorated the introduction of the Spanish language and of European customs into their land after Columbus’s 1502 arrival in what later became the port of Limón.

In later years, however, many Latin Americans rethought the meaning of Columbus’s “discovery” and began to mourn the destruction of the native cultures and languages that flourished before the Spaniards’ conquest of the New World. Antonio Casa, a Mexican philosopher, declared in 1918 that Mexico ought to celebrate the “Mexican mestizo race,” and not Christopher Columbus, on October 12. The mestizo race–”la raza”–was created through the intermarriage of the Spanish conquerors and the indigenous population. According to Casa, the people of Mexico should celebrate their own mixed heritage, the result of the Spaniards’ intervention in Mexico’s original culture. Other Latin Americans adopted this idea of celebrating La Raza, and October 12 became El Día de la Raza, a celebration of the mestizo race. Christopher Columbus ceased to be the civilizing hero of Latin America and became the enemy of the area’s original peoples.

As in Mexico, Costa Rica changed its Columbus Day celebration to honor El Día de la Raza. On October 12, Costa Ricans now celebrate their indigenous culture and the contributions of precolombian society to present-day Costa Rica, and not just the glory of the Spaniards’ arrival. The celebrations honor the Spanish-indigenous intermingling and the racial mixtures that contribute to Costa Rica today. (However, Costa Rica never had a significant indigenous population, and some might argue that there has been little indigenous influence in the country.)

Among certain academic circles in Costa Rica, there has been yet another shift in the Columbus Day/Día de la Raza story. For various intellectuals, El Día de la Raza has given way to a still newer conception of race and culture in Costa Rica. Some now encourage the country to adopt El Día de la Cultura, a yet-more-universal celebration of global culture, on October 12. This new holiday supposedly recognizes the Spanish influence in the country, the indigenous response to the Spanish arrival, and also the interrelationship of many different cultures that make Costa Rica what it is today. In particular, El Día de la Cultura is meant to honor the African influence on Costa Rican culture. Some scholars, like Mauricio Meléndez Obando, argue that Costa Rica has long downplayed the importance of African race and culture in its history. They believe that the slave trade and an African presence shaped Costa Rica to a far greater extent than most realize. Persuasive though their arguments are, these academics have not convinced most Costa Ricans, who still celebrate El Día de la Raza on October 12.

As notions of race and culture become more complicated and multi-dimensional, Costa Rica’s celebrations of Christopher Columbus have become increasingly layered and segmented and, perhaps, ever more interesting. In some form or other, Costa Ricans will always celebrate their heritage and their culture on October 12.

Read more about Antonio Casa and El Día de la Raza in Mexico.

Read Mauricio Meléndez Obando’s thoughts about El Día de la Cultura in Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 5th, 2009

The Blue-and-White Mystery

One of Costa Rica’s most prevalent and iconic symbols is the traditional house, or “casa típica.” Visitors to Costa Rica will see houses of this type on hundreds of postcards, in paintings, and in historically accurate reconstructions of actual buildings. The house looks the same in almost every representation; it has a red tile roof, square openings for windows, whitewashed adobe (or bahareque) walls, and a bright blue band of paint at the base of those walls. This blue band is the most remarkable feature on these houses. Interestingly, the reason behind the blue-and-white color combination—and the blue band, in particular—is not entirely clear. People have developed various theories to explain the blue, and all seem equally valid.

Some people say that the blue-and-white decorating scheme is merely an homage to Costa Rica itself. Because the traditional houses all had red-tile roofs, their owners decided to paint the walls blue and white. Thus, their houses were red, white and blue, the colors of the Costa Rican flag.

Some believe that when these types of houses were built, blue and white were simply the cheapest paint colors available. The paint protected the houses’ adobe walls, and people merely used the most economical colors they could find. Of course, this explanation does not take into account the particular design of the houses. Why is the blue at the base of the walls?

Other people argue that the blue at the base of the walls serves a functional purpose. When houses of this type were popular, Costa Rica was a rural country, and the houses stood on either dirt or grass. During the long rainy season, water poured off the roofs of the houses and pounded into the ground, splashing mud onto the walls. If the walls had been painted white all the way to the ground, their bases would have been mud-spattered and dirty throughout the rainy season. The blue paint served to protect the walls from mud spots and to disguise any dirt. Of course, one might wonder why people chose blue paint, instead of brown.

Still other people agree with the rain theory but have a different idea about causation. They believe that houses were all painted white at first and that they all developed a rain-induced band of caked-on mud at their bases. The brown band was so familiar-looking that people began to appreciate its aesthetic beauty. The color-block look became popular and desirable. With the idea of replicating this banded look, people began to paint the bases of their outdoor walls, settling on blue as a color that would not continually remind them of mud and as a particularly snappy pairing with white.

Although the reason behind the blue-and-white combination on Costa Rica’s traditional houses may be unclear, the houses are clearly charming and fun to see.

Please let us know if you have heard any other theories about the painted design of traditional Costa Rican houses.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 14th, 2009

Quince de Septiembre

September 15 is Costa Rican independence day, and the entire country will join in the celebrations. Costa Rica received its independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. Before becoming independent, Costa Rica was a Spanish colony, and Guatemala served as a regional government center. In September of 1821, Guatemala declared its independence from Spain, simultaneously declaring Costa Rica’s independence as well. The newly independent Guatemalans gathered together to give a cry of freedom on the evening of September 14, 1821.

Because the Guatemalans carried torches, or faroles, during their evening celebration, torch-carrying has become an integral part of independence day celebrations in Costa Rica. At 6:00 on the night of September 14, torch-lit parades make their way across many Costa Rican towns and in San José. Traditionally, the Costa Rican national anthem plays during the parade of the faroles, and several radio stations often broadcast the anthem simultaneously at 6:00.

Schoolchildren have long played an important role in Costa Rica’s independence day celebrations. The country prides itself on its educational system, and Costa Rican patriots have long argued that the country’s future freedom rests on the shoulders of its schoolchildren. Many of the participants in the farol parades are schoolchildren who have made and decorated their own torches. On September 15 itself, Costa Rican schoolchildren parade through the streets, waving flags and singing patriotic songs. Costa Ricans celebrate the fact that schoolchildren–and not members of the military–head their patriotic celebrations.

Interestingly, Costa Rica did not learn of its independence until October of 1821, as it took a month for the information to reach Costa Rica from Guatemala.

Learn more about faroles.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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August 3rd, 2009

Pilgrimage, the Modern Way

For the past 227 years, thousands of Costa Ricans have made an annual pilgrimage to the Basilica of Cartago, where they visit the statue of the Virgin of the Angels (Virgen de los Angeles), popularly known as “La Negrita.” This image of the Virgin is said to heal the sick. Suppliants approach her for cures, and the healed visit her in gratitude. The pilgrimage takes place August 2, the feast day of the Virgin of the Angels, but this year marked a radical change in the pilgrimage to La Negrita.

On July 21 of this year, the Catholic Church and the Costa Rican Health Minister (Ministra de Salud), María Luisa Avila, cancelled the 2009 pilgrimage to Cartago because of fears about the H1N1 virus. During normal pilgrimage years, thousands of Costa Ricans spend several days in close proximity to one another—taking buses and other forms of collective transportation from outlying provinces to the Basilica in Cartago, jostling one another in the streets during the miles-long walk to the Basilica, crowding together in restaurants and cafés during rest stops, sharing food and drinks along the pilgrimage route, and packing into the Basilica and its courtyard during the religious ceremonies. The Church and Ms. Avila worried that the virus could easily spread among these thousands of pilgrims.

Thus, for the first time in over two centuries, the Catholic faithful would not be allowed to make their way to Cartago and to La Negrita. The pilgrimage is one of the most important religious rites among Costa Rican Catholics, and some have walked to Cartago for dozens of years in a row. Outraged by the cancellation, many vowed to do the pilgrimage on their own, even though the government said there would be no official traffic closures or police escorts to protect them along the way.

The faithful need not have worried. Over the first weekend in August 2009, the pilgrimage did, in fact, take place, although in altered form to accommodate modern health demands. La Negrita herself made the cross-country journey to visit her own worshippers. In a pick-up truck and a helicopter donated by Costa Rica’s Channel 7 (Teletica Canal 7), the Virgin flew to crowds of adoring Catholics who greeted her with applause, prayer and tears. La Negrita began her journey in a new white dress, after her annual dressing ceremony at the Cartago Basilica on Friday, August 1. The following day, church officials loaded the statue into the pick-up truck, in which she toured the Central Valley provinces of San José, Heredia and Alajuela. A motorcycle brigade accompanied the Virgin on her stops to various churches in the Central Valley. The Virgin then returned to Cartago for Sunday’s journey. Near dawn on Sunday, the Virgin left the Basilica in her pick-up truck, which transported her to a nearby field. From there, church officials put the statue into the Channel 7 helicopter, where she joined the Bishop of Cartago, the priest of the Cartago Basilica and a member of the Costa Rican air services (Fuerza de Vigilancia Aérea). On Sunday, the Virgin visited the provinces of Limón and Puntarenas.

During both Saturday and Sunday’s journeys, the Virgin stopped at various arenas and stadiums, all of which were filled to capacity. At each stadium, the faithful processed with the statue to and from a nearby church. Once back in the helicopter, the Virgin proceeded to the next stadium. At every stop, the faithful waved white handkerchiefs and held aloft objects to be blessed.

Because the Virgin’s land-and-air journey began at the Basilica in Cartago, some worshippers did, in fact, make the pilgrimage to Cartago. However, their numbers were smaller than usual, and those who made the pilgrimage were unable to see the Virgin in her usual place on the altar. The statue was being readied for the cross-country journey, so a replica stood on a temporary altar outside the Basilica. Traffic police, on hand despite earlier government threats to the contrary, had an easy job of controlling the minuscule crowds and reported no traffic problems.

Although the Virgin’s 2009 voyage was unusual, her official historian, Carlos Oreamuno, says that La Negrita has traveled across the country several times in the past. According to Oreamuno, the Virgin has traversed all parts of Costa Rica but Cocos Island (la Isla del Coco). However, the 2009 journey was surely the first in which a GPS signaled the Virgin’s exact location throughout her trip. The faithful followed La Negrita’s every move online at

[Please read our upcoming post about the history of the basilica in Cartago.]

Read more about La Negrita’s Sunday journey.

Read more about the dressing of la Virgen de los Angeles.

Read more about the cancellation of the pilgrimage to the Basilica in Cartago.

Read more about the Virgen de los Angeles and the GPS.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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July 20th, 2009

Costa Rica v. Nicaragua: Border Dispute Resolved

For the past four years, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have been embroiled in a dispute over the San Juan River, which runs between the two countries. Fishermen, tour boat operators and pleasure boaters from both countries have, for many years, shared the river relatively peacefully, although undercurrents of conflict have existed for two centuries.

The Cañas-Jerez treaty of April 15, 1858 demarcated the border between the two countries. Under the treaty, the San Juan River belongs to Nicaragua, and the border runs along the Costa Rican side of the river. However, Nicaragua recently argued that its possession of the river allowed it to control river traffic as well. The Nicaraguan government refused to allow Costa Rican law enforcement officials to patrol the river. In addition, Nicaragua demanded that passengers on river boats have Nicaraguan tourist visas, arguing that these passengers needed to purchase tourist passes in order to travel along the river. Costa Rica argued that its commercial and police vessels had a right to freely navigate the San Juan River. Conflict escalated.

On September 29, 2005, Costa Rica took its case to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice in The Hague. At issue was the interpretation of the Cañas-Jerez treaty. Costa Rica claimed that the treaty did not allow Nicaragua to restrict navigation of Costa Rican police along the river and that such restriction violated the 1858 treaty.

On July 13, 2009, the court reached a decision in Costa Rica v. Nicaragua, granting most of the demands of the Costa Rican government. The court recognized the right of Costa Rican tour and passenger boats to freely navigate the river for commercial purposes. Passengers on these boats do not have to procure Nicaraguan tourist visas. In addition, Costa Ricans can use the river for daily transportation requirements—to ferry children to and from school, to deliver food and other necessities to people living in the region and for subsistence fishing.

Interestingly, Costa Rica lost on the one issue it originally brought before the court—whether Costa Rican police had the right to patrol the river. The court held that Costa Rican police had no right to this activity. In addition, Costa Rica can no longer use the river to transport weapons or supplies to police stations in the San Juan River region. The court also granted Nicaragua the right to inspect Costa Rican ships and their passengers at various predetermined checkpoints along the river.

On the whole, Costa Rica is satisfied with the decision, and Costa Ricans hope that tension in the San Juan River area will dissipate.

Read about Costa Rica v. Nicaragua in La Nación.

Read the International Court of Justice’s complete decision in Costa Rica v. Nicaragua.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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July 6th, 2009

Costa Rica’s National Anthem

In 1852, Costa Rica had just declared its independence from Spain and would soon need to defend itself from American imperialists. During a relative political lull, Juan Manuel Mora Porras, Costa Rica’s president, prepared for diplomatic visits from the United States and Great Britain. He realized that the country was ill-prepared to receive foreign visitors, because it had no national anthem. The president quickly commissioned an anthem to be performed for the visitors.

At the time, Manuel María Gutiérrez was the director of San José’s military band, and he dashed off the music to the anthem in time for the official visits. Although Gutiérrez was a consummate musician, he was not a lyricist; he wrote only the rousing music to the national anthem. Its words would not be written for another fifty years.

In 1903, the Costa Rican government, headed by President Ascención Esquivel, sponsored a lyric-writing contest for the national anthem. The poet, José María Zeledón, won the contest’s 500-colón prize with a passionate poem about peace, national bravery and the good hearts of the country’s laborers. Interestingly, Zeledón used the pseudonym of “Campesino”—a reference to Costa Rica’s honorable labor force and to one of the country’s true ideals—when he signed his name as the anthem’s lyricist.

Costa Ricans heard the complete national anthem—and Zeledón’s lyrics—for the first time on independence day, September 15, 1903.

Listen to the Costa Rican national anthem.

Read more about the history of the Costa Rican national anthem.

Read more about the American imperialists and Juan Santamaría, the Costa Rican hero who defeated them.

Read more about the Costa Rican idea of the campesino.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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