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.