17 Uniquely Costa Rican Things to Buy in San Jose
Not to be confused with San Jose, the sunny California, San Jose, Costa Rica is the capital city of a wet (250 centimeters of rainfall per year) and colorful Latin American country renowned for its diverse craftsmanship (courtesy of the numerous indigenous tribes), splendid coffee and rich cultural and wildlife scene. To memorize your trip to Costa Rica, you will definitely want to pick up something representative of the country. Fortunately, there's no shortage of such things in San Jose, and at affordable prices too. Follow this guide and see for yourself!
Image Courtesy of: Andy Rusch
Forming part of Costa Rica’s dynamic arts scene are jewelry designers working in gold, silver, glass, semi-precious stones, clay and recyclable materials. Boutique shops throughout San José sell a variety of unique designs. Prices range from $10 to the hundreds. The gift shop in the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum sells Pre-Columbian replicas and modern designs in gold (14K solid and 24K plated) and silver (950). The jewelry is designed and made by artists producing pieces exclusively for the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum (www.museodelbancocentral.org or 506-2243-4214). Gift shop hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tienda EÑe on the first floor of the Jimenez Building, in Plaza España, displays jewelry by Costa Rican and Latin American designers. Kiosco San José highlights unique collections from local artists, such as Ninna Accessories. Costa Rican artisans, who work in various mediums, display their work inside Casa 927. Galvez Bijoux (www.galvezbijoux.com), Sandra Fajardo (email@example.com), Artiliches (firstname.lastname@example.org) and D’crochet (www.artesaniasdecrochet.com), all collaborate under the Casa 927 roof. In Escazú, Atelier Diseño Organico in the Tierra Buena Mall sells jewelry and belts made of recyclable products by Reciclarte, as well as pendants and necklaces by the local artists working with glass. Studio Metallo in Barrio Escalante is an established gallery and jewelry design academy. Studio Metallo is located 675 meters east of the Santa Teresita church in Barrio Escalante (www.studiometallo.com or 506-2225-1570).
2. Traditional Oxcarts
Brightly painted wooden oxcarts are one of the most representative symbols of Costa Rican traditional culture. In a country with strong agricultural roots, the carreta, or oxcart in English, recalls the days when most people worked on farms. Colorful oxcarts have not entirely disappeared: you can still see farmers using them in towns just outside of San José, such as Turrialba, to harvest coffee and transport goods. In November, Costa Rica celebrates its agricultural heritage during the annual Oxcart Parade, a celebration which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Souvenir shops around the capital sell miniature oxcarts big enough to hold a planter and small enough to fit in your pocket. The oxcarts can be separated into pieces for easy packaging. Prices range from $5 to $70. Souvenir La Casona on Calle 0, just 1/2 block from Avenida Central, heading north, has a large collection. The store hours are 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday, and 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Sundays. You can also find several vendors selling oxcarts in Mercado Central (Central Market). The Mercado Central is located on Avenida Central. Market hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The makeshift structure, lining Plaza del la Democracia in front of the National Museum, is also a good place to shop for oxcarts (8 a.m. to 7 p.m.). Costa Rican jewelry designer Galvez Bijoux (www.galvezbijoux.com) has created a contemporary line of accessories that highlights the traditional oxcart. Her work is on display at Casa 927 on the corner of Avenida 11 and Calle 3 (www.casa927.shutterfly.com or 506-2221-2302).
In step with the country’s reputation as a leader in sustainability, Costa Rican artists create handbags using recyclable and environmentally-friendly materials. Hipn’ Verde is a popular brand that mixes ethnic fabrics and recyclable products to produce casual, stylish purses (www.hipnverde.com). Peruse a range of styles from dozens of local designers at Tienda EÑe on the first floor of the Jimenez Building in Plaza España. Store hours are from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Kiosco San José and Casa 927 also display several handbag lines. Kiosco San José is located on Calle 7, Avenida 11 in Barrio Amón. The store/restaurant/café is open noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Mondays. Casa 927, which also has a restaurant, is on the corner of Avenida 11 and Calle 3. Atelier Diseño Organico, on the west side of town in the Mall Buena Tierra in Escazú, also carries the Hipn’ Verde line (www.artecassia.com or 506-8883-4344). Ma-Bo designs stylish purses, backpacks, tote bags and computer sleeves that convey messages of faith and hope. Ma-Bo boutique is located in San Pedro, San José, 400 meters east of Plaza Roosevelt (www.mabodesigns.com or 506-2224-3964). The store hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. San Pedro is home to several universities and a lively neighborhood. To get to the heart of the university area from Ma-Bo, cross to the north side of Avenida Central, where you will find a mix of shops, restaurants and bars.
Cacique Guaro has been produced and sold in Costa Rica since 1853. Guaro is a clear liquor (or a purified cane brandy) made of sugar cane. It often shows up on drink menus around Costa Rica mixed with 7Up or Fresca; though, it can be used to spice up everything, from daiquiri to martini. Customers share their favorite Cacique Guaro recipes on the company’s website www.guaroliquor.com. The red-labeled and black-labeled bottles can be found in just about every supermarket and liquor store in the city. The relatively inexpensive alcohol comes in 365 ml bottles for $3 and 1000 ml bottles for $8. Centenario is a rum produced in Costa Rica, and is also readily available at local supermarkets and liquor stores. You can find pints and liters aged for 5, 7 and 9 years. One liter of Centenario rum aged 5 years costs $20. Pint-size bottles run around $6. Their website www.centenariorum.com also shares recipes. Café Rica liqueur is another popular beverage often seen accompanying bags of coffee in gift shops. It can be found at Auto Mercado supermarkets.
5. Hand-Crafted Shoes
Calderón has been producing fine footwear in Costa Rica for over 85 years. The label offers an affordable collection of men’s and women’s shoes created with a level of craftsmanship representative of the days gone by. The conservative styles range in price from $20 to $60. Calderón has three locations: the downtown store sits along the main pedestrian walkway of Avenida Central. On the way to the university area, known as San Pedro, there is a Calderón location along Avenida Central (a ten-minute bus or taxi ride from the city center). The shop is in the Los Yoses neighborhood on the south side of the street. There is a third location in Novacentro, between Guadalupe and the turnoff to Moravia. Store hours are from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The store hours vary, depending on the season (506-2233-9960). For those in the market for hip shoe styles, Kiosco San José, Tienda EÑe and Casa 927 all carry hand-crafted shoes stitched with colorful textiles and recyclable materials. Cecilia Sofía Altamirano Jiménez, on display at Casa 927, is carrying on the family shoe business her grandfather started in 1934 (www.calzadoaltamirano.com).
6. Wood Art
Local artists craft stunning lathe bowls from wood and knots found of the forest floor. Some of the bowls are functional, while others are purely decorative. Biesanz Woodworks in Escazú is one of the most notable galleries (www.biesanz.com or 506-2289-4337). Prices range from $20 for a set of wooden combs to $280 to $850 for bowls. Gallery hours are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturdays 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. during high-season between December to April. Small galleries around the country showcase realistic and abstract museum-quality wood sculpture. Several galleries line the west side of Morazán Park in downtown San José. Galeria Zukia showcases wood sculpture from renowned Costa Rican artists such as Alexy Palenzuela Ramos (www.alexypalenzuela.com) and Manuel Vargas. Galeria Zukia is open from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (506-8302-7299 or 506-8851-9682). Prices run in the low thousands depending on the artist and the type of wood used. Amir Gallery, across the street, also displays wood sculpture. Souvenir La Casona sells bowls, sculpture and all kinds of household wood products. It is located on Calle 0, just 1/2 block from Avenida Central heading north. Store hours are 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Sundays.
7. Fine Art
Costa Rica has a vibrant and emerging contemporary art scene. Art galleries are popping up around the capital, showcasing talent from around Costa Rica and Latin America. Prices range as wide as $100 to $10,000. Surprisingly, a number of striking pieces are available in the hundreds and low thousands. Several notable art galleries spread throughout San José. The National Gallery in the Museo de los Niños (Children’s Museum) is the largest exhibition space dedicated to the visual arts in Costa Rica. The National Gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Jacob Karpio Gallery highlights talent from Costa Rica and Latin America. The gallery is located in one of the capital’s old homes on Avenida 1, between Calle 11 and 15, on the south side of the Registro Civil. DesPacio is just a few block away on Calle 15, between Avenidas 7 and 9, 100 meters east of the Casa Amarilla in Barrio Otoya. Visits are by appointment (email@example.com or 506-8849-5120). Alianza Francesa (506-2222-2283) on Avenida 7, between Calles 5 and 7, dedicates a couple of rooms to young artists. The relatively new Casa 927, on the corner of Avenida 11 and Calle 3, houses numerous artists who manage their own commercial space. Together with Casa 927’s restaurant and live music performances, it is quickly becoming one of San Jose’s most vibrant cultural centers (www.casa927.shutterfly.com or 506-2221-2302). Galería Alternativa features emerging contemporary artists from Costa Rica (www.galeriaalternativacr.com and 506-2232-8500.) The gallery is located about twenty minutes outside of downtown San José in the Condominio Industrial, local 21, in Pavas. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon (Ring the doorbell.) To find out about temporary exhibitions, pick up a copy of GAM Cultural, available in PDF at www.issuu.com/gamcultural. The main post office in downtown San José is just one alternative space that displays fine artwork for sale.
8. Natural Beauty Products
In a country renowned for its environmental prowess, it’s no surprise that you can find a variety of 100% certified organic and eco-friendly beauty products. Capturing the essence of Costa Rica, moisturizers, aromatic oils and exfoliating scrubs are made with local ingredients, such as coffee, cacao and coconut. The four most popular organic product lines are Bio Bella (www. biobellaorganics.com), Aromaflor (www.aromaflor.com), Magga Natural and Aromas para el Alma. Prices range from just a dollar for travel-size samples to $15 for hand-made soap and moisturizing lotion combinations. Multiple locations sell these product lines, including some spas. For a wide selection, visit Bio Salud in the Plaza del Sol (a small indoor mall) in Curridibat, San José (506-2280-9786) or Bio Salud in the Multiplaza Escazú in Escazú, San José. Multiplaza Escazú is a huge and brightly lit indoor mall with hundreds of stores. Shoppers will find there everything, from high-end boutiques, such as Carolina Herrera, to an Apple store to kiosks selling incense from around the world (http://www.multiplaza.com/visitusC1.html). Magga Natural’s cosmetic and therapeutic line includes soothing massage oils and pain-relieving creams. Magga Natural sells their products at Casa 927 on the corner of Avenida 11 and Calle 3 (www.casa927.shutterfly.com or 506-2221-2302). Aromas para el Alma has a delightful little boutique in Escazú (www.aromas.co.cr or 506-2289-3229) in a four-store shopping center called Mall Buena Tierra, or Good Earth Mall. Aroma para el Alma’s comprehensive and exquisite organic product line also offers shampoos and lotions for children. The shops and café/restaurant in Mall Buena Tierra sell Aromaflor products.
Costa Rica refers to the coffee bean as a “grano de oro,” or gold nugget. Coffee has played a major role in the country’s development. Big name brands and boutique labels decorate supermarket shelves, and hand-weighed pounds pass straight from the roaster to the customer in coffee shops. One-pound bags, selling for as little as $3, are sure to please even the most discriminating coffee palate. Auto Mercado supermarkets, throughout the capital, have a well-stocked coffee aisle displaying the popular 1820 and Café Britt brands among others. There is an Auto Mercado in the Plaza del Sol in Curridibat, in the Multiplaza Escazú and in downtown San José on the corner of Avenida 3 and calle 3. Coffee is also readily available along Avenida Central, the capital’s main pedestrian walkway and the country’s busiest outdoor shopping mall. The 1820 café in the Plaza de la Cultura (which lines Avenida Central) sells coffee, t-shirts and travel mugs. You can buy Café Britt in the gift shop inside the Universal department store on Avenida Central. If you want to select fresh-roasted beans from a bin, try El Tostador, located on Avenida Central and Calle 10 (8 a.m. to 7 p.m.), and also on Avenida 4 behind the Merced Church (6 a.m. to 7 pm.). Café Central, inside San Jose’s bustling Mercado Central (Central Market), also weighs out beans that are roasted on site (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
10. Locally-Designed Clothing
From funky t-shirts to evening wear, Costa Rican clothing designers are filling boutique shops with unique pieces that are sure to complement any wardrobe. As is the case in all Spanish-speaking countries, the local culture has shaped the language. Costa Rican Spanish is filled with costaricanismos, or typical Costa Rican expressions. Arteria boutique sells tank tops, t-shirts and dresses made with high-quality cotton decorated with costaricanismos. Arteria is located next door to the Jacob Karpio Gallery on Avenida 1, between Calle 11 and 15, on the south side of the Registro Civil. T-shirts cost between $10 and $20. Store hours are from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday (506-2257-1446). Several boutiques selling locally-designed clothing are within walking distance of Arteria. A number of artists at the nearby Casa 927 are clothing designers. Kiosco SJO carries a handbag line from Pez, as well as their collection of hip t-shirts and casual wear, also made with recycled fabric from curtain manufacturers. Tienda EÑe has two small rooms filled with unique outfits by local clothing designers. Atelier Diseño Organico on the west side of town, in the Mall Buena Tierra in Escazú, carries the Nabruk line, perfect for the yoga enthusiast looking for casual and elegant designs that conserve comfort (www.artecassia.com or 506-8883-4344).
11. Indigenous Art
Costa Rica has tremendous biodiversity as well as ethnodiversity. Each of the country’s eight indigenous groups creates unique arts and crafts, including hand-carved and painted masks, hand-woven textiles and straw goods, intricately carved gourds, hand-sewn clothing and jewelry. Outside of purchasing goods on a visit to an indigenous community or at an artisan fair, the best place in the capital to buy indigenous arts and crafts is Chíeton Morén. With the help of the La Dolorosa Catholic Church and the La Flor Group in Boruca, San José now has a museum and gallery dedicated to Costa Rica’s indigenous people. The space is designed to educate visitors and provide an opportunity for all indigenous groups to sell their arts and crafts without an intermediary. Prices range from $5 for a hand-woven change purse to $20 for a small ceramic vase to $40 for a hand-woven straw hat. Chíeton Morén is located on Calle 1 between Avenida 10 and Avenida 12 (Look for a yellow façade with red triangles.). Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday (firstname.lastname@example.org or 506-8930-1371). Another excellent place to look for artwork from local and indigenous artists is Namu Gallery (www.galerianamu.com or 506-2256-3412). Namu Gallery is a staunch advocate of fair trade practices and has been selling and educating the public about indigenous art in Costa Rica and Central America for over a decade. Prices range from $10 to the thousands. Namu Gallery is located just around the corner from the INS building, home of the Jade Museum, on Avenida 7, between Calle 5 and 7, and is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and on Sundays, during tourist season, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The gift shop in the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum also sells high-quality indigenous arts and crafts (www.museodelbancocentral.org or 506-2243-4214). Gift shop hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The vendors lining Plaza del la Democracia in front of the National Museum sell a wide variety of relatively inexpensive arts and crafts from all over Latin America (8 a.m. to 7 p.m.).
The fact that Costa Rica is home to 4% of the world’s biodiversity makes it a stunning place to photograph. It’s no surprise that stacks of coffee table books grace the shelves of bookstores. Just hitting the stores is "Magical Trees" by Juan José Sergio and Giancarlo Pucci (2nd Edition), a soft-covered book about the trees of Costa Rica with text in English and Spanish ($38). There's a large selection of creative bilingual children’s books on offer. You can also find coffee table books highlighting the guaria morada (orchid), which is Costa Rica’s national flower, and birds. Costa Rica is home to 860 recorded bird species. (That’s more than the recorded number in the U.S.A. and Canada combined!) One of San Jose’s best bookstores for international visitors is 7th Street Books. In addition to literature in English and Spanish, the bookstore also sells music and a variety of small souvenirs. Just off San Jose’s main pedestrian walkway (Avenida Central), you can find 7th Street Books halfway up Calle 7. Store hours are 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. A few steps away along the city’s bustling Avenida Central are Libreria Lehmann, Universal and Libreria Internacional, all of which sell a great variety of books about Costa Rica.
Costa Rica’s diversity is best explored through its music. From calypso to folk music to rock, the geographically tiny country offers a surprising variety of music styles. Papaya music is a local label representing a variety of Costa Rican musicians. A music CD runs around $15. Seventh Street Books in downtown San José, just off Avenida Central on Calle 7, offers a small but representative selection of Papaya music. Store hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (506-2256-8251). Casa 927 also has a small display of Papaya music. A number of stores along Avenida Central, the capital’s main pedestrian walkway and the country’s busiest outdoor shopping mall, sell music. Check the Universal department store and the Libreria Internacional on Avenida Central. On the west side of town in the Multiplaza Escazú, Vertigo has a dedicated section for Costa Rican music, including the Papaya label. There is also a large Libreria Internacional in the Multiplaza Escazú.
14. Lizano Sauce
Image Courtesy of: Seanclare
Lizano is a sweet and spicy vegetable-based condiment. Lizano has been used to flavor a variety of Costa Rican dishes for close to a century. Visitors will often find it decorating the breakfast table when enjoying a traditional dish of gallo pinto (black beans and rice). The popular condiment is sold in a variety of sizes at supermarkets and pulperias, or mom-and-pop grocery stores. Lizano “suave” is the low sodium version. A tiny 135 ml bottle costs less than $1. As popular as a bottle of ketchup in the United States, Lizano also comes in a family-size 700 ml bottle for around $4. Many gift shops also sell Lizano, so it is easy to pick up a bottle if you are doing last-minute shopping. Together with one of the many available cookbooks on Costa Rican cuisine, this would make a great gift set for the foodie in your life.
15. Ceramic Art
Image Courtesy of: Bryan Guzman
From ceramic art with Pre-Columbian roots to brightly colored, hand-painted coffee cups, pottery enthusiasts will find an array of unique pieces in Costa Rica. Cecilia Facio de Figueros mixes floral designs and geometric shapes to create one-of-a-kind ceramic pieces. Starbucks commissioned her coffee mugs a few years ago, so some people may recognize her work. Namu Gallery carries several of Cecilia Facio’s pieces. Coffee mugs sell for $28 (www.galerianamu.com or 506-2256-3412). Namu Gallery also sells replicas of ceramic art on display in the city’s museums. Namu Gallery is located on Avenida 7, between Calle 5 and 7, and is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and on Sundays - during tourist season - from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Chorrotega, one of Costa Rica’s eight indigenous groups, have been making ceramic art since the Pre-Columbian era. To learn more about their culture and to purchase their ceramic artwork, visit Chíeton Morén on Calle 1 between Avenida 10 and Avenida 12 (Look for a yellow façade with red triangles). Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday (email@example.com or 506-8930-1371). Vendors lining Plaza del la Democracia, in front of the National Museum, also sell ceramics (from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.).
The Boruca, one of Costa Rica’s eight indigenous groups, still weave textiles following their ancient traditions. Women use naturally-dyed, locally-grown cotton to weave tapestries, as well as placemats, purses and belts. The Boruca sell their textiles at artisan fairs, markets and galleries. The Chíeton Morén museum and gallery offers a wide collection of textiles from Boruca. Prices for hand-woven goods start at $5 for a small purse. Chíeton Morén is located on Calle 1 between Avenida 10 and Avenida 12 (Look for a yellow façade with red triangles). Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. For shops selling only the highest-quality textiles, visit Namu Gallery and the gift shop in the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum. Namu Gallery is located on Avenida 7, between Calle 5 and 7. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. During a tourist season, Namu Gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays (www.galerianamu.com or 506-2256-3412). The gift shop in the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (www.museodelbancocentral.org or 506-2243-4214). Innovations in textile art are also sprouting from the country’s emerging fine arts scene. One of the best places in the capital to discover the latest in textile design is Casa 927 on Avenida 11 and Calle 3 (www.casa927.shutterfly.com or 506-2221-2302).
In a country where the annual rainfall measures 250 centimeters nationwide, an umbrella is a must-have accessory. Rego is a household name in Costa Rica that has been selling paraguas (for men) and colorful sombrillas (for women) for over sixty years. Close to the equator, it is also popular to carry a sun umbrella here. If you are planning to spend several days at the beach, you can pick up a beach umbrella at Rego. Compact designs, small enough to fit in a purse, start at $8. Beach umbrellas range in price from $60 to $85. While many stores and supermarkets throughout Costa Rica sell the Rego brand, it’s fun to make a purchase from the tiny shop on the corner of Avenida 2 and Calle 1o, which tends to customers over the counter. Rego offers a similar, intimate and customer-oriented environment in a slightly larger shop just up the street on Avenida 4, one of the capital’s pedestrian walkways (www.regocr.com or 506-2222-2163). Store hours are from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays.