Arts, Crafts, Souvenirs

Costa Rican craftsmen make beautiful pieces from metal, leather, ceramics and tropical hardwoods. Artists paint designs derived from the Moors who invaded Spain on oxcarts such as those that used to haul coffee to Puntarenas and still work on back roads. Preserving the art today, they paint the designs on trays, wall plaques, and oxcarts ranging from toy size to barbecue stands. You can watch them do it at small factories in Sarchi, near San Jose. Many tours as well as public buses go there. All wooden crafts are generally less expensive there than in San Jose, though you can find any crafts in San Jose gift shops. Plain wooden trays, lamps, candlesticks. show the grain of tropical hardwoods.

Beautiful chairs, tables, beds, and other furniture are made from the same woods. The shop can probably ship something home for you. Do be sure the wood was well-dried before a large or valuable piece was made.

Note. If you buy valuable pieces, including furniture, you may consider paying the excess baggage charges to carry them back with you rather than shipping--cheaper than air freight and customs brokers. You will be there to discuss with zealous U.S. Customs agents why they shouldn't bore holes in your purchases to check for drugs.


Several shops, some of them artists' coops, have a good stock of crafts in San Jose:

  • Gift shop in Hotel Don Carlos, Calle 9, Ave. 7/9. This shop features samples of all the arts and crafts in Costa Rica, one-stop shopping.
  • Apple store on Ave. Ctl, near Pizza Hut.
  • La Galeria, Calle 1, Ave. 1.
  • Artesania CANAPI, Calle 11, Ave. 1
  • Mercado Nacional de Artesania on Calle 11, Ave 2.

The northeastern San Jose suburb of Moravia, is best known for leather crafts including wallets, purses, briefcases, and belts. Leather is comparatively expensive, though you can find good values in the zippered handbags some Costa Ricans carry, even in San Jose. A bag big enough for anything I'd want to carry around all day, plus a camera, is less than $20. In the weeks before Christmas, vendors have stalls in downtown San Jose that are worth checking.there are fine buys in leather wallets and writing folders at the weekend market in front of the National Theater. Hammocks are a good buy at the same place, especially at day's end when the sellers don't want to take them home.

Bandanas featuring Costa Rican animals, bird, or flowers are made by Go Bandanas and sold in most gift shops. They're attractive and packable. Costa Rica Expeditions Travelers' Store, Ave. 3, Calle central, has wildlife posters and comfortable rocking chairs with leather backs and seats packed for shipping or taking with you.

Gift shops have gift packs of Costa Rican coffee and the liquor departments in supermarkets, supermercados, have Cafe Rica, a coffee liqueur like kahlua. Bags of roasted coffee beans are cheapest in supermarkets. Puro on the label means that no fillers or sugar have been added. Vanilla beans and extract are better quality here than you may find at home.

San Jose has many art galleries with original works and prints by Costa Rican artists. Exploring the galleries is fun and some of the work is very impressive. The gift shop in Parque Bolivar, the national zoo, has wildlife and rainforest posters and T-shirts made from photos of the animals to benefit the park system.

A Costa Rican told me one could bargain anywhere, even in department stores. That may work if one looks native and speaks excellent Spanish. You might try it in the central market, and you definitely should bargain with cab drivers. Most stores have fixed prices.

The central markets are an experience, with individual stalls selling anything from cheese to birdcages. The San Jose and Alajuela markets are especially interesting. One useful item you'll find is the shopping bag made from rice sacks that Costa Rican housewives use to carry purchases home. It's large, very strong, and is white or has the rice brand label and design on it. Costing less than $1, it folds to nothing in your purse, but is very handy in Costa Rica and back home for shopping.

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