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Pueblo Antiguo: A Glimpse of Costa Rica's Culture & Heritage

by Sorrel Downer

If you have a few hours or an open day to spend in San José between your scheduled fishing trips, rafting expeditions or planned tours, you can't do much better than a visit to Pueblo Antiguo, Costa Rica's answer to California's famous Knott's Berry Farm.

A painted oxcart laden with coffee wood trundles by the old La Gloria Arcade and barefoot country maidens dance around their wares at the market square fountain. A horse and carriage bearing a woman in lacy finery, parasol and feather hat passes through the crowd of cheerful campesinos while over in the countryside, a coffee baron invites one of his humble workers to accompany him to the Saturday cockfights.

This is the living history tour at Pueblo Antiguo, the recently constructed "old town" just a short taxi ride from central San José.

At the turn of the century, San José was considered one of the most charming cities in Central America, and so the architects concentrated on that period and picked out some of the finest buildings to recreate at the Pueblo Antiguo site.

Almost all the buildings are fairly faithful scaled-down reconstructions of originals that are still standing. Visitors to the pueblo see the best of the capital without having to actually walk very far.

As well as stepping back to turn-of-the-century San José, tourists can get an idea of typical country life circa 1900 and catch something of the spirit of the Caribbean without the bother of a long drive.

There is a lot to see. There is absolutely nothing tacky about Pueblo Antiguo; a visit here is a cultural experience and it is also a lot of fun. Excellent hour-long bilingual living history tours tell of the big moments in Costa Rican history and convey the character, pride and warmth of the people. There are train rides, boat rides, oxcart and horse and cart rides within the city gates and a complete separate town called Ciudad Viejo, where the under-1Os can practice their go-kart skills on extra wide roads.

In the area dedicated to the Caribbean, there is a tropical fish aquarium in a Spanish galleon. A dairy sells ice creams, the coffee mill sells coffee and the Cacao Adventure involves a lot of chocolate tasting. Various shops sell souvenirs, guidebooks and traditional handicrafts and Indian baskets, gourds and weavings can be found at the Indigenous Settlement. Fast food is available from the market, Caribbean seafood from the Seaside Restaurant, (an impressionistic recreation of Limón style architecture) and there's the rice and beans of comida tipica at El Ventelero where, over the hustle and bustle, you are guaranteed to be able to hear the sound of marimbas.

The gray-domed church, a replica of the chapel of the Chapui Sanctuary that used to stand on Paseo Colon, is a beautiful and cool place to rest. Fully sanctified, mass is held here every Sunday. It looks over the square and the old colonial buildings that surround it, two of the finest being the Gloria Arcade (a perfect replica, complete with antique cash tills and haberdashery drawers) and the congress building with its lacy plasterwork ceiling. Many of the buildings house exhibitions.

The restaurant El Ventelero, with its wooden porch and wood burning stove, marks the beginning of the countryside. To add authenticity, three country houses were plucked from their original rural locations, taken to bits, transferred to this site and reconstructed. They now serve as a craft shop, a museum and a station for the little train, a model of a steam engine.

Plenty of sights, sounds and smells make this a lively day, but the purpose of the park goes beyond providing fun, lunch and education: Pueblo Antiguo was built to raise money for the National Children's Hospital.

It's the brainchild of Dr. Ortiz, president of the Pro-National Hospital Foundation, a fund raising group made up primarily of doctors. When the polio epidemic swept through Costa Rica in 1954, there wasn't an adequate children's hospital and the foundation was hastily formed to raise the funds needed to build one. The U.S. and Costa Rican governments, in conjunction with local private businesses, provided the necessary money, and the hospital opened in 1964.

The foundation enlisted the help of Costa Rican families, businesses and institutions who donated the cost of constructing the buildings of their choice.

Among the generous patrons, too many to mention here, are the former government of Rafael Angel Calderon which paid for the congress building, the Costa Rican Association of Fine Coffees who donated the coffee mill and Coca-Cola who funded the superb entrance, a replica of the Old National Liquor Factory entrance which can still be seen downtown.

It is hoped that entrance fees and sales profits at this cultural amusement center will eventually be a permanent source of funding for the hospital which is now considered one of the best in Latin America.

Package options are available, including Vivencias Costarricenses, a one-hour bilingual multimedia show in which professional actors dramatize the peaks and troughs of 19th-century Costa Rican history with the help of masked figures, marimba players and a dance troupe.

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