San José’s Parque Nacional, one of the city’s finest open spaces, marks the heart of downtown San José. Bordered by avenidas 1 and 3 and calles 15 and 19 and overlooked by rows of mop-headed palms and thick deciduous trees, it’s popular among courting couples and older men discussing the state of the nation. After gaining notoriety as a hangout for muggers and prostitutes, it was equipped with tall lamps to add extra light – a tactic which has apparently succeeded in drawing the courting couples back to its nocturnal benches. Even so, it’s still probably not a good idea to wander around here after dark.
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The north end of the square is crowned by the impressive Museo Nacional, occupying the renovated former Bellavista Barracks. Bullet holes from the 1948 insurrection can still be seen on the north side of the building’s thick walls. More than a century old (and that is old for Costa Rica), the museum’s collection, though rather haphazard, gives a fascinating introduction to the story of Costa Rica’s colonization. A grisly series of drawings, deeply affecting in their simplicity, tells the story of the fate of Costa Rica’s indigenous people at the hands of the Spanish settlers. Violence, it appears, was meted out in both directions, including beheadings, hangings, clubbings, shooting of priests and the pouring of liquid gold down throats. Infanticide and suicide as a means of resistance in the indigenous community are also mercilessly depicted. Displays explain (in both English and Spanish) how the arrival of the Spanish forever disturbed the balance of social and political power among the indigenous groups. There’s also an explanation on the function of gold in the indigenous social hierarchy, with descriptions on which objects were used to identify warriors, chiefs and shamans.
The museum’s colonial-era section is dominated by the massive but spartan furniture and cheesy Spanish religious iconography. Exhibits make clear how slowly culture and education advanced in Costa Rica, giving a sense of a country struggling to extricate itself from terrible cultural and social backwardness – in European terms – until well into the twenty-first century. In the same room are examples of colonial art, which replaced indigenous art forms with scores of lamentable gilt-and-pink Virgin Marys.
Other highlights include petroglyphs, pre-Columbian stonework, and wonderful anthropomorphic gold figures in the Sala Arqueológica. This is the single most important archeological exhibition in the country; the grinding tables and funerary offerings, in particular, show precise geometric patterns and incredible attention to detail, but the really astounding pieces are the “flying panel” metates, corn-grinding tables used by the Chorotega peoples of present-day Guanacaste, each with three legs and meticulously sculpted from a single piece of volcanic stone.