The Plaza de la Cultura cleverly conceals one of San José’s treasures, the Banco Central-owned Museo de Oro Precolombino, or Pre-Columbian Gold Museum. The bunker-like underground museum is unprepossessing but the gold on display is truly impressive – all the more extraordinary if you take into account the relative paucity of pre-Columbian artefacts in Costa Rica (compared with Mexico, say, or Guatemala). Most of the exquisitely delicate goldwork is by the Diquis, ancient inhabitants of southwestern Costa Rica.
The gold pieces are hung on transparent wires, giving the impression of floating in space, mysteriously suspended in their perspex cases. Most of the gold pieces are small and unbelievably detailed, with a preponderance of disturbing, evil-looking animals. Information panels (in English and Spanish) suggest that one of the chief functions of these portents of evil – frogs, snakes and insects – was to protect the bearer against illness. The Diquis believed that sickness was transmitted to people through spirits in animal form. The ave de rapiña, or bird of prey, seems to have had a particular religious relevance for the Diquis: hawks, owls and eagles, differing only fractionally in shape and size, are depicted everywhere. Watch out, too, for angry-looking arachnids, ready to bite or sting; jaguars and alligators carrying the pathetic dangling legs of human victims in their jaws; grinning bats with wings spread; turtles, crabs, frogs, iguanas and armadillos; and a few spiny lobsters. Museum displays highlight the historical and geographical context of Costa Rican gold. Maps pinpoint gold-production centres and there are models of gold-making settlements.