For a small country, Costa Rica has vibrant scenes in all the major arts—music, literature, architecture, dance, and even film.
Unlike Guatemala, Mexico, or even Nicaragua, Costa Rica does not have a strong tradition of local or indigenous arts and crafts. The strong suit of Costa Rican art is European and Western-influenced, ranging from neoclassical to modern in style.
Early painters to look out for include Max Jimenez, Manuel de la Cruz, Teodorico Quiros, and Francisco Amighetti. Of these, Amighetti is the best known, with an extensive body of expressionist-influenced work. Legends of the local modern art world include Rafa Fernández, Lola Fernández, and Cesar Valverde. Valverde’s portraits are characterized by large planes of bold colors. Artists making waves today include Fernando Carballo, Rodolfo Stanley, Lionel Gonzalez, Manuel Zumbado, and Karla Solano.
Sculpture is perhaps one of the strongest aspects of the Costa Rican art scene, with the large bronze works of Francisco “Paco” Zuñiga among the best of the genre. Zuñiga’s larger-than-life castings include exaggerated human proportions that recall Rodin and Botero. Artists José Sancho, Edgar Zuñiga, and Jiménez Deredia are all producing internationally acclaimed pieces, many of monumental proportions. You can see examples by all these sculptors around the country, as well as at San José’s downtown Museo de Arte Costarricense. I also enjoy the whimsical works of Leda Astorga, who sculpts and then paints a pantheon of voluptuous figures in interesting and sometimes compromising poses.
You’ll find the country’s best and most impressive museums and galleries in San José, and to a lesser extent in some of the country’s larger and more popular tourist destinations, like Manuel Antonio and Monteverde.
Costa Rica lacks the large-scale pre-Columbian ceremonial ruins found throughout much of the rest of Mesoamerica. The only notable early archaeological site is Guayabo. However, only the foundations of a few dwellings, a handful of carved petroglyphs, and some road and water infrastructure are still visible here.
Similarly, Costa Rica doesn’t have the same large and well-preserved colonial-era cities found throughout much of the rest of Latin America. The original capital of Cartago has some old ruins and a few colonial-era buildings, as well as the country’s grandest church, the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels, which was built in honor of the country’s patron saint, La Negrita, or the Virgin of Guadalupe. Although legend says the sculpture of the Virgin was discovered here in 1635, the church itself wasn’t inaugurated until 1924.
In downtown San José, Barrio Amón and Barrio Otoya are side-by-side upscale neighborhoods replete with a stately mix of architectural stylings, with everything from colonial-era residential mansions to Art Deco apartment buildings and modern high-rise skyscrapers. One of the standout buildings here is the Metal School (Escuela Metálica), which dates to the 1880s, and was shipped over piece-by-piece from Belgium and erected in place.
On much of the Caribbean coast, you will find mostly wooden houses built on raised stilts to rise above the wet ground and occasional flooding. Some of these houses feature ornate gingerbread trim. Much of the rest of the country’s architecture is pretty plain. Most residential houses are simple concrete-block affairs, with zinc roofs.
A few modern architects are creating names for themselves. Ronald Zurcher, who designed the lavish Four Seasons Resort and several other large hotel projects, is one of the shining lights of contemporary Costa Rican architecture.
Colonial-Era Remnant or Crime Deterrent?
Most Costa Rican homes feature steel or iron grating over the doors and windows. Some tour guides will tell you this can be traced back to colonial-era architecture and design, but it seems more likely that this is a relatively modern defense against breaking and entering.
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