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Day two in Costa Rica

A marble statue at the “Teatre Nationale”

Our second day in Costa Rica was the day we didn’t have any tours booked, so we decided to get out into the city and see things. Like museums, and theatres, and whatnot.

San Jose is pretty big and modern looking compared with Granada, it doesn’t have that Spanish colonial charm, more like a 1920s Sydney or Melbourne charm (1920s referring to the building styles only. It was very modern, what with the whole no-cows-or-other-livestock-on-the-roads business). It also isn’t in a drought, so the sky looked all very Melbourney. We scoffed our buffet breakfast and took off into the city. We had a plan, involving the National Theatre, the Gold Museum, the Jade Museum, and possibly the zoo.

Check out all that gold leaf!

Our first stop was the National Theatre. We had no idea what it was going to be like, and were heading there based solely on the say-so of the tour guide from the aerial tram who said we really should go. And being obliging sorts of people, we did. Our hotel was situated in the “historic district” so it was an easy walk to all the cultural locations, including the big square with a billion pigeons and the National Theatre in it. When we got closer, we started feeling a little apprehensive; there was a high fence, an open gate, and a carpet rolled out to the entrance and a very snappy looking man in a suit out the front and we were feeling particularly under-dressed. However, the man indicated that we should walk up the ficus tree lined carpet and into the Theatre, and that we should pay $5 entry and we could get a free tour if we so desired. We went into a side room to collect our tickets, which also doubled as a gift shop. There wasn’t much of interest, except in the jewelery cabinet when we noticed the authentic “Australian glass bead” necklace. Ah. Isn’t that just what we’re famed for?

I realise it’s small, but the label says “Australian Glass Beads, Onix, Silver/Plat, $60”... wish I had my beads with me!

We proceeded into the foyer, and were immediately thrown into a state of shock by the insane amounts of marble and gold leaf gilding the place up like anything. We were given a friendly tour guide, who introduced us to the five marble statues in the foyer, the staircases, the ladies and gentlemen's separate smoking parlours, and the grand foyer. The whole thing was like an explosion of ornate gold and marble, with the exception of a couple of ornate brass candle holders. There were frescos on each ceiling, all done by an Italian artist in the late 1800s. The furniture and the walls were phenomenal... the more you looked the more faces and animals popped out of the furniture, mirrors, and ledges. The mirrors were “true” mirrors from France, and no flash photography was allowed. We found out all sorts of information about the building of the theatre, and we also discovered that Costa Rica was the third country in the world to have electricity, right after the US, and the only building they had it in was the National Theatre. We then got taken from the grand foyer into the theatre proper, and were even given a peek at the “President’s box” which had curtains around it and frescos on the walls and ceiling that were being restored by a very patient looking lady. Apparently it had housed such celebrities as the Costa Rican president, Bill Clinton, and the Dalai Lama. Then we went downstairs to the regular seats, which were original from the initial building. There was more gold, more marble (my eyes were becoming accustomed by this stage), a massive chandelier, a fresco on the ceiling, and apparently, the whole floor winches up to be at the level of the stage so they can hold dances there. How fun!

The foyer at the theatre

At this point our guide left us to our own devices so we frolicked off to get some more non-flash photography of the gold and the marble. Having had our fill we made our way down to the Gold museum, which was just across the square at a convenient underground location (you know, because it’s crammed full of gold so you have to keep the break in risks to a minimum). It was divided into four sections; and we weren’t allowed to take bags or phones in with us. My favourite bit was the doors; as I mentioned before, the whole place is filled with currency and gold, so I guess it is a bit of a break-in risk. To nullify that risk, the whole thing is not only underground, but also has those fabulous half metre thick grey metal doors with spinning wheel locking mechanisms like bank vaults. The four sections were: the history of currency in Costa Rica, the history of currency in general, a contemporary art space (which was empty when we were there) and the pre-Columbian gold museum, which took up two levels. The first section we went to was the history of currency in Costa Rica, which was a small exhibit guarded by a nice man with an AK47 (I don’t even blink when I see them anymore, frankly. Every security guard in Central America has one or a pistol-grip, pump-action shotgun. I get freaked out when I see the little guns though, they mean business!). Happily, all the exhibits were written in English and Spanish and we learned all sorts of interesting things about how the revolution affected currency, how Costa Rica came to have the Colone, and all about the banana and coffee tokens that plantation owners used to pay their workers in which could then be traded at certain stores. Educational.

Close up of ornate gold furniture bits at the theatre

Our next stop was the history of currency in general, which went through the history of bartering, lots of different coins and notes, re-stamping, stuff like that. They had some pretty impressive and colourful banknotes there, and some really cool coins, but we were, I think, particularly impressed with the quality of the museum in general. It was interactive, really well presented, and a lot of effort had gone in to make it interesting. Although I suppose with all the gold downstairs and the exorbitantly priced gift shop, they could afford it!

GOLD! and cute gold it is.

We made our way down stairs to the pre-Colombian gold museum, which was pretty cool. I never thought I was a fan of gold, but when you have that much around you it does tend to gain a certain allure. The museum went through the history of the Costa Ricans over a period of several thousand years, because much of the gold work pre-dated Christ. There was so much of the stuff lying around the natives did all sorts of cool stuff with it, but it was also used for burials and lots of it was pillaged during the Spanish invasion. The museum had lots of three dimensional, life-sized figures acting out various aspects of life with signs explaining them, and replicas of houses and things that you could go into. And all around that was the stone and gold work and ceramics in cases. It was really interesting, and we fell in love with all the little gold animal representations. After we were all golded out and had played with the interactive thingys to our hearts content, we headed back up stairs only to find that it was bucketing with rain. That’s right, Costa Rica isn’t in drought and it was trying to make that fact as obvious as possible! Luckily, we had our sexy white rain ponchos (picture a garbage bag in white with two arm holes and a hood) so we donned them and made a sensation on the streets as we hurried back to the hotel for lunch and a dry off.

MORE GOLD! and still cute!

In the afternoon we decided to hit the jade museum, as it was just around the corner from the hotel and we weren’t quite museumed out yet. The rain slowed so we went up there and discovered that it was closing very soon, but they let us in anyway. Turns out that not only did the indigenous Costa Ricans have an intense love of gold, they also had a love of jade. More animal representations, lots of incredibly bulky jade jewelery (you say tasteless, shamans say ultimate power symbol), more 3D historical representations, and a whole load of phallic shaped ceramics. We didn’t last long at the jade museum, as we realised that we were, in fact, all museumed out. But I feel that we got quite enough culture for one day. As a side note, we went to an Asian fusion restaurant for dinner. It was the first authentic tasting Asian food I’ve had in five months (not that the “Chinese” restaurants in Nicaragua aren’t entertaining...) and it was all kinds of good.

And, again with the gold.

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