San Jose, capital of Costa Rica, comes with a certain reputation and it is one very far removed from the San Jose that Dionne Warwick made famous in 1968. San Jose, Costa Rica, is a difficult town to love: it has a surplus of ugly buildings and areas in and around the city centre feel at best edgy and at night out-and-out threatening.
On the other hand, it has a couple of excellent museums and some even better restaurants that make coming here worth the effort. At one point we didn’t think we’d make it to San Jose. We got our 9.30am bus in Cahuita for the 5 hour journey and for an hour things went to plan. Then we hit solid traffic and didn’t move again for another three hours. There was a nationwide taxi strike and they were blocking the road…who knew?
Once in the city our first port of call was the Museo de Jade, the Jade Museum. Our guide book wasn’t enthusiastic about the museum, but it was fabulous. An extraordinary collection of pre-Hispanic jade artefacts sitting alongside some exceptional pieces of pottery, in amazing condition, that chart the history of the cultures that existed wedged between the Mayan civilisation to the north and the Inca civilisation to the south.
Jade was valued as a religious and political symbol in pre-Hispanic Central America. The nearest jade quarries are deep inside modern day Guatemala, making its transport difficult and its price high. Despite the fabulous jade artefacts on display, some of the most captivating items in the museum are made from clay, many of them in excellent condition thanks to being found intact in burial chambers.
There were a number of thriving pre-Colombian cultures in Central America, with hundreds of thousands of people inhabiting the region. Unfortunately without written histories, and the sudden impact of Spanish colonisation, very little is known about them. The artefacts in the Museo de Jade show influences particularly from the Mayan culture, with whom they had extensive trade links, but trade routes were also well established as far afield as Peru.
What is clear is that the artistic skill of the civilisations that inhabited Central America was of the highest level. Jade, gold and volcanic rock carvings, as well as numerous pottery pieces, depict all kinds of human and animal themes, including some incredible fertility pieces…some of them a little like the Kama Sutra.
Of the many animals on display, frogs and birds are most abundant, but there are crocodiles, bats and snakes amongst others. Like all cultures, those in Central America took their inspiration from the natural world and their art reflects their experience of what would have been a much more pristine environment than the one we can see today.
I was struck by the ability of the artists in creating lifelike and yet symbolic human figures out of volcanic rock. Some appear to be smoking, while others carry the decapitated heads of those they have killed in battle.