Central Market: The Heart and Soul of Costa Rica

by | Feb 14, 2022 | Costa Rica | 1 comment

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon in San Jose and, like most Costa Ricans, I feel the need to drink some freshly made coffee. So I hurry to the Central Market, in the city’s heart, and walking through the narrow halls, I find a pleasant spot to enjoy a cup and relax for a while.

Suddenly, the guy right in front of me asks: You’re Pablo, right? From San Antonio?

Meeting Up With Old Friends

Central Market, the center of activity By Juan Pablo Sáenz
Central Market, the center of activity By Juan Pablo Sáenz

He is one of my classmates in the sixth grade, back in elementary school. We catch up, sharing the details of our lives, our jobs, and our families. He introduced me to the waitress, a good friend of his, and asked her to get me a special coffee, his treat of course.

In the course of the conversation, he mentions that the people in our class opened a Whatsapp group and organize meetings from time to time, so we take a selfie and he shares it with the group. After we finish our coffee, we part ways after setting up a future meeting.

That scene is very common in the Central Market, the first mall in Costa Rica.  In the past 140 years, generation after generation of Costa Ricans has come to this place to buy all kinds of products, to eat their famous dishes, and for many of them, to find a second home among good friends. It’s the kind of place where, if you come often, everybody knows your name.

Martin and His Roosters

Stop and smell the coffee Photo by Juan Pablo Sáenz
Stop and smell the coffee by Juan Pablo Sáenz

Martin Herrera Aguilar is one of the friendly faces that you will find in the market. He is famous because he welcomes visitors to the market with one of his colorful roosters. He currently has 15 birds, each one with its own name and personality.

That particular Friday Martin brought along Roberto Francisco, a beautiful rooster that behaves like a Telenovela heartthrob and expertly poses for selfies and photos in exchange for a voluntary contribution.

After a few laughs, while I take a picture with Roberto Francisco, Martin tells me he brings a different rooster every day, and he dresses them up for the occasion– sometimes with the Costa Rican flag or with colorful ribbons that represent peace, love, faith, and hope.

A star of the marketplace By Juan Pablo Sáenz
A star of the marketplace By Juan Pablo Sáenz

These roosters are his family, and he cares deeply for all of them. However, he confessed he has a favorite: Goliath. He adopted the rooster from a farm in Aserri, a small town in the mountains south of San Jose. Goliath was a very aggressive animal, and it had killed other roosters. When Martin received the animal, it was tied and in a cage, but he took the risk and bring the rooster to the market, After a brief chat and some affection, the animal behaved properly and had become ever since one of the people’s favorites.

All he needed is love- said Martin, while a couple of kids ask their mother to take them a picture with the rooster. That’s what Martin offers, a unique opportunity to share his love for these animals with the shoppers and patrons of the market.

El Tala-Pinto

Inside the market, there are many sodas (small restaurants that specialize in typical homemade food) that have been around for many years and are famous for their generous portions of food. Most of these businesses are run by women, and some of them are well known for their great cooking and service.

Among these sodas, I consider Soda Tala a true icon of the market for its famous breakfast: El Tala-Pinto. Founded more than half a century ago by Mrs. Natalia Cervantes, nicknamed “Tala” by her friends, she started the business to provide for her 11 children.

Her daughter Blanca Alfaro inherited the place, and she continues with the tradition, offering delicious and affordable food for her patrons.

El Talla- Pinto is basically a gallo pinto (a mix of rice and beans seasoned with different ingredients such as onion, bell pepper, and parsley) served on a banana leaf with an omelet or fried egg and tortillas. You can combine it with sausages, fried cheese, or picadillo de papa (diced potatoes mixed with meat). The regular dish costs 1000 colones (about $1.76) but the price increases up to 2000 colones ($3.52) if you add more options from the menu.

The low price and the great taste of the dish have had attracted many customers, both the locals and foreigners, who keep the small place crowded and busy all day long. If you eat here, you will need to be patient because the tables are usually taken. If you cannot handle the madness, a good option is to order El Tala-Pinto to enjoy it peacefully at home or in a park.

The Statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Manuel Maria Zuniga Rodriguez was one of Costa Rica’s most notable sculptors during the 20th century. His body of work consists mainly of religious imagery and it can found in some of the most important churches in the country. However, one of his most famous works has become a permanent inhabitant of the market.

Back in the 1950s, the merchants of the market asked Mr. Zuniga to make a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, patron saint of the Central Market and the nearby Borbon Market. Since its arrival the wooden sculpture had become a symbol of the faith of the workers and every June 25th, there is a mass to celebrate it.

A market icon Photo by Juan Pablo Sáenz
A market icon
by Juan Pablo Sáenz

To its followers in the market, The Sacred Heart of Jesus saves the place when a fire broke up back in 1967 and the flames suddenly stopped when they surrounded the sculpture, damaging only a small sector. It´s not unusual to see people leaving flowers and praying for miracles or just stopping by to show thankfulness for their blessings.

Recently the sculpture and its urn were restored in an effort to erase the damage that the time had done. Now it looks as good as new thanks to the contributions of the merchants and patrons. They hope that it will remain a centerpiece of their faith and traditions and a legacy that the new generations can enjoy and appreciate despite the changes the modern world has brought.

A Showcase for Costa Rican Culture

As shown by these stories, the Central Market is more than an old building filled with shops and restaurants. It’s a living museum that displays the most authentic aspects of Costa Rican culture.

To any visitor or resident, a day in the market is the perfect way to get in touch with the spirit of the people that built this nation, with their dreams, their hopes, their traditions, and beliefs. I really encourage the reader to spend some time here and enjoy it… I am sure that it will be a great way to break the routine and even a great opportunity to share with locals and experience something unique and unforgettable.

Have you been to Central Market? We would love to hear about your experiences there.

by: Juan Pablo Sáenz