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Saluting the Markets of San José

The Mercado Borbón keeps the old world alive in San José

Mary Clay Kline
Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Mary Clay Kline
Lane Stafford

In Costa Rica, the painted oxcart wheel is a reminder of the past.

Back when Costa Rica began exporting goods such as coffee, cacao and bananas, salesmen began to decorate their oxcarts in bright colors, which depicted their increasing wealth. Today, one can find painted wheels all over Costa Rica. Thus, this wheel is a symbol of thriving Costa Rican commerce.

It is difficult to imagine these colorful carts rolling through the streets of San José today among the bustle of buses and taxi cabs, among the calls of fruit salesmen and lottery vendors. But at the entryway of the Mercado Central, the largest market in San Jose, there it is, a mural of an oxcart wheel, patterned with swirling reds, blues and yellows. Above the wheel is painted the word bienvenidos. Welcome.

Outside the Mercado Borbón, a food-focused market and the first cooperative market of its kind, someone called out,
“¡El mercado es feo!”


“The Mercado Borbón is ugly!” he said.

Above: The oxcart wheel welcomes customers into the Mercado Central. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Top: Gladys Jacquez describes horchata, a spiced beverage made from rice, almonds and other ingredients, which can be made from a bag of powdered mix. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Bottom: Humberto Argas explains that “the people” are why he loves selling at the Mercado Borbón. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter

Gladys Jaquez, a tour guide with Urban Adventures Tours and San José native, said that feeling is common. San José’s markets are more rustic and dirtier than many recently built supermarkets. Jaquez said she never frequented the markets before becoming a guide, but now that she has visited the markets as a guide, her opinion of the markets has changed. She is now determined to get others out of the same slump she experienced.


“When I was starting to come to the markets, I start to see the beauty in there, so I tell my friends, ‘Let’s go to the markets! It’s cool in there,’” Jaquez said.


Inside the crowded Mercado Borbón, people shuffle through narrow pathways to visit tiny stalls where friendly, upbeat fruit vendors hand out samples of tropical native fruits such as sour, limey cas and sweet granadilla. Edwin Eudierrez is one of these vendors and has worked at the market for 15 years.


“I like it because it’s the only job I’ve ever had in my life,” Eudierrez said. “First and only. Thanks to God, I’ve been able to work on my own for two years, and with more hard work, I’ll continue ahead.”

Humberto Argas has been a vendor at the Mercado Borbón for the past fifty years, selling potatoes, tomatoes, onions and garlic—lots of garlic.


“Garlic, I believe, can be used as medicine,” Argas said, motioning to his prized product.


He said his work is important to him because of the people who visit. However, Argas doesn’t know who will take over his business when he retires. This is a common fear among market vendors.

While the Mercado Borbón features mostly fresh food products, the Mercado Central boasts stores selling flowers and dried medicinal herbs, knick knack shops, lots of small restaurants called sodas and a famous frozen custard shop that sells just one flavor, which tastes like a spiced vanilla Christmas cookie.


Jaquez said her favorite part of visiting the Mercado Central is tasting food from the various sodas. She couldn’t possibly pick a favorite among the shops that sell a variety of deep-fried, braised beef-stuffed empanadas and chifrijo, a regional bar snack of rice, beans, chicharronnes, pico de gallo and tortilla chips.


Markets were once the heart of San José. They teemed with customers who hovered around produce stands, spice purveyors, clothes stalls and sodas. People still shop at the markets, but the feeling surrounding the markets is different. The people do not dawdle. Perhaps this is because the Costa Rican crime rate has risen in recent years, specifically in San José, with the homicide rate hitting an all-time high in 2016, according to a crime and safety report from the United States Overseas Security Advisory Council. Lingering around the markets could be risky.

Right: The insides of the granadilla, a relative of the passion fruit, may look peculiar but taste sweet and refreshing.Vida Magazine | Mary Clay Kline
Center: Vendors wash fruit, such as the water apple, so that market customers can have onsite tastings. Vida Magazine | Mary Clay Kline
Left: The Mercado Central sells bouquets of flowers and homegoods in addition to edible products. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter

But Jaquez has hope for the market. Young residents of San José have begun to show interest in attending the markets, a trend that will have to continue to guarantee the existence of these traditional markets.


“I think what is happening now is that some people are returning to the market, young people, because of fashion. For example, hipster people like to eat this food,” Jaquez said, referencing a plate of steamed tamales in front of her.


The markets’ futures will depend on young people’s patronage, and the painted oxcart will only stay relevant if Costa Rican commerce continues to flourish. But for now, vendors keep shelling out fruit samples to faithful customers and newcomers alike.

Read More 

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