Unlike many other Central American and South American countries, Costa Rica is not renowned for its architecture. It lacks the elaborate pre-Columbian ruins seen in Honduras and Mexico and doesn’t boast the beautifully-preserved colonial cities which draw visitors to Nicaragua and Guatemala. That being said, there are a few exceptions and you may just need to dig a little deeper to uncover the legacy of Costa Rican architecture.
Pre-Columbian Costa Rican Architecture
One pre-Columbian archaeological site of note in Costa Rica is Guayabo, which lies on the southern slope of Turrialba Volcano. It was occupied between 1000 BC and 1400 AD, before being mysteriously abandoned and few records remain which detail its history.
Guayabo was believed to have served as an important cultural, political and religious center, with stone-paved streets, aqueducts, animal carvings and drawings, as well as round platforms on which wooden structures were built. While relics from the city were exhibited in the late 19th century at the Historical American Exposition in Madrid and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, only small areas of the city have been uncovered and studied to this day.
Colonial-era Costa Rican Architecture
While Costa Rica lacks the well-preserved Spanish colonial cities that are seen in other countries across Latin America, there are notable buildings in the former capital of Cartago which lies just outside of the modern-day capital, San Jose. Cartago was founded in 1563 by Juan Vasquez de Coronado and is one of the country’s oldest communities, despite being almost completely destroyed by Irazu Volcano’s eruption in 1723.
Las Ruinas de la Parroquia are one Cartago’s biggest architectural draws, with a series of churches built here and all subsequently destroyed or halted mid-construction by earthquakes. Local folklore tells of it being built by a priest in penance for killing his brother, with the earthquakes destroying it as a cursed symbol. It’s now listed as a Costa Rican Cultural Heritage Site, with the headless ghost of the priest said to wander here at night.
Also of note in Cartago is the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles – a Roman Catholic church built in classic Byzantine style. This elaborate piece of architecture dates to 1639, although it was more recently restored by architect Lluis Llach Llagostera in 1912 following a series of earthquakes. It houses a small stone statue of the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Jesus and millions of pilgrims make the 22-kilometer long pilgrimage here each August (many on their knees) from across Costa Rica.
San Jose also contains a number of architectural landmarks set in amidst the modern sprawl of this pulsing capital. Barrio Amón emerged as one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods in the late 19th century and is a great place to wander. Many of its elegant mansions dating from the colonial era have been lovingly restored and now house art galleries, restaurants and boutique hotels.
One of San Jose’s most emblematic buildings is Castillo Azul (Blue Castle) which was commissioned in 1908 by the leader of the Republican Party, Máximo Fernández. It fuses neocolonial and Mediterranean architectural styles, serving as the residential address of Costa Rica’s president from 1914 to 1923 and now hosting the Legislative Assembly.
Also of note are Teatro Variedades and Teatro Nacional, both of which opened at the end of the 19th century. Teatro Variedades showcased the first movie projections in Costa Rica in 1904 and is the oldest theater in the capital. It was built in a neoclassical style by the Spanish architect, Francisco Gómez, and features Baroque decorative elements on its facade, including Doric columns and images of dragons. The Maroy Building and Casa Jiménez de la Guardia are located on the same street as Teatro Variedades and exhibit a similar architectural style.
The Teatro Nacional (National Theater of Costa Rica) is considered by many to be the capital’s finest historic building, built between 1890 and 1897 using money collected from taxing coffee exports. It is constructed using brick and stone, with granite and marble surfacing, and features statues of Calderón de la Barca and Ludwig van Beethoven at its entrance.
San Jose’s colonial-era design includes numerous parks and public spaces, including Parque de Morazán which stands on a lagoon once used as a source of mud for constructing adobe homes in the city. It was named after General Francisco Morazán and features a statue of the South American independence leader, Simon Bolivar, as well as a Music Temple inspired by Versailles’ Temple of Love.
On the edge of Parque de Morazán is another of San Jose’s most famous architectural landmarks, the “Metallic Building”, which serves as the headquarters for one of Costa Rica’s oldest schools. It was designed and built in Belgium during the late 19th century by architect Charles Thirion using wrought iron, then shipped piece-by-piece to Costa Rica where it was assembled.
Modern Costa Rican Architecture
Like most capital cities, San Jose’s skyline is now a fusion of architectural styles, including colonial-era mansions, Art Deco apartments and modern skyscrapers. However, affordable concrete housing is on the rise in many towns and cities across Costa Rica. The Caribbean coast features mostly wooden houses, raised on stilts to avoid flooding, while beachside bungalows are popular at resorts on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.
Costa Rica has firmly asserted its place as a world leader in eco-tourism and the mushrooming of eco-lodges across the country indicates a move towards sustainable and green architecture. Natural and locally-sourced materials are being harnessed, together with solar and geothermal energy sources. Structures are designed to have a minimal impact on the surrounding environment and a reduced need for energy-intensive heating and cooling. Buildings maximize ventilation and protect from the generally humid climate of Costa Rica while taking advantage of rainforest views, sea breezes and the natural sounds of bird calls.
In a country that runs on almost 100% renewable energy, the move towards sustainable architecture is also shifting into the public sphere, with community centers being built according to “green” principles. Costa Rican architects are harnessing the potential of sustainable architecture in the hope that (with the help of government initiatives) it will shift from being only within the reach of the wealthy and tourists to an affordable and long-term solution for housing in the country.