El Pueblo tourist center operators struggle to change its image

The central courtyard of El Pueblo has few visitors these days during the daytime. The action is at night with the dance clubs and bars. Much of the second floor has been taken over by offices, as have some of the ground-level storefronts. A.M. Costa Rica/Aaron Knapp

“Costa Rica passed through our fingers,” a Costa Rican woman once said.

She went on to describe a peaceful, tranquil time when she used to leave her door unlocked at night without worrying about thieves, and on the isolated occasion when thieves came into a home, the occupant could simply roll out of bed, yell at the thief and they’d run away in fright.

One look around and it’s clear that those times are over. It is hard to find a window without bars over it, business offices without armed guards and homes that require less than three keys to enter.

Meanwhile, many people have a similar nostalgia for a time when drugs and shootings were isolated incidents.

The shopping and tourist center, El Pueblo, is perhaps one of the best representations of where Costa Rica was three decades ago and how it has evolved up until now.

“15-20 years ago, you could walk anywhere without any problems, not just in El Pueblo. You could walk… the central avenue in San José anytime, day or night, without any worries,” explained Marlon Medina, a managing owner of El Pueblo. “Today, if you do the same thing, you’ll see that you might be in danger… the entire country, not just El Pueblo.”

A.M. Costa Rica/Aaron Knapp Interior walkways have an Old World flavor

Once a prosperous market frequented by tourists from around the world, El Pueblo has changed in the past 10 years after incidents of violence and fatal shootings gave it a reputation as an unsafe place and consequently choked out many of the businesses that once thrived there.

However, five managers elected to run El Pueblo decided to stop trying to reclaim the past and embrace the change by letting the shopping center evolve to a key spot in San Jose’s nightlife for youth – and it seems to be working despite the dangers of the surrounding area.

“We have chosen to adapt to the changes that happened to El Pueblo,” said Medina. “We don’t actually believe that we will have the El Pueblo that we had 18 years ago.”

Built 35 years ago, El Pueblo is a unique open-air mall designed using colonial-Spanish architecture, with distinct red shingles and white adobe walls. It was designed to be a major tourist and local shopping center.

Before long, all hotels began sending their tourists to El Pueblo as a key part of their visit to Costa Rica, and the mall was full of souvenir shops, restaurants and other types of stores. The location is five minutes north of the downtown on Calle Blancos.
“If you came from anywhere in the world and came to Costa Rica, you had to come to El Pueblo,” said Medina, who became involved when he opened an art shop in El Pueblo 18 years ago.
However, he recalled how the prosperity of the shopping center began to decline about a decade ago when crime began to rise in Costa Rica and around El Pueblo.

“We started to receive some people who were not coming before to El Pueblo, people who were very violent,” Medina explained. “They would come, have their drinks, start fights, and then they made a big mess for the whole place . . . . we didn’t know what to do back then.”

El Pueblo was hit hard when an on-duty security guard was killed by gunfire just outside of the complex. After that incident, hotels and even the U. S. Department of State began warning tourists from visiting El Pueblo.

The problem was only exacerbated when tourists began flocking to a fully developed airport in Liberia that allowed them to bypass San José and go directly to the Pacific beaches.
Shops began closing in El Pueblo, and although some offices have taken up residence in the old shops, many of the old storefronts remain empty with for sale signs in the window.

During the day, the restaurants on the perimeter get some customers, but the interior resembles a ghost town with very few open shops and even fewer potential customers passing through, a condition that changes only after 10 p.m. when the bar and clubs open, and young people pack the area.

One woman who has been running one of the few remaining souvenir shops for 32 years, pointed out some stores during the day that have been closed for years and others are rarely open. Her store has only been able to survive because she does most of her business by phone outside of the shop.

Although she says that no one comes to El Pueblo during her business hours, she agreed that there is a much bigger night and weekend crowd.

“I don’t like to stay here at night,” she said when asked why she did not have her store open then.

Despite her apprehension of staying open for the night crowd, she acknowledged that there is dramatically more security and cameras, to keep an eye on all of El Pueblo’s narrow alleyways and the sidewalks around the complex.

Those changes started five years ago, when Medina was first elected to be a managing owner. At that point, the owners built walls surrounding the entire complex, added 78 security cameras, hired more security and began searching everyone who came into the complex at night.

Although these changes have benefited night clubs and bars that have been growing and now own 56 percent of the property in El Pueblo, it has come at the expense of the old souvenir shops that used to be prevalent, as well as restaurants that now only get lunch rushes from employees of nearby businesses.

Medina is confident that visitors to El Pueblo are very safe, and even though he admits the neighborhood around the complex is not safe, he’s quick to point out that the same dangers exist everywhere in San José.

“El Pueblo is safe on the inside, but once you walk on the sidewalk down to the street, we don’t know what could happen because we don’t have control over that area,” he said. “There are more drugs everywhere, there are more people with guns. Now, any little fight could end up in a big shooting.”

Given the risks, Medina takes personal care in making sure people do not walk outside of the complex at night and always take a taxi, even if home or a hotel is only a few blocks away. Workers even go to the lengths of recording the numbers of taxis that pick up fares.

Even with these measures, El Pueblo is struggling to regain the image it once had among locals and tourists alike, and the key now is to once again convince potential customers, especially locals from previous generations who remember El Pueblo as it used to be, that it is once again a safe place to be, despite the crimes have for many tarnished not only El Pueblo, but also the entire country.

“That’s the way things have gone and we have to build with them and try to make the best out of it,” said Medina.

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