Is there a pulpería in your life – or down your memory lane?

I was walking to my homestay last week in Los Santos – more on that in a later post – when I stopped with a little cry of delight and scrambled through my bag, looking for my phone so I could take a photo. The woman at the center of the image was a little bemused, but during my 15 years in Costa Rica and 12 year married to the calmest man on the face of the Earth, I’ve gotten used to receiving tolerant smiles in response to my bursts of enthusiasm.

She was a pulpera, presiding, priest-like, over her altar: a counter displaying confites, coffee, plastic bags of baked goods. Behind her: milk, tuna, Salsa Lizano. the essentials of life. To her left and right, posters advertising canned jalapeños and Pozuelo cookes (Es… Muuuucha Galleta!). All around her, a halo of light from a single bulb hung just under the corrugated tin roof.

Costa Rica’s pulperías are fading from the landscape, unable to compete with the minisupers and larger chains that offer better prices, one-stop-shopping, and plenty of parking for the many Costa Ricans who now prefer to use their cars for all their errands. I’m sad that for my daughter’s generation of suburban josefinas, “Jale al Fresh” will probably be the phrase uttered most often, thanks to ubiquitous chains like Fresh Market and Vindi. For Costa Ricans older than she is or from smaller communities, the phrase is “jale a la pul” – let’s go to the pulpería. I’m not certain of the formal definition of a pulpería, but I’d say it’s a little store run out of, or at least adjacent to, the owner’s home. Sometimes there are aisles you can walk down; more often, you can’t touch anything that isn’t first handed to you by the owner.

I’ve never had a deep, life-changing friendship with a pulpería owner – or any friendship at all, for that matter – but there’s something about handing over your coins to the same person, week after week. Maybe I wasn’t in on the neighborhood gossip, but at least I heard slices of it, got a glimpse into the rich networks of family and friends that, anywhere else, were invisible to me. And somehow, I felt cared-for by the inquisitive eye of an older pulpero who, you could tell, was wondering what the hell I was doing there. It’s different to interact with young cashiers at ampm who are bored out of their minds.

Our pulperías aren’t gone yet, but I already miss the ones that have disappeared from my life or from their fast-changing neighborhoods. All those that remain are well worth celebrating, and, of course, supporting. I have some readers with memories of Costa Rica that go back years and even decades. I’d love to hear about the pulperías in your past.

And if you’re ever in need of a breath mint or a bag of papitas in San Pedro de Tarrazú – I highly recommend that you make that happen, by the way – you know where to go. Well, you don’t, actually, but just ask for the pulpería. 

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! Each month in 2020 has a monthly theme, and February’s is marriage equality, so scroll back through the month to see several posts highlighting people and organizations working on behalf of this issue in Costa Rica. 

6 comments

  1. In Orotina, there was a “pulpe” across the street. It was a special day when my grandfather would give me a few hundred colones for a Coke, which would be served either in a glass bottle to drink immediately — or poured into a plastic baggie if I wanted it “to go.” Sadly, it’s been replaced … by a one-car garage.

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  2. Ours was already there when INVU handed the keys to my parents’ new shiny house in Hatillo 4 in 1968. Has had one location change, (next door) and three owners. The couple of chinese that have owned it for the last eighteen years still have the same empleada.
    It is hard to explain people here in town (pop.2200) that if you are missing an ingredient in the middle of cooking you just go a block away and bring what you need. Third world beauty!
    Greetings from Amherst VA

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  3. I remember my first pulperia, 20+ years ago. I asked for a Coke (back when I drank the stuff). I was puzzled when I was asked if I was going to drink it there. When I said, “No,” the older gentleman behind the counter poured the Coke out into a plastic bag and tied a neat knot around a plastic straw he had placed sticking out of the bag. Because the Coke came in a glass bottle, you couldn’t take it off the premises. The bottles were returnable for money. This was before the plastic bottle inundation. The memory sticks in my mind because it was such a different concept than what I was used to.

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