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Travel Stories






Mariachi to go: La Esmeralda Bar, San Jose Costa Rica

"Mariachi? Mariachi Senor?" I shook my head slowly no and the gaudily dressed bandleader walks off to another table.

Within minutes another with the same sales pitch replaces him. I shake my head and he too departs. All around the large room, mariachi bandleaders stroll trying to drum up business for their musicians.

A few of the tables are filled with tourists or Josefinos out for a night on the town. At most though are seated musicians all dressed in gaudy but spectacular outfits topped by immense sombreros.

I'd heard about the La Esmeralda a San Jose bar and institution for over 109 years before coming to Costa Rica. Now on my first night in the city I'd made an immediate beeline for the place, after checking into my hotel and a brief stop for dinner. Seeing is believing, and nothing can prepare you for this place.

There are literally dozens of musicians either playing, strolling about looking for business, or just sitting and chatting. This is mid week too, I can just imagine what the place must look like on the weekends. This large, semi open bar/café on Avienda 2 near Parque Central and the Theatro Nacional is more than a place to grab a drink and hear some live music. La Esmeralda is the home to the mariachi's union in San Jose.

Al the musicians here are on call. Every now and then you'll see a band grab their instruments and jump into a car or one of the taxis parked out front and speed off into the night. Somewhere, somebody has called for the services of a mariachi band.

In between calls, the bands wait, gossip, and practice. Most also try and make a little extra money off of the other patrons. It looks like some sort of surreal courier or taxi office with people dashing in and out all night long.

The room is continually full of music as one or more bands play some traditional piece for a couple at this table or that. Sometimes, but not often, they'll even play the same song. The competing bands should be enough to drive one into the streets but somehow it isn't. Usually one band will wait until another is finished before starting up.

The concept of take out live music may seem odd, but there's a demand for it here. Somewhere in this teeming city of 278,000 plus there's a party in need of livening up or a man who wants to serenade his sweet heart. This is Latin America after all.

Eventually I break down and agree to the sales pitch of one of the strolling bandleaders. Within seconds his buddies are around my table and while guitars strum, the lead singer breaks into the opening of the song I've requested. When they've finished and I've shown my appreciation with both applause and a discreetly slipped couple of bills, they smile, thank me and move off into the crowd in search of their next prospect.

By James Smith

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