The highway between La Garita and Atenas, en route from San José to the central Pacific beach community of Jacó, dips and rises through some of the lushest scenery in Costa Rica. Here the Río Grande forms a deep gorge walled in by forests and lined by boulders thrown down from the surrounding hills. Adding to nature’s beauty, artist Mercedes Solano has created an outdoor gallery by painting Tico scenes on these huge rocks.
The paintings, in bright acrylic colors, show beaches, rural scenes, flowers, farms and folklore. Twenty-two rock paintings along this route cause drivers to slow down for a look. Unlike billboards, these do not detract from the roadside view. Nor are they a danger for traffic – with curves, hills and a one-way bridge over the river, well, drivers just naturally slow down.
Solano, 42, began painting roadside rocks two years ago because she “thought it would be pretty.” She began painting at the age of 9, taking lessons for six months.
“I would stretch the paper over the window frame for an easel,” she says. She believes her talent comes naturally because her father, a sign painter, was an artist in his own way, and two of her four children also paint.
Early Sunday mornings, around 6 a.m., when the sun is beaming down on the valley, Solano and her husband Dagoberto Villalobos set out for the riverside.While she sets out her paints and mixes colors on a pallet, he cleans and primes the chosen spaces and clears away grass. He also cleans up earlier paintings that have become sooty from car emissions.
Solano doesn’t sketch out ideas first. She’s studied her scenes from photos and trips around Costa Rica, and she just dabs on colors: brown for a dirt road, red for a tile roof, blue for the sky, greens and yellows for the trees. A little more paint to touch up details and another rock masterpiece is ready for the public to enjoy.
As they work, traffic slows to a halt and often stops, especially tour buses. Tourists from all over the world have come to admire Solano’s work.
“A professor from the United States took photos for a Web page,” Villalobos says with obvious pride in his wife’s work.
One Sunday, they took along some of Solano’s paintings, which Villalobos had framed, and set them out.
“At the end of the morning there were only four big paintings left,” he recounts. “All the smaller ones sold.”
There’s one great advantage to rock paintings.
“Someone tried to steal one once; they had a truck and a winch, but they couldn’t move it,” Solano says with a laugh. She sees it as a tribute to her work.
By 10 a.m. the sun is too high and too hot to continue. In four hours Solano has completed two rock paintings, stopping once in a while to greet neighbors and strangers who pause to watch. Her rock work has won many admirers and has been featured on TV shows “Informe Once” and “Buen Día.” She is presently working on murals for several condominium projects.
Solano describes herself as a housewife. Having raised four children close together in age, she had to set aside her paints for a time. Only in the past four years has she had time to paint. She also gives lessons at her home in Río Grande de Atenas and in Santa Cruz, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
She keeps a collection of her paintings for sale at her home gallery, which she says is easy to find.
From the river it’s a mile up the hill toward Atenas, on the left-hand side, with two painted rocks at the entrance. To visit the gallery, call Solano at 446-5754 or 834-1675. The artist is also looking for donations of paint, which she says is very expensive.