San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Juan Santamaría Museum Reopens

Alajuela’s centerpiece, the JuanSantamaríaMuseum, has reopened its doors after taking four years to expand and restore.

Facing the Central Park of this northwestern Central Valley city, the structure was built in 1894 to house and train the militia, and needed a lot of changes to meet today’s stricter safety standards.

Prior to 2007, the museum was housed in the back part of the building, the part that was once the city’s jail. The heavy bars on the windows and the fortress-style outer walls give proof of this. With the added space, the museum now has room for art and sculpture exhibits and is a quiet place for absorbing the city’s history.

A document room and library provide information on the city or the historic “Campaign of 1856” in which Juan Santamaría, the simple soldier from Alajuela, saved the country by burning down the headquarters of William Walker and his filibustero army in Rivas, Nicaragua. Walker’s attempt to gain the Central American countries as slave states for the United States failed as a result, but Santamaría died in the act. Articles, flags, old rifles and ribbons from the campaign are part of the museum’s permanent displays.

The auditorium where plays and concerts entertained the public has changed a bit to make entrance easier and accessible.There will also be rooms for meetings and discussions, arts workshops for children and a small café.

Museum technician Dhamuza Coudin, who has worked with the museum since it opened in 1981, said ongoing restoration will bring back to light paintings on the walls that have been covered up for years. One corner of the old jail will become a historical printshop exhibit with antique presses and bookbinding equipment still in working order. The original paving stones from the front of the building have been saved and are waiting for a new place in the garden, Coudin said.

Walking into the museum through the old wooden doors is like entering another era. The parade ground where soldiers used to drill will soon become a garden, but the second-floor interior balcony, the wide stairways with heavy banisters, the elegant double doors with etched glass panels and, above all, the diminutive balcones for observing the activity in the park across the street take us back in time. You can imagine damas in long silk dresses and parasols strolling by while soldiers manning the parapets cast glances their way.

The museum is also for exploring. One of the round towers extending over the sidewalk on the building’s southwest side may be accessed through the art gallery and is great for peeping through the gun holes at unsuspecting passersby. Soon to come is access to the parapet that runs around the roof where the militia once stood guard over the city. For today’s watchers, there are rooftops, treetops and the spires of the cathedral across the park. An elevator to the second floor will be added in the next wave of construction.

The museum’s history goes back to before it was even built. In 1822, don Rosario Carrillo and wife María Fernández donated the land for a “house of education” and a hermitage in honor of St. Michael the Archangel. A small shrine to the archangel has been part of the museum’s displays. The military quarters were built during the era of strongman Tomás Guardia (1870-1882), whose home was across the street to the west. Rumors still persist that tunnels connected the house, the fort and several other buildings. In 1974, the Legislative Assembly created the museum by law, but it didn’t open until 1981 and then was limited to the jail complex. The military site housed a high school and later an educational research project.

The newly restored museum held its opening ceremony April 11, the anniversary of the Battle of Rivas, in which Costa Rica’s one war hero, Santamaría, lost his life saving his country.

Juan SantamaríaMuseum is on the north side of Alajuela’s Central Park. The doors are open Tuesday to Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. Theater events are listed in the glass case in front. For information, visit

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