San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Fun, action on Alajuela Museum tour

From the print edition

The Juan Santamaría Museum in Alajuela offers guided tours that put the audience right in the action. It’s theater. It’s history. It’s fun. And best of all, it’s free. 

The action begins at the door, when historian Rodolfo González and two lookalike models, Andrea and Yesenia, start an argument that forces a security guard to abandon post and tell them to quiet down. González and company then invite the audience to follow them around the museum for a look at the history of Alajuela and Costa Rica, enhanced by a theater performance and sound effects.

In the first gallery, they take turns telling about how the building went up around 1880 during the time of strongman Tomás Guardia, and served as quarters for the army, when soldiers ran up and down the stairs (clomp, clomp, clomp), and Guardia built the first railroad to the Pacific (chooo-chooo).

From there, they tell of Alajuela’s first commerical effort, mule trains, with lots of hee-hawing plus an explanation of what, exactly, a mule is. Next we come to  colonization, where push came to shove between the government and the church, and the first civil war broke out between cities to determine who would have the capital. Obviously, San José won.

Passing through the galleries, we learn about the Campaign of 1856 and William Walker’s invasion. When González gives a speech as Walker in English, he is shouted down. When war breaks out, the audience must duck down behind the display cases to avoid what sounds like stray bullets. With the cholera epidemic, museum staff drape themeslves in black shrouds and sulk to mournful music. 

In the last of the galleries, the audience learns the history of the campaign through pictures and paintings of the battles and the homefront. Yesenia (or is it Andrea?) points to a painting of a dirty, weary, bloody Santamaría, trying to heft a torch before sinking to the ground. She compares this to the pristine statue of the same soldier in the Juan Santamaría Plaza just two blocks away.

The final scene takes place in the back garden, where the audience is shown bits and pieces of Alajuela’s past: the early printing presses, the jail cells, the cannons from the war and the second-floor balcony, all that remains of Guardia’s once-elegant house.

At last it is time for the TV quiz show in the auditorium. Signs held up by the museum’s public relations director instruct the audience to applaud, make noise or remain silent. The quiz tests the audience with questions on Alajuelan history.

The show lasts slightly more than an hour, and not much Spanish is necessary. The free tour runs every Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. No reservation needed. The museum faces the Central Park in the center of Alajuela. For more info, call 2441-4775 or visit

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