San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The museum takes a hike

Museums are more than collections of old stuff. The Juan Santamaría Museum in Alajuela brought history to life by taking to the road – the same one travelled by the soldiers in the Campaign of 1856 to route William Walker and his army from Tico soil. Walker was a southerner from the United States who wanted the five Central American countries to become part of the Confederacy. Recently, 50 of us signed up for a five kilometer caminata that would follow the same route as the Costa Rican army in 1856.

The Costa Rican army of that time was well equipped with uniforms and the new mini-rifles from England, as well as trained by military experts from Europe and South America. In addition, volunteers rallied in their traditional white with red or blue bandana armbands for identification, and caites or simple leather sandals.

It was not an easy march. They traveled about 30 kilometers a day over rough land, rocky roads and mountains in the heat of March and April. Communication between the army and the capital was conducted by horse.

The 50 of us hiking the same route had it easy. In sturdy shoes and T-shirts and armed with bottles of water, cell phones, sun block and power bars, we boarded comfy tour buses to Alto de Monte where we began our walk, all downhill. This was not the highway we traveled but a rural back road originally built by local farmers to carry their oxcarts filled with coffee to waiting ships in Puntarenas. The first kilometer wasn’t bad, but deteriorated into irregular piles of stones and ruts. Our guides from the museum, Priscilla, Ronald and Rodolfo, explained how the heavy rains during the season washed all the rocks to the valleys and the farmers had to carry them back up to repair the road. Oxcarts and mules got bogged down in dirt and creeks and the soldiers had to dig them out.

The soldiers marched in platoons and received their rations on banana leaves. Our “army,” on the other hand, was spread out in groups along the route, sharing and sampling jacotes, mangos and nances that we found along the way. This was all forest when the army marched here in 1856, home to wild animals and a very scattered population. Our modern marchers met up with some cows, a motorcycle and a museum car, just in case. Museum staff had scouted out the route ahead of time to test it.

The soldiers were victorious in the battles of Santa Rosa and of Rivas in Nicaragua. “It was our war of independence,” said historian Rodalfo González. Central America won independence in 1821 without a war, but fought in ‘56 to stay independent.

As the soldiers stopped along the way for sesteos, we stopped at a plateau to look over the mountains beyond and the valleys below and take countless photos. “Are we finished?” someone asked. “No,” said Ronald. “We were at the half way point.”

Down went the road and it got rougher, slowing us down. After the battle of Rivas the army was affected by cholera and the soldiers, sick and dying, returned over the same route, this time battling sickness and an uphill march. Many were buried at the side of the road. Our only casualty was someone who slipped and fell.

Finally, the road leveled off and there were houses along the way. Barking dogs heralded our progress down to the last straggler.

Our living history day did not end there, though. Out in a pasture, seated on rocks and tree roots we savored a soldier’s lunch; rice, beans, picadillo and egg tort served on a banana leaf. Then back to the buses for a nap on the way back to the museum.

The Museo Historico Cultural Juan Santamaria offers many interactive events.  You can find them listed at museumhistorioculturaljuansantamaria on Facebook, or visit the museum in the heart of  Alajuela, in the old fort, from Tues.-Sun. after 10 a.m.                             

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