By Thomas Friestad
Areá de Conservación Guanacaste, Costa Rica — Walking up the gravel path to Guanacaste’s La Casona museum, a visitor could easily mistake its buildings for those of an old abandoned hacienda, or farm. They might not expect to see a restored fortress, culturally iconic within the country. In reality, the buildings are both.
These houses were the site of the most famous battle in Costa Rican history: the Battle of Santa Rosa, which took place March 20, 1856 and is considered to be the “Gettysburg of Costa Rica.” Prior to this date, Costa Ricans had organized militarily in response to threats from Nicaragua, headed by U.S. Southerner William Walker, a firm believer in manifest destiny.
Facing an invasion by Nicaraguan filibusters, 700 Costa Ricans surrounded and attacked the incoming northern army of 200 around the Casona. In just 14 minutes, the battle reached a conclusive end: many filibusters died and others fled, signifying victory for the Costa Ricans, with only 20 men lost.
If the Casona’s walls could tell stories, they would not be able to recount the battle itself — arsonists torched much of the site in 2001, and the Casona had to be rebuilt. The new walls would, however, testify to the wealth of tourists, both Costa Ricans and foreigners, who flock to see the surviving artifacts. On some days, an average of 400 tourists explore the museum and view historical items such as pottery, riding saddles and plastic recreations of the firearms used in the battle.
Johan Martinez Navarrete, who works with the Sistema Nacional de Áreas de Conservación, has served as a tour guide at La Casona since 2009. Martinez said he greatly enjoys the opportunity to learn about Costa Rica’s past that helped turn it into the place it is today.
“It’s like a dream sometimes, seeing how people in the country’s past came together to do the things that they did,” Martinez said. “I always try to create visual scenery for visitors for how things were back in that time because I’ve read a lot of things about this and it’s amazing. I like to impart this history on them.”
Reinoldo AlFofaro and Maria Emilio Gonzales Monillo visited and toured La Casona for the first time Monday. Maria said she and her husband found it important to see this part of the Costa Rica’s history for themselves, given the profound nature of its impact.
“It was a shame we could not see it years earlier before it and many of its artifacts were burned,” Reinoldo said. “The items we have seen today in La Casona were quite beautiful.”