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Costa Rica’s Military History Revived With 100 Years of Bellavista Barracks

By the end of the XIX century, San Jose expanded to the eastside. Constructions such as the Estación del Ferrocarril al Atlántico (Train Station to the Atlantic), the Aduana Principal (Main Customs House), the Colegio de Sión (Sion High School), and the Parque Nacional (National Park), all within the same few blocks of downtown San Jose.

In nearby lands, towards the northeast, the first Costa Rican bourgeois neighborhood was built: Barrio Amón.

The Cuartel Bellavista (left) and the now Legislative Assembly building across the street.

On the other side, the land where the Museo Nacional (National Museum) is located now was a coffee plantation in the mid-XIX century. From the highest peak of Cuesta de Moras, the plantation offered a panoramic view of all San Jose city. So, it was given the name “good view” or “beautiful view” (bella vista, in Spanish).

In 1877, Mauro Fernandez, reformer of Costa Rican education system, purchased the property. His house, center of social gatherings and intense social activity, rose to the northeast of the current building.

Very little is left of don Mauro’s house. To the north of the building, the silhouette of an arch to the entrance of the house and part of the wall can be seen, both of which were kept after the headquarters were built.

The photographs, some unpublished, are part of the exhibition. In the image, soldiers and rescuers during the civil war of 1948 located to the east side of the Bellavista Barracks.

The army in Costa Rica

Yes, there used to be a time, up until 1948 when it was abolished, Costa Rica did, in fact, have an army.

The history of the Cuartel Bellavista (Bellavista Barracks) cannot be understood without first referring to the history of the army in Costa Rica, which became the protagonist of several acts of politic violence that ultimately prevented dictatorships or constant civil wars in the country.

After 1920, shortly after the construction of the Cuartel had begun, dishonor consumed President Castro’s line of government (first President of the Republic). Constant abuse on part of the Tinoco brothers and the defeat of the war against Panama was the cause of this situation. Their repression against the population was the police’s responsibility and the national territory was indirectly defended by the United States.

The decision to abolish the army was a key factor to set the founding for a civilian system. On December 1 st, 1948, José Figueres Ferrer headed the symbolic event to abolish the army in the Cuartel Bellavista.

The decision was made to give the building to the National Museum. However, the abolition of the army was actually effective in 1949, after the “Cardonazo,” an attempt to coup d’etat against the Junta de Gobierno (Government Council) headed by Edgar Cardona, Minister of Security.

The abolition of the army was also founded on the concern of the Government Council to raise an environment of trust and stability in the country and detach from its relationship with the Legion of the Caribbean, which was not appreciated by the United States.

Birth and Life of the Bellavista

The construction of the headquarters was started in 1917. It was associated with the strengthening of the military institution promoted by Federico Tinoco Granados, who was first, Minister of War and Navy of the Alfredo Gonzalez Flores government, and later, after he overthrew Gonzalez Flores in 1917, became President of the Republic.

Much of the construction of the headquarters was speeded up under Tinoco’s government. Most external and tower walls were raised. The east section, the bottom side of the south section and probably the north section were also built. Meanwhile, the northeast kept the structure of don Mauro’s house.

In 1919, Tinoco himself was overthrown due to social discontent caused by military oppression, the difficult economic situation in the country and the disapproval of the regime by the United States Government.

The construction was stopped in 1923. Works were started again in 1928, when a large area of don Mauro’s house was demolished and the west side and, possibly, also the south, were finished.

The Bellavista, one of the most important buildings in San Jose, was a weapons warehouse and it was used to instruct recruits in militia, tactics, weapon handling, and discipline as well as moral principles.

While it was used by the army, the building had this configuration:

  • To the north: weapon warehouse for everyday use
  • To the northeast: two houses where the first and second commandants lived
  • To the east: troop dormitories
  • To the south: in the lower section, the kitchen, the dungeons, bathrooms and restrooms; in the upper area: dorms to minor officials
  • To the southeast: target shooting range
  • To the west: main office with the command, the dorms to higher officials, and the tailor’s shop

The central patio of the building was a cemented area for exercise. To the north, there was a garden and a laundry area. Under the building, there were tunnels that were sealed afterward. The precise location of many of them is still unknown.

When the military was abolished in 1948, the building was abandoned. Two years later (1950) it was handed over to the National Museum.

Before the building was actually handed over to the museum, the main towers were demolished. They dominated the city militarily.

When the Museum took possession, the areas were remodeled to be used as exhibition rooms. Inner walls were torn down. Floor and ceiling materials were changed and the building was endowed with a colonial aspect which currently remains.

Today, the National Museum at Cuartel Bellavista specializes in pre-columbine artifacts, as well as some historical artifacts from the colonial era.

Now, the Cuartel Bellavista now the Museo Nacional as seen from the Plaza de la Democracia (Democracy Square)

Celebrating its 100th

To celebrate its 100th, the National Museum is holding an exhibition Memorias del ejército en Costa Rica with an impressive collection of military items that this neighbor of Barrio La California, as the area is now known, as well as photos and other objects owned by the museum.

The Museo Nacional as seen from Avenida Segunda

The exhibition invites spectators to a trip through the military history of our country, from pre-Columbian times, with the uprisings of indigenous societies, until the abolition of the army, in 1948.

The courtyard of the Museo Nacional

The exhibition opened its doors last October 19 and will be open to the public until February 2018.

Museum hours are as follows:

  • Tuesdays to Saturdays, from 8:30 am. at 4:30 pm
  • Sundays, from 9 am at 4:30 pm
  • Mondays closed

Cost:

  • ¢2.000 colones nationals and residents
  • US$9 for foreigners; foreign students US$4
  • Children 12 and under, students with ID and seniors (over 65) with ID, free

For museum lovers, you can purchase for ¢5,000 colones (nationals and residents) and US$31 for foreigners, the 3 museum pass: the Museo Nacional, the Museo del Jade and the Museos del Banco Central. Click here for info on the hours and prices. Click here for info on the hours and prices.