Costa Rica’s National Museum is in a very interesting building, the Cuartel Bellavista, which is part of this country’s history. This was a fortress and prison until Costa Rica’s Civil War in 1948. Now it sits atop a hill in yellow splendor. Just a short walk from city center and many other attractions, like the also historically important Teatro Nacional, a tour of Bellavista unexpectedly begins with a plant and butterfly filled garden, a zigzag walk, and a tour that clearly shows what life was like for prisoners of the army before the war.
The Bellavista Fortress was this country’s army headquarters, and it saw fierce fighting in the 1948 civil war. It was here that President José Figueres Ferrer announced in 1949 that he was abolishing Costa Rica’s army. It remains disbanded, making this one of the few countries in the world without a standing army to defend itself. The prison contains original graffiti, the prisoners’ latrine, a guard tower with peepholes where army personnel could keep an eye on the citizen’s of San José, etc. It’s rather fascinating to tour it before exploring yet another garden and the entire history of this unique nation.
Rómulo Valerio, this museum’s first director, asked the new government for the building in 1948 and the request was granted in this year’s final month. That’s why this facility still looks like a real prison. It took a coup d’etat to make the transfer from prison to museum happen. The new government, hoping to create an atmosphere of confidence and stability after a civil war, was willing to abolish the army and turn its headquarters into a museum. That army had used this prison to punish political enemies. Evidence of prisoner ill-treatment remains. The new government had the support of the United States to accomplish this change.
The national museum in a separate building begins with Pre-Columbian history and moves seamlessly to the impact of the arrival of the Spanish on Costa Rica’s development. Visitors like me appreciate its warts-and-all approach to the subject of this country’s history. For example, I learned that the Spanish retook its Kingdom of Granada from Muslim invaders in the same year Columbus set sail to find a new route to Asia with the support of the Spanish crown. One artifact from this era shows a Spaniard on a horse stomping on the head of a Muslim.
ps That’s an owl eye butterfly.