QCOSTARICA by  Mitzi Stark – April 11 is Juan Santamaria Day, a national holiday celebrated in Alajuela with high school bands and drill teams from around the country on parade and speeches by dignitaries to remind us that 160 years ago the Costa Rican army defended the borders from a North American invasion.

Costa Rica National Hero Juan Santamaria
Costa Rica National Hero Juan Santamaria

The Campaign of 1856 began with a call to arms as William Walker, a North American, leading a mercenary army of filibusteros took over Nicaragua as a first step in claiming the five Central American republics for slave states. Next he turned to Costa Rica. President Juan Mora Porras called for recruits to save Costa Rica’s independence and four thousand men enlisted for the long, hot march over stony roads to Puntarenas.

There are few written records of a soldier’s life. Not many could read and write back then and the march took up most of their time and energy. But compared to other countries in that time, they were fairly well off. Coffee had taken over as a major product here. Almost everyone was engaged in some form of coffee work. And the demand for coffee from Europe and North America guaranteed a good income for Costa Rica. With the new wealth, merchants, many German or French, set up emporiums with imported goods, fine fabrics for dresses, crinolines for the ladies, hats, furniture, art and tools to make farming easier.

The army too, benefited with the latest rifles and bayonets from England, and military trainers from Saxony and Prussia. Their uniforms were loose white shirts and pants with wide brimmed hats. For shoes they wore caites, sandals made of leather. The 300 kilometer march took them through La Uruca, Lagunilla, San Antonio de Belén, around Alajuela and through La Garita and Desmonte, across mountains and through forests with wild animals, and on to the coast. (Part of the original road is still used and each year the museum in Alajuela leads walking tours along the Campaign Trail).

There was some relief for the soldiers along the way. Sesteos, or rest areas in flat, grassy areas near streams provided refreshing water for the mules and oxen, and for bathing. They were also accompanied by a platoon of women. Wives, sisters, mothers and hookers, who cooked huge pots of rice and beans, plantains and meat to serve on banana leaves. The women washed and mended uniforms, cared for the weary and during the battles, helped load rifles and even shoot them.

The march to Santa Rosa took twenty days and on the 24th of March they engaged the filibusteros en a ferocious battle, sending them on the run to Rivas, just inside Nicaragua where another battle took place. And where a young soldier from Alajuela, Juan Santamaria torched the headquarters of Walker, and gained the upper hand in the brief war. Santamaria was among the 500 soldiers who died in the campaign.

Soon after, a cholera epidemic broke out and the army was forced to retreat but the disease affected both sides. By December the second phase of the Campaign took place on the San Juan river, where Costa Rican soldiers and allied forces from around Central America rid the waterway of Walker’s presence. This important campaign assured Costa Rica’s right to be an independent nation.

The Juan Santamaria museum and cultural center, in the heart of Alajuela, the old army quarter on the north-west corner of the central park, has displays, material and cultural events centered around the Campaign of 1856. The museum is free and open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Find out more at www.museojuansantamaria.go.cr or find it on facebook.


Stay up to date with the latest stories by signing up to our newsletter, or following us on Facebook.