Did you know that Heredia was the first Spanish urban center on the west side of the Central Valley? I didn’t, and I was born and raised there.
Back then, the town went by the name of Cubujuquí. It wasn’t until June 1763 that it was named Heredia, in honor of Alonso Fernández de Heredia, a Spanish captain.
This is just one of many interesting but little-known things about Heredia that make it worth visiting. A day spent walking around the city center reveals its little secrets.
Let’s start at the east side of the city, at the National University (UNA). Founded in 1973, UNA is one of four public universities in the country, with more than 15,000 students at its main campus on Calle 9, the main road leading to Heredia from the south.
Featuring eclectic architecture, the campus includes many buildings and open areas where you can wander around for a while. Be sure to see the campus’s newest constructions, the Social Science and Philosophy buildings, as well as the Plaza de la Diversidad, an open area for sitting on benches and occasional gatherings and special events.
Heredia is known for its contribution to education, so many of its visit-worthy places are schools, or used to be. So the next stop is the Escuela Cleto González Víquez. Go back to UNA’s main entrance and start walking north on the main road (cross the road at the pedestrian light at the campus entrance). After two blocks, take a left and continue for three blocks.
The school is hard to miss. Taking up an entire block, it was built in 1938 in the traditional style of Costa Rican schools; the classrooms face a central open area housing soccer and basketball courts. Beautiful tiles grace the walkways around the buildings, and roses and banana trees dot the gardens.
The school is named after two-time ex-President Cleto González (1906-10 and 1928-32), who, like current President Oscar Arias, was born in Heredia. The two men share another commonality in having governed during times of economic crisis: González’s second term coincided with the Great Depression.
Leaving the school, keep walking west on the same street and you will come to Heredia’s Calle Central, named after former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. Take a left here and start heading south. To your right, you will pass the police station, also an interesting building more than 100 years old. Behind it there used to be a jail, but prisoners set fire to it in 2003, asking for better conditions. Only the ruins remain.
Three blocks ahead on your right, before crossing into the Central Park, you will see the Fortín, a circular three-story building of red brick that has become the symbol of the city. The small fort was built in 1875, under the supervision of Major Fabrique Gutiérrez, next to what used to be the army headquarters of Heredia.
On the east side of the Fortín plaza, almost at the corner, some stairs allow a closer approach. Note the oval windows of the fort, which are larger on the outside than on the inside – the reverse of what fort windows should be, as they offer easier targets for anyone trying to shoot into them. This blunder is blamed on the fact that Gutiérrez was an artist and architect by profession, with no military training.
The Fortín was erected on private property, without the consent of landowner Manuel Brenes. This led to a seven-year legal dispute between Brenes and the government.
In 1882, President Próspero Fernández (1882-85) ordered its demolition, mainly because there was no reason for its existence. However, thanks to the mediation of Joaquín Lizano, another prominent Heredia politician, the dispute was settled, and the government now owns the property.
Across the street from the Fortín is the Casa de la Cultura Alfredo González Flores, a typical colonial-style building with white walls, red-tile roof and a wooden veranda. Built in 1792 by a Spanish merchant named Pedro Antonio Solares, the house has belonged to many distinguished heredianos. Its last important owner was Alfredo González, another ex-president (1914-17), who restored the building in the 1910s. From González’s death in 1962 until 1974, the building housed a bar and restaurant, after which it was bought by the state and turned into a place for the community to gather and create. There is always an art exhibit or some artistic group rehearsing here. (Upcoming exhibits include paintings by Jorge Valverde Roldán and a stamp collection by Walter Chavarría, April 1 to 15, and old photographs from the Heredia province, April 16 to 30.)
In front of the Casa de la Cultura is the Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción, a white-painted stone church built at the end of the 18th century. The building has largely resisted two centuries of earthquakes and tropical weather, though its facade had to be rebuilt after an earthquake in 1856.
Surrounded by simple but beautiful gardens, the church, with its small stained-glass windows dating from 1879 and floors made of more than 15,000 marble bricks, is constantly visited by faithful heredianos.
Inside, the church boasts some very old statues, many made by important artists from the province. The statue of Saint Paul to the left of the main altar was created by none other than Fabrique Gutiérrez, the aforementioned architect of the Fortín.
A majestic organ graces the balcony above the entrance. Made more than 100 years ago by famous French organ maker Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, it was recently restored by a French specialist brought to Costa Rica by the French and German embassies.
The Central Park also has its jewels. Its gazebo, built in 1940, gives the park a romantic air and is the site of many free cultural activities, including National Band of Heredia performances Thursdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m., when many heredianos come out to dance the bolero or paso doble.The iron fountain in the center of the park was brought from England in 1879 to celebrate the inauguration of the city’s sewer system. Take a rest from your walk on one of the pollos (park benches), and maybe have some ice cream from Pops, a park tradition.
Next up is the Liceo de Heredia, the high school. From the north side of the church, walk two blocks east on Avenida Central until you see a big white building on your right. Inaugurated in 1915, this facility trained many of the teachers that helped develop Costa Rica’s education system.
Turn around and start walking west past the Central Park. Opposite the northwest corner of the park, you will find a recently restored brown building, the post office, built in 1915 in the neoclassic style. From the outside, note the restored windows and walls. Go inside and enjoy the beautiful floor tiles, wooden doors and marble stairs. In front of the post office is a pink building with fuchsia stairs, the first building to be constructed in Heredia specifically as a school in 1888. In 1925, it was christened the Escuela República Argentina, which graduated students until 1981, when it closed for lack of pupils.
North of here on the same block is another school, this one still functioning. Housed in a blue-and-white building, the Escuela Joaquín Lizano was also built at the end of 19th century. Its construction, as well as that of the Escuela República Argentina, was overseen by Lizano, who was very active in the development of the province.
Opposite the school is an old house under restoration, with open walls, doors and windows offering a rare glimpse inside a construction of bahareque, a framework of woven bamboo rods filled with mud and straw.
Go back to Avenida Central, walk west until it ends and you will find yourself in front of the Palacio de los Deportes, an indoor sporting arena built in 1989 that hosts sports events, concerts, trade shows and other events, with a capacity of 20,000 people. The building shares a two-block area with the soccer stadium, built in 1946 and home to the Club Sport Herediano, a firstdivision soccer team that has won 21 championships in the Costa Rican soccer league.
If you want, you can walk around these buildings for the exercise. If not, take a right and then another right on the next corner. This is Avenida 2. Walk slowly for four blocks and try to identify all the different houses built in the traditional wood and bahareque style. I counted six.
At the fourth corner, on your right, you will see a large, old, white house with red wooden window frames and doors. This old house was built in the middle of the 19th century and was bought by the Heredia Education Board in 1901 to be a girls’ school. It was named after Rafael Moya Murillo, yet another important herediano who contributed to the country’s education system.
Two blocks south, you will find the Mercado Municipal, a combination of building styles resulting from many reconstructions after earthquakes, fires and general redesigns. The oldest parts of the building date from the late 1900s; the most recent, from 2003. One interesting detail is that the entire floor of the market is made of yellow tiles forming big letter H’s, and red tiles fill the rest of the space (red and yellow are the province’s colors).
Life inside the building can be fascinating. The north end houses mostly fruit and vegetable sellers. The central part is taken up by purveyors of food, cooked and uncooked. I recommend stopping for coffee and a chorreada (corn pancake) at the stand at the center of the market, across from the large figure of Jesus Christ. At the south end of the market is an assortment of barbershops and beauty salons, as well as a few traditional cantinas.
And you’re done! If you’re heading back to San José, you’ll find lineups of buses 100 to 400 meters east of the market.
Heredia is only 11 kilometers north of San José, but traffic can be difficult, so try to arrive before 8 a.m. and leave before 4 p.m.
From San José, take theGeneral Cañas Highway
and exit at the Best Western Irazú. Turn right at the roundabout and head north, past the Riviana Pozuelo factory and across the bridge over the Río Virilla. Stay on this main road until you arrive at the NationalUniversity, where this tour starts.
Three different bus lines offer service between San José and Heredia. The Microbuses Rápidas Heredianas San José bus station is on Calle 1, between Avenidas 7 and 9. The La 400 bus stop is 300 meters south of the Children’s Museum, while Busetas Amarillas is on Avenida 4, 200 meters east of Iglesia La Merced. In Heredia, all of these buses stop at the NationalUniversity.