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How Did San Jose become the Capital of Costa Rica?

As you navigate the busy streets of Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose is lined with a dichotomy of old versus new. The architecture of days past mixed with the vendors of today’s trends. It represents a society moving forward yet still appreciates what is of their past. The country respects and honors its traditional history celebrating what has made them who they are today.

However, your steps aren’t tracing the path of the original capital and its ancestors. In fact, it wasn’t until 1823 that San Jose first became Costa Rica’s capital city. The country’s original capital is almost 40 minutes away southeast of the heart of the country, in Cartago.

You can find the colonial capital’s location near the famous Irazu Volcano, in the historic and picturesque city of Cartago. It is one of the oldest cities in all of Costa Rica. It is here in this region that the Spanish settlers decided to establish a colony founded by 1563 with the Spanish conquistador Juan Vazquez de Coronado.

The cooler land looked promising to them with the rich and fertile soils all thanks to the volcano nearby, believing it would prove to be prosperous. At this time San Jose as we know it was yet to evolve.

The capital area slowly developed and the land was transformed for agricultural purposes. The country did not have the riches that they believed in when setting their sights on conquering the rich coast. The effects of forced labor and illnesses contributed to the decline of the indigenous people leaving them without the manpower they desired.

The country’s indigenous people’s denial of the new ways of life and attempts for exploitation led to uprisings and battles. Their colonial conquest was not proving to be as prosperous and thriving as anticipated. In place of lucrative plantations were small farms that required them to do most of the work themselves or face starvation, they lacked the presence of the forced workers they needed.

Settlements in Costa Rica

Settlements began to congregate in Costa Rica in the 1700s with new areas being established. The regions of Heredia, Alajuela, and San Jose became settled locations with their churches and communities bringing those scattered throughout together in centralized areas.

In the center of the country, the small settlement of San Jose was then founded in 1737 through the order of Cabildo de Leon. Revenue slowly began to generate thanks to the efforts of tobacco farming bringing San Jose’s settlement recognition and to the forefront establishing its success.

It was in 1821 when Costa Rica gained their independence from Spain however, a battle would now play out amongst themselves. There was disagreement on how the country should move forward with its newfound status. On one side were Cartago and Heredia, with desires to join Mexico’s new empire, and on the other San Jose and Alajuela who elected to keep their independence from Mexico, they had their eyes on a republican government.

What would ensue would be a struggle for power and instability leading to the country’s civil war and the Battle of Ochomogo of 1823, just outside of Cartago.

Originally it was agreed upon to remain on neutral ground until terms and decisions could evolve, however, that did not play out. Time went by and nothing had been resolved. Eventually, a meeting was called and the two parties met on April 5, 1823, and they were unable to come to an agreement and negotiate, leading to artillery being fired and approximately 20 people perishing in the battle lasting just only one day. In the end, Cartago’s forces faced defeat.

In the meantime, Heredia and Alajuela were undergoing their own conflict leading Alajuela to surrender. Parties moved forth from Cartago to the central valley in order to bring back order to the area and resume their liberation. San Jose was now to become the capital.

With the lack of technology at the time, the news didn’t travel as fast as it does today and had not made its way to Costa Rica yet. They were only to learn a bit too late that as of March 19, 1823, of that same year, the New Mexico Empire they were battling themselves over in fact no longer even existed.

The Ambulance Law

Regardless, the four towns still could not come to a consensus of the minds over the years and in 1834 became the Ambulance Law. Every 4 years the capital city would change, rotating between Alajuela, Heredia, Cartago, and San Jose.  As the capital rotated to Alajuela a mockery followed that they were not fit to be the capital.

In 1835 head of state José Rafael de Gallegos y Alvarado resigned and in came a new head of state Braulio Carrillo Colina who had no interest in the Ambulance Law, revoking its power and abolishing it. What is now recognized as Tibas would become the capital, an impartial area putting it between Heredia and San Jose.

His choice was far from supported and Cartago took matters into their own hands on September 26, 1835, deciding on who should actually be head of state and would launch the Ambulance Law, choosing Nicolás Ulloa Soto. This led to a united front amongst Heredia, Cartago, and Alajuela creating the League of Three. As a result, the second civil war of Costa Rica developed, referred to as the League War or Liga War.

Battle of Cuesta de Moras

Another battle was to take place on Costa Rica’s home soil first with The Battle of Cuesta de Moras on October 14, 1835, where San Jose took control and defeated Cartago’s forces. Followed by The Battle of the Virilla River on October 28, 1935, in another victory for the San Jose militia. Here they would cause defeat by the end of the night for the members of Heredia and Alajuela’s force.

San Jose was yet again to become the capital but this time to finally remain. Today the hub of the country is a bustling urban jungle and the epicenter of the political, economic, and commercial heart of Costa Rica. It serves as the capital of the province of San Jose and for the country.

The Gateway to Costa Rica

One of the country’s two international airports lies just outside of it at Juan Santamaria International Airport as the area plays an important role as the gateway to Costa Rica. San Jose is typically the first place that people come to know when they make their first steps into Costa Rica. However, many of us don’t realize how many steps it actually took for the largest city in the country to finally become the official capital of Costa Rica.

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