Before becoming Costa Rica’s international airport, La Sabana was a large pasture with a small forest and a recreational lake.
The land was donated in the 18th century by a man named Manuel Antonio Chapuí de Torres. As San José became Costa Rica’s largest city, farmers brought their cattle to graze in La Sabana, soldiers were trained for combat, and the national football team played.
But aviation arrived quickly in Costa Rica. On January 1, 1912 – less than 10 years after the Wright Brothers made history at Kitty Hawk – Costa Rica ushered in the new year with the first recorded flight on its national territory when a Bleriot monoplane took off from La Sabana.
Costa Rica quickly recognized the importance of air transport. In 1937, Costa Rica authorized the construction of the La Sabana international airport. It was completed three years later, in 1940, after leveling the land and draining the lake.
The airport terminal, designed by architect José María Barrantes Monge, housed customs and immigration offices, Costa Rica’s fledgling airlines, a restaurant, and a diplomatic lounge.
But La Sabana was Costa Rica’s main international airport for less than two decades.
In the 1950s, the arrival of four-engine airplanes and rumors of commercial jets made it clear that La Sabana could not handle the growth. In 1958, El Coco’s largest airport was officially opened in Alajuela. It is known today as Juan Santamaría International Airport.
La Sabana Airport was in use until the mid-1970s, when it was replaced as a general aviation hub by the nearby Tobías Bolaños International Airport in Pavas.
Meanwhile, several key figures have fought to restore La Sabana to its former use of public space. Among them was José Antonio Quesada García, an architect who envisioned the land as a recreational and sports center for Costa Rica.
Quesada had the country’s history and extensive experience at his side. His resume included the design of La Fuente de la Hispanidad and Parque de la Paz in Costa Rica, and he wanted to maintain green space in an ever-expanding metropolitan area.
Quesada’s plans included rebuilding an artificial lake, planting thousands of trees, and creating trails for cyclists and joggers.
In November 1976, construction began on what would become the lung of the San José – La Sabana Metropolitan Park. A year later, the park’s facilities were inaugurated.
Most of La Sabana airport has been demolished, but not all of it. The airport terminal remained standing, and in 1977 the Costa Rican government passed a law establishing the building as the seat of the New Museum of Costa Rican Art.
Today in La Sabana you will (probably) not find grazing cattle anymore. But you can enjoy impressive art galleries at the museum, a pick-up soccer game on one of the soccer fields or a walk on one of the many trails.
It is a public park built for hundreds of years.
Sources: Costa Rica Art Museum, Costa Rican Civil Aviation Administration (DGAC) and Center for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage.