San Juan Bautista State Park prepares to mark National Museum Month

As COVID restrictions lift, tourists are returning to the city.
The Plaza Hotel. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Indian basketry. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Poker Table at the Plaza Saloon. Photo by Robert Eliason.
State Park Orchard. Photo by Robert Eliason
The Zanetta House and Plaza Stables. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Inside the Plaza Stables. Photo by Robert Eliason

May is National Museums Month, and the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park’s museums are ready after spending almost a year turning visitors away due to the pandemic. And the reopening is beginning to bring back the tourists who are crucial to the town of 2,000 residents.

“I wanted to bring my grandchildren to the park to see something of the history of San Juan Bautista,” said visitor Leticia Rodriguez, who was visiting the Plaza Hotel. “And they are so excited, taking pictures of everything. This place is way before our time, and it is so beautiful and peaceful here.”

Local merchants are grateful for the reopening as well.

“We have all seen an increase in business, particularly on the weekends,” said Barbara Gonzalez, owner of Visions, located at 108 3rd Street. “A lot of people have told me they had come for the day because the park is open again. I particularly love seeing all of the children out there enjoying themselves. After all of the time they spent in their remote learning, they now have the chance to come here and touch a part of the history around us.”

After being closed for almost exactly a year, and with a brief two-week reopening in November, the park reopened on March 19.

“We have been open just over a month and so far, so good,” said park interpreter Marcos Vizcaino. “We have to hold things to 25% capacity indoors, but we’ve seen a lot of positive responses. People are happy to wear their masks, happy to follow the restrictions, happy just to be here.”

Tourists also bring much-needed revenue for the park and the Plaza History Association, which runs the gift shop. The park and the association took a financial hit, with admission fees, gift shop revenue, and day-use fees lost for almost a year.

Four state park museums face the Mission plaza on Second Street, with one all-day fee covering all of them. 

The main entrance to the park is at the Plaza Hotel and Saloon, which contains reconstructed period rooms illustrating different eras of the hotel. A recently replanted orchard is located in the enclosure behind the building. Next door is the Castro/Breen Adobe, with artifacts and interpretive displays of local history, dating back to the Mutsun Indians and covering the Spanish, Mexican and early California years.
Across from the adobe, the Plaza Stable contains antique horse-drawn vehicles, a blacksmith shop and one of the town’s original hook and ladder firetrucks. Next to the stables is the Zanetta House, which contains reconstructed residential rooms and an adjoining garden filled with antique roses.

There are two other buildings on the grounds, the Settler’s Cabin and the San Juan Jail, with interiors that visitors can view through their open doors. The Amah Mutsun Native Garden surrounds the Settler’s Cabin, offering information about plants used by the local native peoples.

For the time being, because of social distancing restrictions, the second floor of the Plaza Hotel is closed to the public, and the Zanetta House and Plaza Stables are both closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. 

Nearby Mission San Juan Bautista and its museum, owned by the Diocese of Monterey, are closed due to staffing cutbacks. The church still holds Mass on Wednesday through Friday and Sunday.

The monthly Living History event and the hosting of elementary school field trips are on hold, and the staff hopes to resume both later this year. However, with restrictions lifted, the park staff and docents are now free to resume creating content for their online educational programs; planting Mission grapevines in the orchard; and putting up new interpretive signs and plaques.

Tourists are coming from near and far, a welcome change for a city that seemed almost forgotten during the pandemic.

“I came here on a school field trip as a child,” said Laurel, who asked that her last name not be used. She was down from San Francisco with her family to visit the park. “I thought it would be fun to come out to show my kids, the next generation, one of the places we explored back then. I enjoy the history, hearing the stories of the people who came before us. I have had a chance to share my memories of what I learned as a kid, and it is great to see that it is all still standing.”


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.