The Country and its People


History

Although the recorded history of Costa Rica only began in 1502, evidence proves human habitation dates back 10,000 years. There are few signs of large, organized communities with monumental stone architecture or planned ceremonial centers as are common throughout the rest of the isthmus. It is probable that there were several distinct cultures scattered all over the region. Along both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, the cultures were clearly the same as those in South America. The Caribs inhabited the east coast and the Borucas y Chibchas occupied the southwest. Both semi nomadic groups hunted, fished, raised yucca, squash, and tubers, and lived in village huts. Among the mysteries left from this time period are thousands of perfectly spherical granite balls. They have been discovered in masses of different sizes in west coast burial sites, but the purpose of the balls remains unknown.

When Spanish explorers arrived with Christopher Columbus near current-day Puerto Limón on September 18, 1502, the local Carib Indians greeted them. After observing the gold decorations worn by the Indians, the Spaniards named the country Costa Rica or "Rich Coast". Even with the possibility of wealth, it took the Spanish settlers 60 years to establish a permanent settlement in Cartago. This region was governed as part of the captaincy general of Guatemala. Costa Rica suffered the effects of European invasion, and the Indian population dwindled rapidly. They did not have the numbers to resist the Spanish, some fled, and many died from European diseases. Having erased the native workforce, the settlers were forced to bring in African slaves to work the land. Today's Costa Rican population of about 3.8 million people is ninety-four percent white (including mestizo), has only one percent with Indian heritage, and includes 70,000 descendents of slaves.

The hope of finding hoards of gold never materialized, and Costa Rica was forgotten for many years. The Spanish concentrated on developing Mexico and Peru, where large quantities of gold and silver were found. During the 18 th century, few settlements were established such as Heredia, San José, and Alajuela. The introduction of coffee in 1808 put Costa Rica back on the map as frontier entrepreneurs thought they could make a killing there. Coffee cultivation led to wealth, class structure, and independence.

Costa Rica gained its independence from Spain in 1821. A few major cities wanted join Mexico, which triggered a civil war between four neighboring cities. Sovereignty was established after the republican cities of San José and Alajuela defeated the pro-Mexican Heredia and Cartago. Juan Mora Fernández, the first chief of state was elected in 1824. He designed a fair judicial system, expanded public education, and promoted coffee plantations. His land reforms inadvertently created an elite class of powerful coffee barons, who later overthrew the nation's first president, Jose María Castro. They chose Juan Rafael Mora to succeed him, and under Mora the country experienced economic growth.

In 1856, William Walker, a US military adventurer, invaded Costa Rica with his army of recently captured Nicaraguan slaves. Mora organized a small civilian army and succeeded in forcing Walker out of the country. This fight greatly unified the Costa Rican people. The following years of the 19 th century saw power struggles among the members of the coffee-growing elite and the beginning of a democratic Costa Rican Government.

A breakdown of the political system sparked a civil war in 1948. After a close presidential race, the incumbent president, Teodoro Picado, and his government accused that the ballot winner, Otilio Ulate, and his supporters of fraud. Picado had supported his predecessor, Dr. Rafael Calderón, and he obtained a congressional invalidation to stop Ulate from taking office. A short civil war, led by José Figueres, an Ulate supporter, followed. Figueres, better know was Don Pepe, emerged victoriously and assumed power in the interim government for eighteen months, when he handed the presidency to the people's choice, Ulate.

The new constitution, adopted in 1949, gave women the right to vote, dismantled the Costa Rican army, banned the communist party, nationalized banks, and established presidential term limits. Figueres was elected president in 1953 and Costa Rica has remained politically stable since.

During the 1960's, Costa Rica suffered from natural disasters. The Irazú and Arenal volcanoes erupted seriously damaging agriculture and killing many people. By the 1970's, the country was in a recession and found itself surrounded by unstable neighbors. In 1987, President Oscar Arias (elected in 1986) won the Nobel Peace Price for his efforts in spreading Costa Rica's example of peace throughout Central America and for his part in ending the Nicaraguan civil war. He succeeded in getting all five Central American presidents to sign his peace plan.

Although Costa Rica remains politically stable, the country's peace has been disrupted by different hurricanes in the last decade. Hurricane César in July 1996 caused several dozen deaths and cut off most of Southern Costa Rica from the rest of the country. For about two months the Interamericanna Highway remained closed and the overall damage from César was estimated at US$100 million. Then in 1998, Hurricane Mitch caused considerable damage to Costa Rica, even though the more substantial damage occurred in the northern countries of Central America.

Miguel Angel Rodriguez won the presidency with almost 50% of the vote in 1998. He was a conservative businessman and made improving the economy a priority by encouraging foreign investment. By the 2002 elections, some Costa Ricans were unhappy with the government and took to the streets in several demonstrations. Abel Pacheco, a member of the same party as Rodriguez became president in April of 2002. Statistics show he has been popular and has promised reforms on many levels. The environment is one of his primary concerns.

People/Language/Religion/Society

The population of approximately 3.8 million people is 94% white (including mestizo), 3% black, 1% Amerindian, 1% Chinese, and 1% other. The Costa Rican people refer to themselves as "Ticos". The official language is Spanish, but there are some Indigenous languages spoken sporadically in remote areas of the country, and on the Caribbean coast, English is the official language of the local African American population. These people came from Jamaica to work on the construction of the railroad and use the Creole, a dialect of English called Mekatelyu, as an alternative. Also, English is spoken in most tourist areas and by most business people. Although religion is typically not actively practiced, the population is 76.3% Roman Catholic, 13.7% Evangelical, 0.7% Protestant, 1.3% Jehovah's Witnesses, and 4.8% other. The remaining 3.2% have no religious affiliation.

Costa Rica appears to be homogenous when studying its social classes. Extreme poverty, although it exists, is not as serious of a problem as in other Latin American countries, and most of the population is middle class. Compared to the standards of a developed country, Costa Rican incomes are low, but when measured against its neighbors their wages appear to be better. There is also a small upper class composed of wealthy elitists, who are either traditionally rich or part of the "nouveau riche". Although there are both poor and rich individuals, the massive middle class population conveys the social class homogeneity.

The country's economy and industry have grown by leaps and bounds over the past years, but the culture still maintains conservative tendencies. Foreigners often criticize that Ticos need more initiative, are too passive, lack punctuality, and make decisions slowly. On the other hand, most Ticos are extremely friendly, hospitable, and social.

Food and Drinks

Costa Rican food is usually not spicy or hot, but it could be a bit salty at times. Most meals are centered around beef, chicken, or fish/seafood. The dishes are served with rice, beans, and fried bananas. Meals are generally hearty and reasonably priced. Gallo pinto, the national dish of fried rice and black beans, is a typical breakfast food. At lunch it is supplemented with salad, fried plantains, and meat. This staple lunch meal is known as a casado and is served in Sodas, open-air lunch counters, everywhere. Common derivates of this meal include, rice with chicken and rice with shrimp. Vegetables do not make up an important part of the diet.

Dining in Costa Rica is a leisurely experience. Restaurants are normally open 11 AM-2 PM and 6-11 PM or midnight. Some restaurants stay open 24 hours. In San José, there are many fine restaurants with a wide range of international cuisines at reasonable prices. If desperation sets in, the city is packed with fast food chains.

Costa Rica has no national drink, but they have a few traditionally popular beverages: Horchata, a cinnamon flavored cornmeal drink, Chan, a slightly slimy drink made of seeds, Linaza, used to cure indigestion, Guaro, the campesino's nearly-tasteless yet potent alcoholic drink of choice, and Frescos de Fruta. The frescos are fruit drinks served with either water or milk. They are an excellent way to taste the local fruits, such as tamarindo, mango, papaya, guava, and pineapple. Of course, there is coffee too. Coffee is usually served very strong and mixed with hot milk. If you order café con leche (coffee with milk), it should be fifty-fifty. If you want a cup of black coffee, order café sin leche. Herbal teas are widely available also.

Imported drinks are expensive. There are several popular locally brewed beers (cerveza), including Imperial and Bavaria, which are affordable.

Culture

Due to the almost complete destruction of the indigenous culture by the Europeans, Costa Rica is not well known for it its rich culture. Instead, the country is famous for its natural beauty and incredibly friendly people. Cost Rica is extraordinarily biodiverse, and with its wildlife, natural attractions, and reputation for conservation, it is a magnet for nature lovers from all over the world. Located between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica borders both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. A series of volcanic mountain chains running from north west to south east divide the country in two: a high altitude plain in the center and coastal lowlands on both sides. This diverse topography allows for a large number of outdoor activities. Governmental programs have safeguarded the country's image as an ecotourism destination. They have promoted Costa Rica as one of the best places to experience the tropics, while protecting the environment from negative impacts of tourism. Approximately 27% of the land is designated to National Parks, forest reserves, and Indian Reservations, allowing Costa Rica to develop a very large national park system. An influx of Costa Ricans visit these national parks on weekends and major holidays such as Easter Week, Independence Day, and the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. These parks, some of which are noted worldwide for their vegetation and wildlife, also attract international tourists.

Costa Rican entertainment is typically cosmopolitan rather than nationalistic in nature. The Ticos frequent the cinemas often to view international films. Music preferences are not centered around local musicians, as a variety of music is played over the many radio stations across the country. In Meseta Central, residents can attend the National Theater to partake in an assortment of musical and drama performances from all over the world.

Pre-Columbian art, such as large statues, smaller stone carvings, and fine works in gold are treasures found from all over the country. Samples are kept in the National Museum in San José, so people can experience their beauty first hand. The only pre-Columbian Costa Rican archaeological site is located in Guayabo National Park, near Turrialba. Very little genuine colonial architecture exists, and earthquakes have destroyed most of Cartago's older buildings. Some buildings have been restored, and buildings copying their architecture have been constructed. Costa Rica is famous for its highly decorative oxcarts, the national symbol of labor.

Political Division

Costa Rica is administratively divided into seven provinces: San Jose, its capital city, Alajuela, Cartago, Heredia, Guanacaste, Puntarenas and Limón.

Location of Costa Rica

Costa Rica borders to the North with Nicaragua, to the South with Panama, and to the East and West with the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean respectively. The Caribbean coast is 255 kms. long, while the Pacific coast is 1.103 Kms.. long. Both coasts are abundant on first class beaches and exuberant vegetation. View Costa Rica Maps here

Climate

Costa Rica enjoys a spring like weather all year round. The average temperature in the Central Valley is 72o F (22oC). The temperature near the coasts and on the beaches ranges between 7 to 900 F(21-0to 32oC-0C).

Due to the abundance of microclimates, there are more than 12 ecosystems according to the scale of Holdrieschl. The abundance of microclimates has produced one of the richest fauna and flora found in the planet. The greenery and climate make Costa Rica an everlasting spring country.

Depending on altitude ranges, climates are as follows: from 0 to 609 meters: Tropical from 610 to 1,1 19 meters: Summer from 1,120 to 1,829 meters: Spring-like from 1,830 meters and above: Autumn-like

Education

Costa Rica has one of the highest literacy rates in the continent Ninety-four percent of the population is literate.

Transportation

Due to its convenient location, Costa Rica is readily accessed by land, sea and air. Visitors from Canada, United States, Mexico and the rest of the Latin American countries can travel all year round by land via the interamerican Highway. There are alsomany airlines flying into Costa Rica, among which are: LACSA, AERO COSTA RICA, COPA SAHSA, TACA, SAM, AMERICAN AIRLINES, CONTINENTAL, UNITED, CONDOR and LTU from Germany, CANADIAN NATIONAL AIR, LADECO, IBERIA, MEXICANA, KLM, AVIATECA, VARIG, SERVIVENSA. Located on the Central American Isthmus, Costa Rica has ready access to the farthest reaches of the world thanks to its ports on both oceans which have high-tech infrastructure, accordingly to international requirements. Such is the case of Port Moín on the Caribbean, and Port Caldera on the Pacific.

Communications

Costa Rica has satellite connections with all the Central American countries, the United States, Europe, Canada, Mexico, South America, Asia and Africa. Apart from direct dialing, fax and telex communications to most of the countries in the world, it has an efficient mailing system and offers several courier services.

The Government

The 1949 political Constitution guarantees Its citizens legal equality, freedom of expression, of meeting, of press, and the right to form organizations; furthermore, it guarantees these rights to all Costa Rican citizens and to all foreigners living in Costa Rica, saving the right to vote for nationals, only.

The Constitution prohibits the establishment of an army, which places Costa Rica among the very few, if not the only country in the world, free from military forces and interests. Social order is efficiently safeguarded by the police force.

The present political structure is divided into three main branches: the Legislative Branch (a single house Congress) is made up of 57 Congressmen, popularly elected fur a 4 year term; the Executive Branch includes the President, two Vice-Presidents and 18 Ministers, whose Ministries form the Presidential Cabinet; the Judicial Branch includes the Supreme Court of Justice, 4 appeal courts, and the Criminal, Civil and Special Courts. Each Branch is independent and they have a check and balance system similar to that of the United States of America.

Elections take place every four years; the President, Congressmen and Municipal Representatives are then popularly chosen. The Constitution prohibits presidential reelection.

In addition to the three Branches, and functioning with them, the Supreme Tribunal of Elections is considered to be a fourth Branch. This body has both the responsibility and authority to organize and supervise all activities related to national elections. This protection of the right to vote is very cherished by all Costa Rican citizens.

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