Costa Rica is situated between North and South America and has shared the cultures of both, dating back to pre-Columbian times. The excavations in the Cordillera Central mountain range have yielded spear points of two distinct types: a variation of the Clovis point known in North America; and the Magellan type (the fishtail) known in South America. These date to the Pleistocene megafauna period, 1.8–1.6 million to 10,000 years ago, when the Americas were populated by large animals such as the giant sloth, mammoths, mastodons, sabertoothed cats, giant condors, and dire wolves. Interestingly, some of the pottery artifacts are Mayan in nature, with their cylindrical shapes, woven patterns, and the slab tripod feet. Christopher Columbus (1451–1506 C.E.) stopped at Costa Rica for 17 days in 1502 on his fourth and final voyage. He was so impressed by the gold decorations worn by the friendly locals that he promptly dubbed the country Costa Rica, the “rich coast.” Despite the lure of its apparent wealth, settlements did not begin until 1522. For the next 300 years Costa Rica was ruled by Spain as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala. Costa Rica, like its other colonized neighbors, suffered the effects of European invasion, and the indigenous population dwindled quickly because of its lack of immunity to the diseases contracted from European conquerors. The absence of major gold deposits or any other valuable mineral resources allowed Costa Rica to remain a largely forgotten territory. Eventually, however, the Spanish turned to agriculture, and Costa Rica was the first nation in Central America to grow coffee and bananas on a commercial basis. The government gave free land to anyone willing to grow coffee for export—an enlightened step that moved away from the common pattern of keeping wealth in the hands of a few. This cultivation brought wealth and prosperity to many, and a more outward-looking perspective. In 1821 Costa Rica was one of the countries included in the declaration of freedom from Spain pronounced by Guatemala. The news did not reach Costa Rica until a month after it was first announced. In 1824 Guanacaste Province became a part of Costa Rica, preferring it to Nicaragua. After this brief assimilation into the United Provinces of Central America, Costa Rica declared its sovereignty in 1838. One of the landmark events of Costa Rican history took place in 1856, a period remembered for economic and cultural growth. During the term of coffee-grower-turned-president Juan Rafael Mora (1814–60), U.S. adventurer William Walker (1824–60) invaded Costa Rica with his army of recently captured Nicaraguan slaves. Mora organized an army of 9,000 civilians that succeeded against all odds and defeated Walker, forcing him out of the country. One of Mora’s soldiers became a national hero—Juan Santamaria (1831–56)—the humble but very brave soldier who died in the 1856 battle. Santamaria is honored each year on April 11, which is known as Rivas Battle Day (or Juan Santamaria Day). Costa Rica enjoys the distinction of being the only Central American country without an army. There have been only two periods of violence in the nation’s history—the dictatorship of Federico Tinoco (1870–1931) in 1917–19, and the armed uprising in 1948 led by José Figueres (1906–90). The latter was a 44-day civil war that left 2,000 dead. The provocation was a disputed presidential election, and the immediate results of the bloodshed were the establishment of universal suffrage and the abolition of the military. The Constitution of 1949 gave women and blacks the right to vote. In 1987 President Óscar Arias (b. 1941) received the Nobel Peace Prize for his attempts to spread Costa Rica’s example of peace to the rest of Central America. His regional peace plan in 1987 formed the basis for the Esquipulas Peace Agreements.
This country is one of mountains, coastal plains, and more than 100 volcanoes. Four volcanoes, two of them active, rise near the capital of San José in the center of the country; one of these, Irazu, erupted destructively in 1963–65. The climate is both tropical and subtropical, not extreme. The dry season lasts from December to April and the rainy season from May to November. The highlands are cooler than the plains. Costa Rica is a peaceful country characterized by an amazing natural beauty and the residents’ love of horses. One-fourth of the land has been preserved as protected areas and national parks, and many of these are favorite picnic spots, including dormant volcanoes where the craters have metamorphosed into cold-water lakes. As a matter of fact, one of the dormant craters of Poas Volcano holds a coldwater lake that is the source of the Sarapiqui River.
Costa Rica’s stable economy is founded on tourism, agriculture, and electronics exports. Poverty has been substantially reduced over the past 15 years, with a strong social safety net for its people. Foreign investors remain attracted by the country’s political stability and high educational levels, and tourism continues to bring in foreign money. Costa Rica recently concluded negotiations to participate in the U.S.–Central American Free Trade Agreement, which, if ratified by the Costa Rican legislature, would result in economic reforms and an improved investment climate.
More than 75 percent of Costa Ricans are Roman Catholics. In practice most church attendance takes place at christenings, funerals, and marriages. Easter is the most important holiday, and during Semana Santa (“Holy Week”) the nation comes to a standstill. Small villages have their own way of celebrating, and they add to the occasion the blessing of oxcarts, horses, and trucks. The Ticos, as Costa Ricans refer to themselves, are a happy, fun-loving people. The myriad celebrations include the National Chocolate Festival at Esparza in Puntarenas and the feast days of the patron saints of villages and towns. During these holidays many people walk to the city from all parts of the country. While some choose to party during religious holidays, most prefer a family gathering. Independence Day is the most significant nonreligious holiday in Costa Rica. Every town has its own formal official celebration including parades of young children, bands, and majorettes. People carry the national flag and wear the national colors: red, blue, and white.
Costa Ricans have their own unique style, even when it concerns food: the gallo pinto (rice and beans preparation) takes all of 10 minutes to cook and is enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, or dinner while the vigoron (a pork preparation borrowed from neighboring Nicaragua) requires an hour and is sold by hawkers near the ports. It is also cooked in most coastal homes. No celebration is complete without rompope (Costa Rican eggnog).
Marriages in Costa Rica are based primarily on Roman Catholic traditions, interspersed with a few indigenous customs. Costa Ricans are conservative in family matters, and most Costa Ricans still live in their parents’ home until marriage. Engagement parties and weddings are attended by immediate and extended family as well as large numbers of neighbors, friends, and their families. The bride wears an elegant white gown, and the groom is formally attired in black. The marriage vows are followed by the exchange of rings. The traditional painted oxcarts of Costa Rica have a role to play in the wedding ceremony. The following custom originated among farming and other communities that made use of the cart. A single rosary, representing the “soft yoke of love,” is placed around the necks of the couple. Symbolically just as two oxen must pull together for the cart to move, the couple must work together if their marriage is to succeed. The cart will not move if the oxen pull in different directions or at different rates. The contractual nature of a marriage and the material goods a couple will share are symbolized by the groom giving some coins to his bride with the words, “These coins represent the material wealth we shall own and share.” The bride takes the coins with the response, “I receive these coins and will care for our physical well-being.” This establishes the understanding that the husband is the principal provider for the family, and the wife is the caretaker.
Catholic customs are observed at death. Funerals are usually held at funeral parlors. A Mass is held at church, after which everybody proceeds to the cemetery. The burial is a somber occasion, and dark dresses and ties are usual, although not mandatory. Calla lilies are typical funeral flowers. A Mass is held every day for nine days after death, as well as one month later. People offer condolences in person (at the church itself, if need be), by telegram, by card, or by telephone.